20 April 2011

Shiraz and Shostakovich

It is truly amazing what stupid things you get up to after a couple of glasses of red wine.  A convivial evening with some errant members of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra turned serious when, sat beside my old sparring-partner, cellist Simon Cobcroft, we suddenly found ourselves indulging in an activity no sober musician would ever countenance.  We started making a list of the ten greatest composers in the history of music.  Now, let’s be frank, you have to be either mentally deranged or hopelessly inebriated to do that, and I’m ashamed to think that I had let my self-restraint slip so badly under the pernicious influence of Shiraz that I was doing such a disgusting thing.  Worst of all, I was doing it in public!

Yet, in the cold and bitter light of day, aspirin and hangover remedies pending, I can’t help but look back on our drunken ramblings and continue the discussion within myself.  When Gramophone magazine ran a piece about the Ten Best Orchestras, everybody reacted with horror and disdain, yet it turned out to be a truly fascinating and, in many ways, exciting thing.  So it is with our lists of composers.

Simon Cobcroft (appearing on ABC
where he was billed (in 2003) as "one of
Australia's most talented young musicians")
While continually agreeing that it was a pointless exercise and that any such list was purely subjective, Simon and I showed remarkable unanimity in our lists (I don’t actually think we ever made it to ten, but things always seem bigger when you’re drunk) and while we argued bitterly over Bach (Simon put him at the top, while I placed him lower down the scale) and Messiaen (I felt he deserved to be there, Simon argued that he needed to have been dead a lot longer to be properly assessed alongside the likes of Wagner and Brahms – both dead certs for both of us), there were no substantive divergences of opinion when it came to listing the Greatest Composers in the History of Music.

The difference came when we decided to make a parallel list of our Ten Favourite Composers.  Up came such names as Percy Grainger (for me), Rachmaninov (for both of us), Shostakovich (for Simon); names which would certainly raise eyebrows if added to the first list. 

And that leads to a point which, even without alcoholic prompting, does seem quite serious and relevant.  To what extent can a musician differentiate between personal taste and objective judgement?  The answer seemed to be, Pretty Easily.  Even two opinionated and inebriated crabby old soaks like us were able to make clear distinctions between what we liked and what we knew was good.  We set out clear criteria for greatness which, when applied to the contenders for the first list, made it easy to come up with a majority of names in common.  Removing those criteria and allowing personal taste to dictate produced a very different second list.

There is a valid point to all this (apart from, hopefully, generating a lot of lists from blog readers – I’d love to have your 10 best in each category – I have a strong feeling while list one will be very consistent, list two will throw up dramatic differences).  I am often asked as both a critic and an examiner how I can be objective in my assessments of a performance.  The assumption is that my personal tastes must have a strong bearing on my judgement.  I’ve always maintained that, for example, whilst I loathe and detest the music of Chopin with every sinew of my body (it’s grotesquely self-indulgent, harmonically silly, melodically flaccid and appallingly limited in its scope) I would not hesitate to accept him as one of the three greatest composers in the history of the piano (alongside Liszt and Rachmaninov) and would rave as much as the most ardent Chopin-o-phile over any performance of his music which I found impressive.  It was nice to have proof that I am not wrong; that when it comes to appreciating great music, personal taste has no significant role to play.

Composers listed, we then had yet another glass and set to on string concertos.  Best cello concertos  - Dvořák and Elgar me, Dvořák and Shostakovich 2 Simon; Best violin concertos  - Beethoven both of us, Brahms me…  And if Simon had a second choice I cannot tell what it was; collapse of stout party on to the floor singing verses from the French National Anthem.  Pass the Aspirin.


  1. Here's my list of Greatest Composers:

    1. BACH (but not Handel)
    2. HAYDN
    4. MOZART
    5. LISZT (but not Chopin)
    6. WAGNER
    7. BRAHMS
    8. MAHLER (but not Bruckner)
    9. DEBUSSY (but not Ravel)

    5. BRITTEN

    So no Chopin, happy?

  2. 1.Mozart

  3. Darcy Wilbrahams26 April, 2011 08:33

    Finding 10 is no easy matter! My greatest composers are;
    1. Mozart
    2. Beethoven
    3. Brahms
    4. Sibelius
    5. Bartok
    6. Haydn
    7. Handel
    8. Verdi
    9. Wagner

    Finding 10 favorites is much easier!
    1. Beethoven
    2. Mozart
    3. Puccini
    4. Verdi
    5. Donizetti
    6. Vivaldi
    7. John Adams
    8. Leonard Bernstein
    9. Piazolla