Professionals are usually pretty stingy with one sort of praise: they don’t usually like to call anyone “the greatest” of this or that. The reason for this is that when we think about the influence someone has had on the course of events, there are more factors to consider than just the alleged “greatness” that an enthusiast may attribute to a particular person.
Let us choose an easy example to work with, and let us also avoid ignorant writers who try to talk about “greatness.” Let’s talk about something more quantifiable, like “influence.” Occasionally we do read some commentator make a remark to the effect that J.S. Bach was “the most influential composer of all time.” But there are reasons this seems to be so, and not all of them have to do with Bach's excellence.
First of all, let’s confront a no-brainer, that takes a lot of the wind out of the whole discussion: it is a simple and unexciting fact that whoever is the earliest and sufficiently influential composer, will perforce be the “most” influential composer, since influence by definition means the affect that someone has on their future. The further back in time you can go to find a plausible candidate, the more likely it is that that person will be the “most influential.” We should challenge the reckonings of people who think that this or that composer of the past is more important than some other composer because he is “more influential.” Such talk is only a slightly less hyperbolic version of a fanatic’s ravings about their idol’s “greatness.”
Adam is more influential than your father, but so what? It would seem Beethoven doesn’t have a chance to be the most influential composer of all time, since Bach came before him, and had some influence on him. But Beethoven was irrefutably more influential in his lifetime than J.S. Bach was in his; he was a famous man all over Europe by the time he was thirty years old, and Beethoven’s influence has never, ever waned. Bach was not all that famous during his lifetime. A few very well informed musicians knew of him, but his struggles were pretty much unknown beyond a radius of about 300 miles from his home. And when he died, his work went into complete eclipse. Many of the best informed composers of the next generation knew little or none of his music. When Mozart passed through Leipzig in the late 1780s, he heard a performance of the only pieces of Bach’s still being performed anywhere, less than four decades after Bach’s death. These were Bach’s motets that Mozart heard, which were only being done because singing them from memory was required of the children in the local church school. That school did not think it necessary to keep even one, single, full score of the Bach motets on hand: in order to examine the score, Mozart had to line up the pages of the individual parts one next to the other, Soprano, next to Alto, next to Tenor, next to Bass. No one in command of the facts can deny there have been serious gaps in Bach’s allegedly all-pervasive influence.
So according to two important criteria for judging a composer’s influence, namely, influence during his lifetime, and continuity of his legacy, Beethoven, as just one example, beats Bach hands down. This is just one clear example. I remind you this is not an essay on why anyone is supposedly greater than anyone else.
However, Bach did “have an influence” on Beethoven. And, it seems, on Mozart. But, again, that’s because Mozart and Beethoven were, for their time, musically erudite, meaning that they knew relatively much about earlier composers. Beethoven was “influenced” by Bach at a time that very few people even knew of Bach’s existence. And Mozart wasn’t really all that influenced by Bach. In particular, Mozart never bothered to write fugue subjects that were not periodic. This means he didn’t really try to dig deeply into Bach’s style, the way Beethoven did; Mozart wrote fugues with singsong subjects that sound like the rest of Mozart’s music. But because Mozart once looked at a Bach score, and because he wrote a small number of arrangements of some of Bach’s shortest pieces, Bach fans try to make it sound as though Mozart was greatly influenced by Bach. In fact, of the composers called “ancient” in those days, Mozart was much more involved with the music of Handel; he did an arrangement of an entire Handel oratorio. There is no evidence that in his entire lifetime Mozart ever even saw a single, solitary, full score of a Bach ensemble or choral piece. Mozart may have seen a Bach score or two, but we do not know for a fact that he did.
How much world-conquering “influence” is being exerted by someone when a specialist has to go look them up in order to be influenced by them?
This fact does much to mitigate the supremacy of Bach’s intrinsic “influence.” In the decades after the deaths of Bach and Handel, thousands of professional musicians, and much of the public all over Europe, knew of Handel, yet even in Bach’s own church, certainly not one full score was available for perusal. There has never been a time Handel was not famous, and there has never been a time that his oratorio Messiah was not being performed annually somewhere. According to the important criteria of availability and continuity of a legacy, there is a case that Handel is also “more influential” than Bach. For example, when Nineteenth-Century composers wrote oratorios, they usually had Handel’s works in mind as models. Not Bach’s.
There are other significant ways a composer can be influential, that those who want to fix a medal on one person often have to ignore. Remember what I pointed out above: whoever is the earliest and sufficiently influential composer, will perforce be the “most” influential composer. But notice something: it is not necessary for someone to get personal credit for something, for their influence to be felt. Composers whose work was ever influential, are influential even if their names are forgotten for a time… even, perhaps, forever.
For example, Monteverdi was the first great opera composer. Pace the use of the adjective “great,” this is not disputed by anybody. But, like Bach, he went into a serious eclipse at his death, and general knowledge of him was minimal until well into the Twentieth Century. ("Minimal" is a technical term meaning "Evil.") That’s a long time to be forgotten. Unlike Bach, however, Monteverdi affected music in a way that even those who did not know of him were clearly influenced by him.
Monteverdi contributed to the establishment of music’s grandest genre, namely opera, and, unlike most of the genres Bach wrote in, opera has enjoyed continuous existence since its inception. It is no small achievement on Monteverdi’s part to have written quite a few superb operas at the time that caused the new genre of opera to take hold. It could be said that more than any other single composer, Monteverdi is personally responsible for the great musical start that opera got. And speaking very generally, it can be plausibly claimed that opera is the single most influential musical form of all. Monophonic music, music for voice or voices with orchestra, orchestral pieces, the art of orchestration, the orchestra itself, and dramatic characterization in music, to name just a few things, all resulted from, or were significantly advanced, in opera.
Bach’s cantatas and oratorios would be unimaginable without opera. Just because Monteverdi’s name itself was forgotten for so long, doesn’t mean his influence was any less. On this basis, there is a plausible case that Monteverdi was far more influential than Bach, particularly since most operas contain none of the erudite contrapuntal techniques whatsoever that Bach made routine in his music. Certainly, opera is the single grandest, best known musical genre… and the most that has been said of Bach’s involvement with opera is that he “preserved the traditions” of opera at a time when opera was itself in eclipse. A laudable task, if he had actually done this, but when opera got back on its feet during the generation of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, it was without Bach’s work even being known. Realize what this means: Bach’s much-flaunted “preservation of tradition” was not part of the situation when it came time to actually revive the tradition. So it is a bit airy for people to talk about Bach having preserved the operatic tradition. The resurrection of opera that took place during the so-called Classical Era took place in pretty much complete ignorance of Bach and his “preservations.” This is another major lacunum in Bach’s much lauded “influence.” The people most aware of Bach’s “preservation of operatic tradition" are modern musicologists. There has never been an important opera noticeably dependant on Bach’s “preservation of the operatic tradition.” Wagner’s opera Meistersinger has some Lutheran-sounding counterpoint here and there, but it isn’t actually Bach’s in particular. And Meistersinger is the best example at hand of Bach's possible direct influence on opera.
So, just because a composer’s name is resurrected does not mean he is influencing anybody, and just because a composer’s name itself is not remembered does not mean he is any less influential. Considering the number of things that emanated from opera, there is quite a good case that, indeed, Monteverdi, not Bach, is “the most influential composer of all time.” Certainly he influenced all the composers between himself and Bach, and his late madrigals were the origination of the form of the cantata, which was Bach’s bread and butter. Also, the use of the cantata (during his lifetime, such pieces were called “madrigals,” such as those of the Seventh and Eighth Books of Madrigals) as a proving ground for new ideas in musical dramaturgy, an experimental arena for opera, was something owed to Monteverdi. So even the genre in which Bach “preserved tradition” is something he owed to Monteverdi. Handel also used the cantata as a proving ground for opera; there are many of his operas and oratorios with music that began as cantatas. (Here is another quantifiable influence Monteverdi had on a major figure, irrespective of the fact that Handel probably did not even know Monteverdi’s name.) Bach certainly did not invent the use of the cantata as a proving-ground for opera; he participated in that proving-ground of cantata, but he never got an opera into flight. So his influence falls short in any but the details of how to compose the biggest, most influential genre of all.
Let us look a little deeper into what it actually means to “be influential.” What is the greatest act of influence that one composer can have upon another? The answer is very simple: the greatest influence a composer can have on another is to inspire him to become a composer. The next greatest influence is to cause another composer to REMAIN a composer. Most of this talk about ancient composers’ alleged influence is about the academic facts of how to write notes. But composers show interest in writing music before they know what they are doing. Who are the composers who actually get other composers to write music? Not Bach, for sure. Again, Adam is more influential than your father, but so what?
Nowadays, while it is true that orchestral musicians and opera singers get their start in conservatory-type situations, composers generally do not. For four or five generations, since no later than sometime between the two World Wars, most Classical composers have come from jazz, or, more recently, from Rock backgrounds.
The development of a skill in musical composition is usually a much more personally experiential thing than orchestral or operatic performance. A violinist, say, goes at an early age to a teacher, who puts a piece of ancient music in front of the kid, who then learns to play it. Those are the people on whom composers like Bach are having their greatest “influence.” There are exceptions, but classical performers usually plod along dutifully, enjoying what they do well enough, but not tearing the barn down about what turns them on. And they don’t cause new works to be created in the style of their favorite icons.
Composers often discover all on their own the music that really turns them on, and they often come from less pedagogically methodical environments than their performing colleagues. Very often, a composer’s path begins at a point very noticeably beneath that of his performing peers, and grows to being above them, by virtue not only of having to be competent at a much wider array of knowledges, (it’s best if a composer is not a jack but a “master of all trades”) but being, to begin with, creative, rather than re-creative.
Immediate influence is more important than influence from the distant past. And, it is more difficult to achieve. Your direct influences had a much harder time of it reaching you, and their knowledge of your world is much more immediate and almost certainly more important than that of persons of the past.
One of the most meaningless references to anyone’s alleged “greatness” that I know is the specific allegation that Jimi Hendrix is “the greatest guitarist of all time.” This claim has been made by Rolling Stone magazine, and, not surprisingly, by the Hendrix family, and no doubt many others will fall into line. To begin with, the claim has to be immediately limited to Rock electric guitarists, or it just can’t be true. But it is also true that Hendrix was the first more or less undisputed Rock guitar virtuoso. So, on the principal articulated above, since he was the first, he has therefore had the most time to effect influence, but that does not automatically mean he was the greatest. In fact, there has only been one guitarist to achieve a distinctive style in his own right, and also be clearly influenced by Hendrix, and that was Stevie Rae Vaughn. I don’t think I am conflating “greatness’ with “influence.”
Let us agree about one thing: there is great significance in being the First. And, that is usually easier to quantify. So, it is easy to agree that thus-and-such was significant by virtue of the being the first to do whatever it was that he did. Being the First has a number of terrific implications, of imagination, of adventurousness, of perseverance in a world which by definition lacks models to recognize you by, since nobody paved the way for you. And, if you are the First, you get sole credit for your achievement. Those are not small achievements.
But the venerability of an ancient’s influence does not make his works more relevant to the modern world. And when idolizing the masters of the past, there is always one further fact to remember: those ancient masters are by definition remote from your world, and there is therefore a good chance that what they did is, in fact, less relevant to you than the problem-solving your immediate predecessors have done for you. Your father is more important to you than Adam.
6/2009; Last updated 11/16/2009
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