I’m writing this piece on the birth date of my favourite composer, Schubert. Here’s to you, Franz. Has Schubert always been my favourite composer? No, not at all. I first got seriously into classical music through choral works, so from the outset Byrd and Pärt were vying for my affections. I found opera through Adams, Strauss and Wagner. When I realised that art song was the area of classical music that probably spoke to me the most, Schubert – perhaps inevitably – stole my heart. And once that led me onto his works for piano, that was it.
For now. He may no longer be with us, but that’s no excuse for getting complacent.
In a few weeks’ time, if the stars and technology allow, I’m due to take part in a podcast which usually focuses more on rock music. From listening to previous episodes, I know that the presenters – in the twin spirits of mischief and genuine enquiry – always ask guests to name the ‘greatest album ever made’. It’s a brilliantly, deliberately impossible question – the answer almost incidental, the interest lying in the reasons the guests give, the agony in making the choice and … crucially, their insistence on mentioning a few ‘runners-up’ as well. The other contenders, the ‘bubbling unders’… every bit as important a part of the story as the ‘winner’. I’m already having exquisite nightmares about it.
Lately I’ve been wondering why we choose to rank artistic endeavours in this way. There is clearly something innately competitive about we humans, presumably going back to our primitive hunting eras, but these days we have sport and business to take care of that impulse. You’d think we would keep the arts to one side as a refuge from all that. Especially since so many competitions in the industry – from Eurovision to the Oscars – are undertaken with the appropriate ironic self-awareness. The key word there is ‘industry’, I suppose: I can forgive a great deal of awards ceremonies and magazine polls if they provide the opportunity to raise the profile or – in other, less coy, words – generate more sales for musicians I admire.
This is something we try to do at ArtMuseLondon, of course. I chose my 20 ‘favourite discs’ from last year a few weeks ago, on this site. (And I’d done similar on my personal blog in previous years too.) It was difficult enough just choosing the 20 titles as a group, and I abandoned any idea of ranking them in a league table from top to bottom, more or less at the outset of the process. Instead, all 20 of them hold ‘first equal’, if you like, and I listed them alphabetically.
Why fall at the final hurdle? One answer is another question: well, what was I doing it for? I accept that the number of choices has to be finite, or the article would soon become a book. But after fixing that number – 20 – there is no sense to me that those titles are in competition. I wholeheartedly recommend them all, and want the artists who made them to reach more listeners, to do well. I hope people will identify from my descriptions what they might like, or better still, try out something that sounds completely new.
It also avoids the futile gesture of pitting different genres against each other. Even if you could say that the solo classical piano CD in your left hand is ‘better’ than the African jazz one in your right – what would be the point? Especially if you’re talking to someone who mostly listens to heavy metal.
But this preoccupation with whether A is ‘better’ than B is all-pervasive. It would be easy to make huge – and I mean huge – generalisations about where these attitudes really lie. Is it just ‘blokes’? There’s no point pretending that ‘mansplainers’, who make decrees about what it is and isn’t ok to like, don’t exist: of course they do. Is it just ‘geeks’? Most of us who are into any kind of current, creative endeavour will have encountered ‘fandom’, and seen how easily that can become gatekeeping, let alone something even more toxic.
But really, it’s in all of us. We’re a race of judges: you only have to look at the dominance of reality TV and the overwhelming number of shows that force an element of competition into anything. Singing. Dancing. Cakes. Pottery. Sewing. Grooming pets. For pity’s sake. Why do we do this to ourselves?
Some friends of mine offered some valuable thoughts on our rank impulses, if you will. One suggested that it is actually about our own parameters more than anything – it gives us a sense of order, helps us clarify our thinking and to some extent define ourselves: these are my likes and dislikes. Another speculated that it assists our search for validation, that we are looking for ways to reinforce our own opinions, whether in agreement or opposition to what we read.
I think these ideas are almost certainly both true: they may be coming from different angles but they highlight the fact that it’s all about us. Articles featuring lists or charts, or programmes with judging panels do so well, because we all want to see if we agree or disagree. It’s not about the people on stage, it’s about the argument we’re having in the bar. Those being listed or judged almost become bystanders in the process.
There is real harm lurking in this. Star ratings give me the chills, for a start. Why provide a review and then add an instant visual summary that, if anything, will save some the ‘bother’ of reading further? They are just bait, particularly for one-star ambulance-chasers. Ranking also links into that inescapable topic of ‘elitism’ that tends to haunt classical music. It isn’t just about numbers. Take, for example, that dreaded term ‘reference recording’ – that is, a version of a classical work that stands as a benchmark, on a pedestal until a better version knocks it off. It may have had its roots in practicality – people couldn’t go out and buy every recording of a work, so which should they choose? – but with streaming services there’s no longer any need for that. We can try before we buy.
It isn’t too much to suggest that this is also relevant to another hot topic: kindness. One thing that broadly sets classical music apart from most other genres is that, by and large, lots of different people record versions of many of the same pieces. This is an open invitation to compare and contrast: but is it necessary? Do we need to tell an enthusiastic performer that their version may be returned to occasionally but that it’s only around sixth in the pantheon? It might as well be Blur vs Oasis, for all that it helps. Many people who find classical music after following other genres are focused on artists, rather than composers, or musical forms. They need freedom to explore and settle on their own favourites, not follow someone else’s prescription. I’m encouraged by the increasing currency the term ‘album’ seems to be finding in classical music, rather than ‘recording’: to find musicians you admire who follow their own instincts, select a range of repertoire and take you on that journey with them is a great thing.
I’ve come to believe that to truly, successfully place the artists back in the spotlight, we need to take the ranking out of it and consign league tables and ‘best ever’ charts to the bin. My end-of-year round-up, I sincerely hope, is just that: 20 discs I think you should hear. No ‘number 1’, offering an excuse to disregard the other 19. No ‘number 20’ which, on some kind of mystically malicious scale, is measurably worse than the 19 above it. We, the writers, step back, and let the musicians find their own space.