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To Comprehend a Nectar

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
- From poem "67," Emily Dickinson, 1859

I was taken aback today by an unlikely source in the Sunday paper: an Arts & Leisure essay in The New York Times by Anthony Tommasini, titled "The Greatest, a Critic Tries to Pick the Top 10 Classical Composers."

Wow, are we to sit in judgment of all musical history? Cultural critics, as opposed to historians, often feel an inherent right to sit in judgment. An historian does not make "best of" lists, inadvertently making light of history by penning popularity pageants pegged to the accomplishments of the past. To my way of thinking, historians, as a general rule, who are thankfully not entertainment critics, endeavor to elucidate not market the events and meaning of the past. The so-called cultural critic on the other hand, merely assigns the arts a comparative value. And I say "merely" on purpose, invoking the lines of Dickinson above. If the work of the creative process has not been undertaken in a serious fashion by the commentator him or herself, thus informing an educated opinion of the art form, then how is an artistic process truly comprehended? Fairly assessed?

The revelatory lines of food critic Antono Ego in the animated film "Rataouille" ("The Grim Eater," voiced by Peter O'Toole) came to mind when I read of Tommasini's plans to debate 'The Greatest" among classical composers. In the film, Ego, a feared and revered food critic whose reviews can make or break a chef, writes of a meal served to him under the most unexpected of circumstances by an equally unexpected "chef." He outs himself and his profession as the easiest of arrogant fault-finders, pointing out it is far easier to criticize than create. To judge rather than risk invention.

Tommasini's call to categorize the stars among classical composers likewise struck me as less a discussion of merit than as an entertainment. I began to think of this form of comparative cultural criticism as, in truth, a rather superficial artifice. Let such "ranking" discussions of the arts belong to those who do so for their simple preference - amongst those who are the audience, the consumers, to establish for their own pleasure that which they enjoy. And to those studying their predecessors and contemporaries, engaging in the scholarly advancement of their own subject or art form. Let the two forms of evaluation remain distinct.

But, if we should feel compelled to establish a Top Ten of Classical Musicians, or hamburgers, thriller DVDs, lip gloss or pet trainers, then let us please try to keep a humble perspective. We are one judging another. Whether generation, century, symphony or invention. The historians have it rightly: let us learn from the past, not discount it. Let us be inspired, not find the work of others wanting. Let us each to our own limitations be true. The classical composers have earned the right to let timelessness be their judge.
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