Celebrity logic

When you look at the classical-music repertory, you can’t really complain that a bunch of mediocrities have crowded out the composers of real talent. If you have Monteverdi representing the late Renaissance and early Baroque, or Haydn and Mozart representing the Classical era, or Beethoven, Schubert, Verdi, Wagner, and Brahms standing in for the nineteenth century, you get to feast on a tremendous body of work. Posterity has been more or less right in its judgments. The problem, though, is that Mozart becomes a brand to sell tickets, and there’s an assumption that any work of Mozart is worth scrutiny. In fact, he wrote a fair amount of music that doesn’t radiate genius in every bar. Meanwhile, there are composers of his era— Luigi Boccherini, for example— who produced many fascinating and beautiful pieces, even if you can’t quite claim that they rise to Mozart’s level. Ultimately, the repertory operates on a celebrity logic. These happen to be celebrities of thundering genius, but we’re still giving in to a winner-takes-all mentality. There’s a basic human reason for this simplification: it’s difficult to cope with the infinite variety of the past, and so we apply filters, and we settle on a few famous names.

— Alex Ross