May 2018 Print

The Greatest of All Time: A Consideration of the Superlative

by Dr. Andrew Childs

The use of superlatives involves risk. In conferring on anyone or anything Greatest of All Time (GOAT) status, the speaker or writer potentially jeopardizes both his credibility, and to a lesser extent that of his champion: failure in assessment of the highest can cast doubt on one’s assessment of everything beneath it. In particularly egregious cases, one risks rhetorical exile; banishment with the likes of Gorgias to the Land of Blah Blah, where the winds of lofty and meaningless pronouncements howl. The use of a superlative is serious and should be rare. In what follows, we will consider further the advisability of making superlative statements; then, I will make one, and justify it. You’ll meet my GOAT (and it may eat your Best Of list...).

Cocktail Party Firecracker?

Before we address the GOAT, however, consider a nefarious opposing construct, the Cocktail Party Firecracker—a bold authoritative pronouncement of an important sounding phrase, seemingly definitive at first hearing, though not intended for careful consideration; based on truth, but vague enough to avoid real scrutiny; purposefully designed not to invite challenge or debate; best detonated in polite company with the intent to delight, but also to embolden the hearer with a sense of instant expertise in some important field or pursuit. Example: “Beethoven is the grandfather of Rock-n-Roll!!” Pop! This statement qualifies as a CPF due to its provocative nature—the alignment of the great Classical composer with the Great Cultural Scourge titillates, casting Beethoven as a rebel—but also because it makes a plausible connection (Beethoven, the bold innovator, does qualify on some level as rebellious) proffering the legitimacy of Rock by a sort of temperamental association. Thoughtful challenge of this or any other CPF reveals its essential emptiness, but beware; “successfully” debating a CPF, or most small talk for that matter, frequently results only in Pyrrhic victory of the most awkward social kind—securing a “win” for truth, at the cost of seeming a humorless know-it-all.

Contrast this sort of statement with the superlative. Before the cynical among you say, “Superlatives! Where the humorless know-it-all really earns his money!” let’s consider the essential differences. The superlative, though certainly bold and authoritative, invites serious reflection, willingly subjects itself to scrutiny, expects competition, and best of all in many cases, embraces the conquered in victory or the conqueror in defeat. The proposition of a superlative champion represents a legitimate challenge; one making the statement believes that his GOAT can beat yours, and welcomes competition to the claim. This involves higher rhetorical temperatures; beyond merely a stated opinion or preference, a clash of GOAT champions demands a winner, the desired result a change of opinion—“agreeing to disagree” won’t cut it. Stalemate, however, remains a very real possibility; many of these conflicts can end in a draw of mutual respect. Above all, charity rather than competition should motivate the exercise; I want you to believe that (for example), The Brothers Karamazov is the greatest novel, that Winterreise is the greatest song-cycle, that Chimay Blue is the greatest beer, or that Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli is the greatest polyphonic Mass, not to force you to admit the superiority of my knowledge or tastes, but for your edification. (Disclaimer: though favorites, I do not officially proclaim these examples GOATs—see “rare” above).

Comparing the Candidates

The process of selecting and comparing GOAT candidates requires reasonable standards. Inter-species GOAT challenges, though interesting, prove pointless; debating, for example, if Willie Mays was a better center fielder than a bottle of Domaine Romanée-Conti is a red wine. Apple-to-apples only, please: again, the decision to use a superlative is serious. God made us for greatness, both in our creative and receptive abilities. Not content merely with the promises of salvation and heaven, He freely shares His creative capacity—naturally, in the procreation of souls; artistically, in the artist’s aligning the human condition with the transcendental ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty expressed through various artistic media. In the best case, the continuous search for ultimate expressions reveals an innate yearning for union with God; that the worst case exists—overwhelming egoism in creation or consumption—does nothing to diminish the ideal.

As craftsmen, few serious artists begin the process of creation with history in mind. Though all supremely talented artists strive for perfection, individual masterpieces emerge from particular circumstances—a commission, reaction to or commentary on an event or person, perhaps a singular artistic inspiration—rather than the stated intention to create the greatest masterpiece ever to have existed in a genre. Given the universally understood evolutionary nature of style, technique, and receptive whim, the thought of attempting a comprehensive account of form and taste—past, present, and future—with the intention of creating a GOAT would more likely paralyze than inspire the artist. Art, good or bad, reflects its own age; the artist cannot know the future, and any vision he has of it will succumb to the gravitational forces of comprehension and formal development (Wagner’s “music of the future,” though bold, unquestionably belongs to its age; the purposefully alienating works of the modernists do break free, but rather than inhabit a higher orbit, they simply float off into a stylistic void, unmissed). Only History can make a GOAT.

I teach a music history class. Over the course of two semesters, students learn how culture reflects ideas; how history informs musical style; which composers have stood the test of time; how the great artists exist as part of an overarching historical continuum, absorbing and reflecting influences, and shaping future generations. Most importantly, we listen, as extensively as time allows, to the best of the best of a millennium of masterworks, works about which I speak in qualified superlative terms (“one of the greatest...”; “very likely the best example of...”; “perhaps Mozart’s singular...” etc.). To my knowledge, I use only two superlatives seriously without qualification. The first—“Pope St. Pius X’s Pascendi is the most important document of the 20th-century”—does not relate to music. The other does.

The Musical GOAT

I stand by my statement that the B-minor Mass, Bach’s final summary statement, is the Musical GOAT (the “MG”). Let me defend the statement. I’ll approach this as objectively as possible, through a process of reverse engineering that involves many steps. Though most of these steps remain open to some debate, probability continually shifts toward the B-minor Mass. The process goes something like this. Art conforms to hierarchy; good, better, better-yet, potentially best, best. The MG would necessarily be “good” rather than “bad,” and “high” rather than “low”; only a modernist would argue otherwise. The principles of atheistic Communism do not impress the senses: sight, hearing, and taste instinctively reject the inferior or unnatural (or just plain bad), and just as instinctively prefer the good. The intellect remains susceptible to the fraudulent suggestion that all forms, styles, and genres have equal merit, but to insist on the superiority of “bad” over “good,” or “low” over “high” requires measures of pride or ignorance (or both) that render serious consideration impossible.

MG would likely be large, rather than small. The composer of a multi-movement work has an immediate advantage due to the range of contrast and styles available in his “single” piece; he also has the added benefit of being able to create a narrative through-line based on non-musical principles. This in no way diminishes the importance of miniature forms—individual poems, songs, sketches—with which the recipient can form personal connections unmatched in intensity or intimacy. Scale matters, however; not for its own sake, but for the depth and breadth that time and variety afford.

Statistically speaking, MG would likely come from the top of the Western Music “Bell Curve,” the 17th-19th centuries, a period that witnessed the creation of an unprecedented volume and diversity of masterworks. Anything earlier or later finds itself in a period of stylistic extremes more limiting than liberating, either bound to a modal conception of harmony in the case of “early” music, or in the case of modernist music bound by...nothing, except the tyranny of innovation, the sound of which demonstrates that the wholesale fabrication of rules and form results not in ultimate freedom, but utter chaos.

MG would likely be vocal rather than instrumental; the emotional amplification of intellectual concepts and universal themes provided by a text not only allows the composer to craft formally cohesive pieces—the sum of varying yet interdependent parts in the case of a multi-movement work—but pieces informed by a dramatic literal narrative. An ordering through intellectual as well as emotional means almost by definition yields works of a higher order. MG could come from either the secular or the sacred realm, but, again invoking hierarchy, sacred works would seem to have an advantage, though not an unfair one: an inferior work which sets sacred text cannot receive priority consideration simply because it sets a sacred text. MG would set the greatest possible text: the lopsidedness of opera—magnificent music “glorifying” trivial or scandalous themes—disqualifies it as a genre, though some compelling individual cases exist. (Act I of La Bohème contains cathartically beautiful music, accompanying a scene in which two people who have never met declare their love, and their intention to consummate it after meeting some friends at a restaurant to have a meal which they will steal…)

This leads us to the B-minor Mass, a high-art, large-scale vocal work written by Bach in 1749, which sets—with dazzling variety and unfathomable depth—the unabridged text of the Mass in Latin. None can argue the greatness of the piece; its GOAT-ness remains open to necessary debate, keeping in mind that recognition of this status does not require that you adopt the work as your favorite (another conversation). You have my champion: any challengers?