Sing or Swim
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
There's a dinner party game that imagines a scenario in which all the great composers are sailing on board a sinking ship. In order to try and keep the vessel afloat until help arrives, composers need to be thrown over the side one by one. People take it in turns to nominate the next victim.
It begins without much debate. Viola players are sorry to see Hindemith go first, and any flautists briefly try and defend Fauré. Copland is an early shock but the fact that no one really dislikes his music is not enough to save him. The Russian Five are all dispatched in one go. When only the A List remains, the game starts to get interesting.
The fact that sentiment can easily be mistaken for sentimentality means that Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Rachmaninov, Chopin, and Dvořák tend to be people's next choice. Offended romantics then counter-attack, chucking off the more cerebral Haydn, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg. That takes care of Berg and Webern too who immediately jump off voluntarily to try and save their teacher. Mavericks are removed with little objection: Berlioz, Liszt, and Janáček all let go without too much fuss.
If there are Germans playing the game, Verdi and Elgar are usually the next in line, and the Dutch rarely pass up an opportunity to see the back of Sibelius. Mahler, Strauss and Shostakovich lose out on the premise that getting rid of their sheer emotional weight might prolong the ship's life, whilst some feel that for the very opposite reason, the delicate touch of Debussy and Ravel isn't exactly what sinking ships need. When people suggest Mendelssohn and Bruckner, the general consensus is often that they were not even on the boat in the first place.
The biggest argument arises when Brahms gets the boot. His case is logically and passionately advocated - but there's always someone who just doesn’t get it. Surprisingly, Schubert lasts a little longer, though that's probably because people had forgotten he was on board. Schumann is discarded once he's discovered hiding below deck. Eventually someone plucks up courage to suggest the hallowed name of Mozart. There are people who don't like Mozart and they rarely get a chance to say so. Funnily enough there's not as much protest as you'd expect.
And so the argument normally boils down to a final trio of Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. Some feel that as the designer of the boat, Bach deserves to be the victor. Others say that if it were not for Beethoven, it would not have been built in the first place. The Wagnerites argue that as the only man capable of steering the ship in the right direction, their hero should be the last to leave.
You learn a lot about people when you discover which composers they could do without. The game may even lose you a few friends. But there's one thing at least that everyone can agree on - a sincere hope that all the composers are good swimmers.