Some composers and performers are better than others. It’s not that I like them better, or that they’re more my thing; they’re just plain better at what they do. Alright, so maybe it’s not all that nice to use the word “better” in reference to human beings, but I wanted to start out a bit polemically, here. To put it in somewhat more humane terms: there are people who succeed (or succeeded) in composing or performing to a greater extent than others. And we 21st-century musicians really should once again find the courage to describe music as successful or not so successful, and to seek out the most objective possible criteria for our judgments.n.
I completely understand objections to this demand. Music history is not only rife with misjudgements that seem incomprehensible to us today, but also full of individuals who – due simply to their origins or gender – had it tough during their lifetimes or in subsequent historiography. We want neither to be regarded by posterity as ignorant, nor to run the risk of valuing people too little due to our own blind spots. It’s for precisely that reason that we need to be constantly questioning and discussing our own criteria for quality. And even so: we’ll never completely eliminate the risk of making gross misjudgements.
So why my demand that we find the courage to make (qualified) judgments? It’s less about dividing people into good and bad artists and more about asking why someone finds something to be more or less successful. Reflecting on such criteria would provide us with lots of interesting facts about how music is experienced in our times. We could also discover interesting parallels and differences between various cultures. And finally: it would make many situations that force us to pass judgment (exams, competitions, selection of concert programmes) easier for everyone involved.