Believing the Best

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Wolli Kaelter (1914-2008) was a leading Reform rabbi of his generation. Born in the Prussian city of Danzig (now Gdansk in north-central Poland), Kaelter was the son of a respected rabbi and one of five students from the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary selected to study in America—a decision that saved him from the horrors of the Holocaust. He launched a camp for Jewish children in Saratoga, California, served as rabbi of Temple Israel in Long Beach, California (1955-1979), and taught at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles for thirty years. Above all, he was known as a musical rabbi.

A retrospective appeared in the Long Beach Press-Telegram shortly after Kaelter’s death in 2008. It describes him as a classical music aficionado, and notes (somewhat oddly) that he considered J. S. Bach to be the last great composer.

It seems strange for anyone, let alone a classical music fan, to identify an eighteenth–century composer as the “last great.” Millions of manuscript pages have been filled since that time, not a few of which have sprung from the fertile imaginations of celebrated geniuses. To suggest that none of these composers is great is to reject nearly three hundred years of music history. Indeed, it is more justifiable to claim, as some have, that Bach was the first great composer, not the last.

In fairness, the statement in the article may have been written in error. It is more likely that Kaelter viewed Bach as the greatest of all composers, rather than of the end of the line (a line that would include Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque composers and exclude everyone else). Either way, his esteem for Bach is illustrative of how most of us hold our musical opinions.

It is normal to have fixed favorites. For a variety of personal reasons—well informed and otherwise—we tend to gravitate toward certain composers and musicians, and identify them as the best. Our tastes become convictions. This stems in part from our need to simplify and categorize the information and stimuli we are exposed to. With our established list of definitive greats, we have firm ground on which to accept, reject and judge the things we hear. The length of the list varies depending on the extent of our musical interests, and is informed by a variety of subjective factors: personal history, cultural trends, education, exposure, peer group, etc. In the end, most of us arrive at quasi-dogmatic conclusions, wherein a musician (or musicians) is placed permanently above all others.

That we hold musical preferences as musical facts is not necessarily damaging. Because there is so much music in the world, our enjoyment can actually increase when we isolate a few artists and convince ourselves that they are the greatest. But, whatever musical ideologies we have—and however broad or narrow they might be—we run the risk of closing ourselves off to music that, under different circumstances, could have been our favorites as well.

The stream of cause and effect leading us to all thoughts, beliefs, relationships and situations is also responsible for our musical views. Once these views are cemented, it can be difficult to allow other sounds in. The belief that Bach or Chopin or John Adams or anyone else is the last great composer (or another hyperbolic designation) sets up a predetermined outcome: nothing can possibly be better.

Upholding a rigid position requires that one actively ignore (or put down) music not included on the arbitrary list. Even if one enjoys a previously unheard piece, it cannot, by definition, be more enjoyable than that which has already been labeled the most enjoyable. Only the best can be the best.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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