Is There a Greatness Shortage? December 13, 1976

True greatness is becoming a rare phenomenon. No president since Abraham Lincoln seems to be universally regarded as great. Books about the great composers generally end with Brahms and Wagner. And since Einstein’s death, no one seems to be widely regarded as a truly great scientist or mathematician. Curiously, however, greatness still abounds among performers of classical music. I would estimate that there are about 12 sopranos, 11 tenors, 10 conductors, and eight violinists who are known to be great, by common consent, and that is without counting any of the deceased. Greatness does not seem to be quite so common in lower registers, though there must be at least four or five each of violists, cellists, mezzos, and baritones who are routinely counted among the greats. There are even a few great bassos and string-bass players. It is apparently more difficult for organists and wind players to attain greatness, though a few of them are also considered great. And I almost forgot all the great pianists, of whom there must be at least 25. Altogether the list is extraordinary long. In fact, it is so long that the people at Lincoln Center have been able to provide us with a continuing stream of these people on their Great Performers series.

Even in the other arts, all of which have been prone to producing great men and women, it is difficult to find living artists who are universally acknowledged to be great. The last great actors all seem to be more or less in the generation of the Lunts and the Barrymores. Some would want to include Beckett among the great playwrights, though many would not extend this list beyond Chekhov and maybe O’Neill or Brecht. I occasionally hear people refer to Martha Graham, Maya Plisetskaya, and Margot Fonteyn as great dancers, though it would be difficult to find additional living dancers whom everyone would be willing to place on this exalted level. In the pop world, countless artists have produced ‘greatest hits,’ but only Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington are thought of as great, and they are both dead. There seem to be quite a few conflicting opinions about today’s great painters and great filmmakers, though I think that most people would agree that these lists, too, are quite short. And among photographers and architects, I cannot think of a single living practitioner who is consistently and indisputably considered great.

For some time, it has struck me as quite remarkable that there should be such an abundance of greatness among performers of classical music and such a rarity of it in every other field, and last week I set about trying to figure out how this extraordinary situation might be explained. I was unable to reach any definitive conclusions, but I did come up with some hypothesis which hopefully will help to illuminate this interesting question.

It is possible, for example, that it is simply easier to perform classical music than to do other things. If this is so, it is only natural that a fair number of people would attain pinnacles of achievement in this area, despite the increasing rarity of greatness in other professions. But this explanation is probably an oversimplification.

Another possible explanation arises if we consider a study made quite recently by an obscure geneticist who claims that greatness is an inherited trait. According to this researcher, greatness genes tend to be paired with other genes that cause individuals to have a tremendous desire to sing and play musical instruments. Unfortunately, the unpublished findings of this study are not sufficiently conclusive to provide any certainty in this matter. However, if this geneticist succeeds in present attempts to devise standardized tests for accurately measuring greatness, he may eventually be able to prove this hypothesis.

Another theory is that greatness is not inherited at all, but learned. Considering how many great violinists, great pianists, and great singers end up teaching in conservatories, it is conceivable that at least a few students every year would learn how to become great themselves, merely through contact with their teachers.

Another hypothesis has to do with the fact that singers and instrumentalists spend most of their time dealing with 19th-century music. Since greatness is essentially a 19th-century, Nietzschean, Hegelian concept, it seems plausible that it would be more common among those who spend their lives steeped in the great music written by the great composers of this great period. When one looks at the problem in this way, it seems only natural that greatness should have become less common among those of us who have already moved on into the 20th century. Carrying this hypothesis a step further, we might speculate that, if the current trend continues, there will be no more great men and women at all alive by the mid-21st century—not even in the classical-music field. And perhaps such a development would seem more like a relief than a tragedy to our grandchildren.

One other possibility is that true greatness is as rare among performers of classical music as in other fields, and that the greatness observed in so many sopranos and violinists and such is more a tribute to aggressive publicists and eager critics than to their actual abilities. Needless to say, this is not a popular theory, particularly among lovers of classical music, and it is perhaps impolite to even bring it up. But I felt I should include this possibility, simply in the interest of completeness.

A more radical and more realistic hypothesis is that true greatness in human beings does not even exist, and never has. Greatness did seem to make sense a hundred years ago. There was a time in there when it really was possible to believe that certain individuals had some miraculous traits that made them superior to everyone else, and that it was these supermen who gradually advanced civilization. But now it is once again quite reasonable to maintain that even the most gifted persons, in the most glorious periods, are still mortal and have limitations and foibles just like everyone else, and that it is absurd to draw that sharp, mystical line between the great and the ungreat. There is a problem here too, however. If we try to do away with greatness altogether, then we have to say that even Shakespeare and Beethoven were not truly great. Most people are still too nostalgic about greatness to want to go that far, and promoters of classical music would never dream of accepting such a heretical idea.