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“Britain’s greatest living composer”

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Sir John Tavener, according to Ian Youngs in an article on the BBC website, is regarded as ‘one of Britain’s greatest living composers’. I mean no disrespect to Sir John Tavener, but don’t journalists say this about a lot of composers? Isn’t it just something you say whenever a composer is in the news (otherwise, why would the story be worth reading?).

I decided to check, by googling “one of Britain’s greatest living composers“, and as I suspected, the pantheon is so large as to make the term almost meaningless. Take your pick from James MacMillan, Oliver Knussen, Harrison Birtwistle, John Tavener, Michael Finnissy, Maxwell Davies, and many others, including the recently deceased such as Jonathan Harvey, Malcolm Arnold and Rodney Bennett. The term is often preceded by the phrase ‘considered by many’ or ‘regarded by some’ or ‘deemed to be’, especially in the press releases of the composers’ music publishers, of course.

If you search for “Britain’s greatest living composer”, who’s that? Now that is really interesting, because it brings up many of the same names such as James MacMillan and Maxwell Davies, but also, right near the top, Alfred Ketélbey, who was called that in 1929 in the Performing Right Gazette on the basis of the number of performances of his works. On that basis, Karl Jenkins would be Britain’s greatest living composer. But in fact, if you search for ‘Britain’s greatest living composer’ and then add some of the names above after the quotation marks, you get this:

  • Macmillan: 234
  • Maxwell Davies: 104 
  • Birtwistle: 56
  • Tavener: 46 
  • Jenkins: 9 

It may not be the most rigorous of methods, but it’s interesting. In terms of works performed, Jenkins wins outright, even though he only gets 9 hits. The other composers’ claims to greatness are preceded not by sales or performance figures, but by ‘arguably’ or ‘in my view’ or ‘without question’, ‘has been called’, or ‘regarded by many’. ‘Many’ in this sense is clearly a different kind of ‘many’ – the many people who go to performances of Jenkins’ works don’t count in the same way as the ‘many’ who regard Macmillan or Maxwell Davies as Britain’s greatest living composer. But whereas we can count the ‘many’ in Jenkins case, we have no figures at all for the other ‘many’.