Monday, March 24, 2014

Top Ten Greatest Composers Re-Thought

A few times I have mentioned Anthony Tommasini's list of the top ten greatest composers that appeared in the New York Times. Here is what he came up with:

In case you don't recognize all of them, they are:

Left, 1. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). From top left, 2. Ludwig van Beethoven
(1770-1827), 3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 91). 4. Franz Peter Schubert
(1797-1828). From middle left, 5. Claude Achille Debussy (1862 - 1918),
6. Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971), 7. Johannes Brahms (1833 - 97).
From bottom left, 8. Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901),
9. Richard Wagner (1813 - 83), 10. Bela Bartok (1881 - 1945).

Now, who would I want to change? First of all, just a little personal quirk, but I am not so terribly interested in composers who wrote only opera, so I freely confess that up front. Taking out Verdi and Wagner, that leaves two empty spaces. Which two composers need to be added? Alas, I come up with three names: Haydn, Shostakovich and Sibelius. The latter is a recent addition as I have fallen back in love with his music after surveying the symphonies. Haydn is a truly great composer who is always left off these lists, but should not be. I doubt there is any more important composer in music history, with the exception of Bach.

Now, there are a couple of Bs that I would also not miss too terribly: Brahms and Bartók. Hmm, that gives me one more spot than I need. So let's include one early composer. Couperin? Rameau? Josquin? All possible, but my vote is going to Guillaume DuFay. So my list would read:

  1. J. S. Bach
  2. Joseph Haydn
  3. Ludwig van Beethoven
  4. W. A. Mozart
  5. Franz Schubert
  6. Claude Debussy
  7. Igor Stravinsky
  8. Dmitri Shostakovich
  9. Jean Sibelius
  10. Guillaume DuFay
How's that for eccentric?


vp said...

Even as a non-operaphile, I think Wagner has to be included for his influence on other composers. The inclusion of Verdi just seems bizarre, however. A token Italian, perhaps?

Bridge said...

Agreed, to say that Wagner wrote "only Opera" is a huge understatement. Opera isn't my favorite thing either, but it's not like the guy wrote shallow melodramatic operas. They are extremely intricate and strikingly well orchestrated master operas - I'm tempted to say he redefined the genre but that would be ignoring many great operas that came before him. As for your list, I personally wouldn't think of removing Bartok but that's because I am hugely inspired by his music. If the list is supposed to be "Greatest composers of all time" and not "My personal favorite composers" then it is somewhat precarious to include Shostakovich, Sibelius and DuFay (whom I don't even know.) Like it or not, Brahms is a monumental figure. I agree with you that Bartok should not really be on the list even though he is perhaps my favorite composer just because he has not really had a major impact on music which I assume is what "great" is intended to mean. His works are unarguably great of course, some of the greatest in history I would say. Shostakovich doesn't really belong on the list. I don't know whether Sibelius does, but I want to say he doesn't either. Haydn on the other hand should clearly be on the list. I would add Schoenberg, Chopin, Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakov (possibly Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky.)

My own personal list would of course be completely different, though it would contain many of these names.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ok, guys, I admit it. I do this kind of thing because it always provokes comment and argument. Notice how I didn't, unlike Tommasini, attempt to give any details about my methods of selection. I really am just picking the ten that I would vote for. And I would vote for them because I like them. Now why I like them is the interesting part. At the end of the day, the canon of the ten greatest composers (or most performed or whatever) is going to be simply those ten composers that people like the most. These things change over time.

I admit that, apart from Mozart, I am not much of an opera fan, so call it the list of the ten greatest non-opera composers. The fact that Wagner had a possibly malevolent influence on other composers is not going to get him back on my list.

The reason for including someone like DuFay is to provoke people into going, "who the hell is DuFay?" and possibly getting them to listen to him. My list is an advocacy list. I am saying, this is who I would vote for. Give them a listen.

Bridge said...

It is of course absurd to criticize any list for not being correct because no list carries absolute authority. I'm only interested in a discussion about what greatness actually is and to find out what composers have had a tangible effect on music itself. I might check out DuFay though Renaissance music is not exactly my thing. Perhaps that's just because I haven't decided to check it out yet.

A blog post dealing exclusively with overlooked composers might not be such a bad idea in my opinion. That way you could dispense with all of the obvious choices on the list and focus only on advocating composers that should by all rights be known but aren't. I know I'm always interested in hearing new music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Absolutely! "Greatness" tout simple is kind of tricky to define without getting lost in the bushes. But I find that there is music that, as soon as I put it on, it makes me smile: anything by Haydn, Mozart, Sibelius, Debussy, for example. Oh sure, DuFay. Here is a post I did on him, by the way:

On the other hand, there is other music, when I put it on, I do NOT smile. I decided to test out Mahler recently to see if he was still annoying. So I put on the beginning of the Symphony No. 5. Yes, still annoying. I really do not enjoy that brass blatting at me and the bullying, neurotic tone of the music. It is amazing how different the orchestral writing is of Sibelius and Mahler.

I have thought about doing a list of the most unfortunately influential composers, starting with Wagner! But that's a good idea of yours: a list of the most unknown great composers. Of course I have done a bit of that. I have posted on Weinberg for that reason.

Bridge said...

Why is it unfortunate though? I confess, I am not much of a Wagner lover, but his innovations in harmony and orchestration are nothing short of formidable. It defines mid-to-late Romanticism. Huh, I do find Mahler to be somewhat bloated and yes maybe annoying, but his orchestration is very good. Especially good are his brass parts I would argue.

Have you heard his first?

Minor symphonies get a little tiring sometimes in my opinion.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hmm, well Wagner had a huge influence, but I'm with Sibelius on that. When the heady first effects of Wagner delirium wore off, he said that he now found the music "pompous and vulgar". Which I believe it is. Yes, Wagner was a master of harmony and orchestration, but he used these gifts to create some of the most tedious, godawful music ever written.

Oh yes, I know all the Mahler symphonies, I have a box with all of them, I just try and avoid listening to them!

Bridge said...

Curious. Well, I don't share your hatred but I am not a die-hard Mahler fan either. I don't agree that Wagner's music is tedious and godawful, that's mainly just an operatic thing, isn't it? The libretto is a part of the music, just like the plot of a film is an element of the score. If you intend to consume the music divorced of (arguably) its main attraction then it is of course going to suffer as a result. His orchestral preludes and interludes don't have the same problems, and the problems that they do have are common to most of Romanticism. If you don't like the dense textures and the drama well, it is what it is.

Bryan Townsend said...

I hope it's not hatred!! These are just musical likes and dislikes. If we really, really like something, then of course, there are going to be pieces on the other end of the spectrum that we dislike to the same extent. I think I realized how I actually felt about Wagner when I had to write a big paper on Die Meistersinger in graduate school. This involved, among other things, listening to the whole opera several times. All five hours of it. At the end of the day, my feeling was that there was one piece of music in the whole opera that was really good, the Morgenlicht Leuchtend aria. It really is lovely. But it is surrounded by great wastes of galumphing ugliness.

Bridge said...

Oh jeez, that must have taken endurance. The most I have been able to stomach is half of Die Walküre. I agree with your description of a few select pieces being surrounded by a wasteland but the music isn't really ugly to me, just uninteresting. However, this is the exact reason why ballet/opera suites exist, to take the stuff that can stand on its own out of the original context. Both operas and ballets are stories first and foremost and the music is intended to reinforce it. Again, just like film scores. If you listen to the complete score from The Lord of the Rings for example, a fantastic score, it also consists of a few great moments surrounded by more inconspicuous ones, because the music then steps down and allows the film itself to be in the spotlight. Doesn't mean it isn't important, it just isn't very interesting.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a pretty good way of describing why opera music or ballet music is a bit different than symphonic music, which is always the center of attention.

Rickard Dahl said...

I would also put J.S. Bach 1st. Beethoven as 2nd and Mozart 3rd. I don't think Haydn deserves to be 2nd, his music isn't as interesting melodically as Mozart's and doesn't take such an interesting approach compared with Beethoven. 4th place could work though. Schubert as fifth could work. Debussy, Stravinsky, sure. Chopin (or Vivaldi) should be on here somewhere too. So there are two spots left. Shostakovich, could work. And the final spot. Hmm, it's hard to compare earlier composers (medieval & reneissance) with baroque and post-baroque considering how different they are. Anyways, Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume DuFay, Josquin Des Prez or Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina could work.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, probably the most radical thing about my list is putting Haydn at #2. There are lots of ways in which I actually prefer the music of Haydn to that of either Beethoven or Mozart. He is surprising in a very genial way.

Cort Johnson said...

I love Haydn way up there. I would have had him fourth. He HAS to be in top ten. I listen to more than Beethoven.

Neither Bartok nor Debussy would have made my top ten. I would have had Rossini - the man who remade Italian opera and opened the door for Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi in there.

I don't know DuFay but I would have Mahler over Shostakovich, and Britten over both of them. From chamber music to concerto's to opera and song Britten excelled. His War Requiem is incredibly powerful!

Nice list though :).

I still can't believe Haydn was left out of the original top ten.

Cort Johnson said...

What about the ten greatest opera composers?

That's harder :)


Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Cort. Great to have your thoughts, even at this late date. A violinist friend of mind was just at a piano trio concert that featured a Haydn trio and she was raving at me about how amazing it was. Well, yeah!!

I put DuFay on the list simply because he is a great composer and people don't know him. But opera is the one thing that, apart from the operas of Mozart, doesn't really interest me. Good for you for advocating for Rossini, though. I suspect he is another really underrated composer.