January 17, 2011

"Who are the top 10 greatest classical composers?"

"That question has prompted over a thousand commenters in the New York Times to give their opinions..."

Jaltcoh has his response, with argument and YouTube clips to justify his choices. (He's beginning a countdown, so the linked post only has #10 and #9.)
Debussy started the ignition of the 20th century, but Stravinsky drove down most of its roads.
And then what happened to this metaphorical 20th century music-car?  Who drove it into the ditch? Who's standing by the side of the road drinking on a Slurpee or something? (Sorry... I'm more of a connoisseur of metaphor than music.)

69 comments:

campy said...

I'd put Beethoven and Bruckner on the list right away, and think about the rest later.

Phil 3:14 said...

drove into a ditch?

Are you dismissing Stravinsky, Copeland, Britten, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Ravel....

(ok, I'll stop)

shoutingthomas said...

Really, just about nobody cares.

The 1000 commenters at the NYT are mostly poseurs who want to impress their friends.

This reminds me of our dear, deposed friend, HenHouse, who always wanted us to know that he had a ferociously high IQ (although, of course, that's just a social construct).

This is another version of the lefty: "We're really smart" bit.

And, I'm a trained classical musician. Played in the University of Illinois orchestra, starting during summers when I was 16 years old.

See, HenHouse, I'm really smart. High IQ. Although IQ doesn't really exist.

Roger von Oech said...

"Who drove it into the ditch?"

Sadly, from mid-century on, much classical music composition was done by academics or those writing to academic tastes.

The result? It became more esoteric and inward-looking, and a lot less less accessible to the average classical music listener (to say nothing of the general public). There are some exceptions, but that's what happened IMHO.

ark said...

As my sister has long said: Bach is not only the greatest composer, but he is also the most underrated.

My opinion now: There's daylight between him and everyone else. He was to music what Shakespeare was to literature: He defined the shape of everthing that followed.

I'd put Beethoven at #2, and then I'd have to think. Mozart would not make my top 10; I know I'm in a minority here. Bartók and Shostakovich probably would.

New York said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pogo said...

Yanni.


/ducks

Greg Hlatky said...

1. Bach
2. Mozart
3. Beethoven
4. Wagner
5. Stravinsky
6: Gluck
7: Berlioz
8: Prokofiev
9: Schubert
10: Britten

E.M. Davis said...

What about this guy?

Bob Ellison said...

I prefer the question "what are the greatest classical works?" I don't much want to listen to any of the best works of Bach or Mozart, but I could listen to the Overture to the Barber of Seville just about every day, even though Rossini probably wouldn't make most people's Top Ten.

I like romantic music with real melodies and chord structures, so the Adagio from Dvorak's New World Symphony is right up there. Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria" is amazing-- especially Chanticleer's recording of it. And here I walk further from composer-- first to specific works, and then to specific recordings.

Florida said...

There aren't 10.

There's only 1: Solieri

Sixty Grit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
shoutingthomas said...

I say: Chuck Berry.

Roll Over Beethoven!

Best classical song ever written!

Crimso said...

Nigel Tufnel has to make the list. Remarkable, considering he does so on the strength of a single piece (a mix of Mozart and Bach he called "Mach"): "Lick my Love Pump."

Sofa King said...

Sadly, from mid-century on, much classical music composition was done by academics or those writing to academic tastes.

Only if you don't count film scores as "classical music," but I don't know why you wouldn't. The finale of Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back ought to be just as eligible for consideration as "classical music" as the overture to, say Carmen.

There are some purists who will not include opera or even "popular" music (like the Strauss waltzes) in their definition of "true" classical, but I don't buy it.

And Greg, Britten but not Holst?

Stan25 said...

All are forgetting Fredrick Handel. He wrote the symphony that the British royal family uses at every state occasion. I would not be too surprised to hear it at Prince William's wedding.

William said...

Gershwin should make the list. I thank God that the dark currents in Shostakovich don't appeal to me or, for that matter, to most Americans. Maybe the Gershwin/Shostakovich divide is like the difference between Rockwell and George Grosz. I'm not knowledgeable enough to comment on the merits of their gifts but I would prefer to live in a country whose soul is illumined by such gifts as theirs. If this be philistinism, make the most of it.

Sofa King said...

In fact, film scores are where I believe some of the best, most innovative work in classical music is taking place. From the atonal, paradoxically grandiose minimalism of Don Davis' Matrix score to the recent (IMO) brilliant fusion of digital and acoustic done by Daft Punk (!), there are a lot of extremely interesting and eminently listenable classical works being generated in that industry.

edutcher said...

I couldn't put together a list to save my life.

I do have a soft spot for Chopin and I agree with William on Gershwin. Also agree with Sofa King on movie composers, not so much Bernstein as Tiomkin and Moross (my fave).

shoutingthomas said...

I say: Chuck Berry.

Roll Over Beethoven!

Best classical song ever written!


Great! Don't forget Buddy (Holly), and the Fat Man.

Phil 3:14 said...

Will it make any difference in another generation?"

A National Endowment for the Arts study found that just 9 percent of the American public attended at least one classical concert in 2008 — a nearly one-third drop from 1982.

Pastafarian said...

Bach and Beethoven should be there, of course.

I haven't seen anyone suggest Vivaldi yet.

I absolutely hate Debussy, Stravinsky, and almost all 20th century classical music, other than Samuel Barber. Now, some music I hate because I don't really fully understand it -- most jazz, for example. I think that John Coltrane is beyond my meager intelligence.

But Debussy...no, I think it's just bullshit noise. It's the emperor's new clothes. People pretend to like that shit to look more sophisticated.

I saw someone suggest Rachmaninoff -- must be a Barry Manilow fan. Seriously, one of Manilow's vomit-inducing ballads is based on a piece by Rachmaninoff. And all the Rachmaninoff I've ever heard sounds like that one piece -- oppressive and melodramatic, like a theme song to an imaginary soap opera featuring gay vikings.

jaltcoh said...

Gershwin should make the list.

Gershwin's great, but I'm following the NYT's somewhat arbitrary restrictions; the author specifically excluded Gershwin, Ellington, and Sondheim. I take that to mean "no one who's more identified with jazz or musical theatre than classical." (Of course, Gershwin did write some great classical music.)

Sofa King said...

Pastafarian, I can understand the complaint about Rachmaninoff and melodrama. But he has done some stuff that I find riveting. Take a look:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEHufcT3jmw

That whole album is really awesome.

rhhardin said...

"Wagner, if one may be permitted a little of the grandeloquence that suits the man, was a beautiful sunset that has been mistaken for a sunrise."

- Debussy (1903)

Sixty Grit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirk Parker said...

"Who drove it into the ditch?"

Philip Glass. Duh!

Bob Ellison said...

I agree with Sofa King RE: film scores. I'm quite fond of James Horner's score for Braveheart.

But Sofa King, how can you hate Debussey when he did "Clair de Lune"?

And Holst was a thief. His "In the Bleak Midwinter", a Christmas carol, was blatantly stolen from the aforementioned second movement of Dvorak's most famous symphony.

R.L. Hunter said...

Mike Oldfield

Sofa King said...

But Sofa King, how can you hate Debussey when he did "Clair de Lune"?

That wasn't me, that was Pastafarian. I like Debussy but wouldn't put him with the all-time greats. At his worst, he's tinkly and grating, but at his best he's soothing.

As for Holst stealing from Dvorak? I don't see it. Both pieces use a standard meter popular in church hymns, but are different enough in their melodic lines that I don't think you can call "rip-off."

On the other hand, one of our modern composers, John Williams, has blatantly ripped off both Dvorak AND Holst, AND Sibelius, and who knows who else. But he's good at it, so credit where it's due I suppose.

Pastafarian said...

Bob, you wrote "Sofa king", but you meant to say "that commenter with the loincloth, who's sofa king stupid."

stinkylegs said...

Sofa King said:
"On the other hand, one of our modern composers, John Williams, has blatantly ripped off both Dvorak AND Holst, AND Sibelius, and who knows who else. But he's good at it, so credit where it's due I suppose."

"Superman" theme ripped off R. Strauss' "Death & Transfiguration", "The Right Stuff" the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. Interval inversion is his friend! He is good at it, though. Love the score for "Angela's Ashes".

stinkylegs said...

Pastafarian: "But Debussy...no, I think it's just bullshit noise. It's the emperor's new clothes. People pretend to like that shit to look more sophisticated."

Stunningly ignorant comment.

"I saw someone suggest Rachmaninoff -- must be a Barry Manilow fan. Seriously, one of Manilow's vomit-inducing ballads is based on a piece by Rachmaninoff."

Really? Manilow using a Rachmaninoff melody somehow makes Rachmaninoff a bad composer?

" And all the Rachmaninoff I've ever heard sounds like that one piece -- oppressive and melodramatic, like a theme song to an imaginary soap opera featuring gay vikings."

Just because your ear isn't sophisticated enough to distinguish between different pieces...oh well, I give up.

ricpic said...

Brahms although ranked as one of the greats has always been underrated, IMO, relative to Beethoven, Bach and Mozart.

An example? Hlaty doesn't even put Brahms on his list of the top 10.

Bender said...

J.S. Bach is, of course, at the very top.

Then, in no particular order, the usual suspects --

Beethoven
Mozart
Verdi
Vivaldi
Tchaikovsky
and
Hildegard von Bingen
Palestrina
(these latter two, who wrote chant and polyphony, respectively, it could be argued, are the best representatives of the mothers and fathers of classical music)

Bender said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ricpic said...

See what I mean? Bender too leaves Brahms out.

rcocean said...

I pretty much like all the usual suspects except for Mahler's Symphonies , which bore the hell out of me and the "modern" (now almost 100 years old) atonal crap.

Let's face it, Beethoven was the peak. Its been downhill ever since.

Ralph L said...

No votes for Verdi or Puccini? Their works have great staying power, especially considering the ridiculous expense of opera.

Was Tchaikovsky the world's greatest composer or just an old poof who wrote tunes?

sonicfrog said...

Ah... Bach!!!!

Lee Merrick said...

1. Beethoven
2. Wagner
3. Stravinsky
4. Mahler
5. Mozart
6. Mendelsson
7. Bach
8. Shubert
9. Tchaikovsky
10. Sibelius

JM Hanes said...

I can't imagine any list that would not lead off collectively with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. After that, the term "greatest" requires refinement for any consensus to emerge. Most influential? Most inventive? Versatile? Most performed or acclaimed? Most stirring? Most sales at Amazon?

My list, if derived from music I listen to over and over again anew (oh oxymoronic proof of pudding!) would encounter immediate disdain in many circles for including Karl Jenkins' Diamond Music, and in others for Puccini. I might marginally redeem myself with Beethoven's last quartets, but only, I'm sure, if not asked to defend them as his "greatest works."

What actually interests me almost more than the mootable question at hand is that almost everyone immediately recognizes what is meant by "classical music," and yet, how many, including most musicians, could adequately define it without devolving into enormous complexity?

The dictionary provided with Mac OSX certainly fails the definitive test:
"serious or conventional music following long-established principles rather than a folk, jazz, or popular tradition.
"• (more specifically) music written in the European tradition during a period lasting approximately from 1750 to 1830, when forms such as the symphony, concerto, and sonata were standardized. Often contrasted with baroque and romantic ."


Absent historical parameters, it seems we are left with what classical music is not. And what it most definitely is not, apparently, is populist! I suspect those who regard populism in its every manisfestation with dread must be dismayed to find it juxtaposed to conventionality. As a musical distinction, however, it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. We know classical music when we hear it, nonetheless -- which we could almost cast as a populist triumph, were we so inclined.

Greg Hlatky said...

On a now-defunct edition of my blog I once wrote of extending the "Mozart Effect" (i.e. early childhood exposure to classical music has an effect on mental development) to other composers:

Liszt effect: Child speaks rapidly and extravagantly but never says anything of importance.

Bruckner effect: Child speaks very slowly and repeats himself frequently. Gains reputation for profundity.

Mahler effect: Child screams at great length and volume that he's dying.

Wagner effect: Child becomes a megalomaniac. May eventually marry his sister.

Vivaldi effect: Child says the same thing 600 different ways.

Glass effect: Child says the same thing 600 times in a row.

Shostakovich effect: Child gets very nervous when parents discuss sending him away to camp.

Ives effect: Child speaks in several conversational strands simultaneously.

Schoenberg effect: Child doesn't use another word until he's used up all the words in his vocabulary. Sometimes speaks backwards. Eventually people stop listening to him. Child blames them for not understanding him.

Babbitt effect: Child speaks in gibberish. Eventually people stop listening to him. Child doesn't care because all the other kids think he's cool.

Paul Zrimsek said...

No love for Brahms in this group? I'd have expected to find him on the tier just below the three shoo-ins, with the likes of Handel, J. Haydn, Schubert, and Wagner.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Oh, what a silly question.

I'd say Haydn, Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Bartok, Rameau, Britten. But that's a list of music I want to play and listen to, not Teh Greatest Compozas Evah.

At the moment, I'm listening to 17th-c. viola d'amore music by composers so obscure that I (a viola d'amore nut, and sometime player of same) have mostly not heard of them. Some of the pieces are literally anonymous, in the sense that there aren't names attached to the sources; the others -- well, Christian Pezold I know, but Franz Simon Schuhbacher and Johann Peter Guzinger and Whilhelm Ganspeck are unfamiliar names.

And you know what? It's all gorgeous. That's likely the d'amoreness, but even so ...

wv: wailec. I'll say.

John Stodder said...

I like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Dvorak, Stravinsky, Ravel, Gershwin and Villa-Lobos. If I had to cut it off at ten.

I'm sorry to have to encounter the knee-jerk "really, just about nobody cares" response. It's almost as dumb as blaming Palin for Tucson. The major symphony orchestras still draw huge crowds. The LA Philharmonic just streamed a concert to about 200 movie theaters. (Unfortunately, it was Mahler.) Some very imaginative people have created YouTube videos illustrating great classical works and gotten millions of hits. Like every other form of media, classical music is going through a transition which is affecting how you'll experience it. But it still inspires passion.

I mean, what kind of moron would rule out a whole genre of music because it happens to be played by a symphony orchestra? What's better than a lot of instruments being played together, usually in a concert hall with the most exquisite acoustics, performing music that has stood the test of time? I seriously don't get the reverse-snobbery.

Freeman Hunt said...

Most (unintentionally) humorous metaphor I've ever read was about something the writer thought was deep described as "containing ... ample substrate for a feast."

Yow! I'd pass on that dinner invitation.

Tyrone Slothrop said...

1.Beethoven
2.J.S.Bach
3.Mozart
4.Mendelssohn
5.Handel
6.Rimsky-Korsakov
7.Debussy
8.Tchaikovsky
9.Vivaldi
10.Corelli

Off the top of my head, order not set in stone, except for top four.

Icepick said...

Good to see references to TV both British (Monty Python's Flying Circus) and American (M*A*S*H). But Crimso, Nigel Teffnel can't be on the Top Ten list - he must always and forever be Number 11. (Just as Patrick McGoohan must always be Number 6.)

Kirk Parker said...

I'm with Sixty here, nobody comes close to Beethoven. One of the great things about his work is that lack of inferior stuff mixed in with it. Vivaldi? I get what 60 is saying here. Mozart had his tedious moments, too, and as for Tchaikovsky? Brilliant when he was on, but when he wasn't--eeuuuuwww. (I forget which Tch. symphony I was listening to a while back, when I had the sudden revelation--"He was getting paid by the measure, wasn't he???")

But you can't point to that kind of crap in the Beethoven corpus. Heck, the man even write the best-ever Mozart symphony!

Kirk Parker said...

Greg Hlatky,

Oh my gosh, that's beyond splendid! "Now-defunct blog", eh? So it's not available anywhere online under its own URL? Darn, I would so send that link around to everyone I know in the classical music world...

vnjagvet said...

Bach
Handel
Haydn
Mozart
Beethoven
Schubert (for his string quartets and lieder alone)
Mendelssohn
Verdi
Wagner (for his originality)
Dvorak

Kev said...

Sadly, from mid-century on, much classical music composition was done by academics or those writing to academic tastes.

The result? It became more esoteric and inward-looking, and a lot less less accessible to the average classical music listener (to say nothing of the general public). There are some exceptions, but that's what happened IMHO.


Agreed. As I often say, it became more math than music.

Only if you don't count film scores as "classical music," but I don't know why you wouldn't.

I would. In fact, I think that film scoring "saved" classical music from drowning in a pool of its own avant garde-ness last century. Many of the most listenable composers writing today use techniques found in film music.

I'd have to ponder my Top 10 list, but it would indeed start with Bach. And unlike many here, I actually like minimalism--yes, even Philip Glass, though Steve Reich has been more of a favorite lately.

rhhardin said...

Miklos Rozsa

He wrote all your favoite film scores.

Greg Hlatky said...

Only if you don't count film scores as "classical music," but I don't know why you wouldn't.

Why not? In the 19th Century, such music would have been called "incidental music" to a play (e.g. Beethoven's "Egmont", Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream", Bizet's "L'Arlesienne").

Quite a few famous composers wrote for the movies, among them Vaughan Williams, Korngold, Walton, Malcolm Arnold, Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

stinkylegs said...

Agree on Brahms. Makes me sad every time I think of all the pieces he destroyed! Bach and Beethoven for sure. Stravinsky and Ravel would be on my list, too. One test for me is the boredom factor when practicing (piano)--the best structured stuff just wears well. Currently working on both Mendelssohn piano trios, and they're great fun!

Sofa King said...

Hanes -

Really interesting question of defining classical music! My own opinion is that the key distinguishing feature is the non-presence of a repeating percussive element that reinforces the downbeat of every bar, and at least some variation of rhythm and meter.

Bryan said...

@Greg H,

Thanks, really great riff on the Mozart Effect...

Cage Effect: child chooses words by tossing coins.

Lady Gaga Effect: Child shows an amazing ability to market his/herself, but tends to dress very strangely.

I think 'greatest' in this context means "penetrating to the most profound musical foundations so as to influence, directly or indirectly, nearly everyone afterward." So Ok, The List:

1. Bach
2. Beethoven

those are the easy ones, from then it gets harder. There is a pool that includes

Haydn, Mozart, Chopin, Shostakovich

Then there is a much larger pool:

Stravinsky, Debussy, Monteverdi, Couperin le grande, Rameau, Verdi, Berg, Brahms, and maybe Wagner...

From there on it gets really iffy.

Tyrone Slothrop said...

When Brahms wasn't trying to be Beethoven, he could write some nice stuff. When he was, which was most of the time, he was derivative, soulless, and tedious. Second-tier, at best.

For sheer emotional accessibility and joy of living, I'll take Mendelssohn. The violin concerto brings tears to my eyes.

stinkylegs said...

Brahms soulless? Wow.

Christopher Hlatky said...

Greg's got his list; I've got mine:

1. Bach
2. Beethoven
3. Mozart
4. Mahler
5. Bruckner
6. Berlioz
7. Schubert
8. Bartok
9. Sibelius
10. Chopin

Five more that didn't quite make the cut, but were mighty close (in no particular order):

1. Handel
2. Debussy
3. Dvorak
4. Tchaikovsky
5. Verdi

...and one Guilty Pleasure:

Richard Strauss

Christopher Hlatky said...

Stinkylegs:

The music for "The Right Stuff" was indeed a rip-off of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, but we can't blame John Williams for that. It was Bill Conti.

rcocean said...

Schoenberg effect: Child doesn't use another word until he's used up all the words in his vocabulary. Sometimes speaks backwards. Eventually people stop listening to him. Child blames them for not understanding him.

Funny, but true.

stinkylegs said...

Bill Conti! Doh! Mea culpa....

Phil 3:14 said...

All of these lists brought back a memory:

My piano teacher, Mr. Stirling, the church organist at the First Presbyterian (we were Catholic) has this row of white, 3 inch high busts of the great composers lined up above the piano you'd play when you came for a lesson.

I was always in awe of those guys, though I had little idea who they were.

The Musket said...

This is pretty much a pointless exercise - it's sort of like 'what's the best color?'. First you need to define classical music. Most people lump it all together, but they shouldn't. There is Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern -- so what genre you like will dictate the best composer. And, usually only the famous one will be picked because they are the only ones people know.

Forgotten include Griegg, SanSaints, Kabelevsky, Copeland, Kreisler (although he was mostly a copy cat), Elgar, O'Carolan . . .

Enjoy what makes you happy - ignore the rest.

The Crack Emcee said...

There's too many for me, for different reasons.

What I find fascinating about Classical music is watching the history of composition, from when shit was just kind of thrown against the wall, to actual clever ideas. I could treat a lot of the earliest stuff like some do Rap, screaming "That's not music!' but, instead, marvel at the baby steps mankind was taking.

It was funny, when I was in Europe, the natives were always frustrated because I was taken by history (why not: they've got some) and wanted to see castles, which I'd never seen, and listen to all the Classical music I'd never heard. (They thought I'd want to see/hear all the lousy examples of how they're trying to compete with us now - discos, etc.) Somehow they were always insisting on destroying what could have been a perfectly good experience.

reader_iam said...

This reminds me a lot of many conversations held around the kitchen and dining room tables when I was growing up, except first there would be a long discussion of classical vs. baroque vs. etc. etc. etc.

Ives effect: Child speaks in several conversational strands simultaneously.

Ah! That explains a lot!

wv: querpain

Arthur said...

A pianist's list:
1. Debussy (don't tell he is noise)
2. Chopin (don'complain he just compose for the piano)
3. Scriabin (don't understimate him based on his lack of fame)
4. Bach (don't say he is god)
5. Brahms (don't say he is worse than Bach and Beethoven)
6. Villa-Lobos (don't complain that I'm Brazilian)
7. Rachmaninoff (don't complain he is too easy fame, melancholic and over the poin't)
8. Ravel (don't say he is the Debussy's worst version)
9. Beethoven (don't use him to ignore all the others)
10. Mozart (don't acuse him of too childish)

Don't use the reasons betwen parenthesis to justify you don't listen to them.

Rick D. said...

In chronological order:

1. Monterverdi - A foundational, brilliant, but oft-neglected figure.
2. J.S. Bach - Incomparable genius.
3. Mozart - Not a personal favorite, but has to be here.
4. Beethoven - Um, it's Beethoven!
5. Schubert - The underrated genius.
6. Verdi - Gratest of all Italian opera composers (easily beyond Puccini, IMO)
7. Wagner - The central figure of musical romantacism.
8. Mahler - My favorite composer.
9. Schoenberg - Don't love him, but too important to leave off.
10. Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok - Couldn't decide, so 4 way tie for now, time will tell.

Almost made the list: Guillaume de Machaut, Henry Purcell, Handel, Haydn, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Richard Strauss, Jean Sibelius, Ives, Scriabin, Berg

Overrated, and/or had no qualms leaving them off: Vivaldi, Rossini, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Debussy, Copland