Anthony Tommasini the music critic of the New York Times has been driving music lovers to frustrated distraction by his endless quest for his very own list of “classical” music’s top 10 composers – in order of merit no less. Such compilations are basically frivolous, but they’re harmless. They can even yield some amusement. While it took Mr Tommasini two weeks to arrive at his list I made my own in about a minute. Here is my list; it’s in chronological order (by year of each composer’s birth) as at this level of achievement there’s no point in ranking them by any other means. Of course limiting the list to ten results in distortions and major omissions, but it’s just a lark. I’m sure you can do better.
1. Johann Sebastian Bach
2. Franz Joseph Haydn
3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
4. Ludwig Van Beethoven
5. Franz Schubert
6. Giuseppe Verdi
7. Johannes Brahms
8. Peter Illych Tchaikovsky
9. Gustav Mahler
10. Dimitri Shostakovich
Mr. Kurtzman !!
How can you omit Wagner ??!! A man who wrote some of the richest, most satisfying and most beautiful music of all time !
Regarding Tommasini’s list:
Although I adore Schubert, his placing him at number four is indefensible. Needless to say, WAGNER was a much greater composer (a colossal genius) who unquestionably deserves to be placed fourth followed by Debussy at fifth. And sorry, but this Bela (Bartok) doesn’t ring, not for the precious tenth spot, anyway.
Greatness has to involve impact on music in general and on untold numbers of listeners over time. If Bartok had never composed, who would know the difference? What impact did he have on anything outside dedicated musicians who care to explore the confines of expression? And Stravinsky. He influenced music and its evolution, but what impact did he have on a small sub-set of music lovers who actually want to listen to his specialized expression?
To pick Bartok as greater than Chopin is utterly absurd. I just don’t see by what measure Bartok or could be rated as top-ten great. I think Tommasini and the average reader is picking his/her favorites, not evaluating greatness as this series claims.
So who should take Bartok’s place? Either Mahler or Schoenberg both of whom dwarf him in inspiration and output.
I think it’s fun and intellectually stimulating to consider “greatness” as a measure of these composers. But that measuring stick is more objective than most people can adhere to — even Mr Tommasini! I will admit that at times I felt rather turned off by this article. His reasoning seemed, frankly, trite and superficial. If I’m going to read an NY Times article about what made the masters great, I want it to go a little deeper than a Wikipedia article would
Any such list is necessarily subjective, but relevant as long as it contains Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Brahms and Schubert are obvious musts too.
Other composers have left wonderful music, but not always in such density as the top three or five.
My personal favourite is César Franck, whom even devout music lovers often do not know. His symphony in d-minor (his only), his Psyche (with choir), his Beatitudes and his Redemptions are so rarely performed that only few people can know them. And then there are Edvard Grieg (in whose birthplace I am soon to see a “Hoffmann”), Schumann, Chopin and Mendelssohn-Bartholdy who all left masterpieces. Debussy and Ravel are rightly named, but did not leave anything like a Ninth, a Toccata or a Don Giovanni.
It always amuses me how controversially Wagner is debated. As a declared Wagner-hater I cannot but acknowledge his unique compositorial skills that influenced a whole generation of colleagues. Why I do not like Wagner is simple to explain: In my view his music does not stem from his heart, but from his brain. Wagner´s music is for me, as Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World: emotional engineering, emotionally and philosophically irrelevant, like Ludwig II´s castles. Excellent kitsch, like most of what comes from Hollywood.
Verdi, in my subjective view, wrote operatric pop music on a high level.
But go on debating the Top Ten. This debate deserves to be continued as it clarifies viewpoints.
“In my view his music does not stem from his heart, but from his brain. Wagner´s music is for me, as Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World: emotional engineering, emotionally and philosophically irrelevant”
An interesting thought. But from my perspective, the first three you mention are pure brain and no heart. I can appreciate but not like them. Wagner seems like a musical twilight zone, quite intriguing and if one is in the mood for it, enjoyable. Verdi pop?? Do you consider all bel canto ‘pop’?? Or is a good tune always ‘pop?’ Verdi could take a simple ascending or descending scale and tear your heart out. And it lasts. 53 years after memorizing my Rigoletto lps, I fine even more value in it now. And what opera has more heart than Boccanegra???
Addition to my post from Feb. 9th:
The only omission that worries me is Händel. Musically I deem him far superior to Haydn – although Haydn may be regarded as the inventor of the genre of symphony. But none of his usually short symphonies ever made it into the hall of fame. His most performed piece is the heavy and sombre German national anthem – once devoted to Franz the Kaiser.
Händel. however, wrote music pieces which have remained in the standard reperoire of classical music: operas, oratories and other sacral music. And can there be any music more charming than his Konzert für Harfe in b-moll? To our dismay Händel has been hijacked by the British as one of theirs. I would replace Haydn by Händel in the Top Ten.
@ Operafilly: DE GVSTIBUS NON EST DISPVTANDVM remains true. What is beautiful always remains subjective. Also the Beatles and ABBA sang good tunes.
Isn´t Verdi´s famous Coro di Schiavi Ebrei from Nabucco known to any Italian who will otherwise never see a concert hall or an opera house from inside all his life? And has not Verdi´s Rigoletto got one of the silliest libretti of an opera in spite of one or two captivating arias? Popular music at its best.
Had Wagner lived a century later he might well have composed for Hollywood and probably won a few Oscars. Of course this is subjective speculation. Luckily we humans do not all agree on everything in matters of taste. If we all did, life would be a lot more boring. More than enough people already love hamburgers, Coca Cola and Hollywood trash.
Platon taught that what is good is necessrily beautiful and vice versa (καλὸς καὶ ἀγαθός). I beg to disagree.
“And has not Verdi´s Rigoletto got one of the silliest libretti of an opera in spite of one or two captivating arias?”
Victor Hugo’s passion for the deformed is hardly silly. Yes, early on I might have agreed with you. But over the decades Verdi’s depiction of this tortured characted gets more profound. I wish Verdi would have done Hunchback and Man Who Laughs too.
Handel I find mechanical…….laid out like a blueprint. Maybe more appealing to guys???