The top 10 composers of all-time

Sebastian Bach

Bach?

This week, Anthony Tommasini, the classical music critic of the New York Times, unveiled the culmination of his project to select the Top 10 composers of all-time. First of all, as someone who loves to rank things, I applaud the entire endeavor. Making arbitrary lists in this space isn’t that big a deal, because very few people read it. But doing it in the pages of the New York Times requires a certain amount of intellectual courage. Not only must you contend with people picking apart your arguments, but you must also contend with people picking apart the very concept of having the argument in the first place (best demonstrated by one of the comments that read, “Sorry, but top 10 lists should be beneath those who care about the arts.” Why do people think many classical music fans are uptight snobs?). A couple common criticisms emerged from Tommasini’s criteria: the limited stylistic range of composers (no pre-Baroque and no contemporary composers) and, much more elementally, the subjectivity of greatness.

Tommasini’s decision to limit the scope of his choices was his own, and seemingly arbitrary, but it is a pretty reasonable decision. It is simply impossible to assess where, say, John Adams or Tan Dun fit historically right now. It’s difficult enough to make a proper judgment of the avant-garde composers of the middle part of the last century, let alone composers with world premieres that haven’t even happened yet. Conversely, what of the composers before Bach? I’m not entirely sure why there would be a distinction, but Tommasini is certainly correct in saying that the styles were significantly different. Truth be told, it may be a moot point. With respect to Josquin, Monteverdi, Palestrina, et al, would any of the pre-Bach composers even make the cut on a list that probably doesn’t have room for the likes of Schumann, Tschaikovsky, Bruckner, Britten, or Dvorak? I’m shrugging my shoulders and looking at you with kind of a pseudo-sarcastic dickish expression on my face. But the subjectivity question is the much larger one; what to make of it?

David Hume, one of the great philosophers of all-time (number one on my list!), said, “Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind that contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.” This is a pretty commonly accepted notion, summed up in less than nine words as beauty is in the eye of the beholder (Eye of the Beholder being number four on my list of Ashley Judd’s greatest [or least horrible] films). In Hume’s circle, though, was another philosopher named Henry Home who believed the opposite: beauty is quantifiable, and in a related story, I have devised a system to tell you what is beautiful.

Is beauty subjective? Inherently, yes. I might think that the Tallis Fantasia is the loveliest thing ever written, but you might think it’s not nearly as gorgeous as the Barber Adagio. Likewise, some people literally developed depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing Avatar, whereas I developed a manic fury and homicidal thoughts for having lost three hours of my life wearing two pairs of glasses. But this doesn’t mean that there can’t be certain objective approaches to ranking seemingly subjective things.

For example, one of the characteristics that I would weigh significantly is diversity of output. How much music does a composer have in different genres or styles that is in the standard repertoire for that medium? This is why someone like Shostakovich simply has to make a list like this. His output is staggering. Symphonies, concerti, string quartets, chamber music, solo piano music, opera, film scores, ballet, everything you’d ever want. Other composers can match the diversity (including his fellow countryman Prokofiev), but few can match the depth within that diversity. This is why, for me, a composer like Chopin would be left off.

Speaking of Chopin, what of composers with a limited stylistic output? I think in certain circumstances a good case can be made for a composer like Mahler simply because of the batting average. Mahler’s published output is relatively small in number, and confined almost exclusively to two forms (and the synthesis of those forms). But quite literally every piece that survived is a staple of the repertoire, and even the sole surviving movement of chamber music he ever wrote is enjoying something of a renaissance. Does the fact that each of Mahler’s symphonies and song-cycles are among the most popular and central works in their respective genres override the limited diversity?

But combining these two elements leads to another issue I take with Tommasini’s rankings, and that is Brahms being ranked seventh. Brahms’ batting average is pretty spectacularly high, and it is over a pretty diverse array of repertoire. All four symphonies are cornerstones of the repertoire. So are all the concerti and orchestral works. There is also chamber music, solo piano music, a litany of songs and choral music, and some of the finest choral/orchestral works ever composed. So what’s the knock on Brahms that places him below figures like Debussy and Stravinsky? That he held onto the Classical tradition a little too long. Should he have been more innovative?

Tough to say, because if innovation is one of the standards, then where is Haydn? Haydn essentially invented a little form you might have heard of called the string quartet, and it was his symphonies that shifted the form from “opera overture on steroids” to “the preferred medium of expression” in instrumental music. And he did it with unmatched craft and wit. Choosing Haydn over Mozart in your car stereo may be a matter of taste, but choosing Haydn over Mozart with a full understanding of his impact on music may not be nearly as subjective.

And what of originality? Should having an absolutely distinctive sound be a factor? Think of Sibelius, who held firm to his own musical conscience while the rest of the world of music imploded around him like Meg Ryan’s career. Sibelius has a truly unique voice, one that is almost instantly recognizable. So does Bruckner. Perhaps individuality should be considered, even if it flies in the face of innovation.

Any other reservations I have about Tommasini’s list are probably minor quibbles, like deciding to rank Verdi over Wagner solely based on the undeniable truth that Wagner is music’s all-time asshole (even though Wagner was infinitely more influential on succeeding generations of composers), or having Bach above Beethoven. But any disagreements I may have with the content should not mask the biggest and best point of all: it’s fun as hell to do these kinds of things. Even though almost everyone I know thinks I’m crazy for ranking things, I take tremendous solace in the fact that a figure of Tommasini’s stature and reputation appreciates the value and enjoyment in the service of such an incredible waste of time. God Bless You, sir!

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2 thoughts on “The top 10 composers of all-time

  1. Great assessment of Tommassini’s list. I made a comment on there that if innovation is a big criteria then why isn’t Stockhausen even mentioned in his entry about 20th century guys. Pretty sure he was the first helicopter composer. His list criteria and his final summation are pretty contradictory but like you say it’s all in fun and the people who pooh-pooh these things are just being pretentious bores. The main thing I get out of top 10 lists is recommendations of where to look for new experiences. Top 10 pizza joints in NYC? Bookmarked. Top 10 Franco-flemish composers? Time to revisit that Harmonia mundi History of music box set…

  2. “Speaking of Chopin, what of composers with a limited stylistic output? I think in certain circumstances a good case can be made for a composer like Mahler simply because of the batting average. Mahler’s published output is relatively small in number, and confined almost exclusively to two forms (and the synthesis of those forms). But quite literally every piece that survived is a staple of the repertoire, and even the sole surviving movement of chamber music he ever wrote is enjoying something of a renaissance. Does the fact that each of Mahler’s symphonies and song-cycles are among the most popular and central works in their respective genres override the limited diversity?”

    I wholeheartedly second this! Mahler deserved to be on there.

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