Friday, January 21, 2011

The top 10 greatest classical composers (2, 1)

(The complete list.)

[UPDATE: The New York Times author, Anthony Tommasini, just finished his top 10 list.]

2. Mozart

What's so great about him? Why is it that he's routinely ranked one of the top 2 or 3 composers, and no one would dare leave him off the top 10? Like Bach, he didn't invent a new style; he fit comfortably into an existing one. But has there been any other composer, before or since, whom notes seem to flow out of with such beauty and grace?

Here's Sharon Kam playing the Clarinet Concerto, Mozart's last instrumental composition:

His piano sonatas are not Mozart at his very greatest, but they have a quiet, understated wonderfulness. This is Vladimir Horowitz playing the first movement of K. 330:

In the last movement of the "Jupiter" Symphony (#41) (conducted here by Jeffrey Tate), Mozart develops several different melodic themes, ending with a Baroque-inspired outburst of polyphony where all the themes seem to meld together. Sheer genius.

As with everyone on this list, there's so much more to him than I can do justice to here. He was the king of the piano concerto. There are his masses, his chamber music . . . All this would be enough to cement his ranking here even if he hadn't been one of the greatest opera composers ever. He did all that in his cruelly short 35 years of life.

1. Beethoven

Tommasini, the NYT author, says there's a consensus among "thinking musicians" (which surely means "people who agree with me") that Bach was the single greatest composer, but to me Beethoven far surpasses any of the others. He's traditionally classified along with Haydn and Mozart as belonging to the "Classical" (capital C) era, but it's hard to fathom what an advance he was over Haydn, his partial contemporary. (Beethoven started writing shortly before 1800, and Haydn was productive up until his death at age 77 in 1809.) Beethoven internalized all the existing concepts in Western music up to the beginning of the 19th century, stretched them almost beyond recognition, and probably gave more inspiration to the next 200 years of classical music than anyone else.

Later composers could emulate him (Mendelssohn, Schumann), or stand on his shoulders to progress further (Wagner, Brahms), or react against him (Chopin, Debussy), but no one could ignore him.

His stylistic and emotional range was amazing. He could be wild and visionary, as in the Grosse Fuge (Alban Berg Quartett) . . .

. . . tragic, in the second movement of the 7th Symphony (conducted by Keith Salmon) . . .

. . . or joyous and replenishing, in the first movement of the "Pastoral" (6th) Symphony (conducted by Eric Jacobsen).

I think of the whole history of classical music as a mountain. You start at the bottom of one side, which is medieval chant. You climb up the mountain, go down the other side, and when you reach the ground again, you're at late 20th century minimalism.

Higher up the mountain doesn't necessarily mean "better." It has more to do with how structured the music is. When you go from Baroque up to Classical, the arc of a piece becomes more dramatic. (As the musicologist Donald Francis Tovey said, you can drop into a Classical piece you've never heard and have some clue about whether you're hearing the beginning, middle, or end of the movement; this doesn't work with Baroque.)

In the Romantic era, you start going downhill, with plenty of that old Classical form, but also a looser, more improvisational sensibility.

The 20th century goes steeply downhill, challenging all expectations of structure, harmony, melody, and rhythm.

At the top of the mountain — fusing the best aspects of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic (with a dash of prophetic modernism) in magnificent, awe-inspiring structures — is Beethoven.


J said...

I completely agree with your analysis on Beethoven. He was the bridge, like Bach was the bridge before him, which is why the two of them are frequently competing for the top spot. I think we're attracted to their ability to not only perfect the style of the time they find themselves, but to truly create a new style through innovation, leading to a musical revolution.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to this weekend's honorable mentions even more than I did to this week's serial countdown. I humbly submit Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich.

And if you were to append a shortlist of near misses to your list of honorable mentions, I would be most impressed. Perhaps . . . the often overlooked Grieg?

Anonymous said...

Of course I agree with your top ranking, and I found the NY Times comment about "thinking" people agreeing that Bach is number one to be obnoxious and also downright wrong. When you go see the Boston Symphony play, there's one name above the stage, for all to admire regardless of the specific program: Beethoven. But it's hard for me to put Bach anywhere but 2; it seems to me that he's the only other possible candidate for the greatest. Perhaps it's true that Beethoven was more transformative, but both he and Bach pushed the art form to incomparable heights, in a way that I don't feel Mozart or Brahms or Schubert or anyone else did. Of course, did anyone write more beautiful music than Mozart? Among my many personal Mozart faves, besides the clarinet concerto, are: the quintet for piano and winds; the piano quartets; and the justifiably famous flute and harp concerto (along with a great deal of The Magic Flute). I was pleased to see another commenter mention Grieg -- his piano concerto is among the most sublime and beautiful (and the easiest to play of the 10 or so great ones). I also completely agree with your own simple definition for the list -- those whose music you would want to hear for the rest of your life. By the way, your Grandma Jean, whose musical taste was more sophisticated than mine, was a huge fan of Sibelius; I brought in a stereo and put some on during her last couple of days, and although she was hardly responsive, she clearly responded to that. Great job on these entries, John.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Thanks. That's nice to hear about Grandma Jean. I remember talking with her about classical music and the Beatles.

Anonymous said...

mozort is way better

Eric said...

Eric: I agree that Beethoven was the greatest composer of the the Classical period. His later pieces I would characterize as music of the Romantic period. The Missa Solemnis and the Late String Quartets are perhaps the greatest and most intense music ever composed

Anonymous said...

And know I find that you have scholarly mistakes. Beethoven started composing in his adolescence, that is, in the midst of the eighties. But here you state he started composing just before 1800. That would mean he didn't start composing until his late twenties!!!!

John Althouse Cohen said...

When I wrote, "Beethoven started writing shortly before 1800," I was referring to his significant, published compositions. His first opus numbers are from the mid-1790s.

Oen said...

Hey, thank you for your very thoughtful and well argued list! I find alot of Beethoven to be very heavy handed and conventional. You've got exceptions here in your excerpts -- symphonies 6, 7, 9, the late quartets, missa solemnis, and the adagios of some of the piano sonatas. But most of his music is...constrained, not energetically, but musically. Bach on the other hand, is searching the cosmos always and generating the most extraordinary outpourings of melody, harmony, counterpoint etc which seem to capture the vey essence of nature, the universe. When I hear the Brandenberg concertos, it's almost like hearing the angels, such beautiful structures, symettries, unbound by anything other than the upwellings of spirit and the universal constants. The Violin or cello sonatas? The partitas? The list is huge and endless, full of emotional dynamism, unparalleled imagination, some of it 100 years ahead of it's time (like the gigue from the 6th keyboard partita). To me, Beethoven is very small compared to Bach, almost shrunken by comparison (despite the amazing expansiveness of about 10% of his work). Bach is by far the greatest of all time, Beethoven about 8th.