Thursday, January 20, 2011

The top 10 greatest classical composers (4, 3 . . .)

(The complete list.)

4. Bach

Bach composed during the late Baroque, so he didn't forge a new style the way Haydn or Debussy or Schoenberg did. And the Baroque style itself is more limited than the music that would follow him. Yet he's so widely called one of the top 3 composers of all time that I feel slightly apologetic at ranking him "only" #4. Evidently, greatness is not just about originality. Bach transcended the limitations of his era and brought an intellectual depth previously unknown to Western music.

I think of him as generally mild-mannered and contemplative, but he was also capable of overwhelmingly intense emotion. Here's "Herr, Unser Herrscher" ("Lord, Our Master") from the St. John Passion, conducted by Richard Egarr:



Bach's Cello Suites allow the cellist to explore melody alone, in a way no other composer has equalled. Here's Mstislav Rostropovich playing the 4th Suite:



If you wanted to choose one little piece by anyone that perfectly distills the idea of pure, simple music for music's sake, it would be hard to do better than the 1st Prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Sviatoslav Richter plays it here, followed by the 1st Fugue:




3. Brahms

Schoenberg famously wrote, in an essay called "Brahms the Progressive," that Brahms had been misunderstood as one of the more conservative composers of the Romantic era, and that in fact he foreshadowed the atonalism of the 20th century. Fortunately, we don't need to take a stance on this musicological issue to become immersed in the autumnal world of Brahms, where every note seems to be aching or yearning or striving for something. Brahms, who died in 1897, often sounds to me like he's saying a long farewell to pre-Modern classical music itself.

Here's one of the most beautiful melodies I've ever heard. Piano Trio #1 (Op. 8), first movement, played by Eugene Istomin, Isaac Stern, and Leonard Rose:



Here's the first movement of A German Requiem, where the non-religious Brahms put his individual spin on a traditionally Christian genre. Here's the whole thing, conducted by Jeffrey Thomas. The first 2 movements are spell-binding.



Here's the first movement of Brahms's 4th Symphony (his last), conducted by Leonard Bernstein. I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say music just doesn't get any better than this.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow. I thought that I love Brahms about as much as anyone, and even I can only put him 4th. I respect your courage. (Although I can't really see putting Bach below Mozart, the level of greatness is so pure that the numbers become a bit arbitrary)! A fine choice with the Brahms trio, one of my favorites. Today's NY Times article made a good point that I am often aware of in listening to Brahms, that he seemed to pave the way for atonality (yet luckily for me, being a foolish simple tonal person, he only paved the way). His complex harmonies are breathtaking, for me the richest and deepest of all composers (another reason you might enjoy Copland, who takes simple "American" melodies and layers them with beautiful harmony). Of course the 4th Symphony sends shivers up my spine -- that last movement is a miracle, with its amazing span of mood and feeling using the same 8 notes. You may not love the 3rd Symphony as much as I, but for me it's like Beethoven's beautiful 6th; it soothes my troubled soul. And as for Gardner -- his version of Beethoven's Third is unbelievable. Keep up the fine work, lad!
--An Anonymous Relative of the Sibling-of-Parent Variety

John Althouse Cohen said...

Thanks... I do like the 4th more than the other 3, but I like the 3rd a lot too. I find the 1st a disappointing retread of Beethoven, and I've never had much interest in the 2nd. (I wonder if Brahms had some kind of "sophomore slump"; I'm not a fan of his 2nd Piano Concerto either.) The Brahms symphonies aren't like Beethoven's, or Mozart's late piano concertos, where it's hard and somewhat arbitrary to choose favorites.

Gardiner's whole Beethoven symphony cycle is unbelievable. That's the main cycle I listened to when I was becoming familiar with the 9 symphonies, and since then I find many other conductors' versions too slow and pompous. Gardiner's tempos, especially in the 6th and 8th, are sometimes bizarrely fast (listening to the #8 finale, it's hard to believe the musicians are human), but they work.

Anonymous said...

Lovely series this week. Will there be time for honorable mentions?

John Althouse Cohen said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I was planning to mention a few of the composers I left off after the list is done, and I probably won't be able to resist throwing in a few YouTubes of some of my personal favorite compositions by them.

Anonymous said...

Brahms above Bach?!

Only ONE composer should be placed above J.S. Bach on any list and that is Beethoven. I won't argue too much, since my list has them at 1A and 1B.

While Brahms is predictable and melancholy with some all-too-sweet compositions(listen to his Hungarian Dances), Bach is soulful, deep, complex, futuristic and cosmic with music that sounds like it was penned by God himself.

Sorry, I have to strongly disagree with your placement of Brahms above Bach.

My devalued US $0.02!

Anonymous said...

Okay. This is unforgivable. I am not going to say that Bach is the greatest -- that position belongs to Bach -- but to even conceive that Brahms is above Bach is ridiculous. Bach's music is filled with a sense of purity, that there is no other composer that can leave you as uplifted as Bach. But it is not empty upliftedness. It is the upliftedness that causes one to contemplate his life, and see what he can do better. Brahms is a great composer, but his works often come across a superficial, like all of the Romantic era composers. And besides, he frequented prostitutes. That is unforgivable. One of these days I would like to see a list that takes into account composer's lives when judging their greatness. Some people argue that art can only be judged apart from the composer. There is no conception more ridiculous than that. An artist and his art are inseparable. Just as the Creation cannot be separated from God, so too the art cannot be separated from the artist. The former of both examples cannot manifest themselves, unless you take to the awfully cynical theories of the Freudian-Darwinian school. And at any rate, an artist's morality or lack thereof manifests itself in his art. You can hear the immorality of Wagner in his awful conceptions, just so can you hear Brahms, even if it is disguised by classical form. The works of the Romantic era and afterwords are saturated in lust and sexuality. You never get that in Beethoven and before. Nay, in them you find pure art, cleansing art, uplifting art. I thought this was going to be a good list, considering its lack of Wagner, but how can anyone overlook this perversion??!!! How can I forget this!!!??? How will I ever forget that John placed Brahms over Bach!!!???

Anonymous said...

Okay. This is unforgivable. I am not going to say that Bach is the greatest -- that position belongs to Beethoven -- but to even conceive that Brahms is above Bach is ridiculous. Bach's music is filled with a sense of purity, that there is no other composer that can leave you as uplifted as Bach. But it is not empty upliftedness. It is the upliftedness that causes one to contemplate his life, and see what he can do better. Brahms is a great composer, but his works often come across a superficial, like all of the Romantic era composers. And besides, he frequented prostitutes. That is unforgivable. One of these days I would like to see a list that takes into account composer's lives when judging their greatness. Some people argue that art can only be judged apart from the composer. There is no conception more ridiculous than that. An artist and his art are inseparable. Just as the Creation cannot be separated from God, so too the art cannot be separated from the artist. The former of both examples cannot manifest themselves, unless you take to the awfully cynical theories of the Freudian-Darwinian school. And at any rate, an artist's morality or lack thereof manifests itself in his art. You can hear the immorality of Wagner in his awful conceptions, just so can you hear Brahms, even if it is disguised by classical form. The works of the Romantic era and afterwords are saturated in lust and sexuality. You never get that in Beethoven and before. Nay, in them you find pure art, cleansing art, uplifting art. I thought this was going to be a good list, considering its lack of Wagner, but how can anyone overlook this perversion??!!! How can I forget this!!!??? How will I ever forget that John placed Brahms over Bach!!!???