Saturday, January 22, 2011

The top 10 greatest classical composers - some honorable mentions

Now that I've posted my top 10 list of the greatest classical composers, let's look at some people I left off whom others might have included.

Mendelssohn could have easily been in the top 10. His Octet (for the equivalent of two string quartets) is some of the best music I've ever heard by anyone. The achievement would be hard to fathom if he had written it at any age. He was 16 when he wrote it. Here's the first movement played by the Borodin and Fine Arts Quartets (the music starts about 30 seconds in).

Schumann is another obvious one. I love some of his music, like the manic Toccata (played here by Sviatoslav Richter). I just don't feel quite as strongly about his overall body of work as I do any of the ones I put on the top 10.

I noticed a lot of support for Tchaikovsky once the NYT series started. He isn't one of my favorites, but the famous Nutcracker Suite always puts me in a good mood. Here's the Waltz of the Flowers, which is supposed to be played by orchestra but is redone here by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet:

Going back in time to the Baroque, there's Handel. Many people would have an easy time putting Handel on the top 10. I admit I haven't given him a full enough listen, maybe because I tend to reflexively reach for Bach when I'm in the mood to listen to Baroque. As a sample of Handel, I think I'll go with the most obvious possible thing:

Scarlatti's harpsichord sonatas (often played on piano, as in this performance of K. 141 by Martha Argerich) are strikingly individualistic and out of sync with the late Baroque.

How about the 20th century?

Bartok would be a leading contender. Here's the final movement of his audacious String Quartet #4, played by the Zehetmair Quartett:

I have a soft spot for the relentlessly bleak Shostakovich, who wrote under constant fear of his own Soviet government. My favorite Shostakovich is his 8th String Quartet, but I've already blogged that (What are the scariest pieces of classical music?"). So instead, here's his 1st Symphony, written as a conservatory assignment when he was 19 years old. (This performance is conducted by Neeme Jarvi.) This is pretty cheerful for Shostakovich:

Another Soviet composer is Prokofiev, who wrote some hard-edged, dissonant music, but also popular fare like Peter & the Wolf and Romeo & Juliet. I especially like his piano music, which I think of as the sonic equivalent of a classic martini. Here's Frederic Chiu playing the 5th Piano Sonata:

You could include Schoenberg on the list, but that would seem to be largely a gesture of recognition that he did something new. That's important, but I care more about: "If I could only listen to 10 composers for the rest of my life, who would they be?" I wouldn't put Schoenberg on that list. But if you had to listen to choose just 10 classical compositions to have on a desert island, you might want this haunting early piece, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) (played here by the NEC Contemporary Ensemble Concert, directed by John Heiss):

There are some giants I still haven't mentioned: Verdi, WagnerMahler. I like opera, but I'm just not enough of a fan of it to put Verdi or Wagner in the top 10. I've also never found the supposed historical significance of Wagner to be viscerally exciting, as opposed to an academic observation (in contrast with composers like Debussy and Beethoven).

As for Mahler, I don't understand the mania around him. I prefer the similar but more introverted, enigmatic Bruckner. Here are some snippets of Bruckner's (unfinished) 9th Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein:

We could go on and on. How about Berlioz, whose Symphonie Fantastique is considered a major milestone of the early Romantic era? But I have to admit I've always found this to be more of a history lesson than an enjoyable listen.

Well, what about Vivaldi, with his hundreds of masterful Baroque concertos? Here's "Summer" from The Four Seasons, which bears no resemblance to summer unless we're talking about a thunderstorm:

Ravel? He's unlikely to make it into many top 10 lists, since anyone would list Debussy above Ravel, and one impressionist is enough for the top 10. His music also seems more "nice" than "great." Here's his Piano Trio (the first two movements), played by the Beaux Arts Trio:

Then there's Sibelius. Here's the first movement of his woefully overlooked 6th Symphony, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy:

We could keep going like this and easily end up with a top 50 list of excellent composers. There just isn't room for every worthy composer on a top 10 or even top 20 list. A top 10 list gets attention because it's restrictive; disappointment is built into the concept.

So if you're looking for a fuller guide to classical composers than I could give here, I recommend Jan Swafford's Vintage Guide to Classical Music. He has long essays on the music and lives of the great composers, and shorter blurbs on lesser-but-notable composers. I particularly recommend this over Phil G. Goulding's Classical Music, which (unlike Swafford's book) ranks "the 50 greatest composers." Goulding's format is entertaining and eye-catching, but he makes some bizarre choices: he doesn't include Schoenberg or any American composers (no Copland or Ives), yet he includes relatively forgettable composers like Rameau and Donizetti. In contrast, Swafford's choices about which composers to emphasize (not just your usual Bach and Beethoven, but lesser-known composers like Palestrina and Hindemith) and which ones to discuss briefly (Corelli, Scriabin, Poulenc) are close to perfect.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Excellent list. Also, these days there's increased appreciation of pre-Baroque music, and the fact that it's something of a fad doesn't, I think, diminish the beauty and importance of those eras, just as the sentimental fad for Jane Austen doesn't diminish her stature as a novelist. Composers such as Josquin des Prez, Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume Dufay, and Carlo Gesualdo wrote deeply moving (and from what I've read, often innovative) music before the cult of the individual arose, and with limited technical means. If they'd been born in the Classical or Romantic eras, surely they would have created great works in those styles. Also I have a personal soft spot for the songs of John Dowland, the sweetest sad love songs ever written.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Note that I've been following Tommasini's somewhat arbitrary rules, one of which is that he excluded composers from the Medieval, Renaissance, and early Baroque eras.

Alex said...

Vivaldi's summer is generally accepted as inspired by serfs working under a hot sun. The idea of summers off is rather modern and more likely the reverse since more work would need to be done then compared to winter which was mostly waiting til spring to get back to work.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your list with the musical selections very much. I rediscovered some old favorite pieces I haven't listened to in a while as well as a lot of new ones.

Your comments were thoughtful and generally very illuminating. Thanks again.

Arthur said...

Hello, John.
Your top10 list is quite interesting, and your reflexions over it are even better.
Bach, Moart and Beethoven are undeniable.
Beethoven, Debussy and Shoenberg really deserves their spots beacuse of their inovations, wich gave life to music and it's history.

However, what really made me write this response wold be the desagreements. But imagine me laughting while I speech, I'm Brazillian, please don't take my words so hardly.

Actually, I have only one central complaint: the mentions...

I was really missing tchaikovsky and vivaldi, at least you remembered them. I still want to know your oppinion about Grieg.
And last, but [definitelly] not least: Ravel... "nice"... "GREAT" is much few to describe Le tombeu de Couperin, Sonatine and the famous Bolero. What about the Mirroirs...