Monday, January 17, 2011

Who are the top 10 greatest classical composers? (10, 9 . . .)

That question has prompted over a thousand readers of the New York Times to give their opinions (here and here and here and here). [Update: Commenters on my mom's blog are also opining.] The Times writer Anthony Tommasini still hasn't given his list yet; he's running a series of pieces where he agonizes over who should be in the top 10 (also at those links).

I'm going to follow Tommasini's rules:

I am focusing on Western classical music. . . . [G]iants like George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Stephen Sondheim are outside my purview here. And on the assumption that we are too close to living composers to assess their place and their impact, I am eliminating them from consideration.

Finally, I am focusing on the eras since the late Baroque. You could make a good case for Josquin or Monteverdi, but I won’t. The traditions and styles were so different back then as to have been almost another art form.
Now, here's my list. I'll add 2 a day from now to Friday.

[UPDATE: Here's the complete list.]

10. Dvorak

A Czech composer who did better than any American at capturing the essence of our country. Here's the first movement of his famous "American" String Quartet (#12):

His Cello Concerto is the best composition of its kind, and one of the most emotional, invigorating orchestral works I've ever heard. Here's the first movement, played by the great Mstislav Rostropovich:

9. Stravinsky

Debussy started the ignition of the 20th century, but Stravinsky drove down most of its roads. He would layer one key on top of another, or one rhythm on top of another; this shouldn't work in theory, but he made it work.

To sample a few of his many styles, try listening to the playful, childlike Petrushka (conducted by Andrey Chistiakov) . . .

. . . then the ferocious and radical Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps), conducted by Pierre Boulez here . . .

. . . then the majestically neoclassical Symphony in C (first movement, conducted by Georg Solti).


Anonymous said...

9th? 9th!?! For Stravinsky? Outrageous. He belongs in the top five.

If I find Berlioz ranked above Stravinsky, I shall . . . be suprised. Really, I'll just be surprised.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Ha... Of course, if I ranked Stravinsky #4 or 5, that would require downgrading other composers, causing people to come in here saying "I can't believe _____ is only #_!" [or not on the list].

I'm not going to follow Tommasini's lead and give an elaborate preview of all my choices before I post them, but I will tell you that Berlioz is not going to be on the list. Nothing against him (he has his rightful place in music history as one of the main innovators of the early Romantic era), but this list is inevitably going to be based on my idiosyncratic opinions and experiences, and I just don't often find myself going out of my way to listen to Berlioz.

Anonymous said...

Dvorak is a fine choice, and I'm particularly pleased that you highlighted the gorgeous American Quartet, one of my favorites.
--Unidentified Avuncular Unit

Anonymous said...

It also occurs to me that Leonard Bernstein would have been horrified at the absence of Mahler from this whole discussion.

John Althouse Cohen said...

It also occurs to me that Leonard Bernstein would have been horrified at the absence of Mahler from this whole discussion.

That reminds me, I should add a post later where I touch on some of the obvious choices that I'm leaving off the list.

Paavo said...

I'm surprised that many commenters in NYT would like to see Schoenberg on the list.

It seems to be that what he tried to do was mistaken, and he inspired a lot of "music" based on mistaken premises.

I really don't know much about music or about Schoenberg, but I was under impression that even the infamous "consensus" has turned against him and the serialists.

This opinion was influenced by reading this interesting article:

John Althouse Cohen said...

It seems to be that what he tried to do was mistaken, and he inspired a lot of "music" based on mistaken premises.

Alas, I have to agree with you here. I'd bet that almost anyone could enjoy Mozart or Debussy if they get into the right frame of mind, but few people will be happy spending much time listening to music without any semblance of a tonal center.

Anonymous said...

There is a story, which I am surprised has never been referenced, about a man who was very supportive of the twelve-tonal style so much so that when he had kids he would only ever play for them twelve-tonal music, and when they listened he would give them cookies. His results were effective way to make sure your children never grow up into obese people. His children's brains naturally associated sweets with twelve-tonal music (that is cacophony of the most severe kind) and so never touched a sweet again in their lives. (Okay I am sure at some point they got over it, but who knows, as the twelve-tonal music they listened to in their formative years may have caused within them an extreme case of post traumatic stress disorder, so that they would never be able to get over the musical-equivalent-of-fighting-in-the-Vietnam-war's association with sweets).