Top 10 Composers
Who are the greatest composers? Some
candidates: above, from left, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky,
Chopin, Mozart, Schoenberg, Haydn, and Stravinsky;
below, from left, Schumann, Brahms, Schubert, Handel,
Bach, and Debuss
Anthony Tommasini, crítico
do New York Times apresenta uma lista dos maiores
compositores da História.
Segundo ele não é possível afirmar
que seja uma lista totalmente “objetiva”,
entretanto acredita que esteja no centro do cânone
musical da música barroca para frente.
Barroco alemão, Bach e Haendel, os quatro
vienenses Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven e Schubert. Gigantes,
O século XX, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartók,
Britten e o romantismo no séc. XIX.
1 - Help Write the List 7 jan
2 - The Vienna Four 10
3 - The Vienna Four, Part 2 11
4 - Which 20th-Century Masters Will Make the Cut?
5 - Hailing Opera’s Shakespeare, and Its Proust
6 - The Female Factor
7 - The Romantics
8 - A Few Last Thoughts
Top 10 Composers: Help Write
What makes great music great? There are lots of ways
to answer. Here’s a playful approach: make a
list of the Top 10 composers in history. A gimmick?
Sure, but one worth using if you have to defend your
choices. What goes into a decision to put certain
composers on such a list or to keep them off? Should
influence matter, or just the works themselves? What
about popularity? Are there any objective criteria?
Anyway, if film institutes can issue
lists of best movies, and rock magazines tally the
greatest albums, why can’t a classical music
critic give it a try, too? So in a couple of weeks
I’ll let you know who makes my Top 10 list.
But first I’ll take a little
musical and intellectual excursion. I invite you
to join me. In articles, videos and posts on ArtsBeat,
I will talk for the next two weeks about musical
greats and musical greatness and engage in the serious
whimsy of musical ranking. Please challenge my analysis.
Propose your own approaches. I’ll be reading
and responding. Next week we will post a ballot
you can use to select your own Top 10, so you’ll
have the last word. Let’s see where we end
Top 10 Composers: The Vienna
For any attempt to determine the top
10 classical composers in history, like the one
we embarked on in the Arts & Leisure section
on Sunday, the Viennese Classical period presents
a special challenge. If such a list is to be at
all diverse and comprehensive, how could 4 of the
10 slots go to composers — Haydn, Mozart,
Beethoven and Schubert — who worked in Vienna
during, say, the 75 years from 1750 to 1825? What
on earth was going on there to foster such achievement?
The only Vienna native of the four
was Schubert. Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the
son of a wheelwright, was born in lower Austria.
But by the age of 8 he was a choirboy at St. Stephen’s
Cathedral in Vienna. He was booted out of the choir
when his voice changed in his late teens, and he
became a freelance composer, performer and teacher.
So during his childhood and young adult years, Haydn
was immersed in the greatest music of Germanic culture.
At 29 he went to work for Prince Paul
Esterhazy, who died in 1762 and was succeeded by
his brother Nikolaus, a passionate music lover.
Haydn spent nearly 30 years presiding over the musical
activities at the prince’s palace 30 miles
outside Vienna as well as at the summer residence
over the border in Hungary. Still, during these
decades Haydn was a regular visitor to Vienna, where
he presented his works, soaked up musical life,
made friends (with Mozart, among others) and joined
a Masonic lodge. In 1790, the prince having died,
Haydn moved back to Vienna, a beloved master (Papa
Haydn) and popular composer.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791),
though born in Salzburg, spent extended periods
of his childhood as a prodigy on tour throughout
Europe. The arduous trips undermined his health
and nearly killed him a couple of times. When these
ventures failed to produce a patron or coveted position,
Leopold Mozart compelled his son to buckle down
and settle in Salzburg. But Wolfgang, itching to
get to the big city, made his break at 25 and lived
in Vienna until his death, through periods of triumph
and exasperation, writing his greatest works during
his last, heady decade.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was
born in Bonn, Germany, the son of a drunken, abusive
court singer. He tried to escape to Vienna at 16
but had to return to stabilize the family when his
mother’s health deteriorated. Six years later
he was back in Vienna, and he never left. He soon
became a towering figure there, his path-breaking
works both intriguing and baffling listeners, including
his former teacher Haydn.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was born
in Vienna to an impoverished schoolteacher and briefly
became a teacher, until he threw himself into music
and lived as a struggling freelance composer at
a time when the patronage system was breaking down.
Still, Schubert had a support system of friends
and musicians who adored him and were sure they
had a genius in their midst.
So what was going on in Vienna to
make it such a hotbed of musical creativity? Do
not presume that cultural life was especially enlightened
or that the average Viennese music lover was uncommonly
sophisticated. As Harvey Sachs points out in his
recent book, “The Ninth: Beethoven and the
World in 1824,” terms like “crossover,”
“kitsch” and “dumbing down”
could easily have been applied to the Vienna of
Beethoven’s day, and the typical citizen “clamored
to hear the forebears of today’s virtuoso
firebrands, schlock-mongers and half-pop, half-serious
Yet clearly there were musically astute
listeners, as well as informed monarchs and patrons,
who got what was going on. Haydn is often called
the father of the symphony as it came to be known.
I’d throw in the father of the string quartet
and the piano sonata. Haydn was a pioneer in figuring
out how to write a sizable multimovement instrumental
piece that sounded organized and whole, an entity.
The system of sophisticated tonal harmony had developed
to the point where a genius like Haydn could figure
out how to process themes and manipulate key areas
to dramatic effect throughout the many sections
of a long work. Moreover, Haydn was the first great
master of what is called motivic development, in
which bits and pieces of music — a few notes,
a melodic twist, a rhythmic gesture — become
the building blocks for an entire symphony in several
Haydn passed this technique on to
his recalcitrant student Beethoven, who, for all
his notions of having invented himself, was deeply
indebted to Haydn. Beethoven took the technique
of motivic development even further. If you were
going to make a case for Beethoven as the greatest
composer in history, you would base it on his ability
to make a long work, like the “Eroica”
Symphony, seem like a musical monument in motion.
For all the episodic shifts and turns of this piece,
as it plows through four dramatically contrasting
movements, most of the music is generated from a
handful of motifs that you hear at the beginning.
Then, in his late phase, Beethoven
entered a realm that transcended eras and periods.
By then completely deaf, Beethoven touched the mystical.
Every time I play the first piece from the Six Bagatelles
(Op. 126), Beethoven’s last work for piano,
I am stunned all over again. This seemingly modest
little piece (as its title implies), just a single
page of music, with its deceptively simple melody,
is wondrous strange, almost cosmic.
Top 10 Composers: The Vienna
Four, Part 2
Mozart knew all about motivic development
too. But the technique did not come as naturally
to him. He was a theater man at heart. It’s
inspiring to see the sketches for the Mozart operas,
in which all he writes are the vocal lines fitted
to the words, and a bass line below, with a few
chords here and there. Clearly, setting the text
and getting the dramatic structure of the opera
was the first task and the hard part. Filling in
all the rest came later, which, for Mozart, was
fairly easy if time-consuming.
When Mozart wanted to write a symphony
or chamber work in the Haydn manner, as a motif-driven
entity, he could certainly do it. Think of his last
three symphonies or the six quartets he dedicated
to Haydn. But it took great effort, as he admitted
in the moving dedication of those quartets.
Still, even Mozart’s sonatas
and symphonies are full of operatic touches. When
I was in music school, I was always baffled when
fellow pianists who claimed to love the Mozart piano
concertos and sonatas said that they had no real
feeling for the operas, not being opera buffs. How
can you play, say, Mozart’s Sonata in D (K.
311) without being immersed in the Mozart operas?
The Rondo comes across like some duet from “The
Marriage of Figaro.” In the main theme you
can almost hear Susanna, as she coyly tries to charm
her way out of a tight spot with her doting, jealous
Figaro, who voices his suspicions in gruff bursts
leading to the second theme.
The argument for Mozart as the greatest
composer ever would be based on his astounding versatility:
he is at the top, both as a maker of opera and as
a composer of symphonic and chamber works. That
he died at 35 was horrible. On the other hand, he
had an early start. And how do you top “Don
Giovanni” and the “Jupiter” Symphony?
But that Schubert died at 31 is for
me the greatest loss in music history. Even though
he wrote an astonishing number of works, in so many
ways he was just getting going. In his last years
he started to restudy counterpoint because he thought
his skills were insufficient.
In his mature piano sonatas, chamber
works and songs, Schubert, like Beethoven, entered
some mystic place beyond era and cultural context.
Think of the Sonata in A minor (D. 784), which in
the opening movement veers with no warning from
an eerily self-contained main theme through bursts
of crazed chords and tremolos to a deceptively tranquil
second theme, flowing by like some wistful folk
song, only to be interrupted by slashing fortissimo
If only for the hundreds of his songs
that dominate the song repertory today and continue
to stun, entrance and delight audiences, Schubert
should make the cut. Right?
Yet one of these Vienna masters will
have to be eliminated if we are going to leave spots
for the giants of the 19th and 20th centuries. Might
it be Haydn? Part of his legacy was carried on by
his student Beethoven and his younger friend Mozart.
I know musicians and critics who would howl at the
idea that Haydn, who pioneered the string quartet
and wrote some of the greatest works in that genre,
would not be among the Top 5, let alone the top
10. What to do? For now, let’s put it off.
Top 10 Composers: Which 20th-Century
Masters Will Make the Cut?
The 19th century will pose the toughest
calls in our whimsical attempt to identify the top
10 classical composers of all time. Think of Chopin,
Schumann, Berlioz, Liszt, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. And
what about Verdi and Wagner? So let me deal with
the 20th century first, see how many slots might
still be left, and work backward.
Though Debussy was born in 1862 and
died in 1918, this path-breaker has to be considered
a 20th-century giant. After some 300 years of pulsating
Germanic music, for Debussy to come along and write
such hauntingly restrained, ethereal, time-stands-still
works was a shock to the system. His thick yet transparent
block chords; his harmonies tinged with ancient
modal elements; his preference for whole-tone scales
that loosened music’s moorings to traditional
tonality; his mastery of delicate orchestral colorings
and new ways of writing for the piano: all this
and more made him the father of modern music. Composers
from Stravinsky to Boulez would have been impossible
without Debussy’s example.
For the subject of his only complete
opera he chose Maeterlinck’s “Pelléas
et Mélisande,” a groundbreaking work
of Symbolist theater from 1893. Debussy’s
Impressionist music, full of veiled harmonies, blurry
textures and emotional ambiguity, hauntingly taps
the subliminal stirrings of this mysterious story
of a sullen royal family in a timeless, placeless
kingdom. In the Metropolitan Opera’s recent
production Simon Rattle, in his Met debut, conducted
a stunning account of this unorthodox opera, first
performed in 1902. What other 20th-century work
continues to sound as radical?
Stravinsky, by the way, though I am
still formulating this list, will surely make the
cut. One fascinating element of his achievement
is that among a very select roster of great composers
in history, Stravinsky is the only one to have made
his reputation by writing ballet scores, with the
possible exception of Tchaikovsky.
Everyone acknowledges the impact of
Stravinsky’s Paris ballets, especially that
all-time stunner “The Rite of Spring”
from 1913. His later work with the choreographer
George Balanchine was one of the most important
collaborations in the history of the arts. Stravinsky
was inspired to write astonishing scores for Balanchine,
like “Orpheus” and “Apollo.”
But Balanchine found Stravinsky’s music so
choreographic that he seized even on pieces like
the Violin Concerto and the late, 12-tone Movements
for Piano and Orchestra and conscripted them for
duty in ballet.
Stravinsky’s works during his
lengthy period of Neo-Classicism are still underappreciated.
I love that these pieces are, essentially, music
about other music. “The Rake’s Progress”
is an ingenious, amusing and profound opera on its
own terms. It is also Stravinsky’s savvy,
admiring musical commentary on Mozart opera. When
he finally started writing 12-tone works (adapting
the technique to his own ends), even those scores
were Neo-Classical in a sense. The 12-tone thing
had been around for a while, and the movement was
losing steam. So Stravinsky’s 12-tone pieces
were like commentaries on the 12-tone phenomenon.
Theorists and composers are still
trying to figure out exactly how the elusive harmonic
language in Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical scores
(like the Symphony in Three Movements and the overlooked
Piano Sonata) actually works. His pieces do not
give up their secrets easily. The “Symphony
of Psalms” for chorus and unconventional orchestra
(with no violins and violas but two pianos) is the
most gravely beautiful and profound sacred work
of the 20th century. Leonard Bernstein once said
that the opening chords of the third movement alone,
in which the chorus sings a bittersweet, almost
resigned setting of the word “Alleluia,”
would have ensured Stravinsky’s place in history.
That was Bernstein in his exuberant mode, but he
had a point.
What’s more, including the Russian-born
Stravinsky in my list brings some geographical diversity
to the Top 10.
The composer I yearn to include is
Benjamin Britten. In many ways, Britten is thriving.
At least a half-dozen of his operas have become
staples, and his symphonic and chamber works turn
up all the time on programs. If there are finer
20th-century works for voice and orchestra than
“Les Illuminations” and the Serenade
for Tenor, Horn and Strings. I don’t know
what they are. Still, I am probably in a minority
in rating him quite this high. I predict that his
stock will rise steadily over the next 50 years.
Still, Top 10? Am I going to push out Haydn for
Among other 20th-century giants, however,
I am leaning toward making a place for Bartok. It’s
not just that Bartok was a visionary composer with
an arresting and original voice. He could write
works in a popular vein, like the Concerto for Orchestra,
that are still rich with subtle complexities and
ingenious strokes and his characteristic propulsive
rhythms. Yet he also wrote uncompromisingly modern
and experimental pieces, like the six string quartets,
pieces he assumed would never catch on with the
public. He would be amazed that today his quartets
are as essential to the repertory as Beethoven’s.
Bartok’s other pivotal contribution
came from his field research into folk music and
indigenous musical traditions of Eastern Europe.
He was an early ethnomusicologist. The music he
encountered fundamentally altered his perceptions
as a composer. Sometimes he more or less transcribed
the folk music into suitable pieces for the concert
hall. But in subtler ways he folded unconventional
elements of the indigenous songs, dances and dirges
into his own mature style. Even when he is not explicitly
borrowing some folk tune, Bartok’s music is
run through with the earthy strangeness of Eastern
European folk music. His example inspired countless
composers, from Lou Harrison to Osvaldo Golijov,
to explore folk music and classical traditions from
Asia, South America or wherever their backgrounds
and interests took them.
Also — and maybe this is where
my own concerns come into play — Bartok’s
role in forging new pathways for music in the early
decades of the 20th century was pivotal. Schoenberg’s
analysis that the system of tonality was in crisis
was spot on. Yet the solution he proposed, 12-tone
music, while an audacious and exhilarating leap,
appeared as inevitable — that is, the next
step in the evolution — only to Schoenberg
and his acolytes.
Bartok showed another way. His arresting
harmonic language was an amalgam of tonality, unorthodox
scales, atonal wanderings and more. Theorists still
haven’t broken down Bartok’s language.
But concertgoers, who don’t have such concerns,
continue to be swept away by the originality and
mystery of his music. A work like the Third String
Quartet seems as stunningly modern today as it was
in 1927. Yet it is a mainstay of the string quartet
So whom are we missing? Any votes
for Shostakovich? Prokofiev? Messiaen? Ligeti?
Top 10 Composers: Hailing
Opera’s Shakespeare, and Its Proust
Having skipped ahead to the 20th century
in our ambitious quest to identify the top 10 classical
composers of all time, let’s shift back to
the crowded and complex 19th century. And let’s
start with the dynamic duo of 19th-century opera,
Verdi and Wagner.
Opera, you could argue (and many readers
have), is a different animal. But Verdi and Wagner
were great students of Beethoven, and their operas
have symphonic sweep, architectonic integrity and
orchestral richness galore. In addition, you cannot
discount their enduring popularity.
Verdi is an ideal case of a composer
who came from a definite tradition that laid out
the protocols and practices of how to write an opera.
All his life he balanced honoring tradition with
striking out on new paths. Each opera, almost without
exception, was better, bolder, more masterly and
more personal than the one before, right until the
end, when, in his 70s, he wrote his final masterpieces,
“Otello” and “Falstaff.”
“Don Carlo” is the “Hamlet”
of Italian opera. If the plots of some works are
nonsensical, Verdi embraced musical drama not as
a way to present neat little narratives but as a
chance to bring to life flawed and lost characters
caught up in complex relationships, especially those
between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons.
Sorting out the political factions and power plays
of “Simon Boccanegra” may be impossible.
But the opera is like a bleak morality tale that
shows how rash actions taken in your youth can fatalistically
set the course of your life. The tenor Plácido
Domingo had an improbable triumph last season at
the Metropolitan Opera singing Simon, a touchstone
Verdi baritone role. The opera returns to the Met
this week with a compelling baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky,
in the lead.
Verdi should not be blamed for his
own popularity nor tainted by the excessive devotion
of the most fanatical opera buffs. Those who dispute
the sophistication of his craft don’t know
what they’re talking about.
Let me defer to a rather authoritative
voice, that of Stravinsky. In his book “Poetics
of Music,” Stravinsky challenges the assertion
that the early Verdi works, steeped in the traditions
of Italian opera and thick with oom-pah-pah arias,
are somehow negligible, and that only with the more
experimental operas of his later years did Verdi
reach his potential.
“I know that I am going counter
to the general opinion that sees Verdi’s best
work in the deterioration of the genius that gave
us ‘Rigoletto,’ ‘Il Trovatore,’
‘Aida’ and ‘La Traviata,’
” Stravinsky wrote. But, he added, “I
maintain that there is more substance and true invention
in the aria ‘La donna è mobile,’
for example, in which this elite saw nothing but
deplorable facility, than in the rhetoric and vociferations
of the ‘Ring.’ ”
I disagree with Stravinsky about Wagner’s
“Ring” cycle. But the elite he was referring
to were his fellow composers, and Stravinsky’s
astute defense of Verdi shook up contemporary music
Consider Verdi’s specific skills
as a composer. Orchestration? Listen to the diaphanous
opening of the Nile scene in “Aida.”
Counterpoint? The greatest fugue in opera is the
joyous concluding ensemble scored for soloists,
chorus and orchestra at the end of “Falstaff.”
And speaking of “Falstaff,” there is
an episode in Act III that might seem like a throwaway
moment, when Falstaff, as he has been instructed,
arrives in Windsor Forest at night for what he thinks
will be a romantic assignation. As distant chimes
strike midnight, he counts off the hours (“Una,
due, tre, …”). Each is accompanied with
a different chord in the orchestra, an ingenious
and haunting harmonic progression.
For Stravinsky, there was just too
much bombast in Wagner. I certainly understand what
he meant. Still, the more I immerse myself in the
Wagner operas, the more staggering they seem.
Wagner was a nasty guy who transcended
himself in his works. He and his followers produced
a lot of hype about the Gesamtkunstwerk concept:
opera as an ideal amalgam of all the arts. Yet cut
through the aesthetic verbiage, and Wagner pulls
it off. A great performance of “Tristan und
Isolde” in a compelling production offers
an artistic immersion like no other.
Musically, Wagner was a pioneering
figure without whom Schoenberg and the Second Viennese
School and even Debussy (though he hated to admit
it) would have been impossible. You have to look
at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel murals or
Proust’s seven-volume novel “In Search
of Lost Time” to find a work in any field
as ambitious and arresting as Wagner’s “Ring.”
Yet for all the work’s mystical trappings
and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, it is a humane, wise
and moving story of the imperious god Wotan and
his dysfunctional family, who bring about their
Perhaps too much is made of Wagner’s
leitmotifs: the technique of fashioning brief musical
motifs for crucial characters, objects, places and
philosophical themes (fate, death, renunciation)
in his operas. Yet the masterly way he manipulates,
develops and transforms these motifs has never been
equaled in opera. His model here, I think, was Beethoven,
the ultimate master of motivic development. Wagner
honored Beethoven, one of his heroes, by adapting
the technique to opera.
This much I’m giving away now:
Verdi and Wagner make my list. Both of them.
Top 10 Composers: The Female
As my two-week project to identify
the top 10 composers in history has been rolling
out, I have been wondering whether any readers would
write in asking why no female composers are under
consideration. Few have even been mentioned as long-shot
Well, some strong advocates of female
composers have now spoken up, especially Elizabeth
M. Williams, who proposed that, at the very least,
there might be a separate, female top 10 project.
Among the candidates she proposed, excluding living
composers, are Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann,
Amy Beach, Ruth Crawford Seeger and more.
The sad truth is that until relatively
recent decades, women have had severely limited
opportunities within all the arts, especially music
and, even more, composition. Some of the prejudice
stemmed from the deep-seated male chauvinism of
Western culture. Mozart’s older sister Nannerl,
for example, though not as talented as Wolfgang
(has anyone been as talented as our Wolfgang?),
was an accomplished prodigy who was initially sent
on showcase tours with her brother. If the conditions
for women had been more favorable, Nannerl might
have been encouraged to continue with music and
become a professional. Instead, once she grew out
of the cute little girl prodigy stage, she was directed
on a path toward marriage. She eventually settled
down with a twice-widowed Austrian prefect who had
five children, and she lived to 78 (while her high-stressed
brother died at 35).
But the main reason, I think, that
there were so few female composers during the glory
centuries of classical music is that composers depend
on performing musicians and ensembles to play their
works, and until relatively recent times, musicians,
ensembles and musical institutions were overwhelmingly
There were a significant number of
female novelists, poets and painters in earlier
times. But if you were a Jane Austen, you could
sit at home and write your novels. As long as you
found a sympathetic publisher, you could get your
books distributed and be acknowledged. Compare this
to the situation facing Clara Schumann, one of the
most celebrated pianists of the 19th century. She
was also a gifted composer, though she mostly wrote
piano pieces, songs, chamber works: things that
she and a circle of musician friends could perform.
If she had tried to compose symphonies and operas,
even she, for all her renown, would have hit a dead
end with male orchestras and opera companies, which
would have been unwilling to champion the works
of a woman. So why bother?
There would be several obvious female
contenders for a list of top 10 novelists. Or poets.
But consider this: Where are the great female playwrights
of earlier centuries? Again, this is the same problem
as with female composers: what theater company was
willing to present plays by women?
The last 50 years, especially the
last couple of decades, have brought expanding opportunities
for women in music. Our orchestras are filled with
female players. In most conservatories, usually
half of the composition students are women these
days. A list of important living composers would
absolutely include many women, among them Kaija
Saariaho, Sofia Gubaidulina, Libby Larsen, Judith
Weir, Joan Tower, Chen Yi, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich,
Augusta Read Thomas, Jennifer Higdon and more. So
if we have a top 10 composers survey 100 years from
now, the finalists might well include both sexes.
For now, alas, my list is all male
The Top 10 Composers: The Romantics
Anthony Tommasini has been exploring
the qualities that make a classical composer great,
maybe even the best of all time. Watch videos and
vote for your own top 10 here and read previous
posts here and share your thoughts in the comments
field. Mr. Tommasini’s final list will be
posted on Friday.
In my exercise of sorting through
the great composers of history to determine the
Top 10, I have been putting off dealing with the
19th-century Romantic era (except for those giants
of opera, Verdi and Wagner, who have already made
the cut). But there is a reason. Music lovers have
long been understandably enthralled with Chopin,
Schumann, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Liszt, Tchaikovsky,
Brahms and their Romantic brethren. For better or
worse, their works still dominate the standard repertory.
Yet their music is so personal and idiosyncratic
that it is hard to assess it in terms of greatness.
Frederic ChopinFrederic Chopin
These creators are not called Romantics for nothing.
The Romantic movement emerged from the Classical
heritage, in which composers expressed themselves
through large, formal structures: symphony, sonata,
string quartet, concerto. But the Romantic aesthetic
emboldened composers to be more passionate, rhapsodic
and personal. Formal structures were loosened, as
music became a channel for strongly individual,
often quirky, even eccentric expression. Literature,
nature and history were favorite sources of inspiration.
Chopin, the most original genius of
the 19th century, is a good example. Striving for
greatness was the last thing on his mind. Chopin
had his own select list of past greats he revered,
topped by Bach and Mozart. And he loved bel canto
opera, especially by that melancholic melodist Bellini.
But the Beethoven symphonic imperative
that hung over and intimidated his fellow composers
meant nothing to Chopin. He did not care about writing
large, formal works, certainly not symphonies. Even
his Second and Third Piano Sonatas (the First is
an early work), though astounding, are completely
unconventional. Chopin respected his composer colleagues,
but he was not especially interested in their work.
He was a pianist who composed. To him there was
no distinction between the activities. And he seldom
performed piano works by other composers.
Beethoven consciously strove to be
great, even titanic, and he thought he was. His
legacy is defined by intimidating bodies of symphonies,
string quartets, piano sonatas and more, now canonic.
How does an individualist like Chopin “rank”
in comparison? Chopin’s ethereal nocturnes,
poetic ballades, audacious scherzos, aptly titled
impromptus and lacy waltzes often sound like written-out
I don’t think Chopin expected
his 58 mazurkas to be widely appreciated. On the
surface these pieces are lilting Polish dances,
but only on the surface. Listen more closely, and
even the jaunty mazurkas are quizzical, wistful
and poetic. The dreamy ones can be almost unbearably
confessional. Of course, when any of his published
music sold well, Chopin was delighted.
Schumann was a somewhat different
story, since he embraced that Beethoven symphonic
imperative. Schumann tried to write big pieces —
symphonies, oratorios, elaborate chamber works —
and many of these scores are stirring. But he was
a troubled soul, with a keen intellect and a fantastical
imagination. His music is even quirkier and more
idiosyncratic than Chopin’s. For me, his best
works are the piano pieces.
During my graduate school years, one
of the Schumann works I learned, performed and became
almost obsessed with was the “Davidsbündlertänze,”
a suite of dances that presents Schumann at his
most astonishing. Schumann made up two inner personalities
for himself: Eusebius, the dreamer, and Florestan,
the impetuous rebel. Each of these dances is signed
at the end with an “E” or an “F”
to indicate which of his alter egos composed it.
(A couple of them have both signatures.) Now try
evaluating such a piece in a cool consideration
of the greatest composers.
And so it goes during the freewheeling
Liszt? As a comprehensive musician
(pianist, composer, conductor, major champion of
composers like Wagner), Liszt was arguably the most
influential figure of the 19th century. Still, there
is nothing to do with his exhilaratingly virtuosic,
wildly experimental, moody, restless and radical
music other than to listen in wonder. But a top
10 composer? I don’t think so.
Berlioz? Sometimes it is said of a
composer that he had great talent but no genius.
Well, you could waggishly say the opposite of Berlioz:
he had great genius but no talent. There is a little
truth to this. Just conceiving pieces as amazing
as the “Symphonie Fantastique” (written
when he was 26, in 1830, only three years after
Beethoven had died), let alone the poetically epic
opera “Les Troyens,” took staggering
genius. Yet except for the brilliantly imaginative
orchestration, the nuts-and-bolts musical elements
in Berlioz can often sound awkward.
Tchaikovsky’s enduring popularity
has not helped his reputation in intellectual artistic
circles. When in lectures and writings Stravinsky
spoke so respectfully of Tchaikovsky’s music,
his endorsement caused avant-garde modernists who
had patronized Tchaikovsky to reconsider. Today
Tchaikovsky is both respected by composers and loved
by the public.
And then there is Brahms.
Among the Romantics, Brahms —
born in 1833, a generation after the Chopin-Schumann
first wave — stands out as the one composer
who most coveted a place in the Beethovenian lineage.
He could be terribly insecure. Brahms destroyed
as many of his scores as he released for performance
and publication. He was so in awe of Beethoven that
it took him a dozen years to write his first symphony.
But once he got that off his back, he wrote his
next symphony during a few productive months.
Brahms also wrote epic concertos,
sonatas and chamber works that at once honored and
utterly transformed the Classical forms. In some
ways he was a true Classicist. Yet for the Brahms
centennial in 1933, Schoenberg gave a talk called
“Brahms the Progressive,” pointing to
Brahms for examples of harmonic writing that anticipated
the breakdown of tonality. Last year the pianist
Shai Wosner released a recording of works by Brahms
and Schoenberg. At the center of the program, Mr.
Wosner plays Brahms’s Opus 116 Fantasies,
a set of seven late piano pieces. Between the Brahms
works he inserts elliptical movements from Schoenberg’s
Six Short Piano Pieces, and it is amazing how easily
Brahms’s chromatic harmonies mingle with Schoenberg’s
atonal writing. These composers seem to be speaking
slightly different dialects of the same language.
Anyway, I’m still in a quandary
about where to place Chopin and Schumann and their
Romantic brethren. But Brahms is looking pretty
Top 10 Composers: A Few
Well, that’s it. I’ve
said all I have to say about the Top 10 composers,
at least for now. (This is not a veiled threat of
more to come.) I thought the project, while fun,
could be undertaken with real musical determination.
And I had hopes that it would spark interesting
But I had no idea that these articles,
videos and blog posts would stir up such a lively,
informed and passionate online conversation, with,
so far, 2,637 comments from readers. Many comments
were not directed to me, just dropped into the continuing
dialogue. I would like to finish by summing up what
I have learned from the thoughts Times readers have
The only way to play any game is to
take it seriously. The vast majority of people who
wrote in to share their perceptions about the Top
10 composers project did just that. Of course, some
took the project seriously by dismissing it entirely,
even indignantly, and that was also interesting.
All in all, I have been overwhelmed by the comments,
and the compliments, from readers, even those who
were outraged that I could find no place on my list
for, say, Chopin or Mahler.
Several pointed out that in my open
deliberations about musical greatness I seemed to
place a lot of stock in influence. I guess that
was true, although you could argue that Haydn, who
more or less invented Classicism, was more influential
than Mozart, who simply practiced it with unfathomable
genius. Yet I bumped Haydn to make room for other
composers (for which I have gotten a great deal
of perhaps-justified flak).
I think what I was up to was more
precisely nailed by a reader who said that I placed
a high value on “innovation.” That rings
true for me, and I am grateful for the insight.
Take Debussy, for example. He may not have written
that many works, but he changed how music was thought
of. He said, in effect, “Here is another way
to organize time, to make harmony, to conceive color.”
Finally, let me repeat that of course,
the whole notion of greatness is questionable. One
reason I am so immersed in contemporary music is
that when you are hearing an engrossing new piece,
thoughts of lasting greatness get pushed aside.
I really enjoy programs like the one
Alan Gilbert conducted recently with the New York
Philharmonic, which began with a lean, fleet account
of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, then
moved to Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder”
(a wrenching performance with the baritone Thomas
Hampson) and ended, after intermission, with “In
Seven Days,” a dense, restless, elusive and
fascinating new piano concerto by the English composer
Thomas Adès, which incorporated videos by
Tal Rosner. I love that this program led to and
climaxed with the Adès. It encouraged you
to hear Mozart, Mahler and Adès in a continuum,
all with something to say today. Whether the Adès
piece will ever make some list of greatest works
ever was not the issue. There will be plenty of
time to sort that out.
This is why I eliminated living composers
from the deliberation. We are too close to them
to have perspective. In fact, I’d go farther
and say we are too close to the music of the last
50 years to have perspective on its eventual place
in the pantheon. Still, the masters do have crucial
places in our musical lives. So why not try to figure
out who stands where? I was not surprised to find
that so many people had thought so much about this.
Anyway, I thank everyone who participated.
And a special word to one woman who wrote to me
directly and did not post her comments. She praised
the whole series generously and especially enjoyed
my videos. But she also gave me a little piano lesson.
As an experienced piano teacher, she wrote, she
wanted to warn me that she detected some tension
in my right hand that was related to shoulder tension.
She has helped many students to relieve this problem,
she added. I laughed out loud to receive such a
sweet and earnest note.
Top 10 Composers