I started this article quite some time ago but it got too ranty so I abandoned the idea and it joined the ranks of unpublished posts which tend to either be extremely short/blank or excessively long. Upon re-reading it recently I thought it did have a degree of merit, so attempted to streamline it to cater to your probably fickle attitudes and laughable attention spans. 😛
PART 1: The Survey
I should be off doing other things. Pressing things. But instead happened to happen upon this list. JUST CLICK ON THE DAMN LINK TO SEE WHAT IT IS I’M TALKING ABOUT, OH NEVER MIND YOU IGNORED IT ANYWAY. OK FINE. BUT YOU KNOW WORDPRESS RECORDS OUTBOUND LINKS SO IF YOU DO READ THIS POST AND YOU DON’T READ THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE I CAN TELL AND I DO IN FACT JUDGE YOU, THE READER. by Anthony Tommasini from the New York Times on the top 10 greatest classical composers of all time.
Upon reading I felt heavily depressed and refused to recycle for several days. They were:
It seems in choosing such a list Tommasini merely looked at whoever had the longest articles in any standard ‘Who’s Who of Composers’ book. His justifications are often misinformed and rather perversely he states:
“I think what I was up to was more precisely nailed by a reader who said that I placed a high value on ‘innovation.’ … 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.'”
Well. While I address the manneristic Debussy later in this post, it seemed to me that the characteristic of innovation seemed to be consistently overlooked in the list. Choosing by ‘lasting greatness’ here is really another phrase for ‘popularity en masse because the music is nice, famous and classical sounding.’ True innovation is not necessarily ‘wildly popular’ in its day.
Even the reader’s comments were inane. Endless bickering about how criminal it was to leave out their Tchaikovsky and Haydn and Mahler and Chopin. The irony being they were so limited in their scope – and blatantly oblivious to other composers – that should this list be a top 25, it would pretty much cover 95% of composers mentioned in comments. Perhaps I will devise some sort of table for this study… T’would be worth it to get the actual percentage – yet I’m pressed for time, so might leave it for a couple of days… Ok, it’s later and I’ve gone and done it: The figure, based on 166 of the 866 comments is actually 78% (73% if you include random and obviously-intentionally-controversial-but-not-really-valid-one-off suggestions like John Lennon). In other words, adding an additional 15 composers would satisfy 78% of commenters! Still, I think that upholds my tossed-off guess quite well. Furthermore a top 30 list (five extra composers) would be 87% (81%).
What does this mean? Well it implies that basically thirty composers made 9/10ths of everything worth listening to.
PART 2: The List
The concept of Top Ten-ing most things, except sharks, is useless and subjective at best. So here’s my TOP SEVEN view and subsequent justifications. (Tommasini’s list only included dead composers – but I will not use that limitation should the need arise: A great composer is a great composer. I’m writing this as I go. PS: Having written it I didn’t end up using living composers anyway.) But I mean what is great anyway?
No.1: Charles Ives. With no doubt. Not only did he foreshadow a vast number of 20th Century innovations – including the ones attributed to others, he was an Insurance CEO (also making contributions recognised today) a millionaire in today’s currency, writing music in his spare time (as well as many philosophical writings), and made all of his achievements in relative isolation and amidst a cultural climate of complete resistance and disdain to his music (and it still generally is I could argue). Still, his music is possibly among the most stylistically diverse possible, ranging from extreme tonality to, Classicism, to radical experimentation as wild as anything today, and uniquely often combining this stylistic diversity within single works.
Additionally his energy and passion to art and life in general is staggering by human standards, and his aesthetics are of such complexity and depth that he was basically a school of thought in himself. Furthermore, his greatest works: the Fourth Symphony, as well as the Concord Sonata, transcend the scope and breadth of Beethoven in the 9th and the Hammerklavier respectively, an achievement that should by itself in theory place him among the greatest composers. Finally his compositional life ended gradually after a stroke around 1925 or so (Though he lived until 1954) so he had a life as a ‘composer’ for only 50 years. No other composer to my knowledge achieved so much with such a severe handicap – Beethoven comes close with the onset of deafness – but he worked as a composer, had patronage and a also modicum of audience appreciation.
No.2: Percy Grainger. The Australian version of Ives in many regards, and still more – again foreshadowing a vast number of 20th Century innovations (oddly enough, usually different ones to Ives) so that between the two, they pretty much account for most of the 20th Century. Perversely, they are both left out or at least marginalised, Ives not as much as Grainger. For example, while Anthony Tommasini waxes lyrical about Bartok being:
“an ethnomusicologist whose work has empowered generations of subsequent composers to incorporate folk music and classical traditions from whatever culture into their works, and as a formidable modernist who in the face of Schoenberg’s breathtaking formulations showed another way, forging a language that was an amalgam of tonality, unorthodox scales and atonal wanderings”
…his ignorance in forgetting that Grainger was roaming the English countryside similarly collecting folk songs BEFORE the ‘real’ composer Bartok, and integrating them into his music is palpable.
Grainger suffered from the curse of popularity, and also of notoriety. Being a famous concert pianist (like Ives a full-time non-compositional career) his popular fame today rests on a small number of folk-based minatures, leading performers and audiences alike to smile and say “Oh yes, Grainger. Nice light music. Not serious though” before proceeding to quoting the plethora of rumours (many distorted, or plainly untrue) about his character. It was true he was an eccentric, but much of his life was taken out of context, and other parts conveniently ignored – but that is an thesis worth of debate in itself. But musicians then totally disregard the remaining 98% (I will do a similar study for this) of his vast output – including ironically his large-scale and most innovative compositions.
Grainger not only employs folk music, a vast variety of world influences, atonality and his own “free music” (a life-time project as avant-garde as integral serialism, freeing music from notation), electronic experiments, aleatoric (chance) music (40 years before John Cage), harmonic advances AHEAD of Tommasini’s Debussy (Grainger Quote on Debussy’s harmonies: “Just one of the trees in my forest.”) and then beyond, into worlds of atonality and incredible dissonance reconciled, like Bartok, with folk idioms, yet he did so in complete isolation, whilst being well aware of and documenting his advances against the slower Western Schools. Furthermore, he invented the modern concert orchestra – with an equal role for extended percussion, developed the role of the orchestral piano, the modern wind orchestra, and created innovative concepts such as elastic scoring. He also arranged a great number of his and other composer’s works.
One scholar, on comparing him to Ives, suggested that of the two, Grainger was the more artistic. And fundamentally this statement has substance – Grainger is unabashedly joyful, characterful, colourful and passionate, even accessible, but with integrity and sincerity. For a “Modernist” composer this is exceptionally rare, and makes it extremely difficult for musicians who don’t take it seriously to perform convincingly and subsequently come to love it. His style and manner disregard and questions many modern conventions and it is through such pioneering eccentrics that the world is truly shaped.
3: Ludwig Van Beethoven: No explanation really required. A Transcendentalist worthy of respect. And he is still not in short supply of it. Developed within himself a new era, and was the foundation for much of the Romantic period. Maybe take a look at his lieder repertoire though – it’s not done enough and Schubert is done too much.
4: J.S. Bach: I also agree. Bach has been a foundation for all the above composers. And they all demonstrate a thorough knowledge and usage of counterpoint. Bach, however, worked as a full time composer and had a relatively event-free life sitting around in Protestant Germany, hence the No.4 position. Were he deaf, working primarily as an accountant or court jester, and had his music publicly and ritually jeered at by patronising masses, perhaps I’d rank him higher. Still. Respecting Bach.
5: John Cage: Like Grainger, suffering from the curse of notoriety in the form of 4’33”. Not many have bothered looking past it, unfortunately. One of the greatest innovative composers and aestheticians who not only questioned what music fundamentally is, but produced creative works encompassing a vast variety of elements and ideas. As a musical thinker and an ‘outsider’ to music he openly aimed to bring down the final barrier between music and sound, to liberate music from the keyboard via electronics and percussion, and he did it with practicality and a sense of humour. It’s curious how people reacted initially to his ideas as ‘not music’ and I can still hear the echoes from the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica.
6: Richard Wagner: Who else could single handedly and almost universally reform opera across the world? An unbelievably magnetic personality commanding almost unprecedented resources for a ‘musician’ and consistently creating some of the greatest and most feared operas from scratch and humble beginnings as a nobody. Not only that, but they went beyond operas towards ‘total works of art ‘- transcending Wagner from mere composer to who-knows-what. Even creating a new exclusive breed of operatic singer, with roles of such demanding calibre as to actually have killed them off occasionally. Although an egomaniac, I think Wagner’s case is unique in that his ego and self-belief was matched by his output. In other words, he delivered.
7: Leonard Bernstein: Very few composers matched Bernstein’s absolute excellence in all fields, although Grainger was similar in this regard. Still, how many great musical thinker-composers-conductors-pianists-musical educators (with fully fledged professional careers in each and every one of these fields) also produce musicals such as Westside Story? The theatrics and often advanced musical language of his major compositions and productions show an impressively talented “all-round” human being who outshines certain European composers who devoted their entire lives to one narrow branch of the arts.
Part 3: The End
So there it is. Seven composers I think stand beyond the rest. Not because we now hear their music most frequently on the radio (we generally don’t) but because their music is simultaneously more unique and yet universal. They excelled, they innovated, and I mean really innovated, often in spite of much public opposition and hostility, and they were a bunch of exiles, eccentrics and isolated, forgotten pioneers. I could go on at length about their achievements, but what collectively sets them apart from other composers, I think, is that with those sorts of minds and personalities had they been born in a different time or place they still would have found their way to greatness one way or another. As I said, unique yet universal.