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Sunday, January 23, 2011

VOTE! for the Top 10 Composers

Anthony Tommasini started an interesting project earlier this month. In this Sunday article, he announced he was going to determine his Top 10 Classical Composers list. He would not only choose 10 from the hundreds of possibilities, but he would rank them. He did narrow things down somewhat by beginning with the Baroque period and excluding any living composer from the list, the reason being that we are too close to these composers' works to accurately judge them. The Renaissance was eliminated because hardly anyone plays it or listens to it anymore. If you haven't read the article, I recommend it.

Mr. Tommasini also discusses criteria for the list, which was my first mental question when I heard about it. It's not a favorite composers list, so one would need other parameters. Do you choose by how much influence a composer had on music after him? Then Arnold Schoenberg would have to be on the list, even though his music gets played only slightly more than Josquin du Pres (a leading Rennaisance composer). Do you look at the body of work the composer left? This eliminates the "one-hit wonders," Gustav Holst, for example. (Even though Holst has been called a one-hit wonder, The Planets being the hit, he did in fact compose other works, notably the First and Second Suites for Band, that are frequently played. By bands, not orchestras.) And what about composers who died young? Do they get penalized? And then, some composers wrote mainly orchestral music, others wrote operas almost exclusively. Is it fair to lump them altogether in competing for a spot on the Top 10 List?

Mr.Tommasini wrote a series of articles and made several videos in which he discusses the composers he is considering, their work, and their importance.  These are excellent discussions. He clearly explains his reasoning about each of the composers he discusses and plays excerpts on the videos. He also talks about why no women are on the list. Anyone who is interested in learning more about classical music would enjoy these articles and videos.

And, we can also vote for our own Top 10 composers! Click on the Vote link on either of the other pages and you will be able to pick from a list of composers. (I don't know how long this will be open, as Mr. Tommasini revealed his Top 10 on January 21.) I voted for Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Strauss, Brahms, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky. I admit to being influenced by what kind of horn parts each composer wrote, perhaps because I know those works on a deeper level because I have played many of them, but I also thought about the influence each had on other composers and music in general. Some, there was no question about: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky. I was swayed by Mr. Tommasini's articles to vote for Verdi. I decided to vote for Schubert because even though he died at 31 and wrote mostly songs and piano solos, his output was amazing for such a short life and his influence continues to this day. He songs and other works are not only frequently programmed, but musicians are adapting and re-creating with them. Example: Sting used one of the songs from Schubert's Winterreise on his album If on a Winter's Night

Who's number 1? You can read about Anthony Tommasini's choices here. My number one is Mozart.


Howard said...

So many choices, although I would concur that it is hard to argue with the top 10 in your or Mr. Tomasini's lists. I definitely agree that Debussy likewise belongs up there. And one can easily argue for Berg, Shostakovich, and Bartok, if for no other reasons than the fact that they pushed the "tonality" bubble significantly in the 20th century in the case of Berg and Bartok and made people realize there is more than our western tonality, and in terms of wedding the political with the artistic in the case of Shostakovich. What about Wagner? A horrible human being personally and the musical precursor to Hitler no doubt. But divorcing his person from his accomplishments, can one really not include his MUSIC which by turns amazes with its complexity and exhilarates with its effects. If you knew no German and never heard of his philosophy or misogynistic antics, would one still leave him off the list? And then what about other classical innovators? Where would opera, particularly Italian opera, be without Bellini, Rossini, and of all people Puccini? What about other classical media? Just because Liszt focused on piano, and Chopin never strayed from it certainly should not exclude them. They were the first real ethnomusicologists AND their use of harmony set the stage for Wagner, Mahler and the early 20th century. I guess my point that with exceptions of non-debatable human aberrations like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert (whose sheer genius and volume of output would place them on any list in no particular order, it is impossible to pick the top 10 and is essentially an idle conceit to do so.

MORE interesting would be a list of the BOTTOM 10. Aside from PDQ Bach, anyone out there for Telemann, Vivaldi (OK, he wrote a great concerto - 200 times), Hindemith (I think he was channeling Vivaldi), Meyerbeer, John Williams (can you spell derivative?), or Andrew Lloyd Webber?

beckymusician said...

You some excellent points. I agree about Wagner. I probably should have left off Strauss and put Wagner in. I think the tone poems are not only wonderful music, but added to the musical language. And he wrote TWO horn concertos. But Wagner certainly had more impact on everyone after him.

Tommasini did throw out the idea of a separate list for opera composers. He also said it would have been easier to come up with either a Top 5 or Top 20. I agree.

As for your bottom list, don't forget living composers are off limits. I would think that most composers eligible for that would have been forgotten by now.