My top ten composers

How simplistic and superficial to believe that anything and everything can be condensed into a list. Still, that’s me. In my defence, not only is this not my idea (I’ve never had an original thought in my life, as you will by now be aware), but its originator, New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, has done all the apologising for its superficiality on my behalf here. (N.B. You may have to endure a short advertisement if you click the link.) My thanks are due to The Cross-Eyed Pianist for drawing my attention to it in the first place.

Tommasini’s final list reads as follows: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner, Bartók. As good and as fair a list as one might hope for, I think. If I were going to attempt to compile as objective a list as possible, it would look something like that, though I’m sure Tommasini’s ranking of the composers (in that order, from greatest to tenth greatest) must have provoked debate.

So my top ten list will be more personal than Tommasini’s. I’m inclined to agree with Entartete Musik that to make such a ‘chart of musical geniuses’ is ‘highly specious’ and ‘a reduction too far’. My rules therefore are as follows: these are the ten composers who, taking their compositional output as a whole, I would least like to be deprived of. Desert Island Composers, if you will. This is not a list of the ten greatest composers, nor are my choices listed in any particular order; it’s just a bit of fun, motivated, like practically everything I write about on these pages, by an instinct to share things I love with other people, which at any rate must be unobjectionable. There will be some musical illustrations, which I invite you to indulge.

First up, Bach. Obviously, I would have thought. There’s Bach, and then there’s everybody else. A genius of the first water. I’m very much with Organ Morgan on this one. In fact, I do particularly love the organ works, though to focus on any single aspect is perhaps to neglect the magnificence of the whole.

Increasingly, after Bach, my thoughts turn to Brahms. I think I first got to know Brahms from an LP my grandparents owned of the fourth symphony. What a first encounter with the master! But the symphonies, the concertos, all of the chamber music… There is such an immense richness to be explored in his oeuvre.

While we’re in this part of Europe, it’s not possible for me not to choose at least a couple of the great Viennese Classical composers, the big four being Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Schubert is my first choice, and the one whose music feels closest to my personal temperament. Just think of the magnificence of the symphonies alone, even the least performed ones. I had the theme and variations from the second stuck in my head all yesterday, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. Today it was the second movement of the third. And what about the piano music – the impromptus and sonatas – and the chamber music – my beloved Trout, the string quartets and the divine quintet – and so on. And the Lieder! Definitely Schubert.

And I suppose Beethoven must also be on the list. If I sound grudging, let’s briefly explore why. There is a weightiness I occasionally hear in Beethoven that something in me resists, a turgidity I don’t find even in the music of Brahms. I’d choose to listen to one of Beethoven’s symphonies over one of Schubert’s or one of Haydn’s only rarely, for instance. And the ending of the fifth with all its empty bombast? Give me a break. But at his greatest, he achieves a nobility of expression that is not quite worldly. I’m thinking of the ethereal theme and variations from the op. 109 piano sonata, the Cavatina from the op. 130 quartet and so on. These are just selected highlights. And then there’s the Grosse Fuge – eccentric, but I think it increases in brilliance as my acquaintance of it grows.

How can I – how dare I – leave out Mozart and Haydn? But perhaps there will be room for them later on. (There won’t.) It’s tough having to chop Haydn, one of the wittiest and most good-natured men ever to put pen to manuscript paper; and will life really be worth living without the Mozart Requiem or the C Minor Mass or the Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, let alone the large proportion of his output that is not in Latin? But needs must, space is tight, and I draw some consolation from the undeniable fact that, being the earlier two of the four composers, their legacy is felt throughout the music of Beethoven and particularly Schubert. (And, as it happens, in several of my later choices too, perhaps not entirely coincidentally.)

Moving forward in time and away from the Teutonic, if there is a towering figure in twentieth century music it is surely Stravinsky. (Sorry, what’s that? Schoenberg? OK, you may have a point. Let’s move on.) But I said I’d pick according to personal taste and not greatness, didn’t I? Well, fortunately I love Stravinsky entirely independently of his reputation. What imagination the man had. Listening to Yuja Wang’s mercurial recording of the Three Movements from Petrushka a couple of weeks ago, I was bowled over anew. Petrushka celebrates its centenary this year, and I found myself wondering whether any music written in the intervening hundred years displays the white heat of genius to such an extent. I can’t bring anything to mind that fits the bill.

Now it’s time to tick some boxes. I must have one of the Impressionists. Of the two obvious candidates, Debussy I think is perhaps the more interesting, and it will be a wrench to have to dispose of Jeux, the violin sonata and the piano music in particular, but Ravel was my first love and still moves me profoundly. It was the shimmering ballet music for Ma Mère l’Oye (a title which, when translated literally, looks like a headline from the Star, I have often thought) that captivated me as an infant, and which I still prize above his other music, but I could pick any number of comparably lovely pieces from elsewhere. Perhaps I can include his orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition as a cheat.

And along with Brahms I must have another of the great symphonists of the late 19th/early 20th century, so as to have something to get my teeth into. There’s Tchaikovsky, but then apart from the symphonies there’s not all that much I’m crazy about. And Rachmaninov – hard to ditch him, especially when I’m such a sucker for his brand of slushy romanticism – but I think perhaps a return to Austria is called for. So it’s a straightforward choice between Mahler and Bruckner. If I go for Mahler I get the orchestral songs too, which contain some of his most gorgeous music; but if I go for Bruckner I get the masses and motets, which have the added bonus of harking back to Palestrina, whose time period I have entirely neglected. So I think my seventh choice has to be Bruckner. But what about Sibelius? Oh dear, best press on without stopping to tend to the casualties.

Not many operas so far, are there? Schubert wrote a handful that no one listens to, and a few of the rest wrote one or two (including Fidelio, hurrah!), but not a major opera composer among them. That had better be remedied. There are Italian operas I love, especially Puccini’s, but not enough to include them here. Then there’s Wagner, whose Parsifal means more to me than perhaps any other opera, but I confess that for me, by and large, a little Wagner goes a long way. Britten, on the other hand, is not only an opera composer of stature but also one of the greatest of all British composers of choral music and art song. The folk song settings, Grimes and Budd and Screw, Rejoice in the Lamb… Added to which, just as Bruckner recalls Palestrina, Britten recalls Purcell, so there are times when it feels like getting two for one.

Two spaces remain, so it may be time to play the wild cards. I have a shortlist I’m working from, and I note that something quite a lot of the composers on it have in common (Weill, Grainger, Gershwin and Bernstein, for instance) is a sense of fun, something I rate highly. So I think it only proper that the last two composers should offer a complement to the gravity of Bach and Beethoven. First up is Prokofiev. I would not wish to be deprived of the piquant harmony and rhythmic vitality of the piano concertos, the ballets (especially Cinderella) and the symphonies (of which my particular favourites are the Haydnesque first and the seventh, though I would gladly spend some time alone getting to know the others better). His suite of music for Lieutenant Kijé was one of my favourite pieces of music as a little boy. As so often, I return inexorably to my childhood.

And finally, Poulenc. Another consolation, perhaps, for the absence of Mozart, of whom Poulenc was a devotee. His debt to Mozart is evident in the slow movement of the double piano concerto, which is a piece I have always loved, but perhaps most of all I cherish the piano music and the sonatas for wind instruments and piano. The combination of good humour and melancholy in his music is an endearing one, and perhaps the squareness of his phrasing appeals to my sense of neatness.

But permit me a look at those I have let slip through the net. If I had an eleventh place it would belong to Rameau. I have the piano music of Beethoven and Schubert and Brahms and Ravel, but there is a Chopin-shaped hole that nobody can fill. I won’t greatly miss Schumann’s symphonies, but I will miss Carnaval and the Lieder. And, love the melodists Prokofiev and Poulenc though I do, part of me wonders if it might have been wiser to exchange one of them for a one-off like Messiaen or for one of the Second Viennese School. But the deed is done.

If you haven’t done it already, why not compile your own list? It’s fun, and it’s interesting to consider what makes you value one composer more highly than another. On a separate note, this weekend marks the first birthday of the blog. I’m happy to have made it this far, and if I succeed in dragging out the little I have left to say for another year, perhaps I will celebrate with a list of composers 11-20. Thank you for reading, whether you are a commenter or one of the silent majority, and here’s to the future!


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6 Responses to “My top ten composers”

  1. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    Thing about lists is that however much you may argue they are simplistic, reductive, etc etc – we just can’t resist ’em. Well, I can’t. Especially when – as you do – you add a few comments about the various entries in the list.

    And of course, it’s no fun unless you say something a bit individual – a bit controversial. “Empty bombast” at the end of Beethoven’s 5th symphony? Now – you come outside and say that!

    And the alternative to Stravinsky as the Great 20th Century Composer is not Schoenberg, surely … but Bartok!

    I’ll obviously have to think of my own choices, but not late on Friday night after I’ve had a bit to drink! (Or is that the best time to do it?)

  2. Gareth Says:

    I’d wait until the morning. It would be awful to wake up and find you’d accidentally put Rossini in your list. I look forward to reading your choices!

  3. crosseyedpianist Says:

    Thanks for the link, Gareth! I agree with Himadri – that Mr Tommasini’s project taps into the current trend for list-making of everything: Top Ten This, That and t’Other. Personally, I think such things are very lazy and simplistic, though Mr Tommasini did at least make an effort to justify each composer’s inclusion. It is by its very nature subjective, despite the fact that he polled readers. But it’s got us and fellow Musbookers talking, so that’s probably a good thing. And thanks for flagging up Poulenc, who I feel is often overlooked. I’d also put Messiaen in my list – but that’s pure bias because I am busy researching his music and find it completely fascinating at the moment!

    I have just ‘rediscovered’ Brahms after hearing Piers Lane play the Op 119 Klavierstucke at the Wigmore on Monday night. Utterly sublime.

  4. Christine Says:

    Happy first birthday to your blog!

    Here’s some Poulenc to celebrate –

  5. Gareth Says:

    Thank you, Christine! What a lovely present.

    Fran, I’m semi-teaching myself the Brahms op. 117 no. 2 intermezzo at the moment, though it needs a bit more application in the trickier passages. Such a tremendous piece. And I also bought the Perahia CD a couple of weeks ago, which I believe you were discussing on your own blog. Have only really listened to the Handel Variations so far, but the first impression is that this is something special.

  6. Fran Wilson Says:

    Yes, Perahia playing Brahms is wonderful & inspirational (as he is with Bach & Chopin too). I love the way he highlights all the interior architecture so that every note makes perfect sense. I’m learning the Op119/1 – for fun good luck with your study, Gareth!

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