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Rounding Up the Usual (Musical) Suspects

January 10, 2011
New York, N.Y.

In Sunday's New York Times, Anthony Tommasini announced his intention to try to list the 10 greatest composers in history, not so much for the results but to examine the process. His first pick was Bach, which is certainly no surprise. The others will be announced later and justified with little videos.

As I started thinking about this problem, I realized that picking 10 is much harder than picking 5 or picking 20! One's inclination is to spread out the honors temporally and geographically, yet the obvious clusters in the 18th and 19th centuries in the German-speaking part of Europe prohibit "fairness" of this sort. The 20th century is a real problem — not so much for a lack of candidates, but for ones that clearly stand out above the others.

But let me take up the Tommasini challenge. I'll start with a couple no-brainers in roughly chronological order. After each of the anointed composers, I've listed a few compositions (certainly not comprehensive) that I think justify the choice.

Bach: St. Matthew Passion, Goldberg Variations, Well-Tempered Clavier, Brandenburg Concerti, Cello Suites, Cantatas, etc.

The music of Bach is so overwhelming that it almost completely overshadows his Baroque contemporaries, including Vivaldi, Handel (despite some wonderful oratorios), and Purcell.

The next no-brainer is:

Mozart: Don Giovanni, Marriage of Figaro, Magic Flute, Requiem, late symphonies, string quintets

With the same argument I used with Bach, putting Mozart on the list means that Haydn doesn't quite make it, despite the symphonies, piano music, and a couple wonderful oratorios. So, next up is obviously:

Beethoven: Symphonies, String Quartets, Piano Concerti, Violin Concerto

And I have no hesitation with the next one either, although I'm sure my choice isn't universal:

Schubert: Winterreise, C-major Quintet, other late chamber music, late piano, lieder

I just couldn't tolerate a world without "Winterriese" or the C-major Quintet. But now the list is almost half full and we're not even up to 1830!

The whole post-Schubert 19th century is a rather murky area with a lot of contenders and (for me) some rather strong feelings (such as hearing only drivel in pretty much all of Tchaikovsky). But another no-brainer is:

Wagner: Ring, Tristan & Isolde, Parsifal

"Wotan's Farewell" alone puts Wagner on this list. But I'm actually a little hesitant about this one:

Brahms: Chamber music, symphonies, op. 116-119 piano music

Brahms is one of my favorite composers, but that doesn't necessarily mean he merits a slot. He gets on the list not for any work in particular but for consistent high-quality — a kind of lifetime achievement award for combining the rigor of classical structure with the soul of romanticism.

Here's a name that 50 years ago probably wouldn't have made anyone's Top Ten list, but to me it's another no-brainer:

Mahler: Symphonies, Das Lied von der Erde, Kindertotenlieder

I am old enough to remember when the names of Mahler and Bruckner often appeared in the same sentence, as if the two composers were similar in some way! How did Mahler come to speak most clearly to us, while Bruckner became increasingly incoherent? As the nuns used to tell us in Catholic religious instruction: "It's a mystery."

But now we're up to 7 names and all of them speak German as a native language! I now feel an overwhelming need to put a non-German name on the list, and at this point in the history of music the topmost candidate is:

Debussy: Pelleas & Mellisande, ballet scores, late chamber music, La Mer

But now I've really screwed myself! I'm left with two slots for the entire remainder of the 20th century. That's a period that some listeners still largely disregard but which has always interested me.

When I first explored the early 20th century (about 35 years ago), the "three B's" (so to speak) were considered to be Stravinsky, Bartok, and Schoenberg, but Schoenberg was actually Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Too many names! Stravinsky, of course, composed three extraordinary ballet scores, but what have you done for me lately? In terms of sheer quantity of enjoyable listening, Bartok certainly stands out, but nothing beats Webern for high density.

I'm going to take a deep breath and go with:

Berg: Wozzeck, Lulu, Violin Concerto, Lyric Suite

Yes, I'm surprised myself. But I honesty feel he deserves a slot.

At this point, perhaps only a dark horse makes sense. Britten for his operas? Shostakovich for his string quartets? Ravel for Daphnis & Chloe and the piano concerti? Schnittke for lots of great stuff? Charles Ives just because? But deep contemplation inclines me to a "safe" choice:

Stravinsky: Firebird, Petrushka, Le Sacre du Printemps, later works

The list is now complete, although not very interesting and seriously flawed in some way I can't quite pinpoint.

I now want to open the list up to many more composers, and yes, make everybody a winner!


I'm surprised that my choices would overlap with some of yours - i.e. Berg, Stravinsky, Debussy, Bach and even Mahler but...I cannot stand Mozart and not keen on the rest of your list.

I'm not telling you this to start an argument just to marvel at how musical tastes don't fit into neat sets.

So we both like classical music - not a lot of information in that statement is there!


Did you ever find a classical music player?

If not how do you listen to classical music?

The question is prompted by the fact that the UK classical music station Radio 3 is doing wall to wall Mozart (see earlier comment) and so I am forced to listen to wma files.

Mike James, Mon, 10 Jan 2011 11:56:12 -0500

Thanks! At home I still love CDs. In my book Programming Windows Phone 7 I show how to code a music-player for the phone that arranges music by composer (as long as the composer name begins the album name followed by a colon). — Charles

Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, and Stravinsky -- yes! But I like Bruckner too, much more than I like Brahms.

— Mon, 10 Jan 2011 15:20:58 -0500

I like the list although I haven't listened to Berg. I must admit Wagner's greatness - but being Jewish I have tend to avoid it. I would have put Beethoven first - and substituted Berlioz for Berg.

— Daniel Sniderman, Mon, 10 Jan 2011 21:20:04 -0500

Interestingly, some of the best conductors of Wagner are Jewish — Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim, and James Levine; and Leonard Bernstein conducted a really good Tristan. I think most listeners are in agreement that Wagner's anti-Semitism didn't penetrate into his operas; indeed, the Ring cycle seems to have a very progressive — undeniably anti-Fascist — political undertone, as I discuss in an earlier blog entry. — Charles

How can the "Brandenburg Concerti" fit to the same line with - e. g. - the "St. Matthew Passion"? Sir, listen more Bach, again and again. You *owe* it to yourself.

(No offense, I am glad to read about any programmer/engineer who admires Baroque.)

— Nerevar, Tue, 11 Jan 2011 09:30:09 -0500

I'm not sure why you're disparaging the Brandenburgs. Surely the represent six of the finest examples of the Baroque concerto (although Bach's Violin Concerti deserve to be pretty equally ranked). If I had to kill one or the other, sure I'd keep the St. Matthew Passion and get rid of the Brandenburgs but fortunately noone's requiring us to make that choice. — Charles

UPDATE: January 11, 2001

1. I should have included the Piano Sonatas among the reasons for putting Beethoven on the list.

2. I am racked with guilt for not finding some way to include Arnold Schoenberg, by virtue of Verklärte Nacht, the second String Quartet, Five Pieces for Orchestra, Pierrot Lunaire, the Op. 25 Suite, many other works, and I really need to mention Hilary Hahn's revelatory recording of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto.

3. Today's Anthony Tommasini posts one and two (with a couple great videos) are (I believe) in preparation for tossing Haydn off the island.

— Charles

"2. I am racked with guilt for not finding some way to include Arnold Schoenberg, by virtue of Verklärte Nacht, the second String Quartet, Five Pieces for Orchestra, Pierrot Lunaire, the Op. 25 Suite, many other works, and I really need to mention Hilary Hahn's revelatory recording of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto."

Yes you are now into my part of the "island" ... Like I said it is an amazingly broad church.

I recently went to a Prom (US readers lookup Albert Hall Prom)


where the featured work was some songs by Golijov sung by Dawn Upshaw - it was cancelled and they replaced it by a Beethoven piano conc.. Now I like Beethoven but it was like replacing er... say heavy metal rock but a folk duo..


Mike James, Tue, 11 Jan 2011 12:33:20 -0500

Great point Charles - perhaps I should revist Wagner. I was a history major in college - so the whole Wagner anti-semitism thing (and the contraversy about performing it in Israel) weighed heavy. I'm generally less of an opera and more of a symphonic fan - so that's likely amongst my biases...

— Daniel Sniderman, Tue, 11 Jan 2011 16:04:47 -0500

Sir: I must confess that Brandenburg concerti compared to - e. g. - violin Sonatas & Partitas, Motets, organ works (Helmut Walcha is my favourite one) or Die Kunst der Fuge seem to be - with all respect - a little bit frivolous.

If we admit that "Bach opens a vista to the universe. After experiencing him, people feel there is meaning to life after all" ...

— Nerevar, Wed, 12 Jan 2011 00:47:39 -0500

>From the perspective of an amateur pianist:


Mozart (not all his piano music is "frilly")


Schubert (Moments Musicaux, Impromptus)


Brahms (Intermezzi)

I could come up with four more if pressed, but that's the main list. I suppose it doesn't help that I don't like much of anything past about 1910.

Edvard Grieg gets an honorable mention for his delightful Lyric Pieces, most of which are relatively simple to play but full of inventive harmonies and rhythms.

— Matt G., Wed, 12 Jan 2011 15:51:54 -0500

No Debussy? (Obviously I should have included Debussy's piano music among his best compositions.)

I tend to think of the 20 short pieces that comprise the late Brahms piano music (op. 116–119) as one unified composition in four movements — even though it was certainly not conceived in that way. But to be convinced, listen to one of the recordings of the complete set by Hélène Grimaud or Ira Braus (on a period piano). — Charles

UPDATE: January 22, 2011

Anthony Tommasini has completed his list and ranked his ten composers in order of their greatness:

I ranked mine more or less chronologically, but we share eight names. Whereas I included Mahler and Berg (and I later thought I should have picked Schoenberg instead, or perhaps listed the name as "(Schoen)Berg"), Mr. Tommasini included Verdi and Bartok.

Of the standard triumvirate of early 20th century composers, Bartok has waned the most to my ears. I still play the three Piano Concerti, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and the Sonata (Concerto) for Two Pianos, Percussion (and Orchestra), but they just don't speak to me the way they once did. And the Concerto for Orchestra seems to have no meaning for me whatsoever. Maybe it's time to delve into the Bartok String Quartets again.

Verdi is a composer I'm not familiar with at all. I intend to correct that deficiency.

In the latter part of the article, Mr. Tommasini mentions some additional 20th century composers that his readers (and he) have championed, including Ligeti, Messiaen, Shostakovich, Ives, Prokofiev, Copland, and Britten.

Ligeti has been well-served by CD. A good chunk of his music is available on seven Sony CDs called "Gyorgy Ligeti Edition" and five Teldec CDs called "The Ligeti Project" and you'll want both sets for this always interesting and often witty composer.

I've been a Messiaen fan for decades, although recently I've focused almost exclusively on two piano works: Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus (the Pierre-Laurent Aimard recording is quite good) and Visions de l'Amen for two pianos. I've been listening to a recent recording by Marilyn Nonken and Sarah Rothenberg, and while it's missing some of the lushness of other recordings, that may be a good thing.

Shostakovich is a composer I scoffed at for years. His symphonies just seemed ridiculous to me. Then I finally overcame my prejudices to dip into Jenny Lin's recording of the Opus 87 Preludes and Fugues for piano, and loved it. Then I plunged into the String Quartets and found them an amazing body of work. And recently I've been exploring the symphonies and trying to keep a more open mind.

Whatever happened to Ives? He was the hottest composer around at the time of his 1974 centennial, and I suspect I'm not the only one who no longer can muster a whole lot of enthusiasm for him.

I know only bits and pieces of Prokofiev. The score for Romeo and Juliet is a big hit in this household, and we liked War and Piece at the Met, but not much more comes to mind.

I know of lot of Copland but listened to him much more in decades gone by. Not too long ago I rediscovered Copland's Piano Concerto and got a big kick out of it.

I've seen several Britten operas — Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, and I saw the original Met production of Death in Venice back in the 70's and more recently at Glimmerglass. These are great operas in the opera house, but I don't find myself listening to them at home. I'm not quite sure why.

The big question, of course, is why so many people listing the "greatest" composers of all time will often pick so many of the same names. Is there something inherently different about these composers that is very obvious to many people? Or have we collectively agreed upon a set of rather arbitrary "rules" that differentiates some composers from others, and we're just really good at determining what composers follow these rules and which ones do not? Is it conceivable that modifying these rules just a little bit would yield a list that might include Pachelbel, Hummel, Saint-Saëns, Johann Strauss, Respighi, and Satie?

Damned if I know. — Charles

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