Charles Petzold

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!