Of Top Ten composers lists (and two the Times overlooked)

The Times’ picks the top classical composers

6 minute read
What? They omitted Stockhausen?
What? They omitted Stockhausen?
The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini recently announced that he was about to undertake the task of creating a list of the top ten greatest classical composers, limiting himself, for better or worse, to deceased composers going back no further than the High Baroque, i.e., about 1720. Tommasini admitted the basic silliness of the enterprise, foisting some of the blame for the undertaking on his editor. But he also argued persuasively that the process of making the list would be a valuable exercise, perhaps more meaningful than the list itself.

If nothing else, the project illustrated Western Civilization's long fascination, from Moses through David Letterman, with Top Ten lists. In the interval between Tommasini's two articles, hundreds of readers posted comments and composer rankings on the Times website.

Tommasini may have hoped to stimulate thoughtful musical discussion, but what he got instead, for the most part, was a popularity contest, something akin to the election of inductees to baseball's Hall of Fame.

It must be said that classical music lovers certainly are a well-mannered lot. The discussion is notable for its lack of the hostile, crazy ranting common to so many communal discussions on the Internet. But, alas, it contains hardly any mention of music itself. To an uninformed outside observer"“ an alien anthropologist, say"“ this discussion might appear simply to be an exercise in ranking tribal deities.

Prokofiev, yea or nay

A few respondents complained about the whole enterprise. A few others advocated for or against a single composer: for example, two or three insisted that Prokofiev be included, but another insisted that he be omitted while suggesting nobody else. A guy from Brooklyn wrote, "Tchaikovsky" ten times, and another wrote, "Get over Mozart, listen to List! [sic]."

But of the 56 respondents I reviewed who supplied enumerated lists, all but one include Bach, more often than not in the top position. Most of the time, Mozart and Beethoven ranked near the top as well. And something like 20 others did not submit lists but said something like, "Well, we can all agree on Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart."

To be admitted into Cooperstown, a baseball player must be mentioned on 75% of the ballots. By that standard, those three would be the only composers inducted into Tommasini's hall. My impression is that no other single composer is mentioned on three-quarters of the posts (I'm not crazy enough to have actually counted), although some— Mahler and Schubert, for example— are mentioned frequently.

In fact, I was surprised by the paucity of support for several composers: Brahms did surprisingly badly, and Haydn even worse. The Romantic generation of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Berlioz didn't fare well either, although Chopin's name came up from time to time. And even though Rachmaninoff isn't among my favorites, I expected him to receive more than just his mere smattering of votes.

Sanity from Montana

For me, one post in particular— from Karen Knight of Missoula, Montana— stands out from the numbing procession of lists and exhortations:

"I am not a musician," she wrote. "I do not analyze or listen using my intellect. So I listen to music that touches my senses and my spirit— music so beautiful I may start crying or feel ecstasy and joy— experiences that take me out of my ordinary, everyday state of mind. Here are the composers who consistently do that for me: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach. Some that mostly will do that: Schubert, Verdi, Donizetti, Bellini. And partly: Chopin, Handel, Haydn. In the last category I could add many, but since you wanted ten, I'll stop here."

Despite Ms. Knight's view of herself as a naÓ¯ve and untrained listener, her top four picks are identical with Tommasini's— and mine as well. Moreover, Tommasini, who is just what Ms. Knight claims she is not"“ an analytical musician supported by the resources of one of the world's greatest news organizations"“ never quite equals Ms. Knight's simple and touching eloquence about the transformative powers of music.

I have no desire to detract from Tommasini's venture. His own writings and the several short videos he has posted in support of his own Top Ten list are erudite without being pretentious or patronizing, and he has succeeded admirably in giving hundreds of classical music fans an opportunity to have a ball amusing themselves and each other.

Tommasini's list, and mine

On January 21, Tommasini, having already ceded the top slot to J.S. Bach in his initial article, posted his final ranking:

1. Bach
2. Beethoven
3. Mozart
4. Schubert
5. Debussy
6. Stravinsky
7. Brahms
8. Verdi
9. Wagner
10. Bartok

Here is my own. First, the top four at the core of my musical being:

1. Bach
2. Beethoven
3. Mozart
4. Schubert

Next, in no particular order, four who are almost as indispensable to me:

5. Brahms
6. Haydn
7. Stravinsky
8. Mahler

Beyond those eight, though, it gets hard to choose. After much thought:

9. Karlheinz Stockhausen (mentioned a few times by in the Times posts, by the way)

Although in the 1970s Stockhausen chose (in my judgment) to be a bullshit artist rather than a serious composer, his revolutionary best works from the 1950s and '60s"“ Kontrapunkte, Gesang der Jünglinge, Kontakte, Refrain, Zyklus, and several of his piano pieces"“ still give me the same visceral and intellectual pleasure they did over 40 years ago.

10. George Bizet (mentioned not at all in the Times posts I've seen so far).

How could I omit the composer of Carmen as well as the perfect Symphony in C?♦

To read responses, click here.

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