A New York Times music critic is spending his time picking the "ten top Classical composers of all time." He's seeking the "greatest" composers. The essential criterion will be, I suppose, the opinions of classical audiences. After all, composers become great because people keep listening to their music.
This idea got me thinking about which classical composers have the most influence on living composers. When living composers are lucky enough to get performed they often must share the bill with the honored dead ones. Those dead composers bring us musical ideas from the past. Some of those ideas, but not all, still have life to them. Presumably living composers are commenting, in some fashion, on what has come before.
I suspect there are plenty of contemporary composers like myself who were inspired to take up the craft by the musical classics. Most likely we still feel the weight of that tradition, along with other influences, when we sit down to write. This is true even if we are not as interested in classical music now as we once may have been.
Please note that the reasons I'm about to give for including these particular names won't seem particularly positive. Regular readers of Mixed Meters will not be too surprised by this. If you happen to be a composer (and who isn't) I'm sure your opinions will differ. If you're not a composer, this might make no sense at all. There's a comment form where good natured responses will be published.
Here's my list. The links all lead to earlier Mixed Meters articles.
Johann Sebastian Bach Finding a balance between beauty and technique, between inspiration and academicism is always an issue for composers. It's a matter of simplicity versus complexity, freedom versus control. Bach used dry, complicated musical rules and produced perfect elegance with them. It's an unattainable standard. How depressing.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Yes, he wrote some of the greatest pieces ever. He's possibly my favorite composer. But the real burden of Mozart for modern composers is that he was so blasted young. The cult of the young genius lives on strongly. These days a 30-year old composer who hasn't made it yet, won't. We may well ask whatever happened to Jay Greenberg (who isn't even 20 yet.)
Ludwig van Beethoven He wrote some great music. But he did two things wrong. First, he invented the tormented composer, the Great Artiste who pours out his stormy inner life through music. These days that idea seems really old. Second, he went deaf - which by rights ought to be a compositional kiss of death - but Ludwig wouldn't stop writing. Worse yet, once deaf, he wrote an unendurably grandiose symphony with one hummable tune and a few lyrics of desperate hope. Modern audiences still can't get enough of that one. How's a modern composer going to compete?
Richard Wagner Mixed Meters has been bashing Wagner for over a year now. He deserves it for the villainous political ideas which have so easily shackled themselves to his work. But his musical innovations, possibly the most influential ever, still cloud contemporary music. And the vast scope of some of his works, especially the Ring, ought to provoke us into keeping our music on a more human scale.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Maybe a surprising choice. He's never been one of my favorites, but he has symphonies, concertos and ballets that audiences can't get enough of. It's not just about shooting off canons. I think it's about his melodies. Contemporary composers don't seem to write melodies. We might have lost the ability. More likely, however, we know that if we try to compose hummable tunes, the audience will reject them in favor of ones they already know and love.
Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel These two count as one. (They both wrote the same string quartet.) Audiences have come to love their lush sound worlds. Some contemporary orchestra composers have recognized that they can't go far wrong by imitating the colors and textures of Impressionism. In other words, when a new piece restricts itself to musical techniques at least 100 years old, ones that Ravel and Debussy would have understood, the audiences will go home happy.
Arnold Schoenberg Audiences still revile Schoenberg's music. I don't blame them. But as the spirtual inspiration behind the serial tradition and the technique of pre-composition and the emancipation of the dissonance and the notion of "composer as professor", he's still a potent nagging voice inside any composer's head. Also, it never hurts to reflect on how Schoenberg's career (but not his influence) was ruined by the politics of his countrymen.
George Gershwin Along with Sondheim and Ellington, Gershwin was specifically disqualified from the New York Times ten greatest competition. While the first two don't seem like classical composers to me, George most certainly does. Think about the popularity of his rhapsody, his concerto and his opera in concert halls. This popularity manifests itself in ever so many pleasantly upbeat Pops concerts. The notion of harnessing vernacular music to make a serious piece more accessible is very alluring to any composer.
John Cage His music is a long long way from the standard repertory. Infinitely far away. He has absolutely no chance of getting on the New York Times list. But a serious composer has to come to terms with Cage's ideas. And that's what his music was about: ideas. Ideas and not much else - in my opinion. A decent composer's education should fry the brain with Cagian philosophy. After that you can ignore him, but he won't really go away.
Philip Glass He's also disqualified from the Times list because he's still alive. But I think many other composers look at him with a combination of awe and disgust. Awe because he's so successful - with a steady string of commissions for symphonies, operas and film scores. Disgust because we can't find a simple compositional style of our own, the way he has, one that's both direct and elegant and will bring some of our own listeners into the concert hall so we don't have to worry so much about what the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky fans think.
Don't be fooled into the notion that the great classical composers are the only influences on us lesser lights. There are hundreds of semi-greats who can also look over a composer's shoulder if we let them. Composition is an old art, highly developed. There have been countless branches and offshoots. The heavy weight of this past can be stifling if it is taken too seriously.
And any half-way decent composer is also influenced by many other types of music besides classical. But this article was inspired by a purely "classical music" project - a futile effort to quantitatively rank composers on what must be, in the end, purely subjective judgements. To me it sounds like a fools errand.
Due to multiple comments I'm adding a bonus selection, a runner up.
Igor Stravinsky He made it clear that staying current and staying famous is the most important thing for a composer. During his career he was three different composers, radically changing his musical style twice, both times taking ideas from others. It would have been a gracious gesture on his part to adopt serialism before his neighbor Schoenberg died. But had he been a really nice guy he would have stopped composing in the 1920s and given two other composers a chance to be famous in his place.
Ten Greatest Tags: ten best lists. . . greatest classical composers. . . Anthony Tommasini