The Ten Greatest Composers

NYT classical music critic Anthony Tommasini’s recent article and videos have been making the rounds the last couple weeks now, so I’ll keep the description brief: Mr. Tommasini, much to the delight (and ire) of music fans, has ventured to rank the top 10 greatest composers of all time. I was a bit shocked, and dare I say even a little offended, when I stumbled upon the list last month, but Tommasini is just as skeptical of his own project, going to great lengths to remind readers that this is merely an “intellectual exercise,” and not an attempt to establish any sort of absolute hierarchy. The response has been extraordinary (866 comments so far on the article alone).

There’s something so compelling about lists. Perhaps it appeals to our urge to categorize, rank, and compare, even if what we’re comparing is fundamentally uncomparable (how can one call the B Minor Mass “greater” than “The Rite of Spring,” for instance?). In this sense, making a list of the ten greatest is nothing more than a game, but as Tommasini points out, games are only fun when the participants take them seriously. After painful deliberation, evaluating versatility, technical command, reception, influence, and a range of other factors, here’s what he came up with:

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

In the spirit of the game, I thought the TC could get in on the action and offer our own lists of the ten greatest. So, without further ado, I’ll get the ball rolling; please post your lists (or your criticisms of Tommasini’s project) to the comments. My top-10 is tilted more towards the “influence” part of the equation, and it’s absolutely killing me that I didn’t have room for Messiaen, Schubert, Bartok, Brahms, and Sibelius, but here goes (drumroll, please..):

(1) Beethoven (2) Bach (3) Wagner (4) Schoenberg (5) Mozart (6) Debussy (7) Stravinsky (8) Chopin (9) Cage (10) Monteverdi

35 Comments

  1. The problem is that people in general tend to equate the most famous with the greatest,even though the two are not necessarily the same.
    ranking composers in order of greatness is ridiculous. There are so many other great composers, such as Wagner,Bruckner,Mahler,Richard Strauss, Dvorak(never underestimate this composer !), Sibelius, Elgar, Janacek,
    Copland,Ives, etc,to name only a handful, who did not make the cut of the 10 greatest but are still towering figures in the history of music.
    Take Grieg and Nielsen,for example. Grieg,until recently,was far better known than Nielsen, who was shockingly obscure until about the 1960s, when Leonard Bernstein discovereed his music and began to champion and record it.
    Grieg’s music is very attractive, but you must admit,Nielsen is by far the greater composer.
    Fortunately, Nielsen’s music has entered the international repertoire, even if his music is far from being overesxposed.
    It’s all so arbitrary and pointless.

    1. I agree completely. The process is 100% flawed, because where would any of these hailed great composers be without the lines of unheralded teachers and composers going before them? To say “greatest” applies a better-than, worse-than mentality that I don’t think has a real place among composers who are regarded as significant contributors to the field. The composer is not given the task of being better-than, but of being significant enough to impart a message.

  2. I agree with your take on such compilations, but I do agree with the NYT view that such listings are very instructive if done in the spirit of learning. However, I would not agree that Beethoven as 1 and Bach as 2. While its hard to quantify “impact” and “legacy” in absolute terms, I feel that Bach’s genius was ultimately more transcendent than Beethoven’s, and that Bach was bit more a universal composer, but will concede that Beethoven is often more accessible.

    1. Absolutely Cage! He redefined the ontology of music. As far as philosophical influence goes, he’s one of the most influential musical thinkers of the century. I stand by my choice! 😉

      1. We have a tendency to equate revolutionary with great. The two are not necessarily related. Anyone who has taken even an introductory collegiate-level music theory course would no that breaking “the rules” means nothing without cognicence and a clear reason for breaking them. Though i would agree that Cage’s influence is substantive, there are certainly at least 10 other composers that demonstrated a better mastery of their styles than him. Haydn’s influence is similar to Cage’s in that he scratched the surface of a new style which later becomes popular with more masterful composers (Haydn-Mozart or Cage-any number of modern composers.) Simply starting a style is probably not a good enough reason to include them. I’m not a huge fan of Debussy, but he clearly mastered the style he was going for, and thus i can understand his inclusion. Schoenberg is the same thing for me. Cage, however, never demonstrated anything beyond a strong mind, a good musician, and an appealing philosophy on life. In my opinion, that’s not really enough to call them great. Composers who i think mastered their craft Might include Palestrina, Wolf, Vivaldi, Schubert, or Brahms. Just a couple suggestions! =)

    1. Point well made. There’s no reason to keep a list like this “classical,” though the term “composer” does imply a certain type of relationship with the musical text, a particular kind of abstraction. From what I know, Ellington wrote music for the individual players in his band in a very “composerly” manner. Bird and Trane are tough; they would have to be included on any list of the most important performers of the century, but do we classify the tunes themselves or their recordings as “compositions”? “Giant Steps,” “Naima,” “Dear Lord,” “Ornithology”… amazing tunes. But it’s really hard to separate the performances from the pieces. Björk is a musician of genius. Her musical texts are a lot more than just the compositions, however (production, singing, arrangements, etc). It’s hard (impossible?) to make a list like this when the very concept of “composer” is so amorphous. Classical music is the default it seems, though perhaps we need to reconsider just what a “composer” is.

      If you’re not completely revolted by this whole silly business, what’s your list?

  3. Tommasini’s project intrigued me, if only for its sheer impossibility, when it comes down to it. What does “greatest” mean, anyway? Like you guys said, I lean more toward equating the term with “most influential.” But “most influential” definitely does not match up with “favorite,” another term that comes to mind when list-making. So if I made my own list, I would have to make two: 1) from my academic brain, the “my opinion on the most influential composers” list; and 2) from my heart/gut, the “my favorite composers because I say so” list.
    Dare I try?

  4. I had the opportunity to lead discussions on Tommasini’s project in two undergraduate music classes at two different schools. My main objective was to ask students what criteria they would use to rank “greatness” in composers. Would they, as Tommasini did, throw out everyone before the baroque? Throw out so-called non-Western and popular composers? I was more interested in these kinds of questions than their actual lists.

    Now, as to actual lists… you mentioned that your list leaned more toward influence, which is totally understandable. If influence is our criterion, I think nine of your composers are spot on. I would argue, however, that Chopin is perhaps somewhat lower than the #8 most influential composer of all time.

    For my own list, I think I would prize compositions over influence. I offer a draft, but reserve the right to revise in the future:
    (1) Beethoven (2) Bach (3) Mozart (4) Schubert (5) Stravinsky (6) Debussy (7) Haydn (8) Brahms (9) [pieces attributed to] Josquin (10) Monteverdi

  5. Nice post! I appreciate your chutzpah in adding your own list, especially with the uproar over at the AMS-list. It occurs to me, however (as I sit here creating a syllabus) that we create these very lists all the time when we teach. One can only cover so many composers in a 16 week semester–by necessity some are left out. Awareness of this fact seems to be a vital goal in itself. Finally, I especially like the Friezes that you can find in/on the fancy temples of western culture:
    Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh:
    http://www.carnegielibrary.org/research/pittsburgh/history/carnames.html
    and of course Paine Hall at Harvard discussed here:
    http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~musicdpt/painehall/brinkmann.html
    Can you imagine having your list carved in stone?

  6. Ten is such a punishing number for a list like this. It’s too long to be just a handful and too short to include all of the composers in a second wave of importance. It’s enough to make one throw one’s hands up.

    @JMatson: I think you’re absolutely right. The real point of lists like these is the discussion they provoke. One useful result of the process is to remind us just how historically situated the term “composer” is. Tommasini’s list and the few others submitted above are populated by the same limited set of characters because our notion of what a “great composer” means has been _defined_ by these very composers. The list tells us much more about ourselves than anything else. Enough hedging…

    Bach
    Beethoven
    Mozart
    Chopin
    Schumann
    Stravinsky
    Verdi
    Schubert
    Wagner
    Monteverdi

  7. My husband suggested that I post the list from Charles Murray’s “Human Accomplishment,” which lists the “greats” from a wide variety of fields, using a methodology that is sufficiently complicated so as to take up several chapters of the book. Here are the top 10 composers:

    Beethoven
    Mozart
    JS Bach
    Wagner
    Haydn
    Handel
    Stravinsky
    Debussy
    Liszt
    Schubert

    1. I maintain a music site called “The Classical Music Navigator”. I have created a ranking of composers based on objective data (e.g., how many recordings of the composers are found in libraries, how many works about them exist, and how many pages are devoted to them in standard reference works). My most recent list looks fairly similar to the one just above, in order: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Verdi, Handel, Haydn, Chopin. I choose to interpret these objective rankings as what would appear to be the “most currently relevant” composers. I have spent much time documenting perceptions of influence on the composers, and created a derivative list of “most influential composers” accordingly: the top ten on the most recent assessment I have of this are, in order: JS Bach, Debussy, Wagner, Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, and Schoenberg. I have published a couple of academic papers on some early analyses of these data; if anyone is interested in these I can be reached by email through the site. I am currently working on another literature review which should help further clarify the “influences” data.

  8. Ten? Favorites?
    1) What an arbitrary conversation.
    2) What an arbitrary conversation.
    3) What an arbitrary conversation.
    4) What an arbitrary conversation.
    5) What an arbitrary conversation.
    6) What an arbitrary conversation.
    7) What an arbitrary conversation.
    8) What an arbitrary conversation.
    9) What an arbitrary conversation.
    10) What an arbitrary conversation.

    Maybe because 1) the NYT got over 800 comments, and 2) blogs seek comments to validate their readers read them, and 3) readers like to validate the bloggers who post such challenges, this is a lot more about arbitrary things, seeking comments and hits. Quite the commercial game….

  9. “Tommasini is just as skeptical of his own project, going to great lengths to remind readers that this is merely an “intellectual exercise,”

    Well, that’s the problem, really; it’s not an intellectual exercise at all: it’s neither intellectual nor takes any effort to execute such an activity. So, not skeptical enough, I guess.

    Nor is it properly a “game” as it has no rules and only one player (except insofar as others are chiming in, which is really the only redeeming thing about the whole project).*

    At what point did what is [arguably] our most “serious” newspaper with a “serious” music criticism section come to have all of the intellectual rigor of late night talk shows and sports-entertainment blather?

    Who thought this was a good idea for a NYT article? So it generated traffic and controversy; perhaps it should have been in People magazine instead (or, these days, The Atlantic. Who are Megan McArdle’s top ten composers? I’m dying to know! (note to Megan: John Galt was not a composer.)).

    Just because all meaning is subjective, dear musicologists, doesn’t mean we should be subjected to all of it. Hey, New York Times? I DON’T LIKE APPLES! Maybe I should compose a list of the top ten reasons why.

    *There is apparently an unspoken rule: only dead white males of the European-American tradition need apply.

  10. Go Bob!
    The whole thing was really a waste of ink/paper/bandwidth.
    But it’s nice to have a venue here to bitch about it.

  11. Naming the top 10 composers is not just futile but also puerile. So here is my list:

    (1) Bach (2) Schubert (3) Beethoven (4) Wagner (5) Britten (6) (7) Purcell (8) Handel & Mahler (9) Cage (10) John Adams

  12. There is no right or wrong. It is simply a matter of taste. There are many ways of looking at it- chronologically through time period, Who suffered the most, who died the hardest, who was the most financially destitute, who was the most eccentric, who banged out the most amount of hits, who was the most technically brilliant, by genre (classical, rock, jazz,etc.)

    Schmmoie’s list of classical composers in no special order is:

    0.Tchaikovsky
    1.Schmooie
    2.J.S. Bach
    3.Beethoven
    4.Mozart
    5.Telemann
    6.
    7.Rossini
    8.Grieg
    9.Dvorak
    10.Strauss Jr.
    11.J.P. Sousa
    13.Elgar
    14.Holst
    15.Vivaldi
    16.Rimsky-Korsakof
    17.Gilbert and Sullivan
    18.Offenbach
    19.Puccini
    20.Linguini
    21.Spaghetti

    Rock composers:
    -0. Schmooie
    0.Leiber and Stoller
    1.Paul McCartney
    2.John Lennon
    3.Diane Warren
    4.Michael Jackson
    5.Steve Perry
    6.Maurice White
    7.Frankie Valley
    8.Neil Diamond
    9.Beach Boys writer
    10.Diane Warren
    11.Niles Rodgers and…?
    12.Paul Simon

    To be continued…

    Jazz Composers:

  13. Why Not:

    1) Bob Marley
    2) Mozart
    3) Fela Kuti
    4) Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
    5) Hank Williams
    6) Hildegaard von Bingen
    7) Ah Bing
    8) Franco
    9) Arsenio Rodriguez
    10) Oum Kalthoum

    ???

  14. – Most everyone is quick to denounce the banality of these lists; no one is in any hurry to explain why and how
    – It seems to me that the most direct, if not simplest, way to explain a phenomenon is to ask what need it addresses, what dilemma it is intended to solve. I take it for granted that the answer “well, I/we really need [= want, of course] to know who the greatest composers are!” is both fatuous and false, absent some explanation of what that need might be, where it comes from, what it accomplishes, and so on. (And it hardly matters whether the definition of “accomplishes” is perceived as metaphysical, practical, aesthetic, historical, or indeed consumerist; at *some* level, such as here, need is need, regardless of putative or real category.)
    – In the most cautious terms, a top 10 composer list attempts to establish not so much a canon of behaviour and taste–“these are the 10 that *you*, like anyone else, should/must listen to!”–as a kind of foundation of taste; the idea, in other words, is that the accomplishments of these folks exemplifies what accomplishment itself is; the top ten are [the] *exemplary* composers, whose example both should be followed (and, historically, was, of course).
    – The consequences for taste are indirect but strong; the qualities of a top-tenner don’t have to be directly audible in a(ny other) good composer, but should be traceable, somehow; if X is a good composer, we should–*should*–be able to trace their qualities back to one or more of our ten.
    – Alas, as so many of the lists here show, the deficiency of particular lists is not even the absence of such blatantly masterful composers such as Bartók, Thelonious Monk, Anton Webern, or, in his own idiom, thank you, Leroy Anderson, but the inclusion of plain incompetents like Sibelius, or socially overrated hacks like Handel. Yes, yes, I know; Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart all thought highly of the latter. But any modestly competent orchestral player or listener can sing along with a piece by Handel entirely accurately, once they hear the opening measures of a passage. Try that with Bach or Beethoven! Handel is virtually surprise-free, and so undercuts “the art of rational surprise” at its base.
    About the tuneful but lamentably inept Sibelius, the less said, the better. That anyone could even think to praise him as a *composer*, as opposed to, say, “provider of emotional experiences in sound”–by which standard even the ferociously anti-musical Bob Dylan could earn high praise–shows how entirely fucked up, to use the proper technical expression for it, our notion of composition has become.
    – The revenge of taste is not that relativism is proved right–“what late Beethoven means to you, Garth Brooks means to me”–which proposition only “works” as long as you don’t even inquire what “meaning” means–but that its consumerist foundations are inescapable. Few of any of these lists even start to compare composers *as* composers; all of them compare them as producers of (sonorous) objects of consumption. Interesting and alarming that we have the pair of expressions “God is in the details,” and “the devil is in the details”; the lists here show how acute that contradiction really is.
    MW Morse

  15. In alphabetical order my top 12 composers (classical, jazz and rock) Critical and popular acclaim for greatness are both important.

    Bach
    Beethoven
    Brahms
    Dylan
    Ellington
    Gershwin
    Lennon
    McCartney
    Monk
    Mozart
    Schubert
    Wagner

    honorary mentions may include in no particular order: Debussy, Mingus, Townsend, Simon, Shostakovitch, Bjork, Reich, B. Wilson, Wonder, Costello, J. Mitchell, Tchaikovsky, Josquin, Stravinsky, Mahler, Haydn, Handel, C. Berry, Chopin, Dvorak, Verdi, Prince, Springsteen, Marley, and dare I say… Billy Joel…

  16. I’d do something different. I assume that the criteria are multiples and so I’d do a list as an answer for the NWT one.

    1. Bach: one of my favourites, I wouldn’t complain his place.
    2. Beethoven: I couldn’t find enough reasons to decrease his ranking. Based on my own preferences, I wouldn’t place him so high neither take him out of top 10.
    3. Debussy: I’ll give him more points, since it’s amongst my favourites, because the purpose he had, the revolution he made keeping and even “increasing” the stetics.
    4. Brahms: the third B, perfectionist, brilliant, superb. The only notable beethovenian, he was even like his master in profeticly foreseeing strong tendencies.
    5. Chopin: based in my preferences alone, I’m not actualy sure this one would surpass Bach or Debussy. However, as a pianist, I can’t put him out of the list due to compositional restriction. I’d rather read it as specialization based in love or whatever else.
    6. Scriabin: if we need to incluse russian strong players, instead of a “never-unanimous” Stravinsky, I would prefer this brilliant master of chalenging stetics.
    7. Mozart: I might not include in my top 10 preferences. He is sometimes too ludic or too plain. A genious, but I let Debussy, Brahms, Chopin and Scriabin take his place.
    8. Ravel: I don’t agree with the statement that one Impressionist is enough. He enters in my list in the extra spot left by Viennian Schubert. Why not two french ones?
    9. Villa-Lobos: this guy has a superb ethnic work. Multi-ethnic, actually, since Brazil doesn’t have a singular culture. Since I like that mixutre of modernity and romantism, I think this place belongs to him in my list.
    10. Rachmaninov: too much strong, over the point, not that good. Any statement could be enough to make me leave him out.

  17. i think lists can be interesting but perhaps a little focus helps. for example, i would divide the 20th century into two halves and attempt a canon of…what would you call it, “art music”, “serious music”, surely not “classical music”? all these labels seem pretty lame

    first half (not a ranking):
    Debussy
    Schoenberg
    Stravinsky
    Webern
    Bartok

    second half:
    Carter
    Xenakis
    Ligeti
    Grisey
    Stockhausen (? on the fence about him)

    in his own catagory but really no idea what to call it:
    Cage

    1. oops I forgot Ferneyhough, although his masterpiece “Shadowtime” is technically 21st c.

      other possibles include Boulez and Nono. Its difficult because so much interesting music was written post WWII by so many composers in so many different styles.

      speaking of the 21st c. we’re already looking at Haas and Furrer….

  18. Most of this is prosaic as if one were assessing composers as car manufacturers.

    IMHO the greatest composers had little to do with popularity or number of compositions or ‘success’ in different genres or number of available recordings — which seem to the basis for the lists above.

    The greatest composers addressed themselves to the question of Being in the Heideggerian sense. The three greatest were unquestionably Beethoven, Wagner and Bruckner.

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