The Top Ten Classical Compsers Of All Time

January 8, 2010

A few months ago I asked my friend Jet, a classical music aficionado, to submit to me a list of the ten worst composers of all time. The entry was something of a hit with readers, who responded quite negatively to our scathing criticism of some of the most recognizable names in the history of music. She provided the insight and I added little off-color remarks at the end of each statement, like an expertly placed cherry atop the world’s most delicious sundae.

One comment, left by a reader named  Steve, mentioned that he would withhold his judgement of the list of worst composers until a list of best composers was presented by the author. Since I am a man of the people, and I believe in truth, honesty and integrity, I have asked Jet to prepare a new list for Steve and anybody else who request I supply them with a specific blog post. I would like to thank Jet profusely for pouring her heart into this list. She spent some long hours slaving away over countless potential names to include. I imagine she spent a considerable amount of energy speculating — much like the gentleman in the photo attached to this blog post — as to which composer is most deserving of the title “Best of All-Time.” Thank you for your hard work and dedication to this task, Jet. I think once the people read this they will understand more clearly the logic used to deduce the list of worst composers. I’m just disappointed I couldn’t make a bunch of dick jokes to lighten the mood a little bit. Oh well, maybe next time! By the way, as far as I’m concerned, her list is nearly perfect. I applaud the inclusion of Cage and Bartók, but would have maybe slid someone like Varèse or Saint-Saëns into this group. Then again, that could just be my 20th century avant bias talking. Beethoven? Bach? Grow some balls, Jet!

The Top Ten Classical Composers Of All Time

This list is going to vary a bit from your typical top-ten; as I cannot choose a favourite composer, I have decided to rank the following ten men in first place, thus dividing that most heralded and competitive position into ten equal shares. They are:

1.10: Josquin des Prez – Josquin’s presence on this list is easily justified by the true magnificence of his output; it is worth mentioning, however, that the reason why he beats out his forebear Ockeghem and his categorical Italian follower Palestrina, is not because his legacy was more vast than the former or because his work was more stylistically far-reaching than that of the latter; rather, his unique status as a prominent figure during one of music’s most transitional time periods makes him a fascinating study. Josquin was a key player (no pun intended) in the development of contrapuntal technique and polyphonic music as it has evolved to be practised in the West for very nearly the past five-hundred years; a great and decidedly underpaid debt is due him for such gorgeous choral works, masses, motets, and even chansons such as the Missa Fortuna Desperata, Missa Sine nomine, Ave Maria…Virgo serena, Memor esto verbi tui, De Profundis (based on Psalm 130), the well-known La déploration sur la mort de Johannes Ockeghem, Petite camusette, and Mille regretz. Josquin’s life, still largely shrouded in mystery due to the extreme remove of his modernity, is left to us mainly through the study of his graceful aural tapestries, woven with the threads of his influences on a technologically-evolving loom of musical structure. Certainly quite famous in his time and after his death, he fell into near oblivion until our own current technology—the ability to quickly disseminate music of all ages—began to restore his rightful place as one of the most important composers of the Renaissance era.

1.9: John Cage – I will admit to a bit of ambivalence on my part to the inclusion of Cage on this list, not because of any supposed compositional “weirdness” or “unlistenability” but because, for the most part, of my own uncertainty regarding the fact that Cagean thought tends towards the simultaneous (and therefore bewildering, in my view) tenets of pro-aleatoricism and anti-improvisation (I would venture to say that the two could practically be two sides of the same coin). In addition, Cage was not at all a traditional “composer”, or even, for that matter, a very good melodic one; his innovations in terms of rhythmic and tonal variabilities are nothing short of visionary, however—and that is why I have dispensed with philosophical nit-picking and added him to this list of esteemed musical geniuses. His simple, lovely and delicate works for piano—such as Dream and In a Landscape—coupled by his massive and deliciously dissonant composition for organ, Souvenir (it was only first recorded by Stephen Drury in 1994, since organs don’t often inhabit secular settings, and Cage isn’t exactly in the realm of your standard church fare) show his unique musical sensibilities, even removed from his older and yet more ground-breaking works for prepared piano—the pieces A Valentine Out of Season and Music for Marcel Duchamp fall into this latter category, alongside the better-known Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (a lovely recording of which was done by Maro Ajemian in 1951)—and his even more daring philosophical statements which were to come shortly afterwards, as shown by the “infamous” 4′ 33”. Cage’s career spanned much beyond that, however, but I love his early works; they exude the gingerly-reading-the-brick-walls-of-the-darkened-path-ahead that Cage, in the end, successfully navigated.

1.8: Béla Bartók – The sweet, gentle, thoughtful, and intense nature of Béla Bartók has always endeared him to me; though some have written him off as one of the more “overrated” modern composers, I have to stringently disagree. Bartók’s musical output was heavily influenced by his great passion for Hungarian folk music (in fact, the greater part of his professional life was spent in the field, recording and transcribing the dying traditions of local folk music, which he often did in the company of another massive Hungarian musical figure, Zoltán Kodály). While these influences are certainly evident in the majority of his signature works (such as the popular Allegro barbaro and the teaching collection Ten Easy Pieces—which include the iconic pieces Bear Dance and Night in Transylvania—as well as his ballet The Wooden Prince, and the captivating Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta), it is the last set of works that he wrote in his lifetime—during a period of exile during the Second World War (which ultimately turned out to be the last five years of his life), in which he eked out a living in New York City, a place that he loathed—which transform them into a force of unequalled splendour through Bartók’s own humbly beautiful approach to composition. The self-sustaining Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion (composed for he and his wife Ditta to perform together for additional income), the passionate Sonata for Solo Violin (commissioned in 1944 by the unsurpassable Sir Yehudi Menuhin, when he was still a very young violinist), the forward-thinking and anti-individualistic Concerto for Orchestra, the oft-reworked Concerto for Viola, and the exquisite Third Piano Concerto—which quotes the song of the Rufous-Sided Towhee in its incredibly touching adagio religioso movement—are all brilliant modern masterpieces that were written during his time of isolation and illness in America. An excellent collection of his work, as well as an invaluable historical document, is the disc Bartók Plays Bartók: Bartók At The Piano, 1929–41 (Pearl 9166).

1.7: Jean Sibelius –  Sibelius, master of tremendously original and characteristically Northern symphonic music, is one of the sadly oft-recognised but incomprehensibly under-appreciated composers of all time. One of the reasons for this is that Sibelius felt that he could not improve upon his 7th Symphony; thus, the last third of his life was spent, in a manner of speaking, in relative silence. All the same, he was in a class of his own apart from other notable symphonists—such as Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler—though Sibelius’s work never quite became the spectacle that Charles Ives’s did; Sibelius drew his inspirations from the Finnish culture and landscape (as evidenced by his most famous work, the Op. 26 symphonic poem Finlandia) which, musically speaking, has never really borne the marks of any real exploitation. His was an already-trademark compositional style by the time of his Op. 63 Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, and by that time he had turned out a stunning body of work that was uniquely influenced by his love of nature and the environs of his home-land. His re-workings for solo piano are spare and distinctively modern; his orchestral offerings, however, such as the terrifically beautiful Op. 82 Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, his Op. 55 tone poem Nightride and Sunrise, and the incomparable Op. 70 Luonnotar, are so strikingly rich with a mixture of majesty and poignancy that they simply cannot be held in the same light as anything else. His sublime Op. 47, the Violin Concerto in D Minor, employs some of his most haunting melodicism—as does his second-most famous work, the Valse triste. Sibelius’s tendencies have not always been heralded by all as universally great, but even the most cursory of listenings will provide ample evidence for his extreme uniquity.

1.6: Dmitri Shostakovich – Russia had a hold on Shostakovich in a way that it could not similarly grasp his famous cellist peer, Mstislav Rostropovich; Russia was a force of fear, awe, censorship, glorification, introspection, and psychological captivity throughout the former’s life. And, as difficult as the characteristically Soviet interference throughout his life was, he was marvellously prolific in his output; he, too, was a brilliant symphonist, turning out beautiful symphony after beautiful symphony in that idiosyncratic Russian style that blended folk music with stoic classicism. His Symphonies Nos. 5 and 15 (Op. 47 and 141, respectively) have always been rather popular pieces, but the Symphony No. 11 (The Year 1905), Op. 103 (especially the 1958 recording by Leopold Stokowski and the Houston Symphony Orchestra) is nearly unbearable in its supreme beauty; similarly, his Symphony No. 14, Op. 135, is an astounding and complex piece in eleven movements. His Cello Concerto No. 1 (originally written for the aforementioned Rostropovich but then censored after the latter took “extreme” and “unfavourable” stances regarding political practices in the U.S.S.R.) boasts a fantastically seductive counterpoint amidst the most frantic of Russian melodies (best heard in Truls Mørk’s 1995 recording with Mariss Jansons and the London Philharmonic). After one or the other of his official denunciations—his relationship with the Russian officials always seemed to be a precarious on-again, off-again nightmare relationship—Shostakovich was making a living providing scores and incidental music to films; The Gadfly, Op. 97, is one of these, and even such relegations did not diminish the utter beauty of his works. Likewise, compositions such as the Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147 and the Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a, as well as a number of early preludes (such as his Op. 34), are unmistakable fixtures in the substantial Shostkovichian canon and are excellent; the true indelible mark of his output, however—that tendency for musical solemnity and extremely sombre meditation—is practically unmatched in terms of sheer effectiveness, by any other composer in the pantheon. Then again, few other composers suffered as much in the strange and sad manner of Shostakovich; one wonders what his musical talent would have incorporated had he been born of another time and place.

1.5: Ludwig von Beethoven – Falling in with tradition—but only for the time it takes to say as much—Beethoven takes the mid-point on this list of the personal favourite; as much-abused as his Für Elise and Op. 27, No. 1 Sonata’s first movement (the Moonlight), have been in the hands of amateurs, and as reviled and exhausted as they are in the crowds of weary professionals, one still cannot deny the often turbulent, sometimes delicate, and always astonishing magnificence of Beethoven’s oeuvre. He indeed possessed traits of some egocentricity and was famously moody—his visage will be forever sculpted in that irascible scowl that haunts the annals of musical history—but his music was inarguably brilliant, torrential (no pun intended), and even occasionally humorous. No-one agrees with me on the point I’m about to make, but I’m going to make it anyway: if you want to hear Beethoven as Beethoven never wanted to be heard, yet would have been had he been a truly smart man, you will go out and buy all of Glenn Gould’s Beethoven Sonata recordings. His lovely collection of the complete Opus 31, plus his “perverse” version of the Moonlight (his playing of the famous first movement is absolutely unique, and the never-listened-to third movement—a scorching presto agitato—is absolutely laughable in Gould’s hands, as it is so incredibly fast and yet so unbelievably perfect. Yes, I said “laughable”—because you will laugh with amazement at his articulate brilliance), the Pathétique, and the Appassionata (the last two movements of which are earth-shattering—as Beethoven intended—yet ridiculously fast—as Beethoven certainly did not intend—which Gould cleverly did to prevent the listener’s awe-struck wallowing which the composer desired, thus “getting” Beethoven in the process), as well as his later recordings of Op. 28 and 2, and then finally the posthumously-released and entirely charming Op. 11 and 12, are utterly untouchable by the likes of even the great Artur Schnabel (who recorded the entire catalogue of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas), or the more recent Beethovenian, Alfred Brendel. Gould’s Beethoven will spoil you, and you simply won’t be able to tolerate anybody else’s performances of this great composer—excepting, of course, chamber and symphonic works. In the former case, Sir Yehudi Menuhin takes the prime slot in terms of the Violin Sonatas; he recorded the the 5th, 7th, and 9th Sonatas with pianist Wilhelm Kempff in a wonderful and surprisingly “off-the-cuff” session for DGG in 1970, as well as the Sonata for Piano and Violin in G major, Op. 96 (with Gould as the pianist) for a CBC television programme in 1965; in the latter case, the Symphony No. 7 as recorded by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Philips 426 239-2), far outdoes Herbert von Karajan’s fall-back version; in addition, on the same disc, Marriner employs the clever use of field recording (no pun intended) to couple the Seventh with a version of Wellingtons Seig oder die Schlacht bei Vittoria that will leave you, again, laughing with incredulity and amazement.

1.4: Richard Wagner – Much like Beethoven, Wagner was an unquenchable figure of his own time; unlike Beethoven (and, in fact, lending the latter an appearance of humble restraint by comparison) he was disgustingly pompous, endlessly egocentric, unabashedly bigoted, proudly racist, and was, in my view, far less of an individual musician (in fact, one of my favourite Wagnerian anecdotes revolves around the young composer’s première of a large concert overture in C major, which accompanied a performance of Beethoven’s Egmont music; Wagner’s mother disliked his overture’s fugato finale and remarked that the Beethoven had been far more moving than her son’s “stupid fugue”). He was, however, an absolute genius. Perhaps his musical genius was accidental—and, if so, it is more than likely that he was indeed a unique, once-in-a-billion-years statistic, the likes of which we mortals will never again see before the extinction of our own species. Thus, Wagner—insofar as his masterful use of the leitmotif, his innovation of the Gesamtkunstwerk, and his complex contrapuntal abilities were concerned—was every bit as magisterial and lofty as he later confabulated himself to be; still, his shamefully self-trumpeting, two-volume autobiography, Mein Leben, was filled with more lies than all the histories of the world’s politicians and lawyers combined, which took over a century (and still counting) of reverse-archaeology to really unravel. Nonetheless, his unsurpassable work in the operatic fields still casts an unconquerable shadow over the entire realm of classical music; his irrepressible (and interminable) Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle (which is comprised of the four operas Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung), as well as his fantastically beautiful and ultra-Romantic Tristan und Isolde, the nearly-comic Die Meistersinger von Nünberg, and the exciting Der fliegender Holländer, as well as Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, and the lovely Parsifal, are simply impossible to argue with in terms of beauty and greatness. His rather revolting self-glorification as HRM Richard Wagner is certainly not assuaged by the musical greatness of Richard Wagner the mere man, but yet at the same time, the former cannot cancel out the validity of the latter by any means. It can be a difficult (and expensive) endeavour to obtain the operatic recordings made at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, but those are the ones to have; in addition, when Glenn Gould was in the beginning stages of transitioning his career as a pianist to that of a conductor (which was cut short by his sudden death), he made a simply marvellous recording of Wagner’s chamber piece Siegfried Idyll in 1982 (Sony SK46279); Gould’s slow and savouring conductorial treatment, in my view, surpasses any other recording of this piece—even the version by the great maestro Leopold Stokowski (who gets his due in the next section).

1.3: Arnold Schoenberg – Schoenberg’s genius was decidedly polyhedral (no pun intended; if it had been, I would have said “dodecahedral”—and had I been mean and uncharitable, I would have said “tridecahedral”). In no way has any composer—not even Schoenberg’s one-time student, John Cage—similarly qualified in terms of the absolutely revolutionary methods engineered by Schoenberg as a means of simultaneously escaping the musical doldrums left to us thanks to Richard Wagner’s compleat oeuvre, and embracing the uncertainties opened up to us thanks to the same composer’s cutting-edge “Tristan Chord”. Schoenberg was a deeply sensitive man, driven and tenacious in his bid to grab music by the crochet, so to speak, and up-end it in search of the hidden contents of its’ deep pockets. His mesmerising early works—including his Op. 4 Verklärte Nacht (the best version of which is Stokowski’s beautiful 1960 recording of almost-realised perfection—sadly, it manages to be a live recording that features an attendant audience that seemed determined to ruin the performance, through the means of obnoxious hacking, general rustling, and moving about. All the same, it simply cannot be bested) and his Op. 5 tone poem, Pelleas und Melisande (the 1967 recording by Sir John Barbirolli is superior to any other)—are breathtakingly dark and soul-searing; this same characteristic is found in his beautiful Gurre-Lieder, as it was begun early but finished late, and its’ opening bars are incomparably perfect in their realisation of absolute resplendence. Schoenberg continued in this vein until his ever-impatient raison d’être could stand it no longer; by Op. 11 Drei Klavierstücke, he had veered well off the path of traditionalists and was forging boldly where no man had gone before (and well before anyone ever had “Trouble with Tribbles”). Eventually this so-called “atonal” kick subsided as he pulled back to analyse, construct, and perfect his pièce de résistance, which, by 1924, was at last firmly established in his Op. 26 Wind Quintet: the dodecophonous form or the “twelve-tone technique” of composition (later called “serialism”, although this was not a word chosen by Schoenberg himself). Schoenberg’s techniques and teaching methods (the latter of which were as traditional as they came; his books—just to name a few—Theory of Harmony, Preliminary Exercises in Counterpoint, and Fundamentals of Musical Composition are vital cornerstones to any theorist’s compositional classroom cache) were often the target of some of the most vile and vitriolic criticisms to have ever appeared in print (in fact, he created the Society for Private Musical Performances in an effort to provide a shield for modern music when he was still living in Austria); truly, not enough respect has been shown for this brilliant and complex man, whose innovative twelve-tone system was carried on in vastly different exploratory directions by his two most famous pupils, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and further implemented by a number of other composers, including Ernst Krenek, Luciano Berio, and Milton Babbitt (there is some dispute over whether Bartók ever implemented strict dodecophonous composition, as he does not seem to have been directly influenced by Schoenberg and thus it “may not count”). Nevertheless, Schoenberg’s mature works, such as his last two String Quartets (Op. 30 and 37, respectively), the Op. 38 Kammersymphonie No. 2, the rather grey Op. 39 Kol Nidre, the even greyer Op. 41 Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, the Op. 47 Phantasy for Violin and Piano, and Op. 50b, Psalm 130 “De profundis” (which Josquin also set to music some four-hundred-odd years before), are all stunning essays that attest to the singular vision of this unique man.

1.2: Richard Strauss – Of the six modern composers on this list, Strauss is, without doubt, the most unapologetic traditionalist (those “scandalous” peaks of Salome and Elektra notwithstanding). Although the majority of his peers were doing all they could to rise above and away, Strauss was content to mine the ore of his forebears’ contributions—and his success in doing so nearly gives rise to some doubt that the abandonment of such divisive practices was really necessary; his most brilliant works display his extreme talents within the compositional realms to a highly visible (or should I say audible?) degree. In fact, Strauss—and he bears no relation at all to the other Strausses of the “Waltz-Schmaltz” fame—is the author of some of the most well-known material in the world; even the least classically-inclined listeners will instantly recognise his tone-poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (be, as it may, featured in an inferior recording made by Herbert von Karajan on the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack; Karl Böhm’s 1958 recording is far superior in terms of tempo and dynamic), and almost equally as famous is his Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Don Juan, and the operas Der Rosenkavalier, Capriccio, and, of course, the infamous Salome and Elektra. In the end, however, beyond the afore-mentioned popular catalogue, there are two works which are Strauss’s most hauntingly beautiful, and are often thought of as extremely spiritual in their sublime perfection (especially as—shades of Bartók here—they were written at the end of his life). The Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), set to lyrics by Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff, are breathtaking (no pun intended) and demanding songs for soprano (while relatively reachable in range—they were originally written specially for Kirsten Flagstad, who was losing her ability to reach a high C—the songs require the exceptional breath control of a capable and experienced singer); then, Strauss’s crowning achievement is the stunning and exceptionally brilliant Metamorphosen, written for 23 solo strings. Even the most verbose of descriptions would fail to accurately brand this piece as the unfailingly lovely and passionate piece that it is (although it took years for the proper evolution in aesthetics that it took to properly appreciate it; despite the decidedly ignorant description of “a half-hour’s nonentertainment” by occasional co-idiots Brockway and Weinstock in 1950, the popular perspective on this piece has changed dramatically). There is such unsurpassable and surprising depth of feeling in these pieces by the humble, compact, sweetly bow-tied old man that was Strauss in his final years. For Metamorphosen and the Vier letzte Lieder, von Karajan finally gets his due recommendation as the brilliant conductor he certainly was: his 1971 and 1974 recordings of these pieces are nonpareil (ownership of Deutsche Grammophon’s DGG 423 888-2 will satisfy your exact needs in this respect); I daresay you’ll be hard-pressed to duplicate the extraordinary beauty of this listening experience anywhere.

1.1: J. S. Bach – The senior Bach was, without question, the foremost musical genius of all Western music. Bach’s decidedly cerebral methods, which flavoured his massive catalogue in terms of sheer output, innovation, and compleat thematic exploration, make him the composer to be reckoned with. His craft knew no bounds even within the late-Baroque boundaries to which it so admirably adhered, and his most masterful contrapuntal speciality, the fugue, could have been distilled in no more concentrated forms than through his pen. There are too many amazing pieces by Bach to list here in any adroit fashion, but some certainly essential listening will run the stylistic gamut from concisely elegant (the popular Suite No. 1 in G Major for solo cello, BWV 1007) to fully ecstatic (Keyboard Concerto No. 4 in A Major, BWV 1055) to tonally bizarre (Das musikalisches Opfer, BWV 1079/5) to astonishingly sexy (both the Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, BWV 1052 and the Keyboard Concerto No. 5 in F Minor, BWV 1056 are excellent and, if I do say, hot examples) to eerie (the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565—the opening bars of which absolutely everybody knows) to lovely and breathtaking (Cantatas No. 4 and 54 are thrilling examples), Bach could do it all. Even his most un-Bach-like works—the adagio movement of the Concerto in D Minor after Alessandro Marcello, BWV 974, being a good example, or even the Chromatic Fantasy in D Minor, BWV 903 (for even though it is, in certain respects, quite Bach-like, in terms of its nearly Romantic, Chopin-esque showiness and drama it certainly is NOT)—were possible for him to easily attain; listening to them can indeed be a truly surreal experience. Bach was even popular with video-gamers, if unwittingly; the original Nintendo Gameboy Tetris game presents an abbreviated version of the menuett from the French Suite No. 3 in B Minor, BWV 814 as the “C-Type” music option. In any case, there is Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080, which is magnificent if you can hear it performed in entirety; it is, without doubt, one of Bach’s most impressive works—shades of Strauss and Bartók here—and what I’m about to say is a bit disputed, but Die Kunst der Fuge was, more or less, one of Bach’s last pieces ever written (the fourteenth Contrapunctus is an unfinished one, “at which point”, it was first engraved, “the composer died”). In any case, it is such a difficult work that, even today, no really satisfying commercial recordings of it exist which feature an entire performance of its many canons and fugues. Moving on, there is Das musikalisches Opfer (which I’ve already mentioned), of which ECM Records released a recording of the intriguing Christoph Poppen and the Münchener Kammerorchester performing Anton Webern’s orchestration of the Fuga (Ricercata) a 6 voci that is simply amazing (ECM 1774), a piece that Bach had initially improvised—a six-voiced fugue on the fly, do you understand!—at the behest of his son C.P.E.’s boss (more or less)—and on that same disc is a hauntingly perfect rendition with the Hilliard Ensemble of BWV 4, “Christ lag in Todesbanden”. There are the brilliant Brandenburg Concerti, BWV 1046-1051—an excellent ensemble being that under the baton of Pablo Casals, the famous Spanish cellist—whose lovely recordings of the complete Cello Concerti are equally as impressive. There is the massive catalogue of his Cantatas that has been recorded in entirety by Ton Koopman; there is the incomprehensible collection of his keyboard works, such as the massive Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846-893; there are numerous concerti, partitas, preludes, and fugues. There are the Orchestral Suites, BWV 1066-1069; there are the beautiful Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006; there are Suites in the English and French styles; there are brilliant organ works; there are even works for lute (BWV 995-1000 and others), and six motets (BWV 225-230)! There are numerous masses that I haven’t even mentioned. Bach did it all. The best recordings of Bach’s work will underline the structural linearity of his compositions, rather than simply air-brush into reverberant ambiguity his most perfect contrapuntal realisations. And despite the prevailing penchant of the last 30 years to return to all-period-appropriate instrumentation of his (and other Baroque masters) music, there is merit indeed to be found in Leopold Stokowski’s Orchestral Transcriptions of various Bach works, Gould’s articulate piano performances, and Christoph Poppen’s arrestingly unique interpretations and programming. For Bach, master of musical puzzles and inventor of some of the most complicated musical presentations ever conceived, is easily understandable in terms of his continual performance value; he was, and remains, unrivalled in more ways than even Wagner’s fearsome operatic output could threaten. In his humble station of the Cantor of Leipzig, Bach impressed more hearts in a pure fashion than could all the collective luxe pomposity of the self-appointed Deity of Bayreuth; Johann Sebastian simply can’t be bested—not even in the span of the 260 years since his death has there been another man of equal repute or ability to dim his genius.

Don’t get me wrong, though—I still love Wagner.


  1. steverino

    That’s an awesome list.
    I read it as far as “it is more than likely that he was indeed a unique, once-in-a-billion-years statistic,” but then my brain imploded.

  2. |

    I’ll start with the Bach references. Nice one to include Josquin des Prez!

  3. Jet

    Evan, I would like to address your charge that I should have included Edgar Varèse or Camille Saint-Saëns; much as I love the Saint-Saëns Third–the best recorded version that I have ever heard being the astonishingly little-known 1957 recording by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paul Paray, featuring the organ work of the delightful Marcel Dupré. However, being the composer of one or two highly notable works hardly makes one qualified for sharing a list of the Best Composers Ever, who all have long lists of Required Listening appended to their names. Additionally, as far as Varèse is concerned, I’ve just never really cared all that much for the later school of French composers (sorry; it’s just a tendency I’ve noticed and has never been anything deliberate).

    I would also like to point out–in regards to your wanting of more moderns to satisfy your “20th-century bias”, that the list is also similarly “biased”, if you like–after all, an overwhelming 60% of the composers on this list are men who died in the same century in which we were born. And one can hardly get more “avant-garde” than Schoenberg, or even Cage. So there.

    Your friend,
    Jet Dee.

  4. Joe

    What a silly list. A perfect example of why makings lists like this is is a worthless exercise. The whole point, of course, is to spark debate about who should or should not have been included. I’m not taking the bait.

  5. Jet

    Dear Joe,

    Much as I hate to seem critical, you couldn’t be more wrong; I’m not interested in debating over subjective tastes with people (a practice that I have always disdained as “silly”, myself). Sorry, but there was no bait for you to take in the first place; the “bait” was a creation of your own misconception and/or ambivalence regarding just how fulfilling the practice of list-making can be. Additionally, the curator of this blog and I have long been “list aficionados” and as such I believe that we do not require your own subjective approval or disapproval; we merely are who we are. You probably practice a whole host of activities and habits that I personally might toss off as “silly” or “worthless” to my own tastes, but I would hesitate to make such a pointlessly judgemental and truly unnecessary call; my own subjective opinion of a complete stranger is, really, quite invalid. In any case, it doesn’t really matter; this list was an exercise in love and pedagogy. Things we value most in life are far from silly or worthless, but rather sustaining; I was simply sharing views of music that sustains me, in the event that I can further purvey that love and sustenance to others. The point, if I may state it for the record, is to share beautiful music and recordings that many would otherwise leave undiscovered–not to argue about who deserves the number-one slot, as that is ridiculously competitive and gets accomplishes nothing amongst peers except the perseveration of annoyance. Have you heard von Karajan’s “Metamorphosen”? Have you heard Stokowski’s “Verklärte Nacht”? Have you heard Gould’s Beethoven? No? Well, THAT was the point which I had thought was rather more than obvious, but which, alas, you misidentified as “bait”–that you might go out and listen to it, and perhaps form your own viewpoints from there.

    Jet Dee.

  6. Tom

    No Mozart? Haydn? Handel? Schubert? I could make a list of the top twenty composers and it wouldn’t include des Prez or John Cage. In the first case, although he was an important and influential composer, how many people listen to his music outside of a college classroom? Come to think of it, the same could be said of Cage. Very original. A thoughtful composer, but his most famous piece is probably 4’33”. Not a great piece of “music”. And how about Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak? Berlioz? On and on………..By the way, I Stumbled here, and although I disagree with your list you at least got me thinking, so thank you.

  7. Jet

    Dear Tom,

    Indeed, as Mozart is one of my least favourite composers, he is certainly not here. I am not a big Romantic fan, so same goes for Schubert or Berlioz…same with Tchaikovsky; his music, aside from a few pieces that are sentimental to me, smack of that quality that one could dub “just too much” (at least in my view. Mussorgsky, however, and crazy as this may sound, to me has always had just the right amount of restraint). And, although I have a very dear friend who is a descendent of Antonin Dvorak and would therefore hate to offend him, I must admit that I have always found Dvorak’s work to be extremely tedious, really–more of a chore than a pleasure.

    On the other hand, I do indeed love Handel and Haydn; they simply just couldn’t crowd their way in, I’m afraid. As for Mahler, I admire his Second Symphony, but was just never enamoured by the Eighth (which was, arguably, supposed to be his most unbeatable work). Apart from that, I am largely ambivalent to Mahler and certainly bear him no ill regard.

    Des Prez and Cage: as for the former, he’s extremely underrated and under-represented; as for Cage, he can be a classroom oddity, I suppose, but he was such an important keystone in post-twelve-tone 20th-century music; he was certainly limited in certain aspects, but one reason why I admire him so much was because of his extreme innovation, and his never-ending quest for such. I don’t know…I’ve always been rather under the impression that Cage is rather fashionable, although my own tastes certainly are not dictated by fashion.

    I was very happy to read, despite your disagreement, that you found some scant scrap of redemption in my list–and for that I am quite grateful. Thank you, Tom, for your comments.

    All the best,
    Jet Dee.

  8. mary jensen

    SOS SOS SOS. I am desperately seeking a way to contact the formidable essayist JET DEE to ask her to email me a copy of that outstanding essay she wrote for the Glenn Gould Foundation on the subject of GG’s incredible recording “A Glenn Gould Fantasy”. Dee’s essay was to be found at the GG Foundation site for a while but since the Foundation has been utterly transformed (no comment) her terrific ‘belated review’ is no longer to be found there – it is not even in the Archives. Please help. Desperate.
    I am sending this same message to your email address.
    Mary Jensen

  9. |

    Well this is a really late post, but I decided to go for it anyways. I really enjoyed the list, although I would have included Stockhausen and Mahler or Prokofiev instead of des Prez and Shostakovich, moved Schoenberg to first, and put Strauss after Wagner. Glad to see Bela Bartok and the John Cage on the list though.

Leave a Comment

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.