At first, it seems like a pretty obvious idea – write down the list of the 10 greatest classical music composers. Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic for the New York Times, announced he was doing just that in an article this past weekend and in a series of follow-up articles and web posts. And by eliminating anything before the Baroque period and any living composers (on the theory that we haven’t had time to evaluate their place in music history yet), he’s apparently made things even more straightforward.
Until you actually try it for yourself. I did. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart – no one’s gonna argue with any of those. Brahms? He’s the third B, so while I admire more than love Brahms’s music (with a few exceptions), I’ll grant him top 10 greatness. Schubert. Yes, but Schumann? Not for me, not in the top 10 anyway. Wagner – hugely divisive, but for me a no-brainer. Yes to him. Stravinsky and Debussy too (need some non-German speakers here). But wait, that’s 8 names already and I still have a bunch of others!
As soon as I started thinking this way I realized there was probably going to be a real difference between what I think of as the 10 Greatest Classical Music Composers and my 10 Favorite Composers. I love Bela Bartok’s music; he is one of my favorite composers. But is he one of the 10 greatest, ever? Is he better than Tchaikovsky, who would be on most lists? Antonin Dvorak, Jean Sibelius, Leos Janacek, Gustav Mahler – these are among my most favoritest composers. But the list is only 10 names long – and that’s without worrying about what to do with early composers like Machaut and Perotin or living ones like Steve Reich or Osvaldo Golijov.
So I think I’ll just watch as Anthony goes through his process of winnowing all these names down to 10. Easier and more fun to hurl invective at someone else’s list than to come up with one of your own.
Who would you put on a list of Classical Music’s Greatest Composers? Anyone who’s not immediately obvious? Leave a comment.