Music Post: The most essential composers – yours, mine, and other people’s


I don’t have them any more. When I moved to Hawaii I gave them away.

But once I had a collection of books about classical music, all structured with chapters on each of “the greatest composers.”

What fascinated me about these books was the evolution over time of which composers, in finite space, were deemed by an author to deserve a chapter.

Every one of these books, whose first printings dated from the late 1800s, featured Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Brahms.

Most had Tchaikovsky and Wagner. Later books always included Vivaldi and Dvorak. We sort of rediscovered Vivaldi in the middle 20th century. Dvorak was initially lumped in with Bedrich Smetana but now is elevated almost to the level of Brahms and Beethoven on the strength of his string quartets and the last three symphonies.

Some books began with Palestrina. Until the late 20th century he was the default pre-Bach fellow. If you were writing such a book today you could choose any number of other Renaissance composers instead.

Books translated from German include Carl Maria von Weber, a tuneful contemporary of Beethoven who was a great influence on Wagner. At the other end they added Johann Strauss and Richard Strauss.

Books translated from French include Hector Berlioz and Cesar Franck and Camille Saint-Saens.

Books written by a fan of Russian music include Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin.

Books written in England include Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Older books always include Liszt, but in the 20th century he fell from favor. Liszt was more highly esteemed before the era of recording when many people knew their music from playing or hearing sheet music on piano.

Later books began to add Mahler and Bruckner. By the mid-1900s such books had to include Debussy and Ravel and Stravinsky and Schoenberg and Bela Bartok and Jean Sibelius and Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich but would often exclude Paul Hindemith and Leos Janacek and Zoltan Kodaly, and books by Americans would include Copland and Bernstein and Gershwin and Samuel Barber but would often exclude Roy Harris.

The process of deciding which composers are fit to scan into a finite pantheon is frustrating and inimical to enjoying the music, yet it is interesting to see how our sense has evolved of which busts to place in the hall.

A fresh modern focus on string quartets has benefitted Dvorak and Shostakovich. The new era of star soloists has been good for anyone who wrote sensational concertos, including Dvorak and Elgar (both wrote masterworks for cello) and Rachmaninoff, the great pianist-composer.

You also get different answers according to how you phrase the question. If you ask who are the “greatest” composers you’ll get Schoenberg and Stravinsky and Bartok as 20th century masters, but if you ask which modern composers you like to listen to most, you get Ravel and Debussy and Sibelius and Gershwin and Copland.

People put Mozart first who like elegance and proportion.

If they want expression and force of personality, their favorite is Beethoven. Timpanists like Beethoven.

Most musicians like Brahms for his harmonies, especially the inner voices: violists love Brahms.

I have always been impressed with Mendelssohn and Ravel, two composers who seemed almost incapable of writing anything that wasn’t a masterpiece. Mendelssohn wrote a dozen string symphonies as a child and early teen. He tried to suppress them but they’re gorgeous, every one of them. His Octet, which is like Bach and Mozart put together, came from his late teens. At that age I couldn’t even drive very well.

Ravel is unique in his record of writing one piece in a given format and placing it immediately into the repertory. His one quartet is one of the best quartets by any composer. Ditto his one trio. Ditto his full-length ballet “Daphis et Chloe.” And his piano concerto. And his other piano concerto, for left hand alone. And his suite “Tombeau de Couperin.” And “Bolero,” the unclassifiable masterpiece. “My most popular work,” Ravel said. “Too bad there is no music in it.” The more I explore little-known works by great composers who wrote bad pieces – there is forgettable music by Beethoven and Mozart – the more I appreciate Ravel.

In American music, and I speak as a great fan of Aaron Copland, the Ravel analog would be Samuel Barber, whose overtures, symphonies, concertos and Essays for Orchestra are all excellent. Even his juvenilia are good, and a march he wrote for band, and his sole piano sonata.

When choosing essential composers, one feels obliged to consider a body of work, and that works against composers who were responsible for a small number of sensational works – or whose other fine works are not yet known to us. This hampers our estimation of Holst and Vaughan Williams. “The Planets” isn’t Holst’s only masterpiece, as I have often striven to show on my radio show. And Vaughan Williams, whose “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” is tied with the Mendelssohn Octet for my favorite piece of classical music, was a great symphonist, including the noisy late symphonies.

On this weekend’s show I’ll sample works by the 10 most essential composers as chosen by a plebiscite of HPR listeners, with remarks on the chosen.

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