I see that Anthony Tommasini of the NY Times has joined the crowd who attempt to rank the top classical composers of all time. Since, as Josephine Tey once wrote, there are far too many books on such subjects written as is, I was strongly tempted not to respond to his article. However, it does give me another reason to remember some of the cherished experiences of my life – and I would like to try, yet again, to lift a lone voice against the “loud orchestra bigots” who dominate today’s classical music scene.
Aside from the differences over whether loudness should be valued for its own sake and whether works with large numbers of instruments or voice involved should be valued over others, I differ with Mr. Tommasini in one more subtle but important way: he appears to value the ability of the composer to stretch the compositional palette by being innovative; I value the composer’s ability to do so extremely well. Yes, Stravinsky and Bartok did radical things, and did them pretty well; but, to my mind, only pretty well. By contrast, when Mozart and Sibelius stretched the boundaries, they did so with exceptional integration into an overall “sound personality.”
Enough of that. Here’s my list.
(1) Brahms. I really wrestled with this, between Brahms and Mozart. I don’t think that Brahms’ symphonies are the best, nor what I have heard of his vocal works. But, over and over again, his chamber works, his solo works, his harmonies are at the very highest level, and all in the service of a feeling that I see as so profound as to be indescribable. I confess that I see the Brahms Horn Trio as among the two or three greatest pieces of music of all time.
(2) Mozart. Yes, it was a little tough between him and Beethoven. Beethoven is more of our era; his melodies appeal to all, and his harmonies connect to ours. But the real problem is that we don’t know how to perform Mozart. There is wonderful feeling there, and – if you understand conventions – a constant play with the ear’s expectation for how to finish that the best performers bring out, to give an air of endless, blossoming astonishment. And, yes, his operas show his knack for the single, piercing phrase that makes the whole piece memorable. The main problem is that his later works never use the solo strings to their full potential. Other than that, every inner instrument has its song, and every harmony is fresh and new. We just have to learn how to play him – strings, especially.
(3) Beethoven. I got there eventually. Mostly, I have been turned off for years by his brute-force repetition of octaves and the way he forces you to use the maximum number of instruments as loudly as possible. But in pieces such as the Violin Concerto or Romanzen, not to mention some parts of the chamber music, the performer who really knows how to bring out the soft voice will be extraordinarily rewarded. And, of course, his melodies range from memorable to great.
(4) Bach. In some ways, I feel that Bach should be rated lower than this. He is, above all, obsessed by the beat, and too much of an organ/small orchestra composer. His voice compositions are great but don’t truly wed the words to the music in the way Wagner and Mozart do. However, there are so many superb melodies with such superb harmony, if you spend extraordinary effort as a performer – the Double Violin Concerto, the Violin and Oboe concerto, some of the interludes from the Cantatas, the Passacaglia and Fugue. Now there was a composer that truly valued the bass voice.
(5) Schubert. Yes, the songs are extraordinary; but the chamber music is truly great. There is a story that a musician put one of the melodies from one of his trios on his tombstone; and having heard it, I understand why. It’s odd that the Trout Quintet and Death and the Maiden quartet, his best known chamber music, are not really his best chamber music. Again, his chamber music must be played just right to understand its greatness.
(6) Sibelius. No, this isn’t really about chamber pieces. Sibelius is an exception to that rule; he achieves his great effects in orchestral works, with the possible exception of the Violin Concerto. But in those works, the ability to find the right harmony, and to challenge the ear, puts him at the top of the second tier.
(7) Ravel. Yes, I know that everyone likes Debussy, and thinks he’s the best of the French. But I consistently find that Debussy is a one-trick pony as far as harmony goes (and it’s a very good trick!). Ravel, on the other hand, uses instruments like the English horn to achieve harmonies that are superb, and works like Gaspard de la Nuit and the Quartet show his other, incredibly varied gifts.
(8) Wagner. Yes, he forces singers to shout endlessly, and yes, he does go on and on. But he uses consonance, assonance, and alliteration superbly in his lyrics, forming an amazingly integrated, powerful whole. Tristan and Isolde’s leitmotif is enough for any composer.
(9) Stravinsky. The Classical Symphony shows both his strengths and limitations: superb orchestration and the ability to sing, set against an inability to plumb the full depths of a phrase. That’s good enough for the third tier.
(10) Barber. I confess that I don’t know enough about Barber to make this more than tentative. But the quartet that everyone plays now plus the first two movements of the Violin Concerto make him stand out for me.
Ones with occasional gifts that make me regret leaving them out: Monteverdi, of course, because he is the best of the best in madrigals, imho. Schumann, a little for his symphonies but more for his occasional chamber genius, and especially for the Quintet. Copland – although I think his “Western” pieces are overrated, Fanfare and the Shaker hymn are not. Gershwin – untutored as he is, both Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess deserve better ratings. Puccini – I still feel I am learning to plumb the depths of Turandot, whatever the lack of depth of orchestration of his other works. Mendelssohn – for his Piano Trio, one of the truly great works.
Overrated: Mahler – sorry, not a good enough ratio of quality to length. Bartok – what his left hand giveth with feeling, his right hand taketh away with atonal lack of point; and yes, I do know his violin concerto. Debussy – I might have put him at 11, but see above. Shostakovitch – actually, Symphony Number 11 sounds best, despite its being forced to be the most tonal of all; which is damning with faint praise. Dvorak – his gifts are superb, and then he forces the strings into unnatural high octaves and harmonies.
Don’t know enough – Verdi.
Wonder about; maybe there’s something there I don’t know about – Faure, Poulenc, Grieg, Elgar, Vivaldi, Gade.
Never great, but good enough – Haydn, Berlioz, sometimes Bizet, Ward, some Rossini, Handel (all right, sometimes he’s great; but not in long enough bursts).
And so many more, that I will never discover.