Anthony Tommassini, music critic of the New York Times, makes his case for classical music’s top 10:
HERE goes. This article completes my two-week project to select the top 10 classical music composers in history, not including those still with us. The argument, laid out in a series of articles, online videos and blog posts, was enlivened by the more than 1,500 informed, challenging, passionate and inspiring comments from readers of The New York Times. As often as I could, I answered direct questions online and jumped into the discussion.
I am about to reveal my list, though as those who have been with me on this quest already know, I’ve dropped hints along the way. And the winner, the all-time great, is …
Readers of the New York Times?! What the hell do they know? Okay, politics put aside, here goes:
And the winner, the all-time great, is … Bach!
My top spot goes to Bach, for his matchless combination of masterly musical engineering (as one reader put it) and profound expressivity. Since writing about Bach in the first article of this series I have been thinking more about the perception that he was considered old-fashioned in his day. Haydn was 18 when Bach died, in 1750, and Classicism was stirring. Bach was surely aware of the new trends. Yet he reacted by digging deeper into his way of doing things. In his austerely beautiful “Art of Fugue,” left incomplete at his death, Bach reduced complex counterpoint to its bare essentials, not even indicating the instrument (or instruments) for which these works were composed.
On his own terms he could be plenty modern. Though Bach never wrote an opera, he demonstrated visceral flair for drama in his sacred choral works, as in the crowd scenes in the Passions where people cry out with chilling vehemence for Jesus to be crucified. In keyboard works like the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Bach anticipated the rhapsodic Romantic fervor of Liszt, even Rachmaninoff. And as I tried to show in the first video for this project, through his chorales alone Bach explored the far reaches of tonal harmony.
Really, who could argue?
Well, I would, but warmly and lovingly, because I’d be just as happy to be considered wrong. His #1 is my #2, and vice-versa:
The obvious candidates for the second and third slots are Mozart and Beethoven. If you were to compare just Mozart’s orchestral and instrumental music to Beethoven’s, that would be a pretty even match. But Mozart had a whole second career as a path-breaking opera composer. Such incredible range should give him the edge.
Still, I’m going with Beethoven for the second slot. Beethoven’s technique was not as facile as Mozart’s. He struggled to compose, and you can sometimes hear that struggle in the music. But however hard wrought, Beethoven’s works are so audacious and indestructible that they survive even poor performances.
Again, how could any of these three be wrong for the top slot? I pick Beethoven because he was the master of all musical forms (including opera—sure he wrote only one, but he wrote only one violin concerto, too, only the best, or co-best, with Brahms, ever written). To me, his writing tilted the balance rightly more toward “profound expressivity” from “musical engineering”.
Four? Schubert. You have to love the guy, who died at 31, ill, impoverished and neglected except by a circle of friends who were in awe of his genius. For his hundreds of songs alone — including the haunting cycle “Winterreise,” which will never release its tenacious hold on singers and audiences — Schubert is central to our concert life. The baritone Sanford Sylvan once told me that hearing the superb pianist Stephen Drury give searching accounts of the three late Schubert sonatas on a single program was one of the most transcendent musical experiences of his life. Schubert’s first few symphonies may be works in progress. But the “Unfinished” and especially the Ninth Symphony are astonishing. The Ninth paves the way for Bruckner and prefigures Mahler.
Debussy, who after hundreds of years of pulsating Germanic music proved that there could be tension in timelessness, is my No. 5. With his pioneering harmonic language, the sensual beauty of his sound and his uncanny, Freudian instincts for tapping the unconscious, Debussy was the bridge over which music passed into the tumultuous 20th century.
No argument from me on either one.
His second five: Brahms, Stravinsky, Verdi, Wagner, Bartok. I don’t feel comfortable kicking out any of them. Bartok may seem like a straggler, but listen to the Concerto for Orchestra again, or the even greater Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and see if you still feel that way. The string quartets are considered the greatest set in that form since Beethoven. I might just query the limit to ten. What good is this list if it doesn’t have Handel or Mahler? Or Chopin? Or Josquin? All of whom are equally dear to me.
This is just for debate. I think there are tiers, even if we argue over who belongs on which one. Brahms is on my top, Schumann my second. Others would disagree. Have at it.