Monthly Archives: January 2011

Top 10 Composers Born During or After the Year 1900

Now we come to the vaguest of my Top 10 lists.  As far as the qualities we’re looking for in a composer, this list has no more specificity to it than the original Top 10 Composers List what first inspired my project.

I like having this list be more open-ended though, because I think we’ll get a lot more interesting interpretations of what makes a good 20th/21st century composer and hopefully a lot of variety in musical style.

Obviously, music in the 20th century was a whole new ball game.  First, there was this little thing called Sound Recording, which forever changed the ways in which music is created and disseminated.  Then there wholly new channels of communication allowed us to out about all the tinkerers and oddballs, the hermits living in caves and railroad cars (not to mention the suburbs of Mexico city.)  Supposedly at some point along the way, innovation trumped beauty as an aesthetic value in its own right.

OK now, before playing/judging, take a careful look at the title of this list: we’re not looking for composers who WORKED after 1900, we’re looking for composers who were BORN after 1900 (or during that year – so Copland is fair game; Poulenc is not.)  It’s just another little tweak to make the game harder/more interesting.  Maybe.

1. György Ligeti (1923 – 2006)

György Ligeti.  The Ligster.  “El Ligerino” (if you’re not into the whole brevity thing).  I think Ligeti is the best of what the 20th century is all about: he was a bold experimenter, he was a meticulous technician, and he forced musicians to reckon with the extremes of difficulty presented in his writing.

Ligeti’s music also forces listeners to confront their conceptions about what music IS (Poème Symphonique), yet it retains an obvious connection to the great music that came before him.  He was part of several movements: Dada, Darmstadt, even “World Music” to a certain extent, but he was beholden to none of them.

His music is intelligent but not abstruse.  He lived through some of the 20th century’s greatest atrocities (he even escaped a forced labor camp in Hungary) and yet he had a wicked sense of humor (his only work to bear a published opus number lists it as “No. 69”.)  He lived and created in the tiny sphere of the European avant-garde, and yet his music became a part of pop culture.

I think this about sums it up:


(Nonsense Madrigals, The King’s Singers)

2. Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998)

Why do I love Alfred Schnittke so very, very much?  There’s obviously the surface layer – the way that he can write a beautiful piece of music, then manipulate it 100 different ways.  But that would be worth nothing if there weren’t a tremendous and powerful meaning behind it.

Schnittke was in every way a more subversive artist than his Russian forbears, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev.  Admittedly, this was a much easier task for a Soviet artist working after the death of Stalin.  But I think it says a lot about Schnittke that even after all the walls had fallen, when the great 2nd World had come to its knees, he could have used his enduring popularity (and yes, he is a national HERO in Russia) to forge a new, and undoubtedly lucrative career by playing ball with the new regime; instead, he refused the Lenin Prize and moved to Germany.

Schnittke was the first composer to make full use of historical styles as a means of musical story-telling.  He was also the best.  His creepy distortions of earlier musics suggest a commentary about the meaning an manipulation of truth – let’s not forget that during the Soviet era, subscribers to the Soviet Encyclopedia would routinely receive replacement pages to be glued into their volumes when certain artists and politicians had become “non-persons”.


(Concerto Grosso No. 1, Kremer/von Dohnanyi)

3. Arvo Pärt (1935 – )

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is considered the great mystical figure of contemporary music.  There’s something of an irony involved here: he’s well published, well recorded, well represented in the media (especially in film soundtracks), well studied by the academic establishment, and even a frequent interview subject.

But despite our access to the man and his music, there’s no denying the powerful sense of the mystic in his art.  Pärt famously invented a system of writing counterpoint called tintinnabulation which mimics the ringing of bells.  His melodies recall Gregorian chant.  Amazingly though, his music doesn’t sound like an anachronism – it sounds like an eternity.


(Fratres, Shaham, GSO/Järvi)

4. Billy Strayhorn (1915 – 1967)

If you read David Hajdu’s Strayhorn biography Lush Life (and I certainly recommend that you do), you’ll find out just how very difficult it is to separate the contributions of this jazz legend from those of his constant collaborator, Duke Ellington.  But Ellington was born in the 19th century, so that makes it easy to choose Strayhorn for this list.

As best I can tell, Ellington was the revolutionary, Strayhorn the poet.  Ellington was nearly two decades Strayhorn’s senior, and while young Billy was still knee-high to a grasshopper, Duke was creating major innovations in harmony, form, and especially orchestration that would change the face of jazz composition.

But at the tender young age of 16, Strayhorn famously penned the aching and harmonically sophisticated ballad “Lush Life”.  During the very same period, there was this little gem, a melancholy ode to Chopin entitled “Valse”:


(Valse, van Rouijen)

5. Steve Reich (1936 – )

I’m not sure why, but I somehow feel like Steve Reich is a better minimalist than a composer.  It’s probably silly to even talk about such things, but I’d be interested in hearing if anyone else knows where I’m coming from.

His early pieces were tremendously innovative and they gave life to a whole new musical world.  Sometimes they shimmer, sometimes they startle.  Some can be preformed by just about anyone (“Clapping Music”), others require unerring virtuosity (“Piano Phase”).

Maybe it’s just me, but I find Reich’s newer work much less fresh and less skillful.  But maybe it’s just that his music has infiltrated the entire musical panorama so thoroughly that I approach these more recent pieces with an unfair set of expectations.

But hey, good luck making funner music than this:


(18)

6. Stephen Sondheim (1930 – )

Allow me to expand on the things I said about Sondheim last time.  First, he loves many of the same composers that I do: he’s frequently listed his favorites as Ravel, Berg, and Rachmaninoff.  Not to mention Bernard Herrmann.

So he takes those composers, mixes them with some more from the Great American Songbook (esp. Harold Arlen and George Gershwin), folds in the most brilliant lyrics in Broadway history, and voilà, you have a soufflé:


(Into the Woods, OLC)

(Who knew “Little Red Riding Hood” could be so creepy and so funny when you set it to a mixture of Ravelian blues and meta-Music Hall strolling music?)

7. Ástor Piazzolla (1921 – 1992)

The great innovator of the Argentinian Tango, Ástor Piazzolla studied composition with the mythical French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.  Piazzolla’s music is infused with the language of Bach and the early 20th century European modernists.

I liken his music to Haydn’s or Johann Strauss Jr.’s: his pieces aren’t written for the dance, they are written to tell the story of the dance.  Each piece is a miniature scene – the cabarets and night clubs where he cut his chops are the setting.


(“Milonga Loca”/Piazzola)

8. Thomas Adès (1971 – )

Thomas Adès is the real deal: a composer who writes music that is both interesting and  emotional, has the piano chops to back up his incredibly demanding instrumental ideas, and makes a living off writing and presenting his own works.

Add to that the fact that he’s adept at incorporating a variety of styles into his music and a natural flare for the dramatic (see The Tempest and Powder Her Face) and you’ve got a first rate composer.


(Violin Concerto, Marwood, COE/Adès)

9. Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992)

Messiaen reminds me of two other composers on this list: Arvo Pärt, because of his fervent and mystical religious beliefs; and Ligeti because of their shared experience as prisoners during WWII (Ligeti had it much harder) and because they both wrote music that explores new ground while maintaining a direct connection to the romantic tradition (Messiaen’s is stronger).

But now that I think of it, there are more parallels: like Ligeti, Messiaen dabbled in various –isms throughout the 20th century and took only what he liked.  Messiaen’s modal harmonies are often bear a passing similarity to Billy Strayhorn’s mellow sonorities.

Then there were all those damned birds.  And the weird early electronic instruments.  Let no one say that Messiaen wasn’t an original.


(Turangalîla Symphony, RCO/Chailly)

10. Alberto Iglesias (1955 – )

It would be slightly insane to make a list of the “Top” composers born after 1900 and not include at least one person who primarily worked in the essential 20th century art form, film.  Probably a lot of you will think it’s equally crazy to choose Alberto Iglesias, a semi-obscure Spaniard who’s only scored about 20 movies, to fit that bill.

My reasons: Iglesias takes the best things from other composers who rank among my favorites: Herrmann, Max Steiner, Miklos Rózsa – even Danny Elfman.  Then he turns the volume up.  He is an amazing orchestrator and user of instruments more generally.  Much like Pedro Almodóvar, his primary collaborator, Iglesias speaks an altogether contemporary language but informs it with a thorough knowledge of history.  Both gentlemen speak to our lightest and our profoundest selves.


(La Mala Educación)

Discuss

Formulating this list was a lot harder than I thought it would be.  It shouldn’t have come as any surprise that an instruction like “Pick the top 10 composers” would leave me adrift though.  The good thing was that in choosing the contenders, I was able to better define my criteria.

I’m glad I used a fixed birth date as a criterion: for one thing, it made things easier than if I had gone with an even vaguer notion of “20th/21st century” composers, because then there would have been invited all this blabbing about who’s secretly a 19th century composer, etc.  Choosing 1900 as a starting point for composer births was arbitrary enough.

I ended up going for a bon milieu approach: I preferred composers who were not afraid to experiment but who didn’t specifically align themselves with any group, and who made music that was both daring and beautiful.  Not really any different then the criteria I would use for composers of any era.

Now, my conversants, to the comments section.  The usual rules apply: make your own top 10 list or modify mine by replacing my selections with you own.  There’s a whole lot of latitude in this list – much room to interpret that pesky word “Top” and bring in a lot of different ideas about music.  Also, for this list please mention at least the birth year of your submissions.

A Pause

in which the author takes a brief respite from his harrying schedule of list-making and brings two new blogs to his readers’ attention:

1) The Universal Order of the Good Death

My friend Caitlin is a Death Industry worker, a writer, a dramaturg, and a medieval historian.   All of that comes together on her new website.

The basic premise of her blog (or her life, really) is that we contemporary Westerners are living in a world totally disconnected from the one basic inevitability of life: death.  Many people have never even seen a corpse.  Upon death, most bodies are whisked away to hospital morgue or a holding facility; when they reappear, they have been stuffed full of unnecessary embalming fluids, administered by an industry that prays on the public’s ignorance and fear of mortality.

So follow Caitlin on her journey through the funeral industry.  An extra treat is the web series that’s part of the blog, produced by another friend/crazy artiste, Angeline Gragasin.

2) Back at this Table

This blog is part of the fringe cult of Charlie Rose.  As much as I love the guy, I hope I never go so far off the deep end in my uh… appreciation of him.

Luckily for all of us, the three anonymous writers of this blog take a loose and humorous approach to the their devotion and to their subject.  Despite the blog’s infancy, it didn’t take long for it to find its way to my inbox via multiple sources who were aware of my own loose and humorous devotion to Charlie Rose.

Pause over: the listing recommences tomorrow!

Top 10 Composers for Non-Concert Settings

Our fourth in the series of top 10 lists, this list focuses on people who might be termed “the best collaborative composers”.  Composers who are distinguished by their contributions to film, theater, dance, TV, or some other non-musical medium.  In some cases, their works have a life on the concert stage, or in yet another medium.  In some cases, they also double as brilliant composers for the concert hall.  (In other cases, they double as not-so-brilliant composers for the concert hall.  Quite a smorgasbord we’ve got here.)

Each of these media requires something different.  Opera, pantomime, and ballet often require the music to tell the story as much as the action on stage.  Some music theater composers do this as well, but some just write great songs that propel their story along at a really entertaining clip.  Movies, TV, and “incidental music” for the theater are different – if the music distracts from what’s going on in the drama, it has ceased to serve it’s function.  But the really excellent composers for these media do more than just set a mood – they come up with ingenious ways of working the musical material into our minds and play subtle psychological games so that we interact with what’s going on in front of our eyes on a subconscious level.

1. Stephen Sondheim (1930 – )

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think Sondheim is our greatest living American composer.  The irony of my including him on this list, however, is that I always find that his music is ruined when I see it staged in the theater.  His music (not to mention his lyrics) does such an amazing job of telling the story that I can lean back, close my eyes, and see every move, facial expression, and visual image in the play.

But it’s not Sondheim’s fault that the people in the business of recreating his works can’t possibly match his genius and live up to what he’s written.  Here’s a glimpse of a nearly-original production of Sweeney Todd (the ’82 touring company). It’s directed by Hal Prince, so let’s just go ahead and call it “authentic”. Notice how Sondheim writes all of Mrs. Lovett’s slaps, stomps, and sighs into the music?  That’s good theater.

 

2. Bernard Herrmann (1911 – 1975)

Would Alfred Hitchcock’s films be what they were without Bernard Herrmann’s music?  No way.  His pre-Hermmann films were excellent, and had that certain Hitchcock touch, let there be no doubt: through Herrmann, we see Hitchcock at his best.  Herrmann’s music elucidates and amplifies everything in Hitchock’s visual language.

He scored Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane.  He scored Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  He wrote the iconic opening sequence for The Twilight Zone. What more do you people want??  Whatever it is, he’s got it.  A horror score using only strings?  Psycho.  A heavily ironic score for a romantic comedy adventure?  North by Northwest.  An intricate psychological dreamscape?  Try this:

3. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

Name a single ballet in the common repertory written before Tchaikovsky came along.  The only ones I can think of are “Giselle” and… that’s it.  Even Ballanchine said that before Stravinsky, the only ballet scores of any merit were Tchaikovsky’s.  He is a brilliant musical storyteller.  Add to that the fact that his music is so very danceable, and you’ve got a hit, baby.

More than any of the previous lists, this list is bound to reflect my personal view as an American.  And what could be more  American than seeing The Nutcracker during the month of December.  No, seriously, I think we’re like the only country who really gets into this ballet at Christmas thing.

Swan Lake moves me to tears, and it’s no surprise that it’s featured prominently in films like Billy Elliot and the highly comedic and altogether craptastic Black Swan.

4. Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924)

Now, my friend Marcello and I have gotten into a lot of debates about Puccini v. Verdi.  He thinks that Verdi is a better storyteller through music, whereas Puccini more or less writes soundtracks for the action on stage.  Point well taken, though not entirely conferred.

My biggest problem with opera is pacing.  A composer is invariably tempted to stop the action and tell us everything about a character’s inner depths.  That’s great, and it’s a really unique property of music that it can do just that, so why not go for it?  Because if the characters aren’t doing anything, why should we care about their inner lives?

For me, Puccini is that rare combination of an opera composer who can pace the action in a scene and simultaneously tell us everything we need to know about the characters in it.

5. John Williams (1932 – )

Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Indiana Jones, E.T., Home Alone, Hook, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, and don’t forget a little something called THE OLYMPIC GAMES.

Yes, it does read like a Steven Spielberg filmography, but fine.  The two are ideally suited for each other.  They are both unabashed manipulators of our emotions, and they both do it incredibly well.

John Williams may be a red-handed thief when it comes to his material.  But he doesn’t waste what he’s stolen.  His music may be as cheezy as an overflowing fondue pot.  But I bet all of you could sing the main themes from each of the above listed movies, and that’s saying a LOT.

I mean, come on, right?

6. Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990)

Wait, so you’re saying street gangs don’t do ballet?  Could have fooled me.

 

7. Alberto Iglesias (1955 – )

An analogy:

Iglesias:Almodóvar:
:Herrmann:Hitchcock

During their generation, Hitchcock and Herrmann were the most distinguished practitioners of their respective art forms.  It also happens that they were ideally suited collaborators – they shared an artistic soul.  One expressed that soul in a visual language, the other in an aural one.

I would say the exact same thing about Alberto Iglesias and Pedro Almodóvar.  Again, the movies Almodóvar made pre-Iglesias are very much his own, and excellent in and of themselves.  The ones he made with Iglesias as collaborator are just way better.

8. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

Stravinsky’s first three major works, all ballets, are staggering accomplishments in every category: harmony, form, orchestration, instrumentation – everything.  And I don’t care that we’ve lost a lot of the original choreography – I know that these are perfect works for the stage.  Much like what I said about Sondheim, Stravinsky’s music tells the story.

My primary example would be Petrushka, his 1911 ballet about puppets coming to life (a Russian sort of Pinnocchio, you might say).  Every character, every argument, every laugh is vividly portrayed in the music.  Different musics interact with each other, and pile on top of each other, just like freaks at a carnival show.

He did plenty of experimenting in weird little stage genres, like pantomime (Renard), narrated chamber music (Histoire du soldat), and ballet chanté (Les noces).  But what I find really striking is that he could be as moving in the overblown romanticism of The Firebird (1910) as he could be in the refined and formal classicism of Apollo (1928):

(and p.s. Herrmann:Hitchcock::Iglesias:Almodovar::Stravinsky:Balanchine, yes?)

9. Frank Loesser (1910 – 1969)

I think Guys & Dolls is the perfect musical.  Great tunes, great pacing, great dialogue – everything you’d want.  The amazing thing is that Frank Loesser is the first and only Broadway triple threat, having written the score, the lyrics, and the libretto for this gem of the musical stage.

Plus, how do you not include someone who looks like that?

 

10. Danny Elfman (1953 – )

Everyone just looves to talk about how Danny Elfman doesn’t write his own music.  Admittedly, there is so much rumor-mongering out there, it can be really hard to sort the facts from the fiction.  I think this article makes a really good case, and I’m willing to take it at face value.

OK, so the guy writes his own music.  And it’s really, really cool.  I can hardly think of a more inventive score than Beetlejuice – it’s a wild romp, just like the movie itself.  And who doesn’t tear up when that choir comes in at the end of Edward Scissorhands?

The pièce de résistance however, has to be Nightmare before Christmas – I loved it when I was a kid, and I was really surprised when I started conducting youth orchestras 10 years later that it was still so very popular.

(so, Danny Elfman:Tim Burton::… do we really have to go through this whole thing?)

Discuss

So that last list didn’t seem to generate much talk… I guess it was just a little too tame for the Webern crowd.  But I’m anticipating that this list could get real territorial real quick.  Will the opera queenz, the balletomanes, and the Hans Zimmer fanatics get all up in each others’ grillz?  Will there by any video game music people out there?  Will anyone say Adam Guettel?  Will Gabe say Monteverdi?

And are there any Lost fans out there?  I never watched the show, but I almost thought about including Michael Giacchino just on Alex Ross’s recommendation.  And speaking of TV, how about Alf Clausen?

Just remember, we’re not trying to glorify any cults here; we’re just taking a chance to reason and discuss and think about music.  But the fun of this game is to face the artificial limits it provides and organize your thoughts accordingly.  So, either a) come up with and present your own list or b) suggest alternatives and remove someone from my list in so doing.

Top 10 Harmonic Melodists

I don’t believe there is such a thing as a Good Melody.  I almost don’t know what such a thing would mean, because for me, a melody is nothing without a good harmony.  Or perhaps I should say, “harmonic progression”.  Harmony’s great, but what’s the use of a good harmony without a beautiful melody to glide upon it, to argue against it, to define it, to sing it?

So when people speak of ‘the Great Melodists’, I think they’re really talking about those people who are masters of uniting beautiful melodies with complimentary harmonies, not just writing tunes.  Gregorian chant, which may be considered the purist form of melody, interests me on little more than an intellectual level and rarely moves me beyond a vague sense of the ethereal.  There are even certain bel canto opera composers from the 19th c. who wrote grand melodies with attractive features, but who won’t be included on this list in favor of composers who wrote melodies at least as good, and had more interesting harmonies.

The most basic of melodies can be rendered voluptuous when wrapped in a cloak of warm harmonies.  Here’s my list of the people who did it best, the third such list in our series.  See if you agree.

1. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

When you think Tchaikovsky, you think melody.  [Of course, really, you think harmonic melody, but I’ll try not to keep dwelling on this point too much.]  Tchaikovsky’s melodies are gorgeous, voluptuous, songful things.  There are big, sweeping melodies that take center stage.  There are also small little melodic fragments that, for some reason, have as much power as most other composers’ biggest tunes.  It takes a brave composer to suffuse every bar with melody this way – wouldn’t you be worried about running out?


(Manfred Symphony, LSO/MTT)

2. Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943)

You might notice a Russian theme (thème Russe?) developing here.  Those Russians sure can write some harmonic melodies.  Rachmaninoff adored Tchaikovsky, and it shows.  His harmonies are bolder and often darker than his model’s though, and his melodies contain many more surprises.

A lot of people think that beautiful melodies simply spin out from their creators’ hearts.  But a great tune is equal parts intellect and emotion.  This melody, from Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, could end any number of places and be perfectly satisfactory, but through a series of ever more ingenious harmonic tricks, Rachmaninoff keeps this one melodic thread going for over a minute.  It rises and falls many times, but it has only one apex point  – one note that is the top of the melody’s arc.  And, not surprisingly, this is the note with the most color to the harmony, the most poignancy and beauty.  Just listen – you’ll hear it about 48 seconds in.


(Piano Concerto #2, Atzmon/NPO, Frühbeck de Burgos)

3. Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924)

Puccini is such an obvious choice because of his lush operatic melodies.  And he brings us to another point about the great harmonic melodists, which is that they tend to be loved by the public but disparaged among the musical intelligentsia.  What a mistake is made in the groves of academe when the craggier professor types assume that a popular touch comes at the expense of a composer’s craft.  At least in Puccini’s case, it’s very much the opposite.  He was a genius of harmony, color, and orchestration (much like Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, btw.)

I think it would take a real cold fish not to get a body high from a passage like this:


(La Rondine, Pappano)

4. Richard Rodgers (1902 – 1979)


Of all Broadway’s great composers, Richard Rodgers is the most distinguished melodist.  He’s also an excellent example of what this particular list is really about, namely, who could write the best musical material.  Beethoven’s melodies can be transcendent at times, but he’s hardly our most accomplished tunesmith.  Beethoven’s great strength is the way he used his material.  Rodgers, on the other hand, only wrote melodies and harmonies – he didn’t arrange, orchestrate, or write the lyrics for any of his tunes.  [Though he certainly benefited from collaborating with one of the most brilliant colorists in the history of Broadway orchestration.]

So I think it’s a real testament to his talents that the melodies themselves are the most distinguished feature of his musicals.  Sure, Oklahoma was a landmark in music theater history for its bold exploration of form and artistic integration, but it’s a melody like this that brings tears to your eyes:


(“I Have Dreamed”, OBC)

5. Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875)

Not surprisingly, we come to another composer most well-known for his work in the theater.  Carmen might be the greatest collection of tunes in opera.  Note the distinction – not the greatest opera (though it sure ain’t shabby!), but the best set of tunes as an opera.

Interestingly, Bizet was a mightily accomplished piano virtuoso, even impressing Liszt at a dinner party with his chops.  [You know, his playing.  Not his lamb chops – or his mutton chops, impressive as they may have been.]

Prepare for aural ravishment:


(“L’Arlesienne Suite”, Ulster/Tortelier)

6. Alexander Borodin (1833 – 1887)

The third Russian on our list, Mr. Borodin’s primary vocation was as a chemist (a rather dour chemist, from the look of it).  For those who care about such things (or for those who just don’t have time to read the entire Wikipedia article), Mr. Borodin discovered the Hunsdiecker Reaction 90 years before Hunsdiecker.  And Hunsdiecker didn’t even write a single quartet.  Asshole.

Borodin’s tunes are so lovely that they famously made it to Broadway.  He sure knew his chemistry, all right.  No wonder he’s so beloved:


(String Quartet #2, Takács)

7. Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

Of the so-called “Vienna Four“, Schubert is the tuneliest.  He may also be the ugliest, but we’ll save that discussion for a later list.  Mozart tended to make his singers his instruments; Schubert made instrumentalists into singers.

Schubert also produced a stunning variety of melodies.  The music of his late masses spins out into eternity, wrapping us in transcendence.  A tune like “The Trout” is as solid and rustic as an Austrian lumberjack.  But he could also write a gasping little noir melody like this one, which takes place entirely within one person’s soul:


(Piano Trio #2, Odeon)

8. Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901)

There is some very basic thing that doesn’t sit right with me about Verdi.  But then I go to one of his operas, I do my best to inhabit his world of dramatic pacing, and the majesty and melodrama of his music win me over.  Then I leave, and I sort of half-embrace him.  And the cycle repeats itself.

Was Verdi really a greater writer of melodies than his immediate predecessors, the bel cantists?  That is really, REALLY hard to say, because they were all pretty damn good.


(La Traviata, Gheorghiu/Solti)

9. Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695)

I swear I’m not putting Purcell on here just to be weird or contrarian or whatever, but I will admit that I find his music incredibly unique, and that you’re very likely to see him on my “Personal Favorites” list.  Part of the reason he’s getting on this list when all the other composers are 19th century or later is that he lived at this weird historical period when Tonal Harmony was not quite standardized, but it sort of worked, and I think this allowed him to use harmony in a way that I don’t hear from any other composer.

I also think that he’s the only “classical” composer to write idiomatically for the English language, and he did it in a tuneful way that we wouldn’t see again until 20th century popular music came. Although that’s sort of complicated because a lot of his music sounds like what I’ve always guessed to be the pop music of his era.


(“If Music be the Food of Love”, King’s Consort)

10. Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)

Not being a classically trained pianist, Chopin will always remain something of a mystery to me.  But again, he’s sort of like Verdi in my personal pantheon – I don’t think about him much, but when I’m listening to his music, I can’t resist its allure… until I start to get bored.

Part of the genius of Chopin’s melodic writing is that he took full advantage of his medium, the piano – when writing for the human voice, the range of a melody is much more restricted.  I’m not easily won over by lots of fancy figuration – Chopin’s pianistic coluratura, if you will.  But there are those times when Freddy gets out of his own way and presents his melodies in their gorgeous simplicity.  I include him here because I think he had a wonderfully colorful harmonic palette, something that his great heroes of the bel canto often lacked.


(Eb Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2, Rubinstein)

Discuss

We’ve had some stirring commentary in the past few, so let’s keep it going.  Tell your friends!  I’ve already learned a ton from your collective knowledge.

In a lot of ways, this was my favorite list to make [because it sounds so preeetty].  I really hope we get some bel canto queens up in here talkin bout Gaetano Donizetti or some shit.  And since we have no genre guidelines, I think this list more than any so far should bring up a lot of debate and new names.

Remember the rules of the game: either put up your own top 10 list; or, if you’d prefer to suggest an alternative to one of my composers, you must choose a composer to remove from my list.  So let’s see how fast everyone can type “Purcell” and click submit.

Top 10 Most Influential Composers

List #2 in my Top 10 Top 10 lists game.  Today, we look at the composers whose music inspired the musicians who came after them.  I’d like to note that, in general, this is something that is totally out of a composer’s control – how can they possibly know if their musical language will be absorbed by anyone following them?  [The big exception is people like Shönberg who were also significant teachers and disseminators.]  So, I’m mostly trying to judge a simple historical fact here, not a composer’s talent or skill in “being influential”.

1. Guillaume de Machaut (1300 – 1377)

I realize it’s sort of obnoxious to start my list with someone who is only slightly older than music itself, and whose name is only vaguely familiar to the most astute of  Early Music History Review students, but isn’t being sort of obnoxious one of the tenets of good blogging?

Guillaume really does deserve pride of place here for a lot of reasons – basically, he influenced a century and a half of musicians after him, something that very few other people have done.  He popularized the use of four voices in mass settings, he added complexity to popular song forms, and he was also an accomplished poet.  His intense vanity compelled him to publish his “collected works” in several volumes at the end of his life, something noone else had ever done and something that added considerably to the idea of music publishing and dissemination, not to mention scholarship.

Guillaume’s music sounded like this:


(Messe de Notre Dame, Hilliard Ensemble)

Influenced: Basically every 14th, 15th, and 16th century composer right up through Josquin and Vittoria.  In fact he’s so influential, that some crazy person let loose on the grounds of Deutsche Grammaphon’s corporate headquarters even released a CD of Machaut remixes (including one by Brad Mehldau).

2. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)

Time to break out the big guns, boys – Johann’s in town.  Bach’s name will appear on a good many of these lists, because he did a good many things.  Even though he was beyond everyone in his own time period, he was considered old-fashioned.  Ever the musician’s musician, he continued to be revered by composers and scholars even when his public image languished.

Influenced: His sons (JC, CPE, and the rest of his alphabetic brood), Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Brahms, Hindemith, and probably everyone that ever wrote two lines of counterpoint.

And he very definitely influenced Mahler.  From deep in the bowels of the “Resurrection” Symphony:

3. George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

In his short lifespan, George Gershwin wrote popular tunes that were irresistible to broadway, classical, and jazz musicians alike.  Jazz musicians in particular latched on to his melodies and practically invented the idea of “standards” around them.

Meanwhile, he influenced several generations of popular classical composers (especially Lenny Bernstein) to try out jazzier idioms in the concert hall.  I don’t think any single person is more responsible for the state of popular music worldwide than George Gershwin.

Here’s a little tour through 20th c. popular music history via Gershwin’s “Summertime”:

Influenced: Bernstein, Sondheim, Ravel, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Ferde Grofe, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, every jazz musician who ever soloed over “Rhythm Changes”, every jazz composer who ever wrote a new tune over “Rhythm Changes”, every pop composer up to the present time who ever stole the descending bass line pattern from “I got Rhythm” (otherwise known as “Rhythm Changes”), at least.

4. (Franz) Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

Papa was on our first list because he was a musical ground-breaker, but he appears on today’s because all his innovations were taken up by other people.

Influenced: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, Ravel, and literally anyone who ever wrote a symphony or a string quartet.

5. Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1754 – 1792)

Master of every domain, including opera, chamber music, symphony, and concerto, Mozart cast a wide net over his successors.  Not surprisingly, opera composers down the ages worshiped him – Rossini was even dubbed “The Little Mozart” because of his affinity for the composer.

Tchaikovsky, however, was probably his most ardent admirer.  Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades is totally saturated with Mozart, but I don’t even know if Mozart could have written as Mozartean a number as this:


(“Moi milenki druzhok”, Gergiev)

Influenced: Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Schubert, Schumann, Haydn, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff.

6. Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951)

This poor man is so maligned for having opened the Pandora’s box of 20th century modernism in music.  And with good reason.  Starting with his close circle of pupils in Vienna, everyone just had to compose using his various systems.  The real hook was dodecaphony, Schönberg’s principal for organizing the 12 pitches into previously unthought-of combinations.  The 12-tone technique spawned an even more mathematically rigorous offspring: serialism.

There’s no point in judging whether or not this was a good thing – it simply is what happened.

Influenced (for better or for worse): Berg, Webern, Boulez, Nono, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Eisler, Babbitt, Sessions, Wolpe, and leagues of other composers who wrote even uglier music.

7. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

Beethoven’s an interesting case – sometimes he even influenced people not to compose.  That was the case with Brahms who couldn’t get it up to write a symphony while Beethoven’s shadow was still in the room.  More than any technical specific procedures, I think Beethoven’s biggest influence was in the philosophical scope of music – would Mahler ever have been able to compose the “Resurrection” symphony without Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”?

Influenced: Berlioz, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Ravel (I think), Bartok, Mahler, anyone who put a chorus in a symphony, anyone who ever thought music could literally change the world.

8. Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Few composers had such a devoted cult in their own lifetime (not to mention after).  Wagner’s innovations were far reaching, and spread like wildfire.  Others had used themes to represent characters and objects before, but Wagner’s organized use of leitmotifs became a principle followed by several generations of composers.  He also influenced a number of non-compositional disciplines: conducting, dramatic staging, architecture, and, unfortunately, philosophy.

Influenced: Mahler, Strauss, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Franck, Sibelius, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Dvorak, Elgar, Max Steiner, Karl Goldmark, Howard Shore, and anyone who wanted to convey a dramatic impulse through music.

9. Mikhail Glinka (1804 – 1857)

I know hardly anything about this man or his music, but what I do know is that any time you read anything about a Russian composer who came after him, those guys are always talking about how big an influence he was.  So, it’s a slightly “provacative” inclusion on this list (and yes, I do expect wide-spread violence as a result of it) but maybe it will induce someone – anyone – to give his music a first listen and a fair shake.

Tchaikovsky adapted this theme from Glinka’s “Ivan Susanin” for the head motif of his 5th symphony:

Influenced: Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich

10. Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643)

In the first list, I quoted the eminent music scholar David Ewen in noting Monteverdi’s profound accomplishment.  The fact that we still have people writing operas today is largely due to him CM, not to mention the fact that he more or less invented the idea of instrumental tone painting.

Influenced: Schütz, Cavalli, Lully, Scarlatti, Rameau, Vivaldi, and essentially everyone who ever wrote an opera.

Discuss

Rules of the game: either submit your own top 10 list, or submit one or more alternates to my list in the comments section.  If you choose the latter option, note that you must replace someone on my list, and make sure you tell us who it’s going to be.

Or just use this space to chat amongst yourselves about various Influential composers.  “Composers”, for our purposes, means people who write music using any Western notation (it could be of their own devising).  There is no limit as to genre or time period, so I’d be very interested to see some bizarre responses (think: Anton Reicha).