Posts Tagged: Anthony Tommasini

Top 10 Genre Composers

This list, #6 on our Top 10 Top 10, is kind of a free-for-all.  I wouldn’t say it’s as vaguely defined as that last list, but it’s definitely more of a game game than trying to analyze who the most influential composers were.  The idea is to pick composer whose overall output may not have been worthy of the greatest pantheon, but who did write one genre of music better than anyone else.

You’ll pick it up as you go along.

1. Johann Strauss Jr. (1825 – 1899) – Waltzes

Nothing beats a good old fashioned waltz.  I use them in my own music all the time.  And nobody ever wrote a better waltz than the great Viennese legend Johann Strauss, Jr.  He was so passionate about three-quarter time that he even defied his famous composer father – in order to follow in his very footsteps (Johann Sr. had a banking career in mind for his sohn.)

He is rightly fêted every year on New Year’s Eve by the World’s Greatest Strauss Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic:


(Rosen aus dem Süden, VPO/Boskovsky)

2. Charlies Villiers Stanford (1852 – 1924) – English Church Music

Leave it to an Irishman to best the English at their own game.  The English choral tradition is a quite specific thing.  There’s the whole issue of dueling churches, the Anglican and the Catholic.  Certain composers specialized in one or the other.  Certain composers were glad to be denominational mercenaries.

Another irony in my selecting Mr. Stanford for this particular honor is that I submit as his outstanding work a Latin Motet:


(Beati Quorum Via, Cambridge/Rutters)

3. Kurt Weill (1900 – 1950) – Cabaret Songs

What I love about Weill’s songs is how sardonic they are.  He displays a remarkably dark wit in the interplay of his spiky harmonies with the light lyrics (which he didn’t write).  His music represents the gritty world that his characters inhabit.

I also like how many of his cabaret songs are real Cabaret Songs – that is, the lyric sets them inside an actual cabaret.  It’s much like a Saloon Song.


(“Alabama Song”, Marianne Faithfull)

4. Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924) – Opera

Puccini appears on my lists of Top 10 Melodists and Top 10 Composers for Non Concert Settings (i.e. the stage).  So, it should be pretty obvious why I would put him as the top opera man.  I’ll be interested to see if the Wagner contingent mounts a strong defense.  As much as I adore Richard’s music, I’d prefer to listen to it in smaller, concert-sized chunks.

5. Vladislav Zolotaryov (1942 – 1975) – Bayan Music

OK, so here’s a composer and an instrument that you’ve likely never heard of, but get ready, because it’s going to be way better than you expected.

First off, this is a bayan:

Basically, it’s a Russian/Eastern European accordion, which differs from the regular accordion in some way or another.

[Now, apparently there is an alternate meaning to the word ‘bayan’ of which I’m wholly unaware.  If you want to find out what it is, or what it might be, or what ‘bayan’ might autocorrect to in some bizarre google conspiracy world, you could do a google image search for ‘bayan’, but I strongly recommend against it.]

So, we’ve established that much.  Everything I know about this composer’s biography comes from the liner notes of the one CD I’ve found with his music on it.  Apparently his parents were prisoners of the Gulag and he was born in the northernmost region of northeastern Siberia.  Great start.  He excelled at the bayan, and got some training in music at a small conservatory.  He was rejected several times from the Moscow Conservatory before he finally made it in to study composition.  He committed suicide at the age of 33.

He composed a number of pieces for other instruments, but this is where he made his mark:


(“I’m recalling instances of gloomy sorrow”, David Farmer)

6. (F.) Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) – Minuets

In many ways, I think the minuet was Haydn’s genre par excellence.  These pieces were not written for dancing.  They were written to add a dance scene into the dramatic flow of his symphonies (as I touched on in the discussion of Piazzolla in last list.)  Haydn was a wry observer of human interaction, and he humanizes his noble acquaintances in these minuets.

We might hear the heavy brocade weighing down the upper crust, or see the lush curtains and the warm glow of the gaslit ballroom.  We might sense the hesitations and embarrassments of the youth present, relishing their only opportunity for flirtation in a highly formalized milieu (then we catch them as they sneak out to the veranda.)  There are the dancers who don’t quite know the steps and their bashful apologies; then there are the big fat ladies with two left feet who couldn’t be less aware.

It’s all just so funny and charming and gemütlich:


(Symphony No. 94, LSO/Jochum)

7. Sufjan Stevens (1975 – ) – Pensive Old-Testament Banjo Ballads

OK, so there’s obviously a lot of things that Sufjan Stevens does impressively well.  And in my opinion, there’s a lot of things he does better than anyone else.  But in this category, he’s pretty much got to be the undisputed leader, right?


(The Transfiguration)

8. J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750) – Music for Solo Strings

I think Bach’s cello suites and solo violin sonatas & partitas are every bit as great an accomplishment as his works for organ and the big choral-orchestral combinations.  Not only are they shockingly original and deeply emotive, but they link him to other European masters of the solo viol, like Marin Marais and the incorrigible Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.


(B minor partita; Grumiaux)

9. W. A. Mozart (1754 – 1792)Piano Concerti

This is a genre-composer combination on many levels: that is to say, not only do I think Mozart wrote the definitive collection of piano concerti, but I think that the piano concerto was the definitive Mozart genre.  So chew on that one for a while.

For me, these are Mozart’s greatest operas.  They have the beauty, the drama, and the songfulness of his operas, but they condense the plot into about 30 minutes.  Who wouldn’t like that?


(D minor concerto, Brendel, St. Martin/Marriner)

10. Michel LeGrand (1932 – ) – Jazz Opera Film

Aside from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, just how many other Jazz Opera Films are there?  Well, there’s a least one: Les Demoiselles de Rochefort – ALSO by Michel LeGrand.  I’d say he sweeps this category.

No but seriously, he wrote such a gorgeous score for Les Parapluies.  And I know there’s a lotta h8trs out there, and h8trs gotta h8t.  And I hate that Steven Sondheim is one of them, and that he said that he thinks this “just doesn’t work” or whatever.  But then again, he was in Camp which might be the worst movie ever made, so with all due respect Steve, let’s just tone it down an notch, shall we?

I mean, come on:

Discuss

This is easily the most ridiculous list so far.  [Just you wait!]  But I think it should make for a good game, because there’s at least three ways to play:

1) Make your own damn list

2) Replace the composer for the category.
Example: Khatchaturian was a way better writer of waltzes than Johann Strauss Jr. ever was! [as if]
or Thomas Tomkins was a much finer composer of English choral music than was Charles Villiers Stanford! [perhaps…]

3) Drop one of my category-composer combos and say that your guy did his thing better than mine did his.
Example: Conlon Nancarrow was a much better writer of boogie-woogie piano rolls than Kurt Weill  was of Cabaret Songs!


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.

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).

Top 10 Most Innovative Composers

Day 1 in my audacious response to Anthony Tommasini’s Wild and CRRRAzy idea of choosing the top 10 composers.  Today, we focus on Innovation and Originality.  Which composers took the boldest risks and were willing to suffer the consequences?  Which composers were marked by thinking of musical ideas and sounds that simply nobody had ever thought of before?

I’ll further define this list in opposition to tomorrow’s list.  Tomorrow, we’ll look at the Top 10 Most Influential Composers.  Today’s composers could all be cul-de-sacs in musical history – no later composer need have taken up their particular style or innovations.  We’re talking about brazen, unfettered originality for originality’s sake.

1. Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869)

For my money, Berlioz is the greatest musical innovator.  His experiments often failed, but they never lacked for ambition.  Every piece was grander, bolder, and less practical than the next, beginning with the Symphony Fantastique and continuing up to his sprawling 4 1/2 hour opera Les Troyens. Berlioz never wrote in a prescribed form: he preferred inventing them.  He created tone poem-symphonies (Fantastique), symphony-concertos (Harold in Italy), and even bold admixtures of drama, narration, art song, and choral symphony (Lélio).

Before Berlioz, composers had depicted birds chirping, storms raging, and the rolling seas.  Berlioz depicted opium hazes, witch’s covens, and rolling heads:


(Symphonie Fantastique, MTT)

2. Carlo Gesualdo (1566 – 1613)

The Renaissance Italian prince is primarily known for two things: 1) finding his wife in flagrante with her lover and subsequently murdering them both (which, btw, was not only his prerogative, but his duty as a member of the nobility) and 2) composing Renaissance madrigals that made use of outlandish, expressionist harmonies.  Anybody who writes something like this in the 16th century is pretty original:


(Beltà poiché t’assenti, Concerto Italiano)

3. Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951)


In a lot of ways, the music that lead up to Schönberg’s radical departure from tradition did pave his way: Mahler and Strauss and Zemlinsky and those types were already stretching the boundaries of the Tonal system of chords and scales.  But Schönberg took their groundwork in much bolder directions.  He then concocted, out of thin air, a mathematical re-imagining of how notes could be structured into music – that is a real innovation, and that’s exactly what Schönberg did with his 12-tone system in 1921.

The results are sometimes strangely beautiful.  Sometimes, they are unspeakably ugly.  Usually, they are at least cool:


(Moses und Aron, CSO/Solti)

4. Harry Partch (1901 – 1974)

How much more original can you get than inventing your own instruments, scales, notational system, and musical language?  I mean, what’s even going on in this score for “Delusion of the Fury“?

While there’s no denying that everyone on this list had plenty of influences, Partch really stands out as an individualist.  What planet did he wander in from to write this?:


(“The Street”, Newband)

5. Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643)

David Ewen writes:

Compared to the archaic vocabulary and methods of his predecessors, Monteverdi’s operas represent an entirely new art.  This is not a revolution: there was nothing before Monteverdi that he could have revolutionized.  This is invention, the discovery of a brave, new world.  He was the first one to understand and appreciate the role of the orchestra in an opera, to use an instrumental style and resources as an ally for his dramatic mission.  To use instruments for the purpose of mood painting and characterization was simply without precedent.  He knew how to make his characters not the abstractions they had been before, but human beings.


(Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, Concerto Italiano)

6. Edgard Varèse (1883 – 1965)

This French-American composer wrote the first piece for an ensemble made up exclusively of percussion instruments: Ionisation from 1931.  Many composers invented ensembles, but percussion instruments lack one vital element of music: pitches.  [Usually.]  In eliminating all reference to traditional pitch systems and leaving himself with only rhythm, timbre, and dynamics, Varèse forced himself to create a musical language all his own.

Even when he did use more traditional instruments and ensembles, his music displays an undeniable individuality that was not linked with any of the prevailing trends in musical modernism.  That he later turned to electronic composition in the 1950’s simply confirms his ever-curious musical mind.


(Ionisation, Die Reihe Ensemble/Cerha)

7. Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

Please let’s not forget about everything Haydn did while he was toiling away in an obscure Hungarian field somewhere: he invented the symphonic form (four movements, fast – slow – minuet – faster), modernized the orchestra, invented the string quartet – both as a genre and as an ensemble (although, can you really separate the two?), and totally revolutionized musical language.  He is also the first composer to ever make significant use of folk music as source material for his compositions.

Suffice to say, when he started writing music, it sounded like this:


(Symphony No. 8, Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orch/Fischer)

and when he finished, it sounded like this:


(The Creation, LSO/Colin Davis)

8. Igor Stravinsky (1876 – 1963)

I know that Igor Stravinsky stole left, right, and center from Debussy, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, and probably a lot of other people.  But did any of them write this?


(The Rite of Spring, LSO/Davis)

I didn’t think so.

9. Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928)

This Czech composer was a really late bloomer – his early works were indebted to a folkloric, watered-down version of Brahms that he received via Dvorak.  And then, something happened – maybe it had to do with the death of his daughter, perhaps with his increasing fame and prosperity, but slowly and late in life, he forged a deeply personal style, especially in opera.

Janáček was everything you’d expect from an eccentric, craggy composer – he was an ill-tempered and obstinate man.  His radical style often sounds like it:


(String Quartet No. 1, Melos Quartet)

10. Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

Almost all the composers listed above were chosen because they created brash, aggressive, dramatic new sounds.  Debussy did just the opposite – he explored the many cool, washy colors that classical instrumentation had to offer.

It’s really important to remember that Impressionists in music and Impressionists in visual art may have ended up with “similar” effects, but they came at it from totally different starting points: whereas Visual Impressionists were trying to add vagueness and mood to their canvasses (so as to lessen distinction and increase the sense of an “impression”), Debussy was doing the exact opposite – he was trying to enrich his musical language so that sounds could actually turn into musical scenes with literal places and characters.

His real innovation was to combine the mellifluous sounds of Indonesian gamelan music with the greatly expanded harmonic palette of Wagner and Massenet.  Thus:


(Ibéria, Cleveland Orch/Boulez)

Talk Amongst Yourselves

I’m going to resist the temptation to write about all of my notable mentions, because that would defeat the purpose of just putting up 10 people, and plus, the whole point of this exercise is the discussion. Your job now is to argue with me and point out all of the people I either stupidly left out or stupidly included.

My only request is that if you propose a composerly alternative to any of my suggestions, please specify who you would like to remove from my list to be replaced with your contestant.

More than anything, I’d like to hear your all’s Top 10 Most Innovative Composers Lists.

Let the games begin.

Top 10 Top 10

I guess Anthony Tommasini can do whatever he wants, but this whole Top 10 Composers thing just isn’t as fun as it should be somehow.  Here are his rules: Western art music, starting at the Late Baroque, ending short of the contemporary period.

But what are we looking for?  He says “The Greatest”?  But what do we mean by Great?  The Best?  Personal favorites?  Most influential, or innovative?  I just think there would be a lot more room for discussion and interesting reasoning if we could narrow our  criteria and widen our scope.

Luckily I can do things the way I want to in my own home… and you don’t have to suffer Mr. Tommasini’s pitiable performances of great repertoire as a consequence.*

So, I propose we get waaay meta here and do a Top 10 Top 10 lists re: composers.  By “composers”, I mean people who express themselves in music by writing notes on paper (or a computer), using a Western musical notation (traditional scores, figured bass lines, lead sheets, etc.); this needn’t be their exclusive vocation or mode of expression.  So, we could include Sufjan Stevens – but not Irving Berlin.  By “lists”, I mean the following:

1. Top 10 Most Innovative Composers

2. Top 10 Most Influential Composers

3. Top 10 (Harmonic) Melodists

4. Top 10 Composers for Non-Concert Settings (NCS’s)
i.e. incidental music, dance, theater, film, etc…

5. Top 10 Composers Born During or After the year 1900

6. Top 10 Genre Composers
i.e. Chopin: Piano Music; Sondheim: Musical Theater Songs; Cliff Colnot: Jingles for Chocolate Candies… we’re not looking to cover any specific genres here, just choosing composers who are really excellent in one particular field.

7. Top 10 One Hit Wonders

8. Top 10 BEST, i.e. Most Technically Accomplished Composers

9. Top 10 Composers Who Make You Seem Cool When You Tell Other Musicians You Like Them

10. Top 10 Personal Favorite Composers
This is a favorite game of mine and has very prescribed rules… to be explained hence.

The games begin tomorrow.

*[N.B. – and this is going to be a long one – wtf gives w/ AT’s lackluster performances?  Perhaps this is the ultimate declaration of naïveté, but wouldn’t you expect a critic to have a little more sensitivity to things like color and emotion in his performances?  Like as opposed to technical polish?  I’m not saying that AT is a virtuoso performer, but his playing is clean enough… and yet it seems totally to lack substance.  Isn’t that artistic substance what he’s supposed to be reviewing?  It’s definitely what I’m more interested in reading about.

Caveat: I do respect Mr. T for putting his skillz out there to be witnessed by all, which is a bold thing to do, esp. for a critic.

But speaking of critics as practitioners, let’s just talk about Terry Teachout for a second, because I do respect him as a critic, I think he’s a good writer, and I like the breadth that he presents on his blog.  I also like his regularly posted, detailed philosophy and guidelines of how to get a regional production reviewed.  But the other day, he tweeted this:

Isn’t that kind of an embarrassing trove of ‘firsts’ for a man who’s been reviewing theater for like 20 years or something?  Critic as fan v. critic as practitioner… I’d better stop before this whole thing turns into a post about Pauline Kael.]