1) These are your personal FAVORITES. No explanations, no reasoning. Don’t choose someone just because you think he or she is a particularly good or great composer. Choose someone because you love his or her music. [Note: the two need not be mutually exclusive.]
2) These are your personal favorites at this very moment in time. Try to let it flow – don’t hem and haw. Five minutes hence, you might have a totally different list. In fact, you could come back five minutes later and post a whole new list. I would love it if you did that. Maybe the You of five minutes ago really didn’t understand the You of now and your new perspective on life, love, and music.
3) Your list need not reflect any particular order. It can if you want it to though. Also – and this is very important – just because someone’s not on your list doesn’t mean you don’t love them.
4) Our working definition of ‘composer’ is anyone whose primary means of musical conveyance is the written note. Feel free to understand this broadly.
Discuss! We’ve had some astonishingly interesting and in depth discussions on these lists. Between like 5 people. And I love those 5 people, and respect them and value their opinions and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from them. But I have a little thing called Google Analytics, and, Dear Readers, I know that there’s many more of you out there. This is a get-to-know you activity – absolutely not a debate. Just fun, y’all!!
I’ll start. In no particular order (excepting Beethoven):
My Top 10 Personal Favorite Composers
1. Ludwig van Beethoven
2. Alfred Schnittke
3. Maurice Ravel
4. Jean Sibelius
5. Claude Debussy
6. Giaocomo Puccini
7. Stephen Sondheim
8. Henry Purcell
9. Joseph Haydn
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Hi blogfanz – I’m back, and I’m glad to be returning to our top 10 top 10 with List #8, the Top 10 BEST Composers, where by “BEST” we mean something along the lines of “Most Technically Accomplished”.
“Compositional technique” is a phrase that gets bandied around a lot (among a tiny, tiny élite of classical musicians and critics). But I don’t think I’ve ever heard it defined. Composers confront a series of Design Challenges and Execution Challenges as they write a piece. So, is a composer’s technique simply a question of how well he or she executes a given design? Is it possible to separate the design from the execution?
My favorite example of this conundrum is Gordon Jenkins, a composer/arranger from the Golden Era of pop music who wrote beautiful, lush arrangements for Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, et al. As a composer, he specialized in writing “concept albums” for many of these collaborators.
His concepts for these albums were, in a word, ludicrous – Frank Sinatra taking a guided tour of outer space, for example. But the music he wrote to accompany his zany scenarios is gorgeous. It’s like, “yeah, if Frank Sinatra took a space ship to Saturn and then sang a jig about it, this is the best possible version of that jig.” You know?
Here’s what I came up with. We’ll talk more about the criteria at the end:
1. J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750)
Any person who writes a canon at the 7th, smoothly and gloriously, you do not mess with this person.
00:00 Impassioned 2-part counterpoint; violins v. lower strings; build-up to
00:11 The previous two lines are remixed into one, and this composite line is pitted against itself; build-up to
00:21 Dramatic tremolo in strings, winds play the main motive (ascending 3-notes), trombones recall the main motive from the previous movement of the symphony.
00:32 Letter D:
Violins and bassoon play the counterpoint from the beginning of this movement, flute and oboe keep playing the motive from the last section, long tones in the lower strings build drama and tension into
00:48 Parallel section to 00:21
This is what we call ‘tightly constructed’ – the themes all relate to each other, play against each other, appear and reappear, and build up into a large scale structure. But honestly, you don’t have to appreciate ANY of this to enjoy the symphony. This wealth of composerly technique is in the service of beautiful, dramatic, and emotional musical story-telling.
3. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
I say we let Lenny sort us out on this one:
4. (F.) Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Now, a lot of the tricks that Lenny was just talking about w/r/t Beethoven, I’m convinced Beethoven learned from Haydn. That is to say – the guy (Haydn) was killer when it came to form. But he (Haydn) also happened to be really good at all the things Lenny claims Beethoven sucked at: melody, harmony, fugues, etc. Haydn dazzles us, leaves us spinning, and has a ball doing it.
So for all his fancy tricks, I’m going to present a passage that seems rather mundane – just 8th notes, in pairs. The trick though, is that he slowly modulates the harmony, dynamics, and instrumentation to bring us back to the opening theme of this, the last movement of his 88th Symphony:
It’s like you’re driving around some back country roads, and just when you think you’re totally lost, you look up and it turns out you’re back where you started. That’s Haydn.
5. Johannes Ockeghem (1420ish – 1497)
I’m hardly an expert on this composer or his music. But like many an undergraduate music major before and since, I did at one time learn about the staggering contrapuntal accomplishments of Flanders’ greatest son.
Let’s look at his most famous work, the Missa Prolationum, so called because of its extensive use of “prolation canons”. It works like this: you all know what a canon is – “Row, row, row yr boat”, “Frère Jacques”, etc., anything where one guy sings a tune and the other guy starts singing the same tune a little later and it all works out harmonically. Well, in a “prolation canon” (which is more commonly known as a “mensuration canon”), the two guys sing the same tune at different speeds. Normally, they have a relation to each other – like twice as fast or twice as slow.
They don’t always have to stagger their entrances either – they can both start singing at the same time and it still counts. Ockeghem took this idea of mensuration canons to the extreme. Here’s the Kyrie II from his mass. There are two melodies: one in the soprano and alto, and another one in the tenor and bass. The soprano and alto sing their melody at different speeds. The tenor and bass sing their melody at two entirely different speeds. What’s more, the two melodies are very closely related.
You try to do that.
I don’t know where to even begin talking about Mozart’s ridiculous compositional technique, but you can’t do much worse than the final set of canons in his last symphony, No. 41 (the “Jupiter”). This piece is chock full of canons, fugues, and other contrapuntal devices – and yet, you never get tired of them (unlike, let’s admit it, Bach). It’s just one vivacious bar after another:
With a mind to the generalish audience that sometimes reads this blog (if anyone’s actually made it this far), let’s turn again to the Hungarian composer’s Nonsense Madrigals, based on texts by Lewis Carrol.
Here’s “Flying Robert”:
So what makes this so great? Well, first off, let’s figure out what’s going on.
Element the first: The tenor has a melody (“when the rain… when the rain comes tumbling down… in the country or the town”). Each of the three phrases of the melody begins the same and builds to a higher note. The rhythm of the melody is irregular – it has a rhapsodic quality.
Element the second: This piece is a passacaglia, which means there is a repeated, regular figure in the bass line. Ligeti does that and also includes the two baritones in establishing the pattern. So even though this pattern gets shifted from beat to beat, there is a regular pulse going on, grounding the music.
Element the third: When the altos come in, they pick up the tenor’s melody, but their rhythm mimics the regular pulse of the passacaglia people, but shortening their pulse by 1/4 of the value. Just to make things a little more complicated, at the top of the third system, the second alto starts drifting off into his own little world.
So again, what’s so great about this? It’s that Ligeti combines the elements in a way that gives the listener a simultaneous sense of regularity and irregularity – everything sounds natural but odd, logical but unpredictable. It works like a precision machine, as does much of his music, including the wild, 100-instrument scores from his early period.
9. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)
I’ll admit, there’s occasionally things that are clumsy in Stravinsky’s writing – some of his meter and barring choices can be rather confusing at times – but the flaws are very minor, and easily overlooked when taken in context of his overall skills as a writer of music.
Since fugues seem to be a common theme of this list, here’s a great one:
Alban Berg, the shining light of the Second Viennese School, has gotten all too little love up in these lists so far. Finally, we’ve arrived at his category.
What I personally find so impressive about Berg’s writing is his ability to unite disparate elements. He chose to use a wide range of compositional tools: tonality, atonality, dodecaphony. He wrote waltzes and polkas, but infused them with eerie harmonies. He wrote startling, arhythmic sound masses and contrasted them with delicate, crystalline chords.
His opera Wozzeck is practically a textbook of compositional forms. But I’ve chosen the most famous passage from his Violin Concerto to illustrate how he so skillfully combined vastly different musical worlds:
Berg’s going from a huge dissonant cluster to a quotation of Bach. What’s admirable is the smooveness with which he does it: the chorale melody starts with a rising 4-note motive. He introduces this motive in the violin during the most dissonant music. Then he gives us the tune, but it’s set against slightly less dissonant music. By the time the winds enter on Bach’s harmonization, it makes all the sense in the world.
So, in choosing the composers on this list, I think I settled on the following criteria for great compositional technique:
1) handling of counterpoint (multiple, simultaneous lines)
2) tight motivic construction (building melodies and sections of music out of small themelets)
3) form (a logical succession of musical ideas, paced correctly so that the music seems to follow a logical flow)
4) ability to contrast and unite disparate musical ideas (which nobody does better than Schnittke, and I hate not including him on this list)
And then there’s the matter of, given their resources, how well did these guys write the stuff down on a score? Sibelius is one of my favorite composers, but his scores are a certifiable mess when it comes to logic and consistency. Ligeti’s scores are nearly as virtuosic in their meticulous layout and instructions as they are in their musical content.
So, y’all, what do you make of these criteria? And who fits it? My guys, or some other peops?
If you’ve made it this far, it’s time to let your voice be heard in the comments section!
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.