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):
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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?
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.
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?
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:
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!
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 – )
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):
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?)
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.
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?
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.
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:
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:
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.]
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.