Posts Tagged: Top 10 Composers

Top 10 Personal Favorite Composers

OK everyone, this is the last Top 10 Top 10 list – Personal Faves.  Here are the rules:

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

10. Björk

Top 10 BEST Composers

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.

(Goldberg Variation 21, Glenn Gould ’54)

2. Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

Here’s some mad compositional technique: Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, second movement, letter D.  This audio begins 4 bars before the printed excerpt.  Here’s what happens:

(Concertgebouw, Jansons)

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:

(Wiener Phil, Lenushka)

(score picks up on 00:04)

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.

(Hilliard Ensemble)

6. Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

I’ll turn over the floor again, this time to Esa-Pekka Salonen:

7. Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1754 – 1792)

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:


8. György Ligeti (1923 – 2006)

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”:

(King’s Singers)

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:

(Symphony of Psalms, LSO/MTT)

10. Alban Berg (1885 – 1935)

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!

Top 10 One Hit Wonders

#7 on our ongoing series of Top 10 Top 10 lists

Sometimes you’ll be standing around chatting with friends at a party or even strangers at the dentist’s office and the subject of Favorite Composers comes up.  You’re stunned and thrilled and you run through 500 years of musical history in your head and inevitably the question arises: such-and-such a piece is one of my favorites but does that mean that such-and-such composer is one of my favorites?  Did he even write anything else?

And usually it just seems too far-fetched or embarrassing or irrational, so another composer gets passed over – or worse, ridiculed – just because he had the misfortune of having a huge success at one point in his career, something most of us would kill for!

No more!  Here are my top 10 One Hit Wonders:

1. Carl Orff (1895 – 1982)

For those who have ever even heard of him, Carl Orff is remembered solely for his cantata Carmina Burana.  For the hundreds of millions of other people who have heard the opening of this piece (and, more and more frequently, parodies of it) in every action film trailer, they simply think of it as evoking the Epic.

And the piece really is on an epic scale: it’s well over an hour long and requires hundreds of people to perform it.

The classical elite tend to poo-poo it because it’s rough and raunchy and lacking in counterpoint and other niceties, but when it comes right down to it, it’s got some attractive tunes, interesting orchestration, and it’s certainly as entertaining a spectacle as you’re going to see.

Poo-poo we may, though, Herr Orff’s unseemly relationship with the Nazi regime, the details of which remain unearthed.  Perhaps providing the anonymous soundtrack for a cavalcade of lowbrow genre pictures is an appropriate purgatory for such an icky person.

2. Gustav Holst (1874 – 1934)

To be fair, Gustav Holst is known for more than just The Planets.  But only among two groups of people: 1) string orchestra students in middle school and 2) band students in middle school.  OK fine, high school too.  The former because of his endlessly charming St. Paul’s Suite and the latter because of his two folksy Suites for Military Band.

But to the rest of us (or, more accurately, to the rest of you), he is known for that cosmically delightful orchestral suite, The Planets.  And why not?  It was a very unique idea for a tone poem, it’s gorgeous, and it works equally well in the concert hall and the plane’arium.

(Jupiter, BPO/Karajan)

It’s worth noting that the World Astronomical Society (or whatever it’s called) spurned another would-be One Hit Wonder when they downgraded Pluto to Dwarf Planet status.  The Hallé Orchestra had commissioned a certain pretender named Colin Matthews to write a “Pluto” movement to “complete” the cycle of the planets.  Your author is not ashamed to admit that he took a certain pleasure in this spurious composition being downgraded to Dwarf Music status.

3. George Enescu (1881 – 1955)

Befitting the title of this list, I know precious little about the lives of most of these composers.  The one little insight that I have about Mr. Enescu is that he composed his big hit, the Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 at the tender age of 18, it was a huge success, and he resented it for the rest of his life.

I would have to guess that Enescu is Romania’s most famous composer, largely because I can’t think of a single other one.  Can you?

This piece is one of the many that make Pops Concerts worth doing.

(Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, Bucharest PO/Mandeal)

4. Charles Marie Widor (1844 – 1937)

First off, can I just say that (1844 – 1937) is pretty amazing lifespan?  This guy overlapped with Robert Schumann and Steve Reich.  Not to mention he would have been a full-grown adult when the electric light bulb was introduced and could have seen television prior to his demise (though one assumes he didn’t.)

Maybe it was all those electric currents in the air, or maybe it was when they finally got into his organ (the one he played.  At church.  This isn’t getting any better…) but there’s something so catchy about that Toccata from his Organ Symphony No. 5:

(Toccata, Isoir)

5. Engelbert Humperdinck (1854 – 1921)

Mr. Humperdinck is known for two things:

1) having had his name appropriated by the eponymous 1970’s pop singer who is likely such a lame historical relic that most of my readers won’t even have heard of him and

2) the gorgeous fairy tale opera Hänsel und Gretel.

The latter is a lush, melodic work, sort of Arthur Sullivan meets The Magic Flute meets the Brothers Grimm meets Richard Wagner, but gentle and pretty.

(H&G, Cologne/Pritchard)

6. Franz Biebl (1906 – 2001)

Since we engaged in some minor slander (or, at the very least, hearsay) concerning Carl Orff’s relationship with the Nazi regime, let’s take this chance to shed a softer light on Herr Biebl’s activites.  Yes, he did fight in the German Army during WWII.  However, he was drafted and his service lasted only a few months before he was detained and taken to a prisoner of war camp in Michigan for 3 years.  So not exactly blameless, but no Carl Orff either.

His big hit, an all-male a cappella setting of the Ave Maria gained international attention because of Chanticleer.  The recording I submit for your enjoyment comes not from their ultra-pristine reading of it however, but from the Dale Warland Singers.  Perhaps those boys at Kurt’s new school will do it next on Glee.

7. Luigi Boccherini (1743 – 1805)

I am proud to count among my friends many superb cellists who may take issue with my calling Boccherini a One Hit Wonder.  But that would be such egregious partisanship towards a ‘cello composer’ that I trust they won’t dabble in such provocations.

We non-cellists may recognize this, the so-called “Celebrated” quintet:

(Capella Istropolitana)

8. Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857 – 1919)

I almost included Pietro Mascagni on this list item with Leoncavallo, since their respective hits, Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci are so frequently performed as a double bill.  I decided not to include Mascagni though, not because of the overly fawning descriptions from the Wikipedia Mascagni-ites [ps. memo to those people: methinks the lady doth protest too much…], but because there is nothing in Caveleria that even approaches the worldwide recognizability of “Vesti la Giubba”:

(Who else?)

9. Paul Dukas (1865 – 1935)

Monsieur Dukas personally had a lot to do with his status as a one-hitter – like Brahms before him, he was such a perfectionist that he ended up destroying many of his works.  With only a handful of published pieces, the odds were very low that any one of them would hit it big.

And none of them might have were it not for Walt Disney.  Mr. Disney deserves a lot of credit for his imaginative choice of repertoire for the original 1940 Fantasia.  His choice of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was obviously a win-win deal though – not that he could really enjoy his newly found popularity, but Mr. Dukas’ name does live on, and Mr. Disney got one of his most marketable images out of this particular episode.

(L’Apprenti sorcier, NRPO/Fournet)

As long as we’re talking about Paul Dukas, I should mention that his ballet La Péri is a personal favorite of mine, and I’d very much recommend it to fans of “Apprentice”.

10. Johann Pachelbel (1653 – 1706)

I couldn’t NOT include Pachelbel on this list, but I could at least make him last.  Any string players reading this will know the reason for my ‘tude re: Mr. Pachelbel: we have been forced to play his mega-hit Canon in D at least since we were in middle school, but it feels more like since the dawn of time.

And if it weren’t so over-played, it would be an easy piece to love.  It’s both festive and tear-jerky.  Its incessant repetition makes it seem like it slips in and out of eternity.  Ironically, its excessive length makes it seem like it lasts for all of eternity.  But really guys, it’s not as insipid a piece as we’re all led to believe.

Now, for those of you who are just plain sick of it, allow me to refresh your years by introducing unto you the GREATEST WEB SITE OF ALL TIME.  Some evil genius, possibly named H. Miller, has created a site devoted to the “warped canon” – midi versions of the Canon in every tuning system known to man!

Perhaps you’d like to listen to the canon in the otonal or utonal Blacjack scales, or in the 88-CET 7/4 “octaves” version.  But you couldn’t do better than to start with 30-tone equal temparament:

Evil!  Genius!!


So, how are we judging these composers?  Is it by the quality of their “hit”, or by their other compositional achievements?  Like I said, I’m not so familiar with many of these gentlemen’s oeuvres, so I’ve mainly based my collection on the quality of that one super-famous piece.

What qualifies as a ‘hit’ is also a slight conundrum.  Obviously on this list, I have gone for mainstream awareness (“O Fortuna”) but I also included some pieces that are hits of a much more modest variety (the Biebl “Ave Maria”).  So, take that all into account and argue amongst yourselves!

Should you accept this challenge, the choice is yours of how to proceed: make your own list of Top 10 One-Hit Wondrous Composers, or replace some of mine with your own suggestions.  Just tell us who you are taking off the list, and be aware that you will really hurt their feelings.

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:


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:


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)


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.