Posts Tagged: Top 10 Composers

Top 10 Composers for Non-Concert Settings

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

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

1. Stephen Sondheim (1930 – )

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

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

 

2. Bernard Herrmann (1911 – 1975)

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

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

3. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

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

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

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

4. Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924)

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

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

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

5. John Williams (1932 – )

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

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

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

I mean, come on, right?

6. Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990)

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

 

7. Alberto Iglesias (1955 – )

An analogy:

Iglesias:Almodóvar:
:Herrmann:Hitchcock

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

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

8. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

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

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

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

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

9. Frank Loesser (1910 – 1969)

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

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

 

10. Danny Elfman (1953 – )

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

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

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

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

Discuss

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

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

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

Top 10 Harmonic Melodists

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

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

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

1. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

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


(Manfred Symphony, LSO/MTT)

2. Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943)

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

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


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

3. Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924)

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

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


(La Rondine, Pappano)

4. Richard Rodgers (1902 – 1979)


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

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


(“I Have Dreamed”, OBC)

5. Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875)

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

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

Prepare for aural ravishment:


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

6. Alexander Borodin (1833 – 1887)

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

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


(String Quartet #2, Takács)

7. Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

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

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


(Piano Trio #2, Odeon)

8. Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901)

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

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


(La Traviata, Gheorghiu/Solti)

9. Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695)

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

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


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

10. Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)

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

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


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

Discuss

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

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

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

Top 10 Most Influential Composers

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

1. Guillaume de Machaut (1300 – 1377)

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

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

Guillaume’s music sounded like this:


(Messe de Notre Dame, Hilliard Ensemble)

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

2. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)

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

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

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

3. George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

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

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

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

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

4. (Franz) Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

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

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

5. Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1754 – 1792)

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

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


(“Moi milenki druzhok”, Gergiev)

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

6. Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951)

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

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

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

7. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

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

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

8. Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

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

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

9. Mikhail Glinka (1804 – 1857)

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

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

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

10. Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643)

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

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

Discuss

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

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

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.]