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):
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.
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.
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:
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:
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”:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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”:
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.
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:
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Day 1 in my audacious response to Anthony Tommasini’s Wild and CRRRAzy idea of choosing the top 10 composers. Today, we focus on Innovation and Originality. Which composers took the boldest risks and were willing to suffer the consequences? Which composers were marked by thinking of musical ideas and sounds that simply nobody had ever thought of before?
I’ll further define this list in opposition to tomorrow’s list. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the Top 10 Most Influential Composers. Today’s composers could all be cul-de-sacs in musical history – no later composer need have taken up their particular style or innovations. We’re talking about brazen, unfettered originality for originality’s sake.
1. Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869)
For my money, Berlioz is the greatest musical innovator. His experiments often failed, but they never lacked for ambition. Every piece was grander, bolder, and less practical than the next, beginning with the Symphony Fantastique and continuing up to his sprawling 4 1/2 hour opera Les Troyens. Berlioz never wrote in a prescribed form: he preferred inventing them. He created tone poem-symphonies (Fantastique), symphony-concertos (Harold in Italy), and even bold admixtures of drama, narration, art song, and choral symphony (Lélio).
Before Berlioz, composers had depicted birds chirping, storms raging, and the rolling seas. Berlioz depicted opium hazes, witch’s covens, and rolling heads:
The Renaissance Italian prince is primarily known for two things: 1) finding his wife in flagrante with her lover and subsequently murdering them both (which, btw, was not only his prerogative, but his duty as a member of the nobility) and 2) composing Renaissance madrigals that made use of outlandish, expressionist harmonies. Anybody who writes something like this in the 16th century is pretty original:
In a lot of ways, the music that lead up to Schönberg’s radical departure from tradition did pave his way: Mahler and Strauss and Zemlinsky and those types were already stretching the boundaries of the Tonal system of chords and scales. But Schönberg took their groundwork in much bolder directions. He then concocted, out of thin air, a mathematical re-imagining of how notes could be structured into music – that is a real innovation, and that’s exactly what Schönberg did with his 12-tone system in 1921.
The results are sometimes strangely beautiful. Sometimes, they are unspeakably ugly. Usually, they are at least cool:
Compared to the archaic vocabulary and methods of his predecessors, Monteverdi’s operas represent an entirely new art. This is not a revolution: there was nothing before Monteverdi that he could have revolutionized. This is invention, the discovery of a brave, new world. He was the first one to understand and appreciate the role of the orchestra in an opera, to use an instrumental style and resources as an ally for his dramatic mission. To use instruments for the purpose of mood painting and characterization was simply without precedent. He knew how to make his characters not the abstractions they had been before, but human beings.
This French-American composer wrote the first piece for an ensemble made up exclusively of percussion instruments: Ionisation from 1931. Many composers invented ensembles, but percussion instruments lack one vital element of music: pitches. [Usually.] In eliminating all reference to traditional pitch systems and leaving himself with only rhythm, timbre, and dynamics, Varèse forced himself to create a musical language all his own.
Even when he did use more traditional instruments and ensembles, his music displays an undeniable individuality that was not linked with any of the prevailing trends in musical modernism. That he later turned to electronic composition in the 1950′s simply confirms his ever-curious musical mind.
Please let’s not forget about everything Haydn did while he was toiling away in an obscure Hungarian field somewhere: he invented the symphonic form (four movements, fast – slow – minuet – faster), modernized the orchestra, invented the string quartet – both as a genre and as an ensemble (although, can you really separate the two?), and totally revolutionized musical language. He is also the first composer to ever make significant use of folk music as source material for his compositions.
Suffice to say, when he started writing music, it sounded like this:
This Czech composer was a really late bloomer – his early works were indebted to a folkloric, watered-down version of Brahms that he received via Dvorak. And then, something happened – maybe it had to do with the death of his daughter, perhaps with his increasing fame and prosperity, but slowly and late in life, he forged a deeply personal style, especially in opera.
Janáček was everything you’d expect from an eccentric, craggy composer – he was an ill-tempered and obstinate man. His radical style often sounds like it:
Almost all the composers listed above were chosen because they created brash, aggressive, dramatic new sounds. Debussy did just the opposite – he explored the many cool, washy colors that classical instrumentation had to offer.
It’s really important to remember that Impressionists in music and Impressionists in visual art may have ended up with “similar” effects, but they came at it from totally different starting points: whereas Visual Impressionists were trying to add vagueness and mood to their canvasses (so as to lessen distinction and increase the sense of an “impression”), Debussy was doing the exact opposite – he was trying to enrich his musical language so that sounds could actually turn into musical scenes with literal places and characters.
His real innovation was to combine the mellifluous sounds of Indonesian gamelan music with the greatly expanded harmonic palette of Wagner and Massenet. Thus:
I’m going to resist the temptation to write about all of my notable mentions, because that would defeat the purpose of just putting up 10 people, and plus, the whole point of this exercise is the discussion. Your job now is to argue with me and point out all of the people I either stupidly left out or stupidly included.
My only request is that if you propose a composerly alternative to any of my suggestions, please specify who you would like to remove from my list to be replaced with your contestant.
More than anything, I’d like to hear your all’s Top 10 Most Innovative Composers Lists.