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):
Hi blogfanz – I’m back, and I’m glad to be returning to our top 10 top 10 with List #8, the Top 10 BEST Composers, where by “BEST” we mean something along the lines of “Most Technically Accomplished”.
“Compositional technique” is a phrase that gets bandied around a lot (among a tiny, tiny élite of classical musicians and critics). But I don’t think I’ve ever heard it defined. Composers confront a series of Design Challenges and Execution Challenges as they write a piece. So, is a composer’s technique simply a question of how well he or she executes a given design? Is it possible to separate the design from the execution?
My favorite example of this conundrum is Gordon Jenkins, a composer/arranger from the Golden Era of pop music who wrote beautiful, lush arrangements for Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, et al. As a composer, he specialized in writing “concept albums” for many of these collaborators.
His concepts for these albums were, in a word, ludicrous – Frank Sinatra taking a guided tour of outer space, for example. But the music he wrote to accompany his zany scenarios is gorgeous. It’s like, “yeah, if Frank Sinatra took a space ship to Saturn and then sang a jig about it, this is the best possible version of that jig.” You know?
Here’s what I came up with. We’ll talk more about the criteria at the end:
1. J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750)
Any person who writes a canon at the 7th, smoothly and gloriously, you do not mess with this person.
00:00 Impassioned 2-part counterpoint; violins v. lower strings; build-up to
00:11 The previous two lines are remixed into one, and this composite line is pitted against itself; build-up to
00:21 Dramatic tremolo in strings, winds play the main motive (ascending 3-notes), trombones recall the main motive from the previous movement of the symphony.
00:32 Letter D:
Violins and bassoon play the counterpoint from the beginning of this movement, flute and oboe keep playing the motive from the last section, long tones in the lower strings build drama and tension into
00:48 Parallel section to 00:21
This is what we call ‘tightly constructed’ – the themes all relate to each other, play against each other, appear and reappear, and build up into a large scale structure. But honestly, you don’t have to appreciate ANY of this to enjoy the symphony. This wealth of composerly technique is in the service of beautiful, dramatic, and emotional musical story-telling.
3. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
I say we let Lenny sort us out on this one:
4. (F.) Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Now, a lot of the tricks that Lenny was just talking about w/r/t Beethoven, I’m convinced Beethoven learned from Haydn. That is to say – the guy (Haydn) was killer when it came to form. But he (Haydn) also happened to be really good at all the things Lenny claims Beethoven sucked at: melody, harmony, fugues, etc. Haydn dazzles us, leaves us spinning, and has a ball doing it.
So for all his fancy tricks, I’m going to present a passage that seems rather mundane – just 8th notes, in pairs. The trick though, is that he slowly modulates the harmony, dynamics, and instrumentation to bring us back to the opening theme of this, the last movement of his 88th Symphony:
It’s like you’re driving around some back country roads, and just when you think you’re totally lost, you look up and it turns out you’re back where you started. That’s Haydn.
5. Johannes Ockeghem (1420ish – 1497)
I’m hardly an expert on this composer or his music. But like many an undergraduate music major before and since, I did at one time learn about the staggering contrapuntal accomplishments of Flanders’ greatest son.
Let’s look at his most famous work, the Missa Prolationum, so called because of its extensive use of “prolation canons”. It works like this: you all know what a canon is – “Row, row, row yr boat”, “Frère Jacques”, etc., anything where one guy sings a tune and the other guy starts singing the same tune a little later and it all works out harmonically. Well, in a “prolation canon” (which is more commonly known as a “mensuration canon”), the two guys sing the same tune at different speeds. Normally, they have a relation to each other – like twice as fast or twice as slow.
They don’t always have to stagger their entrances either – they can both start singing at the same time and it still counts. Ockeghem took this idea of mensuration canons to the extreme. Here’s the Kyrie II from his mass. There are two melodies: one in the soprano and alto, and another one in the tenor and bass. The soprano and alto sing their melody at different speeds. The tenor and bass sing their melody at two entirely different speeds. What’s more, the two melodies are very closely related.
I don’t know where to even begin talking about Mozart’s ridiculous compositional technique, but you can’t do much worse than the final set of canons in his last symphony, No. 41 (the “Jupiter”). This piece is chock full of canons, fugues, and other contrapuntal devices – and yet, you never get tired of them (unlike, let’s admit it, Bach). It’s just one vivacious bar after another:
With a mind to the generalish audience that sometimes reads this blog (if anyone’s actually made it this far), let’s turn again to the Hungarian composer’s Nonsense Madrigals, based on texts by Lewis Carrol.
So what makes this so great? Well, first off, let’s figure out what’s going on.
Element the first: The tenor has a melody (“when the rain… when the rain comes tumbling down… in the country or the town”). Each of the three phrases of the melody begins the same and builds to a higher note. The rhythm of the melody is irregular – it has a rhapsodic quality.
Element the second: This piece is a passacaglia, which means there is a repeated, regular figure in the bass line. Ligeti does that and also includes the two baritones in establishing the pattern. So even though this pattern gets shifted from beat to beat, there is a regular pulse going on, grounding the music.
Element the third: When the altos come in, they pick up the tenor’s melody, but their rhythm mimics the regular pulse of the passacaglia people, but shortening their pulse by 1/4 of the value. Just to make things a little more complicated, at the top of the third system, the second alto starts drifting off into his own little world.
So again, what’s so great about this? It’s that Ligeti combines the elements in a way that gives the listener a simultaneous sense of regularity and irregularity – everything sounds natural but odd, logical but unpredictable. It works like a precision machine, as does much of his music, including the wild, 100-instrument scores from his early period.
9. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)
I’ll admit, there’s occasionally things that are clumsy in Stravinsky’s writing – some of his meter and barring choices can be rather confusing at times – but the flaws are very minor, and easily overlooked when taken in context of his overall skills as a writer of music.
Since fugues seem to be a common theme of this list, here’s a great one:
Alban Berg, the shining light of the Second Viennese School, has gotten all too little love up in these lists so far. Finally, we’ve arrived at his category.
What I personally find so impressive about Berg’s writing is his ability to unite disparate elements. He chose to use a wide range of compositional tools: tonality, atonality, dodecaphony. He wrote waltzes and polkas, but infused them with eerie harmonies. He wrote startling, arhythmic sound masses and contrasted them with delicate, crystalline chords.
His opera Wozzeck is practically a textbook of compositional forms. But I’ve chosen the most famous passage from his Violin Concerto to illustrate how he so skillfully combined vastly different musical worlds:
Berg’s going from a huge dissonant cluster to a quotation of Bach. What’s admirable is the smooveness with which he does it: the chorale melody starts with a rising 4-note motive. He introduces this motive in the violin during the most dissonant music. Then he gives us the tune, but it’s set against slightly less dissonant music. By the time the winds enter on Bach’s harmonization, it makes all the sense in the world.
So, in choosing the composers on this list, I think I settled on the following criteria for great compositional technique:
1) handling of counterpoint (multiple, simultaneous lines)
2) tight motivic construction (building melodies and sections of music out of small themelets)
3) form (a logical succession of musical ideas, paced correctly so that the music seems to follow a logical flow)
4) ability to contrast and unite disparate musical ideas (which nobody does better than Schnittke, and I hate not including him on this list)
And then there’s the matter of, given their resources, how well did these guys write the stuff down on a score? Sibelius is one of my favorite composers, but his scores are a certifiable mess when it comes to logic and consistency. Ligeti’s scores are nearly as virtuosic in their meticulous layout and instructions as they are in their musical content.
So, y’all, what do you make of these criteria? And who fits it? My guys, or some other peops?
If you’ve made it this far, it’s time to let your voice be heard in the comments section!
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.
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:
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:
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.
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).
From the score of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, movement 4, we read the following instruction:
“Selon le caractère d’un Recitativ mais, in tempo”
My interest in this simple phrase is a perfect example of why I don’t exactly “fit in” to the classical music world. That is to say, I just don’t think the people around me quite appreciate the linguistic deliciousness of the writing. Look at it! It’s basically in French, but with a Germanized (and capitalized, no less) Italian word, ending in an Italian phrase. And what’s that comma doing there? Shouldn’t it read “…Recitativ, mais in tempo?” Is that some kind of a linguistic marker? What’s going on here??
I suppose the fact that nobody blinks an eye when they see this marking is maybe just as interesting. Musicians, and I want to say especially conductors, end up talking in this weird sort of lingua franca made up of terms from all the big musical languages. I guess this just proves that the tendency has been around for close to 200 years.
Is this sort of thing not interesting? Leonard Slatkin brought up this term in my conducting class the other day, but all he wanted to talk about was how to interpret these words musically! I really wanted to get into this whole linguistic commentary, but somehow it seemed so totally inappropriate; thus was my enthusiasm stifled.
On a wholly unrelated note, it came out today that I am an unapologetic disliker of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and you would think I had insulted somebody’s baby. Just because half of my lunch mates were Italian, I don’t see what there is to get so excited about. It’s not like I dissed Sergio Leone or something. In fact, I’d gladly take a Spaghetti Western over that cerebral FF crap any day. And I take offense to the immediate supposition that I somehow “don’t understand what it’s about”. I understand perfectly well. In fact, I would say I gave that movie every chance — I researched it, read about it, stayed awake during (most) of it. What more do you want people? It just doesn’t resonate with me.