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List ‘Em Carefully: Top 10 Classical Composers (1901-Present)

on February 02, 2011, 12:01am
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listn 260x260 List Em Carefully: Top 10 Classical Composers (1901 Present)Last Sunday, New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini published a top 10 list of the greatest classical composers in music history. Immediately, the web exploded with adverse reactions. Many academically leaning friends of mine decried the Huffington Post-ing of journalism that allowed classical music criticism to devolve into a blog-friendly top 10 list. Twitter, Facebook, and other classical music blogs immediately lamented the lack of women composers, the lack of early music composers, or the lack of living composers. Even the New York Philharmonic’s music director, Alan Gilbert, weighed in on the discourse.

For me, the biggest problem is that Tommasini’s list doesn’t offer the reader anything other than an affirmation of the well-trod canon of “masterworks” that plagues the advancement of 21st-century classical music. The dead horse can’t be beaten any deader. As long as the classical music world remains rooted in the past, it cannot move into the future. No one is surprised by Tommasini’s list: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – of course. Schubert, Verdi, Wagner – naturally. Above all, it’s the futility of such a list that seemed to most anger the interwebs. Tommasini himself admitted that “the whole notion of greatness is questionable,” but then again, he went and tried to do it anyway. His constrictive parameters of time, location, and repertoire, as well as his focus on innovation, influence, and popularity essentially eliminated anyone other than the usual suspects.

Naturally, the only way to criticize such a daunting and unrealistic task is to try to do it yourself. So, here’s my top 10 list. But first, a few caveats: First, I am limiting my list to the 20th and 21st centuries. Why? Because I don’t think it will surprise anyone to learn that a classical music aficionado loves Beethoven or Bach. It would be like a rock critic telling you they love Led Zeppelin. Two, I am including living composers. Tommasini excluded them because he could not judge lasting greatness while someone is still alive. Yet, there are those whose accomplishments have already reached such heights, whose impact has already been globally felt, and who have produced compositions that have already become classics, or will soon enough. And three, I am telling you my top 10 composers. Completely subjective, with no pretense of objectivity or impartiality. Because a list like this should have a purpose, and my hope is that you will get to learn something about me and my musical tastes through how I rank these composers. What’s more, as a new writer at Consequence of Sound, my hope is that you’ll have this list to understand where I’m coming from. So with no further ado…

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December 26, 2011 at 6:01 pm

I get that it is subjective and not every great composer makes the list. Like others I was struck by the absence of Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff. Out of curiosity, have you listened to Prokofiev’s second violin concerto? Give it a try!


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