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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…

10. Osvaldo Golijov

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Ruggles, Berg, Webern, Messiaen, Bartok, Crawford Seeger, Rzewski, Pärt, and Berio all came close to my number 10 spot. Yet something about Golijov’s music, while not the most difficult, dissonant, or complex of the many composers left off this list, speaks directly to me. Maybe Probably it’s my Jewish connection; Golijov is an Argentine-Israeli-American, trying to find how Judaism and modernity combine. He’s also a perfect case study for how place and music interact, something I’m extremely interested in academically. But most importantly, his music is on another level. He is one of the more innovative composers of the last 20 years, able to deftly absorb the popular musics of his many worlds and integrate them into his classical realm. Whether he is bringing together klezmer and a string quartet or arabic techno and art songs, he manages to make his music sound popular without pandering and classical without pretension. Endlessly lyrical, he is probably the easiest to listen to of all my top 10.

9. Maurice Ravel

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There’s just something about Ravel’s music that is so wonderful, and I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is. Unlike his oft-compared compatriot, Debussy, Ravel seems to feel it more. His music is less of the fleeting and ephemeral images of symbolist poetry that inspired Debussy and Monet and more melodically inventive. But it also has a certain humanity to it that goes beyond colors, timbres, and sounds. Debussy might have done more to effect change for the benefit of all later 20th-century composers. However, I think Ravel is the better melodist, the better harmonist, and all around a better musician when it comes to the nuts and bolts of composition. His Tombeau de Couperin is a piece of neo-Classicalism that does not merely serve as an homage or parody of the 18th century (as some of Stravinsky’s neo-Classical works do), but in fact builds on what Ravel could from his predecessors and made something that was very much of his time. And if you’re only going to write one string quartet in your life as a composer, you’d better hope that it’s even a tenth as good as Ravel’s only foray into the most intimate and expressive of genres:

8. Igor Stravinsky

Back to the canon…

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Stravinsky is exceedingly popular, nay, iconic, for a reason. He may be the most important 20th-century composer by all the traditional standards of “greatness” (and that’s why he’s the only one on Tommasini’s list that made mine). Stravinsky did incredibly important things for music: His music was some of the first to feature sectional, block juxtapositions, repeating ostinati that chugged along mercilessly, and a unique harmonic soundworld that sounded both tonal and also dissonant. Rite of Spring is a classic, as well it should be; it broke new ground in every single way when it first appeared, and its acceptance into the regular performance repertoire of orchestra music only reaffirms its special place. Yet other works are equally compelling, fascinating compositions drawn from across Stravinsky’s three major stylistic periods. The ending of Les Noces is the culmination of Stravinsky’s early Russian style, a cold soundworld of vocals, piano, and percussion. There are few English language operas with more drive, wit, and tragedy, not to mention sheer musical chops, than The Rake’s Progress. And when Stravinsky turned to serialism in his last 20 years, he never abandoned the quintessential sound that marked him as a composer, heard right up through his final piece, the haunting and thrilling Requiem Canticles.

7. George Crumb

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Crumb’s music would be gimmicky if it wasn’t so damn good. Scores with staves that twist around each other, splinter and combine, shaped like spirals or peace signs, like old medieval manuscripts. Sound effects, like singing into a flute, bowing a gong, or glass harmonica. Theatrical staging and stage effects, like wearing masks and having the stage bathed in only blue light. These are things some composers might do to mask their subpar music. Crumb uses them to elevate his already superb music.

Much of Crumb’s music is programmatic: It is music with a story, music about something in particular. He was a plunderer of early styles: His landmark string quartet Black Angels, made famous by the Kronos Quartet, uses a Sarabande, quotes Schubert, and features a cello aria with bowed wine glass accompaniment. But his music is full of excitement, passion, and spirituality. His sound effects are more than mimicry, they are musical, and they are good music.

6. Kaija Saariaho

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I was initially intrigued by Saariaho because she represented, or so I thought, the compositional principle of spectralism, which is to say treating the dimension of tone color as an amorphous, ever-changing metamorphosis through the worlds of timbre. In other words, replacing pitches with timbres to create movement. A clarinet becomes shrill, and the sound effortlessly glides into a flute, which is taken up by the otherworldly sound of cello harmonics. Stuff like that.

But it was last year, at an all-Saariaho concert, that I heard her works live for the first time. I had to scrape my jaw up off the floor with a spatula. It really was that good. Sound moves in very different ways when you hear it live; the wavelengths have a different quality when they come from an instrument, rather than when they come from the compressed world of iTunes. I finally “got” Sariaaho when I heard her music live. She likes to establish a harmonic framework and then explore all the edges of it without ever changing to a new harmony. Her writing is virtuosic for her soloists, and her use of electronics to enhance and manipulate sounds is never obtrusive. Some electronic composers like to smack you in the face with their computer-generated sounds, but Saariaho treats them like any other instrument, effortlessly integrating them in with the acoustic sounds. And as much as I like thorny dissonances, her music, which has certainly moved beyond any traditional concepts of tonality, glides and floats with such lyricism, line, power, and feeling. It’s what Boulez wishes he could sound like. It’s modern and dissonant and noisy, but it is easy to listen to. And it features moments, single crystalline musical events within a piece (like the climax at 1:10 in the video below), that turn your brains into a puddly mess of ecstasy.

5. Gyorgy Ligeti

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Ligeti’s music unfolds in washes of sound, like a great wave of ambient dissonance, but this is more than just Eno-esque soundscapes. Ligeti’s music is dynamic. It has a pulse even when you can’t pin down a beat. In pieces likeLontano and Lux Aeterna (the latter served as the mindfuck music in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), he experiments with closely packed together pitches, creating walls of dissonant polyphony where more than a dozen instruments or voices are all weaving their own contrapuntal lines around each other, slowly twisting and undulating. It is beautiful, and it is scary.

Ligeti is no one-trick pony, and much of his music is based on choppy melodic phrases, with lots of screeching noise and quiet, muted playing. Often times, the extremes of instruments are explored, especially the highest registers, where tone dissolves into ethylene sound. As I’m coming to realize, part of what has drawn me to all these composers is their ability to milk the sweet stuff despite their thorny exteriors. Ligeti is no exception; at times, he is an exceptional melodist, as in his Piano Etudes, or below, in his first string quartet (which ends with the fast screeching).

4. Steve Reich

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This is the only “minimalist” composer to make my list. I adore John Adams’ music, yet I could do without Philip Glass and Morton Feldman. Terry Riley only has In C, and after that he just doesn’t cut it. And LaMonte Young is a little too noisy, a little too quirky, and sometimes too minimal to be on my top ten list. Reich is consistently fresh, inventive, and awesome. His music is more than just repeating patterns. Sure, there’s repetition, but it’s repetition of melodies in canon, variation, counterpoint. He adds to his melodies by creating an organically growing sound. His music is intensely percussive, reflecting his affinity for West African drumming, but it sounds so at home in his Western classical idiom. In his best works, it’s the interplay of percussive ostinati, repeating melodies that change a tiny bit with each appearance and shift in their uncomfortable meters, long swells of chords rising and falling in and out of the texture. Reich establishes a pulsating, driving rhythm, and then everything else is thrown into the fracas, holding on for dear life. More often than not, the result is breathtaking, as in his mindbending Music for 18 Musicians:

3. Aaron Copland

copland feature List Em Carefully: Top 10 Classical Composers (1901 Present)Copland is a misunderstood composer. Most people know his outrageously popular works like Appalachian SpringRodeo, and Lincoln Portrait. And for good reason. They are wonderful pieces of music. They’re also easy to listen to, without much of the dissonance that many find difficult in 20th-century music. Copland sounds like a Robert Frost poem: He is cozy Americana wrapped in warm blankets of New England foliage, Amish barns, and majestic Rocky Mountains.

However, there’s another Copland, a Copland who is a modernist composer, writing in an idiom that was popular in the 1920’s when dissonance was seen as a potential route towards establishing an authentic American voice, or in an idiom popular in the 1950s, when Schoenberg’s serialism was the post-war future. This is the Copland that I fell in love with, the Copland who wrote some of the most powerful and expressive works of his career. Upon first hearing his Piano Variations, I knew Copland was more than just a potboiler composer capable of pulling American heartstrings. His command of a simple, dissonant theme, and the masterful variations that follow, are evidence of his compositional genius. If you haven’t heard this piece before, you would be hard-pressed to guess that it was composed by Copland.

2. Arnold Schoenberg

1223 260x183 List Em Carefully: Top 10 Classical Composers (1901 Present)I love this picture of Schoenberg because it’s one of the only ones I’ve ever seen where he is really smiling. I also love the sign above his head, reading “kein Ausgang”, or “No Exit”. Schoenberg must have felt that sense through much of his life and career. He is one of those composers whose presence on a concert program causes no-shows and early departures, even 100 years after his pieces were written. Part of that is his legend, from which he had no exit, no escape: the radical, harmony-destroying composer, the single-handed killer of the classical tradition. That’s pretty badass by itself. Some of his music is as inaccessible as his reputation suggests: his thorny and aggressive Third String Quartet, his Five Pieces for Orchestra, or the psychological one-act opera Erwartung. But Schoenberg also wrote a fair amount of music that belongs alongside the finest offerings from Mahler or Strauss, music that spoke the same late Romantic harmonic language before he turned towards a new idiom. The third movement of his first string quartet, dating from 1905, contains one of the most sublime melodies I know of (heard below at 4:00):

Still, he’s best known for his atonal works that lack any key, any harmonic home to which all other chords are relative–harmonic anarchy, to use a bad analogy. His legacy stems even more strongly from his invention of the twelve-tone method, the replacement for the traditional harmonic system that almost every composer of the 20th century used at one point or another. It’s what makes works like his infamous Pierrot Lunaire, full of wild dissonance as well as passionate melodies and strong formal groundings, that are his best, and put him at number two.

1. Charles Ives

ivesyale14 135 List Em Carefully: Top 10 Classical Composers (1901 Present)I once remarked that Ives was the first psychedelic composer. I think that moniker holds true. Swirling sounds, eerie, otherworldly timbres, clashing dissonance out of which emerges sweet consonant release, and a pastiche of styles ranging from vaudeville to old American hymns, from marching bands to pop songs, all smashed together in one place. Ives had it all. Yet what I love most about Ives isn’t the wide-ranging modernist language that seems years beyond his contemporaries, nor the radical and visionary ideas about music and the world that permeate much of his music. I love how he knows when to turn it on and when to lay back and allow his musical prowess to shine. Ives wasn’t an atonal composer (although he wrote plenty of non-tonal music), and he wasn’t a neo-Romantic (although many of his pieces drip with 19th-century sentimentality). He was whatever he wanted to be, to accomplish whatever effect he wanted. You can hear it in his song “Remembrance”. It begins with Ives circling through fifths in the piano, giving the song a wandering quality from the start. The vocal melody is simple, pretty, and melancholy, echoed by the piano. It’s a simple technique, but it seems brilliant here. And then, suddenly, everything turns weird. Dissonance, chords that seem out of place, and ringing in the highest register, taps to close it out. Ives moves from 19th-century Romanticism to 20th-century modernism without breaking stride. He speaks to the fact that even the most jaded lover of noise, clashing sounds, and radical music still loves a good melody.

Of course, the Ives that many people love is the cosmic Ives, the explorer of transcendental musical worlds and universes (and I am no exception). Ives would get the top spot on this list for his Symphony No. 4 alone. It is the piece that made me want to study American music and made me realize just how far a composer could stray from the canonical models, while still remaining true to himself and the tradition. The entire piece is exquisite, but the fourth and final movement stares into your soul and lets you know what kind of person you are. Beginning with a percussion ostinato that never ceases throughout the entire movement, Ives gradually builds up layers of sound and color, reaching a fever pitch around six minutes in. It is scary, it is magnificent, it is interplanetary. And then, just as you think he’s launching you into the stratosphere, you hear the most exquisite cadence in all of music history (from 8:15-8:23 in the video below), and it brings you back to earth with a wordless choir singing “Nearer My God To Thee”, while tiny bells echo like shocks riding through your synapses. No American composer has escaped his influence, and few sound as fresh and relevant to modern music today as they did 100 years ago.

So there it is. To be honest, if I was including all of music history, the list would probably remain quite similar, although Beethoven would probably hold the number 2 spot, and Bach would be in there somewhere. I’ve left out Cage because, in my opinion, he was more important as a musical philosopher than a composer (although I love his music and his compositions). It’s tough to rank a composition when it’s different every time performed (like his Imaginary Landscapes series). What I’ve discovered in this process is that I need to have some amount of lyricism, melody, even a faint whiff of tonality to hold on to, which is something I wasn’t conscious of until I included Ravel at #9. Hopefully you now have a good idea of where my ears like to go, and why I listen the way I do; maybe you’ve found something to pique your attention as well, something you’ll listen to and find just as beautiful.

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