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
Ruggles, Berg, Webern, Messiaen, Bartok, Crawford Seeger, Rzewski, PÃ¤rt, 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
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…
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
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
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. Its what Boulez wishes he could sound like. Its 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.