I had promised myself I’d never do another of those stupid lists again. You know the kind – your Top Ten Novels, your Top Ten Symphonies, your Top Ten Hammer Horror Films … No, hang on, that’s quite a good one actually … But then I see posts here, and here, that encourage us to compile our list of Top Ten Composers.
Well, now I am doing it. Since I want to use the blog to write about what I love; and since I love music dearly; it makes sense for me to try to write something about music – at least once in a while. The problem is that I have not received a proper education in music, and can therefore write no more about it than a few subjective impressions. But at least a list gives me a good excuse to mention what I like, so that’s fair enough. I hope.
At any rate, my rather pathetic excuse for compiling his list is that it was New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini is making me do it. So here goes.
But first, the usual disclaimers. One can’t really list the ten greatest composers, since music is not a competitive sport any more than football is. (Football – that’s “soccer” for our translatlantic readers – did, admittedly, use to be a competitive sport until the richer teams got even richer and closed the door on the possibility of any smaller team ever winning anything. Not that I am bitter about it, you understand. But I digress.) If one were to list the Greatest Composers, then one would, I imagine, list music’s Holy Trinity of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven in some order, and then think of seven others. And even the choice of this top table of music may not be unanimous: ever since BBC’s radio 3 decided to put on a Mozartfest a few weeks ago, I have lost count of the number of articles I’ve read telling us Mozart wasn’t that good, really. But leaving aside such people (who appear frankly to have their taste where the sun doesn’t shine), it is quite conceivable for a knowledgeable and cultured music lover nominating for the top table, say, Lassus, Handel and Stravinsky. Or, perhaps, Monteverdi, Schütz, and Wagner. Or something.
What follows is necessarily a subjective choice. These are the composers whose music I, personally, could least do without.
First, for me, is Mozart. The music I could least do without are those three operas he composed to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte – Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte – to my mind the finest works for the stage between Shakespeare and Ibsen. And there is also Die Zauberflöte, which seems to me great despite rather than because of the libretto. Of course, the libretto has been defended, but I don’t get it: I really have no idea what it is in that libretto that inspired Mozart, but inspire him it did.
Moving away from opera, is there any medium Mozart didn’t master? Arguably, his string quartets were not quite of the standard of those by Haydn or Beethoven, but they’re masterpieces all the same; and his string quintets, his clarinet quintet, and that wonderful Divertimento for String Trio K563, can surely stand comparison with the greatest chamber works by anyone. His last four symphonies (the last three of which were all composed, apparently, in the course of a mere six weeks) are breathtaking: Beethoven may have extended the scale and the expressive range of the symphony, but even Beethoven never surpassed these works for perfection of form, or for depth of expression. Or take those astonishing piano concertos – at least a dozen of which are masterpieces of the highest order. Or that sinfonia concertante for violin and viola. Or the late clarinet concerto – or the unfinished C Minor mass (or, for that matter, that unfinished Requiem Mass) … Or those wind serenades (did anyone ever compose better for winds?) … It is all too easy merely to reel off these works, but less easy to specify what it is about them that make them, for me, so indispensable. Perhaps the quality I find in Mozart above that of any other composer is the ability to express so many different things at the same time. As an example, listen to that final movement of the D minor piano concerto, K466. It starts off with a theme of barely contained, surging passion, but by the final bars, we are in the world of pure comedy. Where and how did this transformation take place? God knows how many times I have heard it over the years, but I never could work it out. And I think it’s because there is no transformation: those same themes have in them the potential both for the darkest tragedy and the most genialcomedy, and Mozart could bring out whichever aspect he wanted at will.
This ability of his to encompass extremes at the same time serves him well in opera, where he frequently depicts the endless complexities of the human heart. In Cosi fan Tutte, characters could simulate and yet be passionately sincere at the same time. In Don Giovanni, Donna Elvira can be an absurd comic figure who fails to learn from experience, and who falls for Don Giovanni repeatedly; and yet, at the same time, even while being absurdly comic, she has also a generous heart with an aspetto nobile and a dolce maestà; she is a figure of immense tragic dignity. The two perspectives co-exist, with neither blotting out the other. Similarly, Leporello can find the gulling of Donna Elvira funny, and yet, at the same time, feel for her genuine pity. Human emotions are too complex, too slippery, too elusive ever to be pinned down: all their complexity and contradictions must be shown simultaneously. It is tempting to say only music could do this, but that’s not quite accurate: only Mozart’s music could do this. I generally find it impossible to describe accurately the mood of any Mozart piece: they seem to encompass everything. And all the time, they all seem lit with some strange and ineffably beautiful other-worldly light.
Next up for me is Beethoven. (Yes, I know, these aren’t terribly original choices, but I don’t claim originality.) Beethoven projects the image (much of it carefully cultivated and promoted by himself) of the heaven-stormer, the man who defiantly shook his fists at the gods. Yes, of course there are elements of that, and yes, I continue to find it thrilling. But there are other aspects also – a great many other aspects. Beethoven could summon up courtly grace and elegance and well as could Mozart; his music contains as much wit and humour as does the music of Haydn’s – although, admittedly, Beethoven’s style of humour is often of a sledgehammer variety; and his music also projected a sense of lyrical exaltation, as in the violin concerto, or in the 6th symphony, where, like his exact contemporary Wordsworth (they were born in the same year), Beethoven found in nature “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”.
And of course, there is the Late Beethoven. Perhaps no other composer had quite so identifiable a “late period” as did Beethoven, although, given that Beethoven was only in his 50s when he died, it is unlikely that he recognised the works of his later years as specifically “late works”. But they are as visionary and as other-worldly as we could possibly expect Late Works to be – although it does seem to me that even at his most other-worldly, there remains a strong sense of the earthy – e.g. in the scherzi of the op. 109 and Op. 110 piano sonatas, or in several of the Diabelli variations.
The other member of Western music’s Holy Trinity is Bach, but I must admit that while much of Bach’s music is precious to me (and, I guess, to anyone who cares at all for music), a great deal of his music I find rather intimidating. And since this post is about the music that means most to me personally, let us keep Bach for later, and skip to Brahms, a composer who, I’m sure, would have felt deeply embarrassed to have found himself placed above Bach even in a list such as this. But there is something about the combination of raw passion and deep autumnal melancholy in his music that I frequently find chiming with my own mood. Those four symphonies of his I find have become almost something of an obsession: certainly, I have more different recordings of them than is entirely sensible, and I spend a disproportionate amount of my spare time listening to them. And those concertos! I remember still when, as a teenager, I was discovering this music, I fell in love particularly with that 2nd piano concerto – which really is more a symphony for orchestra and piano rather than the concerto it claims to be. There is one moment especially in the scherzo that particularly delighted me: I used to play that movement over and over again, and every time that moment approached, I could feel my excitement rising. It comes as the opening section moves into the middle section. Now, normally, when a movement is in ABA format, the section A is allowed politely to come to a decorous end before section B starts: sometimes, there is even a pause to signal the transition. But here, as we approach the end of section A, the music rises in waves of seemingly uncontrollable passion. The piano feels after a while that it can no longer keep pace with the mad rush, and drops out. And then, just as the orchestra reaches the mighty climactic point of this passage, at this very moment, we move abruptly into the middle section – straight into a Handelian theme in double counterpoint. The effect, even on repeated listenings (and how repeatedly have I listened to this!) is exhilarating.
Let us move now to the death-haunted world of Schubert. It is not a world devoid of sunny grace or eloquence – indeed, I find it hard to think of anything of a happier disposition than the Trout quintet – but the general mood I find in much of Schubert’s work is that of a haunting sadness and of melancholy; a sense of the tragic that moves at times into the realms of sheer terror; and a deep, deep sense of loss and of longing. All these elements are found in the song cycle Winterresse – about as bleak a work of art as ever was conceived – but, perhaps even more, I find them in the last collection of Schubert’s lieder, which was published after his death under the collective title Schwanengesang. Strictly speaking, this is not a “song cycle”, but these songs seem so unified in mood, that they are often treated as such. Almost unbearably moving are the six songs in the collection that set to music poems by Heine: there is one song especially – “Am Meer” – that tells of a parting by the sea, and is so haunting that I swear I have heard it even in my sleep.
Those last three piano sonatas, the last three string quartets, and that glorious string quintet of his seem to me to be, like Winterreise, on the edge of sanity. The G major string quartet epecially – a great favourite of mine – seems to take us towards the uncompromising emotional world of Bartók. And Bartók is, indeed, my next choice. I remember still when I heard all six string quartets of Bartók plyed on a single mad day by the Belcea Quartet at the Wigmore Hall. I am not sure how they kept their concentration, for, even though I was only listening, and even though the concerts were well spread out through the day, by the time that almost unbearably sad 6th quartet came around, my concentration, I’m afraid, had gone. But I’m glad I attended those concerts: each of those six quartets, written at different times of Bartók’s life, is different; each opens up new worlds of sound, of sonority; and yet, each is unmistakably the product of the same astounding creative genius.
It was a recording of the 2nd violin concerto that first alerted me to this strange musical mind – those plucked notes on the harp, followed by that almost ghostly theme on the violin … I had heard nothing like that before, and nothing since. Indeed, there is much in Bartók that may be described as “ghostly”: the slow movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was famously used in The Shining, Kubrick’s attempt at a horror film; but perhaps even more eerie and frightening for me is the middle movement of the Divertimento for Strings. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many Hammer horror films, but I can’t listen to that music without picturing the coach with the lonely traveller driving through the Borgo Pass, and on towards Castle Dracula.
Virtually everything Bartók ever composed is a masterpiece – those string quartets, the sonata for two pianos and percussion, the one act gothic opera Bluebeard’s Castle – right up to that sonata for solo violin, and that late, mellow 3rd piano concerto. But throughout it all, there seems to me a tremendous passion. I find it impossible to remain detached during a performance of any work by Bartók: each work demands total immersion
I have already picked five composers, and am conscious that I have yet to pick Bach. But old Johann Sebastian will have to wait just a bit longer, for the next on my list is his perhaps equally great contemporary, Handel. The comparison between the two composers is fascinating, but it’s difficult articulating it, since to describe the works of such towering geniuses in generalised terms is inevitably to simplify. But on the whole, I find Handel a more theatrical composer than Bach; and, perhaps for that reason alone, I find myself listening to more of Handel’s music.
I actually came to Handel’s music rather late. For a long time, I had imagined him as little more than a purveyor of ceremonial pomp and grandeur. It was only when I heard some of those exquisite arias from Giulio Cesare that I realised how far removed my picture of Handel was from the reality. And so, over the hast few years, I have found myself exploring more of this composer’s music, and moving well beyond Messiah, Water Music, and Music for the Royal Fireworks. And I can barely begin to describe the riches I have found – from the pastoral freshness of Acis and Galatea to the high drama of Saul; from the sumptuous grandeur of Solomon to the melting tenderness of Rodelinda; from the nobility of Belshazzar to the sheer radiance of Theodora. One could go on and on. And throughout, there is a melodic inspiration that is perhaps matched only by Schubert (who was, however, very different temperamentally).
Bach is my next choice (“and not before time”, I hear you say). On the whole, I find him a more introverted composer than Handel. Instead of the great monumental public statements of Handel, Bach gives us – even in large scale works such as St Matthew Passion, or the Mass in B Minor – music of a quiet intensity and inwardness, almost as if the act of making music were a means of speaking privately to one’s God. Much of Bach, as I say, does intimidate me: I have no doubt that his various preludes and fugues, A Musical Offering, The Art of Fugue, etc., are amongst the peaks of human achievement: but all too often, I feel myself distanced from it. But what I experience when I do get Bach I don’t think I could even begin to describe.
Only last month, I was at the Wigmore Hall to hear Thomas Zehetmair give a recital of some of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin, ending the concert with the D minor partita, with that passionate powerhouse that is the concluding chaconne. Have I ever heard anything quite like that? No, I hadn’t. It was unlike anything else. One doubts whether Brahms would have composed that passionate passacaglia that concludes his 4th symphony if Bach’s chaconne had not existed. It is emotionally exhausting merely to listen to it. But Bach could relax as well: and he could exult – listen, for instance, to the outer movements of the 2nd Brandenburg Concerto, with its stratospherically high trumpet. Indeed, the sheer range and variety of moods in these six Brandenburg Concertos are such that it seems at times that they contain everything anyone could possibly want from music.
Before I move on to my last three choices, let me briefly mention a few composers I wish I could have included amongst my favourites. I am afraid I had to leave out Janáček, whose increasingly unorthodox operas (as well as the mad Glagolitic Mass, and the two string quartets) I love deeply. I am equally sorry to leave out Mussorgsky, who would certainly have made this list had he remained sober enough to have composed more. But even as it is, Boris Godunov and Khovanschina (Mussorgsky didn’t get round even to orchestrating the latter: we usually hear it in the superb orchestration by Shostakovich) are possibly my favourite operas since Mozart; and I am sorry also to omit Mahler, a composer I have been coming round to recently after years of bemusement and incomprehension. As for Wagner, yes, I have frequently found myself spellbound by his music: I have found myself so immersed that I have lost all sense of the outside world, of time passing. But whether I actually enjoy being in this state is another question. I do like Wagner, but I’m not sure that I like liking him, if you see what I mean; and while I can understand why some people would choose Wagner as their Number One, I am frankly quite happy to leave him out. There are many other very great composers I have had to leave out, of course, but this post is long enough as it is, so let us move on.
Modest Mussorgsky (Have you seen anyone looking quite so pissed?)
Puccini is out of the top ten too, I’m sorry to say – although I’m sure that in other moods, I’d decide that I couldn’t do without La Bohème or Madama Butterfly. But Verdi is certainly in, and is my next choice. I don’t think any other composer had quite so powerful a sense of the theatre. People often complain about the silliness of many of his plots, but that does seem to me to be missing the point: the plots matter less than what Verdi made of them. I dare anyone to read the synopsis of something like Rigoletto, say, and not laugh at the absurdity of it: but the finished product is heartbreaking. It is not what happens that interests Verdi: his interests lay deeper. Rigoletto, for instance, is a man who is despised and mocked, and the only way he can live with this is to despise and mock those despise and mock him. He becomes a part of the evil and the corruption that so oppress him. But his soul must find some respite from this endless cycle of inhumanity, and he finds this respite in his love for his daughter. But the evil around him – and of which he is himself is an agent – cannot be be held back, and he unwittingly helps destroy the very thing that he has tried with all his soul to protect. The plot – mere mechanism whereby all this happens – may be absurd, but the very real human emotions are overwhelming. In most tragedies, the protagonist dies: but Rigoletto’s tragedy is that he must go on living, even when the earth holds nothing that is worth living for.
In masterpiece after masterpiece, Verdi depicted and explored human passions. In his very old age, he produced what some think are his greatest works. But I’m not so sure. Of course, his Requiem Mass, and his two late Shakespearean operas – Otello and Falstaff – are beyond compare, but I really don’t know that, despite the superior libretti of these last two operas, they are superior to the likes of Rigoletto, La Traviata, Simon Boccanegra, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Forza del Destino, Don Carlos, Aida, etc. It was Stravinsky who said that he loved these works beyond the point where criticism made any difference. And this brings me round neatly to my next choice.
Stravinsky remains a towering figure. His earlier ballets – The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring – have all entered the mainstream repertoire now, but the quality of his output, despite a very long creative life never declined. His restless creativity was constantly seeking out new styles, new modes of expression. And whatever mode, whatever style he worked in, it’s almost as if he couldn’t help but create masterpieces. It’s hard to imagine that the composer of a score as richly melodic and as Romantic as The Firebird could compose so bleak and desolate a work as Oedipus Rex; or that the composer of the neo-classical Symphony of Psalms could go on to compose Agon and Thereni. In the 1950s, with the emergence of the postwar avant-garde, Stravinsky may have appeared a bit of a dinosaur: he soon saw to that by taking on the avant-garde at their own game, and composing serialist works. And what works they are!
There is much in Stravinsky’s immense output that I confess I haven’t quite come to terms with yet: Stravinsky seems a composer whose works one may spend an entire lifetime exploring.
My final choice is a safe and standard middle-of-the-road Classic FM choice, but I don’t care: I love the music of Tchaikovsky, so there. Yes, I know, he did compose the 1812 Overture, but it’s Tchaikovsky’s bad luck that this piece has become so well-known, just as it’s Beethoven’s good luck that Wellington’s Victory hasn’t. And I could live without Tchaikovsky’s concerti as well: at best, they are merely decorative. Neither am I entirely convinced by Tchaikovsky the opera composer: there are some fine things in Eugene Onegin and in The Queen of Spades, but neither counts among my favourites. No – it’s those last three symphonies and those three ballet scores (not just the suites – the full scores of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker) that I’d find very difficult to do without. Britten, I gather, used to keep the score of Sleeping Beauty near him when he composed, to inspire him whenever he encountered problems with orchestration.
Of course, it is true that I am a sucker for a good tune, and Tchaikovsky wrote some of the very best – but that’s not, I think, the primary reason for my love of Tchaikovsky: Dvořák was at least as fine a melodist, but his music tends to leave me (for whatever reason) indifferent. It’s the kind of melody Tchaikovsky wrote that sends up the spine those shivers that cannot be explained away. I love the grace and elegance of so much of his balletic music (both in his ballet scores, and in his symphonies); and I love the sheer, unadulterated passion. In Western culture, unrestrained expression of raw passion is sometimes looked down upon as being in bad taste: but I probably retain enough of a non-Western sensibility to find myself responding to it. There are many great tragic symphonies, of course – the 4th symphony of Brahms, the 6th of Mahler, the 4th of Sibelius, the 4th and the 6th of Vaughan Williams (something about those numbers 4 and 6!) etc. But none is quite so devastating – for me, at least – as is the 6th symphony of Tchaikovsky – a real slash-your-wrists symphony if ever there was one. There is nothing in all music that leaves me as utterly overwhelmed as that final adagio, which, after its titanic climactic moment, fades away into nothingness.
And yet, not long before Tchaikovsky composed that symphony, he gave us The Nutcracker, a score of magical childlike wonder. I like to think of these two works as his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Here’s Simon Rattle, for long a Tchaikovsky-sceptic who has recently undergone a conversion, speaking of The Nutcracker:
One of the great miracles in music …extraordinary touches of orchestration, ideas that sound as though they were written 20 years later… the fountain of melodic adventure [that] almost beggars belief.
Well, those are the ten I would choose today. As with any list, it leaves out too much: but while there are other composers I’d have loved to have included, there’s none there, I think, that I’d be happy taking out.