This is part one of a two-part post where I propose my personal list of the ten greatest composers of classical music. It is always risky to create such lists, in that some names who deserve to be included are usually unjustly left out. That is certainly the case for this list as well, as you will certainly notice that some of your favourite composers are probably missing. However, the topic is fascinating and I wanted to get my hands dirty while working on it. So, let’s get started!
10. Anton Bruckner
Bruckner was born in Ansfelden, in the north of Austria and spent most of his life during the peak of the romantic era. His music has been often criticised for its conservative flavour by fellow composers and music critics. But this is exactly Bruckner’s greatness: the capacity to stretch romantic music to its limits in terms of: size of the compositions, tonal and harmonic structures, form and orchestration. His symphonies are gigantic sound cathedrals characterised by an unmistakable German pace, which, in my view, can be easily regarded as the final achievement of the symphonic path initiated by Haydn decades before. What I admire most in Bruckner’s compositional practice is the ability to build pieces which accumulate an enormous amount of tension over time and eventually outburst in powerful climaxes. Listening to the second movement of the 7th Symphony, for example, is such a cathartic experience for me that it’s difficult to compare it to anything else.
9. Gesualdo Da Venosa
This murderous Italian prince from the Renaissance period definitely deserves to be among the greatest. Gesualdo isn’t extensively known by the masses, however, his polyphonic vocal music has something magical and sublime. It is said that he went crazy after he killed his wife along with her lover, and that composing music became a way to expiate his fault. His madrigals and motets are soaked with madness and are at least three centuries ahead of his time, harmonically speaking. His music is full of chromaticism, dissonances, and sometimes shows even a primordial form of atonality. In a sense, Gesualdo’s musical legacy passed directly to Schoenberg. He’s one of the few who “reinvented” music, and perhaps for this reason, was substantially ignored by other musicians for a long time.
8. Gyorgy Ligeti
Transylvanian contemporary composer whose musical innovations have had tremendous impact on the avant-garde musical scenario, Ligeti reshaped the very concept of music by composing pieces which can be seen as musical implementations of some of the principles behind chaos theory. At the microscopic level, Ligeti’s music is characterised by frenzied motions which appear to be completely chaotic. At the surface level, however, the complexity which emerges from the lower levels is channelled into gigantic sonic masses which evolve following clear musical directions. Although his music was radically new, he’s one of the few contemporary composers who succeeded in keeping most of his work accessible to people not used to the contemporary repertoire. This is proof of his incommensurable genius.
7. Arnold Schoenberg
When I think of pure creativity in music, Schoenberg is the first name that comes to my mind. The Austrian born composer spent numerous years of his youth perfecting his compositional technique, by learning from the great masters of the past. The results of his lifetime study can be appreciated in the music treaties he wrote (e.g., Harmonielehre, Fundamentals of Music Composition) which remain among the most valuable resources for learning music. But if Schoenberg had been a great theorist and teacher only, of course he wouldn’t be part of this list. The reality is that Schoenberg exploited his great knowledge of traditional music theory to completely revolutionise music. He was the pioneer who struck the last blow against tonality, and consequently opened up a brave new musical world that eventually led to what we call contemporary music. In other words, Schoenberg was a musical Prometheus who provided man with unthinkable novel opportunities in music. Compositions like Pierrot Lunaire and Three Piano Pieces are likely to be considered among the greatest musical achievements forever.
6. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
If the romantic view of the genius directly inspired by God was true – thing which of course is not! – Mozart would probably be the best candidate to impersonate it. In only 35 years of life, he was able to compose hundreds of musical works and dozens of immortal masterpieces. His production spans from opera to string quartets, from piano sonatas to symphonies. The Austrian composer had a substantial role in increasing the musical complexity of the symphonic repertoire of the time. The finale of the fourth movement of the Jupiter symphony, for example, features an elaborate five-voice fugato where all the major five themes of the symphony are combined together in strict counterpoint. Although Mozart behaved often childishly, he had an unchallenged capacity to musically portray the deepest feelings and emotional states of the characters of his operas. Evidence of this can be found in Don Giovanni, where the music which accompanies the action of the main characters perfectly captures the meanness of Don Giovanni, the agony of Donna Elvira, the fear of Leporello and the dignity of Donna Anna. His mastery at composing both opera and concert music makes him one of the most complete composers of all time.
This was my personal list of the top ten classical composers from position ten to position six. Stay tuned for the second half of the ranking.
Do you agree with my list? Who would you include in yours?
You can read part two of this post where I list the top composers from position 5 to 1 here.