Top 10 Composers

Who are the greatest composers? Some candidates: above, from left, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Mozart, Schoenberg, Haydn, and Stravinsky; below, from left, Schumann, Brahms, Schubert, Handel, Bach, and Debuss

Anthony Tommasini, crítico do New York Times apresenta uma lista dos maiores compositores da História.

Segundo ele não é possível afirmar que seja uma lista totalmente “objetiva”, entretanto acredita que esteja no centro do cânone musical da música barroca para frente.

Barroco alemão, Bach e Haendel, os quatro vienenses Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven e Schubert. Gigantes, inquestionáveis.

O século XX, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartók, Britten e o romantismo no séc. XIX.


1 - Help Write the List 7 jan

2 - The Vienna Four 10

3 - The Vienna Four, Part 2 11

4 - Which 20th-Century Masters Will Make the Cut? 12

5 - Hailing Opera’s Shakespeare, and Its Proust 17

6 - The Female Factor

7 - The Romantics

8 - A Few Last Thoughts


Top 10 Composers: Help Write the List

What makes great music great? There are lots of ways to answer. Here’s a playful approach: make a list of the Top 10 composers in history. A gimmick? Sure, but one worth using if you have to defend your choices. What goes into a decision to put certain composers on such a list or to keep them off? Should influence matter, or just the works themselves? What about popularity? Are there any objective criteria?

Anyway, if film institutes can issue lists of best movies, and rock magazines tally the greatest albums, why can’t a classical music critic give it a try, too? So in a couple of weeks I’ll let you know who makes my Top 10 list.

But first I’ll take a little musical and intellectual excursion. I invite you to join me. In articles, videos and posts on ArtsBeat, I will talk for the next two weeks about musical greats and musical greatness and engage in the serious whimsy of musical ranking. Please challenge my analysis. Propose your own approaches. I’ll be reading and responding. Next week we will post a ballot you can use to select your own Top 10, so you’ll have the last word. Let’s see where we end up.


Top 10 Composers: The Vienna Four

For any attempt to determine the top 10 classical composers in history, like the one we embarked on in the Arts & Leisure section on Sunday, the Viennese Classical period presents a special challenge. If such a list is to be at all diverse and comprehensive, how could 4 of the 10 slots go to composers — Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert — who worked in Vienna during, say, the 75 years from 1750 to 1825? What on earth was going on there to foster such achievement?

The only Vienna native of the four was Schubert. Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the son of a wheelwright, was born in lower Austria. But by the age of 8 he was a choirboy at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. He was booted out of the choir when his voice changed in his late teens, and he became a freelance composer, performer and teacher. So during his childhood and young adult years, Haydn was immersed in the greatest music of Germanic culture.

At 29 he went to work for Prince Paul Esterhazy, who died in 1762 and was succeeded by his brother Nikolaus, a passionate music lover. Haydn spent nearly 30 years presiding over the musical activities at the prince’s palace 30 miles outside Vienna as well as at the summer residence over the border in Hungary. Still, during these decades Haydn was a regular visitor to Vienna, where he presented his works, soaked up musical life, made friends (with Mozart, among others) and joined a Masonic lodge. In 1790, the prince having died, Haydn moved back to Vienna, a beloved master (Papa Haydn) and popular composer.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), though born in Salzburg, spent extended periods of his childhood as a prodigy on tour throughout Europe. The arduous trips undermined his health and nearly killed him a couple of times. When these ventures failed to produce a patron or coveted position, Leopold Mozart compelled his son to buckle down and settle in Salzburg. But Wolfgang, itching to get to the big city, made his break at 25 and lived in Vienna until his death, through periods of triumph and exasperation, writing his greatest works during his last, heady decade.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was born in Bonn, Germany, the son of a drunken, abusive court singer. He tried to escape to Vienna at 16 but had to return to stabilize the family when his mother’s health deteriorated. Six years later he was back in Vienna, and he never left. He soon became a towering figure there, his path-breaking works both intriguing and baffling listeners, including his former teacher Haydn.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was born in Vienna to an impoverished schoolteacher and briefly became a teacher, until he threw himself into music and lived as a struggling freelance composer at a time when the patronage system was breaking down. Still, Schubert had a support system of friends and musicians who adored him and were sure they had a genius in their midst.

So what was going on in Vienna to make it such a hotbed of musical creativity? Do not presume that cultural life was especially enlightened or that the average Viennese music lover was uncommonly sophisticated. As Harvey Sachs points out in his recent book, “The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824,” terms like “crossover,” “kitsch” and “dumbing down” could easily have been applied to the Vienna of Beethoven’s day, and the typical citizen “clamored to hear the forebears of today’s virtuoso firebrands, schlock-mongers and half-pop, half-serious opera singers.”

Yet clearly there were musically astute listeners, as well as informed monarchs and patrons, who got what was going on. Haydn is often called the father of the symphony as it came to be known. I’d throw in the father of the string quartet and the piano sonata. Haydn was a pioneer in figuring out how to write a sizable multimovement instrumental piece that sounded organized and whole, an entity. The system of sophisticated tonal harmony had developed to the point where a genius like Haydn could figure out how to process themes and manipulate key areas to dramatic effect throughout the many sections of a long work. Moreover, Haydn was the first great master of what is called motivic development, in which bits and pieces of music — a few notes, a melodic twist, a rhythmic gesture — become the building blocks for an entire symphony in several movements.

Haydn passed this technique on to his recalcitrant student Beethoven, who, for all his notions of having invented himself, was deeply indebted to Haydn. Beethoven took the technique of motivic development even further. If you were going to make a case for Beethoven as the greatest composer in history, you would base it on his ability to make a long work, like the “Eroica” Symphony, seem like a musical monument in motion. For all the episodic shifts and turns of this piece, as it plows through four dramatically contrasting movements, most of the music is generated from a handful of motifs that you hear at the beginning.

Ludwig van Beethoven


Then, in his late phase, Beethoven entered a realm that transcended eras and periods. By then completely deaf, Beethoven touched the mystical. Every time I play the first piece from the Six Bagatelles (Op. 126), Beethoven’s last work for piano, I am stunned all over again. This seemingly modest little piece (as its title implies), just a single page of music, with its deceptively simple melody, is wondrous strange, almost cosmic.


Top 10 Composers: The Vienna Four, Part 2

Mozart knew all about motivic development too. But the technique did not come as naturally to him. He was a theater man at heart. It’s inspiring to see the sketches for the Mozart operas, in which all he writes are the vocal lines fitted to the words, and a bass line below, with a few chords here and there. Clearly, setting the text and getting the dramatic structure of the opera was the first task and the hard part. Filling in all the rest came later, which, for Mozart, was fairly easy if time-consuming.

When Mozart wanted to write a symphony or chamber work in the Haydn manner, as a motif-driven entity, he could certainly do it. Think of his last three symphonies or the six quartets he dedicated to Haydn. But it took great effort, as he admitted in the moving dedication of those quartets.

Still, even Mozart’s sonatas and symphonies are full of operatic touches. When I was in music school, I was always baffled when fellow pianists who claimed to love the Mozart piano concertos and sonatas said that they had no real feeling for the operas, not being opera buffs. How can you play, say, Mozart’s Sonata in D (K. 311) without being immersed in the Mozart operas? The Rondo comes across like some duet from “The Marriage of Figaro.” In the main theme you can almost hear Susanna, as she coyly tries to charm her way out of a tight spot with her doting, jealous Figaro, who voices his suspicions in gruff bursts leading to the second theme.

The argument for Mozart as the greatest composer ever would be based on his astounding versatility: he is at the top, both as a maker of opera and as a composer of symphonic and chamber works. That he died at 35 was horrible. On the other hand, he had an early start. And how do you top “Don Giovanni” and the “Jupiter” Symphony?

But that Schubert died at 31 is for me the greatest loss in music history. Even though he wrote an astonishing number of works, in so many ways he was just getting going. In his last years he started to restudy counterpoint because he thought his skills were insufficient.

In his mature piano sonatas, chamber works and songs, Schubert, like Beethoven, entered some mystic place beyond era and cultural context. Think of the Sonata in A minor (D. 784), which in the opening movement veers with no warning from an eerily self-contained main theme through bursts of crazed chords and tremolos to a deceptively tranquil second theme, flowing by like some wistful folk song, only to be interrupted by slashing fortissimo chords.

If only for the hundreds of his songs that dominate the song repertory today and continue to stun, entrance and delight audiences, Schubert should make the cut. Right?

Yet one of these Vienna masters will have to be eliminated if we are going to leave spots for the giants of the 19th and 20th centuries. Might it be Haydn? Part of his legacy was carried on by his student Beethoven and his younger friend Mozart. I know musicians and critics who would howl at the idea that Haydn, who pioneered the string quartet and wrote some of the greatest works in that genre, would not be among the Top 5, let alone the top 10. What to do? For now, let’s put it off.


Top 10 Composers: Which 20th-Century Masters Will Make the Cut?

The 19th century will pose the toughest calls in our whimsical attempt to identify the top 10 classical composers of all time. Think of Chopin, Schumann, Berlioz, Liszt, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. And what about Verdi and Wagner? So let me deal with the 20th century first, see how many slots might still be left, and work backward.

Though Debussy was born in 1862 and died in 1918, this path-breaker has to be considered a 20th-century giant. After some 300 years of pulsating Germanic music, for Debussy to come along and write such hauntingly restrained, ethereal, time-stands-still works was a shock to the system. His thick yet transparent block chords; his harmonies tinged with ancient modal elements; his preference for whole-tone scales that loosened music’s moorings to traditional tonality; his mastery of delicate orchestral colorings and new ways of writing for the piano: all this and more made him the father of modern music. Composers from Stravinsky to Boulez would have been impossible without Debussy’s example.

For the subject of his only complete opera he chose Maeterlinck’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” a groundbreaking work of Symbolist theater from 1893. Debussy’s Impressionist music, full of veiled harmonies, blurry textures and emotional ambiguity, hauntingly taps the subliminal stirrings of this mysterious story of a sullen royal family in a timeless, placeless kingdom. In the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production Simon Rattle, in his Met debut, conducted a stunning account of this unorthodox opera, first performed in 1902. What other 20th-century work continues to sound as radical?

Stravinsky, by the way, though I am still formulating this list, will surely make the cut. One fascinating element of his achievement is that among a very select roster of great composers in history, Stravinsky is the only one to have made his reputation by writing ballet scores, with the possible exception of Tchaikovsky.

Everyone acknowledges the impact of Stravinsky’s Paris ballets, especially that all-time stunner “The Rite of Spring” from 1913. His later work with the choreographer George Balanchine was one of the most important collaborations in the history of the arts. Stravinsky was inspired to write astonishing scores for Balanchine, like “Orpheus” and “Apollo.” But Balanchine found Stravinsky’s music so choreographic that he seized even on pieces like the Violin Concerto and the late, 12-tone Movements for Piano and Orchestra and conscripted them for duty in ballet.

Stravinsky’s works during his lengthy period of Neo-Classicism are still underappreciated. I love that these pieces are, essentially, music about other music. “The Rake’s Progress” is an ingenious, amusing and profound opera on its own terms. It is also Stravinsky’s savvy, admiring musical commentary on Mozart opera. When he finally started writing 12-tone works (adapting the technique to his own ends), even those scores were Neo-Classical in a sense. The 12-tone thing had been around for a while, and the movement was losing steam. So Stravinsky’s 12-tone pieces were like commentaries on the 12-tone phenomenon.


Theorists and composers are still trying to figure out exactly how the elusive harmonic language in Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical scores (like the Symphony in Three Movements and the overlooked Piano Sonata) actually works. His pieces do not give up their secrets easily. The “Symphony of Psalms” for chorus and unconventional orchestra (with no violins and violas but two pianos) is the most gravely beautiful and profound sacred work of the 20th century. Leonard Bernstein once said that the opening chords of the third movement alone, in which the chorus sings a bittersweet, almost resigned setting of the word “Alleluia,” would have ensured Stravinsky’s place in history. That was Bernstein in his exuberant mode, but he had a point.

What’s more, including the Russian-born Stravinsky in my list brings some geographical diversity to the Top 10.

The composer I yearn to include is Benjamin Britten. In many ways, Britten is thriving. At least a half-dozen of his operas have become staples, and his symphonic and chamber works turn up all the time on programs. If there are finer 20th-century works for voice and orchestra than “Les Illuminations” and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. I don’t know what they are. Still, I am probably in a minority in rating him quite this high. I predict that his stock will rise steadily over the next 50 years. Still, Top 10? Am I going to push out Haydn for Britten?

Among other 20th-century giants, however, I am leaning toward making a place for Bartok. It’s not just that Bartok was a visionary composer with an arresting and original voice. He could write works in a popular vein, like the Concerto for Orchestra, that are still rich with subtle complexities and ingenious strokes and his characteristic propulsive rhythms. Yet he also wrote uncompromisingly modern and experimental pieces, like the six string quartets, pieces he assumed would never catch on with the public. He would be amazed that today his quartets are as essential to the repertory as Beethoven’s.

Bartok’s other pivotal contribution came from his field research into folk music and indigenous musical traditions of Eastern Europe. He was an early ethnomusicologist. The music he encountered fundamentally altered his perceptions as a composer. Sometimes he more or less transcribed the folk music into suitable pieces for the concert hall. But in subtler ways he folded unconventional elements of the indigenous songs, dances and dirges into his own mature style. Even when he is not explicitly borrowing some folk tune, Bartok’s music is run through with the earthy strangeness of Eastern European folk music. His example inspired countless composers, from Lou Harrison to Osvaldo Golijov, to explore folk music and classical traditions from Asia, South America or wherever their backgrounds and interests took them.

Also — and maybe this is where my own concerns come into play — Bartok’s role in forging new pathways for music in the early decades of the 20th century was pivotal. Schoenberg’s analysis that the system of tonality was in crisis was spot on. Yet the solution he proposed, 12-tone music, while an audacious and exhilarating leap, appeared as inevitable — that is, the next step in the evolution — only to Schoenberg and his acolytes.

Bartok showed another way. His arresting harmonic language was an amalgam of tonality, unorthodox scales, atonal wanderings and more. Theorists still haven’t broken down Bartok’s language. But concertgoers, who don’t have such concerns, continue to be swept away by the originality and mystery of his music. A work like the Third String Quartet seems as stunningly modern today as it was in 1927. Yet it is a mainstay of the string quartet repertory.

So whom are we missing? Any votes for Shostakovich? Prokofiev? Messiaen? Ligeti?


Top 10 Composers: Hailing Opera’s Shakespeare, and Its Proust

Having skipped ahead to the 20th century in our ambitious quest to identify the top 10 classical composers of all time, let’s shift back to the crowded and complex 19th century. And let’s start with the dynamic duo of 19th-century opera, Verdi and Wagner.

Opera, you could argue (and many readers have), is a different animal. But Verdi and Wagner were great students of Beethoven, and their operas have symphonic sweep, architectonic integrity and orchestral richness galore. In addition, you cannot discount their enduring popularity.

Verdi is an ideal case of a composer who came from a definite tradition that laid out the protocols and practices of how to write an opera. All his life he balanced honoring tradition with striking out on new paths. Each opera, almost without exception, was better, bolder, more masterly and more personal than the one before, right until the end, when, in his 70s, he wrote his final masterpieces, “Otello” and “Falstaff.”

“Don Carlo” is the “Hamlet” of Italian opera. If the plots of some works are nonsensical, Verdi embraced musical drama not as a way to present neat little narratives but as a chance to bring to life flawed and lost characters caught up in complex relationships, especially those between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons. Sorting out the political factions and power plays of “Simon Boccanegra” may be impossible. But the opera is like a bleak morality tale that shows how rash actions taken in your youth can fatalistically set the course of your life. The tenor Plácido Domingo had an improbable triumph last season at the Metropolitan Opera singing Simon, a touchstone Verdi baritone role. The opera returns to the Met this week with a compelling baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, in the lead.

Verdi should not be blamed for his own popularity nor tainted by the excessive devotion of the most fanatical opera buffs. Those who dispute the sophistication of his craft don’t know what they’re talking about.

Let me defer to a rather authoritative voice, that of Stravinsky. In his book “Poetics of Music,” Stravinsky challenges the assertion that the early Verdi works, steeped in the traditions of Italian opera and thick with oom-pah-pah arias, are somehow negligible, and that only with the more experimental operas of his later years did Verdi reach his potential.

“I know that I am going counter to the general opinion that sees Verdi’s best work in the deterioration of the genius that gave us ‘Rigoletto,’ ‘Il Trovatore,’ ‘Aida’ and ‘La Traviata,’ ” Stravinsky wrote. But, he added, “I maintain that there is more substance and true invention in the aria ‘La donna è mobile,’ for example, in which this elite saw nothing but deplorable facility, than in the rhetoric and vociferations of the ‘Ring.’ ”
I disagree with Stravinsky about Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. But the elite he was referring to were his fellow composers, and Stravinsky’s astute defense of Verdi shook up contemporary music circles.

Consider Verdi’s specific skills as a composer. Orchestration? Listen to the diaphanous opening of the Nile scene in “Aida.” Counterpoint? The greatest fugue in opera is the joyous concluding ensemble scored for soloists, chorus and orchestra at the end of “Falstaff.” And speaking of “Falstaff,” there is an episode in Act III that might seem like a throwaway moment, when Falstaff, as he has been instructed, arrives in Windsor Forest at night for what he thinks will be a romantic assignation. As distant chimes strike midnight, he counts off the hours (“Una, due, tre, …”). Each is accompanied with a different chord in the orchestra, an ingenious and haunting harmonic progression.

For Stravinsky, there was just too much bombast in Wagner. I certainly understand what he meant. Still, the more I immerse myself in the Wagner operas, the more staggering they seem.

Wagner was a nasty guy who transcended himself in his works. He and his followers produced a lot of hype about the Gesamtkunstwerk concept: opera as an ideal amalgam of all the arts. Yet cut through the aesthetic verbiage, and Wagner pulls it off. A great performance of “Tristan und Isolde” in a compelling production offers an artistic immersion like no other.

Richard Wagner

Musically, Wagner was a pioneering figure without whom Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School and even Debussy (though he hated to admit it) would have been impossible. You have to look at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel murals or Proust’s seven-volume novel “In Search of Lost Time” to find a work in any field as ambitious and arresting as Wagner’s “Ring.” Yet for all the work’s mystical trappings and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, it is a humane, wise and moving story of the imperious god Wotan and his dysfunctional family, who bring about their own destruction.

Perhaps too much is made of Wagner’s leitmotifs: the technique of fashioning brief musical motifs for crucial characters, objects, places and philosophical themes (fate, death, renunciation) in his operas. Yet the masterly way he manipulates, develops and transforms these motifs has never been equaled in opera. His model here, I think, was Beethoven, the ultimate master of motivic development. Wagner honored Beethoven, one of his heroes, by adapting the technique to opera.

This much I’m giving away now: Verdi and Wagner make my list. Both of them.


Top 10 Composers: The Female Factor

As my two-week project to identify the top 10 composers in history has been rolling out, I have been wondering whether any readers would write in asking why no female composers are under consideration. Few have even been mentioned as long-shot contenders.

Well, some strong advocates of female composers have now spoken up, especially Elizabeth M. Williams, who proposed that, at the very least, there might be a separate, female top 10 project. Among the candidates she proposed, excluding living composers, are Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Amy Beach, Ruth Crawford Seeger and more.

The sad truth is that until relatively recent decades, women have had severely limited opportunities within all the arts, especially music and, even more, composition. Some of the prejudice stemmed from the deep-seated male chauvinism of Western culture. Mozart’s older sister Nannerl, for example, though not as talented as Wolfgang (has anyone been as talented as our Wolfgang?), was an accomplished prodigy who was initially sent on showcase tours with her brother. If the conditions for women had been more favorable, Nannerl might have been encouraged to continue with music and become a professional. Instead, once she grew out of the cute little girl prodigy stage, she was directed on a path toward marriage. She eventually settled down with a twice-widowed Austrian prefect who had five children, and she lived to 78 (while her high-stressed brother died at 35).

But the main reason, I think, that there were so few female composers during the glory centuries of classical music is that composers depend on performing musicians and ensembles to play their works, and until relatively recent times, musicians, ensembles and musical institutions were overwhelmingly male.

There were a significant number of female novelists, poets and painters in earlier times. But if you were a Jane Austen, you could sit at home and write your novels. As long as you found a sympathetic publisher, you could get your books distributed and be acknowledged. Compare this to the situation facing Clara Schumann, one of the most celebrated pianists of the 19th century. She was also a gifted composer, though she mostly wrote piano pieces, songs, chamber works: things that she and a circle of musician friends could perform. If she had tried to compose symphonies and operas, even she, for all her renown, would have hit a dead end with male orchestras and opera companies, which would have been unwilling to champion the works of a woman. So why bother?

There would be several obvious female contenders for a list of top 10 novelists. Or poets. But consider this: Where are the great female playwrights of earlier centuries? Again, this is the same problem as with female composers: what theater company was willing to present plays by women?

The last 50 years, especially the last couple of decades, have brought expanding opportunities for women in music. Our orchestras are filled with female players. In most conservatories, usually half of the composition students are women these days. A list of important living composers would absolutely include many women, among them Kaija Saariaho, Sofia Gubaidulina, Libby Larsen, Judith Weir, Joan Tower, Chen Yi, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Augusta Read Thomas, Jennifer Higdon and more. So if we have a top 10 composers survey 100 years from now, the finalists might well include both sexes. For now, alas, my list is all male


The Top 10 Composers: The Romantics

Anthony Tommasini has been exploring the qualities that make a classical composer great, maybe even the best of all time. Watch videos and vote for your own top 10 here and read previous posts here and share your thoughts in the comments field. Mr. Tommasini’s final list will be posted on Friday.

In my exercise of sorting through the great composers of history to determine the Top 10, I have been putting off dealing with the 19th-century Romantic era (except for those giants of opera, Verdi and Wagner, who have already made the cut). But there is a reason. Music lovers have long been understandably enthralled with Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and their Romantic brethren. For better or worse, their works still dominate the standard repertory. Yet their music is so personal and idiosyncratic that it is hard to assess it in terms of greatness.

Frederic ChopinFrederic Chopin
These creators are not called Romantics for nothing. The Romantic movement emerged from the Classical heritage, in which composers expressed themselves through large, formal structures: symphony, sonata, string quartet, concerto. But the Romantic aesthetic emboldened composers to be more passionate, rhapsodic and personal. Formal structures were loosened, as music became a channel for strongly individual, often quirky, even eccentric expression. Literature, nature and history were favorite sources of inspiration.

Chopin, the most original genius of the 19th century, is a good example. Striving for greatness was the last thing on his mind. Chopin had his own select list of past greats he revered, topped by Bach and Mozart. And he loved bel canto opera, especially by that melancholic melodist Bellini.

But the Beethoven symphonic imperative that hung over and intimidated his fellow composers meant nothing to Chopin. He did not care about writing large, formal works, certainly not symphonies. Even his Second and Third Piano Sonatas (the First is an early work), though astounding, are completely unconventional. Chopin respected his composer colleagues, but he was not especially interested in their work. He was a pianist who composed. To him there was no distinction between the activities. And he seldom performed piano works by other composers.

Beethoven consciously strove to be great, even titanic, and he thought he was. His legacy is defined by intimidating bodies of symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas and more, now canonic. How does an individualist like Chopin “rank” in comparison? Chopin’s ethereal nocturnes, poetic ballades, audacious scherzos, aptly titled impromptus and lacy waltzes often sound like written-out improvisations.

I don’t think Chopin expected his 58 mazurkas to be widely appreciated. On the surface these pieces are lilting Polish dances, but only on the surface. Listen more closely, and even the jaunty mazurkas are quizzical, wistful and poetic. The dreamy ones can be almost unbearably confessional. Of course, when any of his published music sold well, Chopin was delighted.

Schumann was a somewhat different story, since he embraced that Beethoven symphonic imperative. Schumann tried to write big pieces — symphonies, oratorios, elaborate chamber works — and many of these scores are stirring. But he was a troubled soul, with a keen intellect and a fantastical imagination. His music is even quirkier and more idiosyncratic than Chopin’s. For me, his best works are the piano pieces.

During my graduate school years, one of the Schumann works I learned, performed and became almost obsessed with was the “Davidsbündlertänze,” a suite of dances that presents Schumann at his most astonishing. Schumann made up two inner personalities for himself: Eusebius, the dreamer, and Florestan, the impetuous rebel. Each of these dances is signed at the end with an “E” or an “F” to indicate which of his alter egos composed it. (A couple of them have both signatures.) Now try evaluating such a piece in a cool consideration of the greatest composers.

And so it goes during the freewheeling Romantic era.

Liszt? As a comprehensive musician (pianist, composer, conductor, major champion of composers like Wagner), Liszt was arguably the most influential figure of the 19th century. Still, there is nothing to do with his exhilaratingly virtuosic, wildly experimental, moody, restless and radical music other than to listen in wonder. But a top 10 composer? I don’t think so.

Berlioz? Sometimes it is said of a composer that he had great talent but no genius. Well, you could waggishly say the opposite of Berlioz: he had great genius but no talent. There is a little truth to this. Just conceiving pieces as amazing as the “Symphonie Fantastique” (written when he was 26, in 1830, only three years after Beethoven had died), let alone the poetically epic opera “Les Troyens,” took staggering genius. Yet except for the brilliantly imaginative orchestration, the nuts-and-bolts musical elements in Berlioz can often sound awkward.

Tchaikovsky’s enduring popularity has not helped his reputation in intellectual artistic circles. When in lectures and writings Stravinsky spoke so respectfully of Tchaikovsky’s music, his endorsement caused avant-garde modernists who had patronized Tchaikovsky to reconsider. Today Tchaikovsky is both respected by composers and loved by the public.

And then there is Brahms.

Among the Romantics, Brahms — born in 1833, a generation after the Chopin-Schumann first wave — stands out as the one composer who most coveted a place in the Beethovenian lineage. He could be terribly insecure. Brahms destroyed as many of his scores as he released for performance and publication. He was so in awe of Beethoven that it took him a dozen years to write his first symphony. But once he got that off his back, he wrote his next symphony during a few productive months.

Johannes Brahms

Brahms also wrote epic concertos, sonatas and chamber works that at once honored and utterly transformed the Classical forms. In some ways he was a true Classicist. Yet for the Brahms centennial in 1933, Schoenberg gave a talk called “Brahms the Progressive,” pointing to Brahms for examples of harmonic writing that anticipated the breakdown of tonality. Last year the pianist Shai Wosner released a recording of works by Brahms and Schoenberg. At the center of the program, Mr. Wosner plays Brahms’s Opus 116 Fantasies, a set of seven late piano pieces. Between the Brahms works he inserts elliptical movements from Schoenberg’s Six Short Piano Pieces, and it is amazing how easily Brahms’s chromatic harmonies mingle with Schoenberg’s atonal writing. These composers seem to be speaking slightly different dialects of the same language.

Anyway, I’m still in a quandary about where to place Chopin and Schumann and their Romantic brethren. But Brahms is looking pretty good.


Top 10 Composers: A Few Last Thoughts

Well, that’s it. I’ve said all I have to say about the Top 10 composers, at least for now. (This is not a veiled threat of more to come.) I thought the project, while fun, could be undertaken with real musical determination. And I had hopes that it would spark interesting reactions.

But I had no idea that these articles, videos and blog posts would stir up such a lively, informed and passionate online conversation, with, so far, 2,637 comments from readers. Many comments were not directed to me, just dropped into the continuing dialogue. I would like to finish by summing up what I have learned from the thoughts Times readers have shared.

The only way to play any game is to take it seriously. The vast majority of people who wrote in to share their perceptions about the Top 10 composers project did just that. Of course, some took the project seriously by dismissing it entirely, even indignantly, and that was also interesting. All in all, I have been overwhelmed by the comments, and the compliments, from readers, even those who were outraged that I could find no place on my list for, say, Chopin or Mahler.

Several pointed out that in my open deliberations about musical greatness I seemed to place a lot of stock in influence. I guess that was true, although you could argue that Haydn, who more or less invented Classicism, was more influential than Mozart, who simply practiced it with unfathomable genius. Yet I bumped Haydn to make room for other composers (for which I have gotten a great deal of perhaps-justified flak).

I think what I was up to was more precisely nailed by a reader who said that I placed a high value on “innovation.” That rings true for me, and I am grateful for the insight. Take Debussy, for example. He may not have written that many works, but he changed how music was thought of. He said, in effect, “Here is another way to organize time, to make harmony, to conceive color.”

Finally, let me repeat that of course, the whole notion of greatness is questionable. One reason I am so immersed in contemporary music is that when you are hearing an engrossing new piece, thoughts of lasting greatness get pushed aside.

I really enjoy programs like the one Alan Gilbert conducted recently with the New York Philharmonic, which began with a lean, fleet account of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, then moved to Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” (a wrenching performance with the baritone Thomas Hampson) and ended, after intermission, with “In Seven Days,” a dense, restless, elusive and fascinating new piano concerto by the English composer Thomas Adès, which incorporated videos by Tal Rosner. I love that this program led to and climaxed with the Adès. It encouraged you to hear Mozart, Mahler and Adès in a continuum, all with something to say today. Whether the Adès piece will ever make some list of greatest works ever was not the issue. There will be plenty of time to sort that out.

This is why I eliminated living composers from the deliberation. We are too close to them to have perspective. In fact, I’d go farther and say we are too close to the music of the last 50 years to have perspective on its eventual place in the pantheon. Still, the masters do have crucial places in our musical lives. So why not try to figure out who stands where? I was not surprised to find that so many people had thought so much about this.

Anyway, I thank everyone who participated. And a special word to one woman who wrote to me directly and did not post her comments. She praised the whole series generously and especially enjoyed my videos. But she also gave me a little piano lesson. As an experienced piano teacher, she wrote, she wanted to warn me that she detected some tension in my right hand that was related to shoulder tension. She has helped many students to relieve this problem, she added. I laughed out loud to receive such a sweet and earnest note.


Top 10 Composers

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