Two weeks ago NY Times music critic, Anthony Tommasini, took on what he himself called a rather futile attempt at ranking the Top classical composers. But, I agree with him completely in that the interesting part of this ‘exercise’ was the journey in itself and not the final list. With that said, I have to point out that I was astounded by two of Mr. Tommasini’s choices for the Top 10 List. The final ranking was revealed two days ago:
It’s an incredibly strong list that’s for sure, but his reasons for leaving out Haydn and Liszt were not entirely convincing for me. He points out that Haydn’s legacy was carried over by the rest of the Viennese School (Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert) and that Schubert’s death has been the biggest loss in music because he died at 31 and he could have accomplished so much more, and he would have furthered his career, etc, etc. But, we can’t judge composers for what they could have been, but simply for what they were. Don’t get me wrong, Schubert is magnificent, but leaving out the father of the Classical period, the person who defined the Symphony, the quartet, the sonata, the person who is to thank for Mozart’s and Beethoven’s motivic development technique, and putting Schubert in his place instead is just preposterous to me.
And also, leaving out Liszt?! If there was no Liszt there couldn’t have been a Wagner! Simply put, Tristan’s chord (one of the most famous passages of music) had already appeared in Liszt’s “Ich möchte hingehen”. I don’t mean we should take out Wagner, not at all, I just feel like Brahms doesn’t deserve Liszt’s spot. Having said that, I should note that I enjoy Brahms’ music a lot more than Liszt’s and I have a tremendous appreciation for Brahms’ revolutionary ideas that influenced even modern composers like Schoenberg (see my previous post); but Liszt’s compositions completely changed piano writing, his playing continues to be praised above all, his symphonic poems led way to Strauss.
All in all, I think the articles don’t provide enough basis for the exclusion of these two major composers. (Then again, I understand this is not a musicology dissertation)
But his thoughts on Liszt are a bit mind boggling:
“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.”
Whaaaat?! The most influential figure of the 19th century and still not a Top 10 Composer? Beats me…
I’m not talking about things like “Oh, without Palestrina there would be no Messiaen because it would break the evolution of music and bla bla bla.” No, I’m talking about two major names in music history who created schools in their own right and were displaced without sufficient justification.
Finally, while reading the last couple of paragraphs in the article which unveiled the final list, I was pleased with the rationale behind placing Wagner below Verdi (although not very musically relevant, but I would have done the same). And, amid the anxiety of learning who the last position belonged to, my eyes unconsciously skipped forward and caught a glimpse of the name Puccini. I was completely petrified! But, kept on reading and was pleasantly relieved to see Bartók included in the list. Perfect choice!
Another qualm I have about Mr. Tommasini’s selection methodology is that he was at times too lenient with composers and his writing avoided excessive public confrontation. I was much more convinced (and amused) when reading his thoughts on Verdi naysayers:
“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.”
In a nutshell, I’ll keep defending Haydn and Liszt over Schubert and Brahms. After all, the whole point of Top 10 Lists is to argue. In fact, in this 2 week period over 1,500 music fans commented and challenged the choices for the list. More than 1,500 active classical music fans…who woulda thought?!