Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Greatest Composers - Part 1

I publish sometimes at NoQuarter and Old Grumpy Guy writes for them as well. His latest series on The Greatest Composers of All Time falls significantly short of the mark IMO, so I now feel compelled to take up his implicit challenge and proffer my own list of The Greatest Composers of All Time. Right off the bat let me say that while I may not be older, I am probably grumpier, certainly more dyspeptic and, I think, a lot farther on my way to being a true curmudgeon.

I thought about all of this and realized that, when talking about music and 'best' lists, you are immediately presented with two major problems:

First: what are your parameters? Style, era, standards? For example, the list of great blues guitarists is different from jazz specialists and, of course, so-called 'classical' music is in a category of its own.

Second: even with the best of intentions, you are the prisoner of your own musical tastes and preferences.

I mention these problems (especially the second one) because I have been both delighted and dismayed by OGG's articles and the videos of his list of the “10 Greatest Composers of All Time”. As the series progressed, I came to understand that OGG and I have a drastically different conceptions of who is 'great' and what makes them 'great'. I also came to see that I would have to write up my own list in order to have an interesting response to his, so...

Full disclosure: here are my 'credentials'. OK, I'll admit it – I was a child star. Actually I was a boy soprano and soloist at St. Thomas Church Choir School in NYC for four years. During that time I recorded commercial records, sang on national TV under the direction of Leonard Bernstein and performed at Carnegie Hall with Leopold Stokowski (St. Matthews Passion). I have sung the Bach Magnificat in D, the Beethoven Mass, the Brahms German Requiem, among other masterworks. My professional career came to a crashing halt at age 13 when my voice cracked and I was no longer in demand (the horror!, the horror!). While this may not qualify me as a musical expert, it does mean that I am not entirely an amateur when it comes to music. In addition, my father has been a professional musician all his life, working in film, TV and Broadway and I have been an amateur pianist and flautist as long as I can remember.

Next, there are my definitions: when I talk about great music, I'm pretty much talking about western music from the Rennaisance up until about 1950. I apologize in advance for any insult to other musical traditions and I have great love and respect for many other musics – Indian Ragas, for example... but, western classical music stands head and shoulders above every other musical tradition in human history because of the development of its musical system, organization of multiple musicians into an organized musical entity with written musical orchestrations which ensure that the composer's work can be faithfully rendered – this is unique to western music.

And last, there is my process: OGG has chosen to make his choices as the

“10 Greatest Composers of All Time” - with tongue somewhat in cheek, I suspect. With all due respect, I just can't rank composers that way. Instead, I've chosen to select the 10 “Best of the Best” and present them in chronological order so that I can attempt to explain why this or that person was so singularly important at that time in musical history. I've also (a la OGG) mentioned the “Best of the Rest”, mainly because there are so many extraordinary composers who bring us nothing but beauty, not to acknowledge them would be a crime.

I also have one major bone to pick with OGG – no Russian composers! In fact, an almost complete dearth of Romantic composers on his list! Tch, tch! For shame, Sir! In my list I have endeavored to redress his unfortunate omission(s).

N.B.: These are my choices and I make no apologies, just as OGG has his choices – you are free to make your own.

I have divided this series into three parts in order keep everyone awake and on tenterhooks. You may notice some glaring(?!) ommisions, don't worry, all will be addressed (or perhaps redressed)... don't like my list? Have at it!

Best of the Best

From the Renaissance to the Baroque

Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643)

Generally regarded by scholars as one of the most important musicians ever. His work consists mostly of madrigals and operas (he was a singer and gambaist (the Viola da Gamba was a Renaissance viola-cello). Monteverdi was instrumental in transitioning western music from the Renaissance polyphonal style to the Baroque especially with his invention of the Basso Continuo. This advance loosely corresponded with the transition of musical notation from neumes to staff and key, which made the specification of pitch possible.

Go here for the Wikipedia entry on Monteverdi with links to samples of his work.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741)

Opera impressario, priest, violinist, asthmatic. He wrote operas, concerti, sonatas and various liturgical music including the widely known and loved Four Seasons concerto and the great Stabat Mater. He was daring and inventive, he alternately delighted and scandalized his musical audiences... and, like most non-rockstar musicians, he died a pauper.

Go here for the Wikipedia entry on Vivaldi with links to samples of his work.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)

If the aliens came down and said “Earthpeople, show us your best.” I would show them Johann Sebastian Bach. Now, having revealed my massive prejudice, let me explain why...

First, on the technical side (forgive me, that's my field) JSB championed Well-Tempered tuning. This is a system that alters the tuning of some of the 12 notes of the octave so that modulation from one key to another can be accomplished seamlessly, without jarring dissonance. Because of Bach's support, Well-Tempered tuning has become the dominant tuning system in all of western music. I cannot overemphasize the importance of Well-Tempered tuning to all that followed. Try to imagine a 120 piece orchestra playing the Beethoven Symphony No.9 with the first and second violin sections playing with slightly different tunings – including so-called 'pure' tunings and with the brass and woodwinds following tuning systems of their own...

Second, JSB was a complete musician, writing a cantata a week for St. Thomas church in Leipzig, books and books of teaching materials (The Well Tempered Clavier among others), fugues, toccatas, partitas, sonatas, concertos, orchestra and choral compositions almost without number... ok, there's over 1100. Father of some 20 children (not strictly a musical accomplishment but it kinda solidifies his rockstar status). Further, JSB didn't make his reputation in church – his legacy would have disappeared into the fishwrap of history if Felix Mendelsohn hadn't resurrected it (but that's another story). JSB made his reputation as a master of improvisation, i.e., in modern parlance: a jazz musician. He was famous for it – Frederick the Great asked him to improvise on a theme the monarch provided, he did and later wrote his variations down, which became “A Musical Offering”.

Third, most important of all, JS Bach was that rarest of musical geniuses, a mathematical/musical savant. Running through all of Bach's work but especially in the great organ works, the toccatas, fugues and passacaglias; Bach takes us step-by-step through each ineluctable variation, each building on the one before, each revealing a new perspective, a new truth... until at the last, the great resolving codas take us to the bedrock of the music itself, all that must be said has been said, we are at rest. Listening to the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor is one of life's great experiences.

Stay tuned for Part 2...

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