My Choices for the Top Five Western Classical Music Composers of All Time
The NY Times is asking “Who are the top ten composers all time.
I spent decades answering this question... who were the great ones?
Here are my personal findings:
First of all, along with all of the 20th century composers, we need to rule out the composers that had no spiritual connection. All great artists have an inner, mystical connection, because great art always comes from the higher self: what people call inspiration. I know that people will argue about this forever, but if you peek into the biographies, the signs are always there.
No. 1 - The greatest composer who ever lived is Johann Sebastian Bach who died in 1750. All the violinists know this, because of the solo violin partitas and sonatas; the cello players all know this, because of the cello suites; the organists know it, the choir directors all know it, and all of the great pianists know this either through the elegance of the partitas and the English and French Suites, or from the unparalleled brilliance of the Well Tempered Clavier. Bach was the greatest master of the art of composition ever. His was a great spirit, that of a Pythagoras or a Michelangelo. His era was the Era of the Mind, the age of reason, and he was a great exemplar of the powers of logic. He was the greatest writer of counterpoint and the greatest writer of harmony ever, and his music is a supreme achievement.
No. 2 – Beethoven, who died in 1827 was one of the greatest and most advanced souls that we have ever seen. His sacrifice was his outward hearing, enabling him to hear more perfectly, the inner music. It was Beethoven's responsibility to open the door to the heart, unleashing naked passion onto the great molds for music that had been developed during the previous century: the century of Bach, Mozart and Haydn, who had developed the sonata, the concerto, the rondo, and the fugal forms. Just as the people of Bach's time did not understand Bach, those of Beethoven’s day did not understand this master either. Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schumann wrote important works of music, but they didn't grasp the inner Beethoven.... the naked soul that he gave us his last piano sonatas and string quartets. In a troubled world, solace will not be found in the dark tones of the 1940’s Stravinsky (who no longer bothered to tune his piano), or in the agony of Bartok's disturbing string quartets. They will turn to Beethoven instead.
No. 3 – Wagner, who died in 1883, is still not understood today. First of all, most people have been deluded about Wagner because of all the trash that has been written about him since he first attacked the establishment in the 1840s. Thousands of books about him were in print when he died.... most of them negative. But Wagner was the first one to understand Beethoven's last works, considered at that time to be the works of a mad man. Wagner completely changed music and changed all of the composers who came after him. And he transformed harmony. The opening chord of Tristan und Isolde is recognized as such in all universities. But that's just one little chord. It's almost a joke to focus entire essays on it. What about Tristan und Isolde, the entire opera? There is no other work of art anywhere that can compare to it. With this work, Wagner upgraded Beethoven's passion into bliss. Wagner’s ring cycle is the greatest achievement ever staged, and his last work, Parsifal, is the most deeply spiritual drama ever created. But Wagner’s deep inward journies scared many of the other composers, and after they absorbed what technique they could from him, they moved on into the darkness of the 20 century.
No. 4 is Cesar Franck (died 1890). As Cesar Franck is the most recent of these four composers, he is the most unknown. In fact, he is considered obscure, and even laughable in the Hallowed Halls of Shoenberg: our universities. Franck took Tristan und Isolde to a new level... not one of passion, but one of spirit. I can't say much about Franck yet, because he is so misunderstood. If I had the ability to do something about any composer, I would do something about this man who's greatest works still remain unpublished! That's a very sad condition, but no different than a hundred years after Bach, when all of the cantatas were still in manuscript form. I don't know anyone in this country who understands Franck, so I have had to go to France and Germany to find them.
No. 5 – My fifth position is a tie between Giovanni da Palestrina and Tomas Luis de Victoria. Victoria, the Spanish Renaissance composer who died in 1611, is my favorite composer of all time. If I could only listen to one man's compositions for the rest of my life, he would be the one. I discovered him in 1971 (Franck and Wagner about 1974) and he has been my favorite ever since. This is a tie, however, with his contemporary Palestrina because Victoria had a very pure spiritual connection that brought to his music something very special. But Palestrina's music is a supreme and magnificent achievement. He was a master composer who was studied fervently by no less than Wagner, Beethoven and Bach.