Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Greatest ever

My interest in blogging has been at a low ebb in recent months, but I couldn't help but be intrigued to read in various quarters about Anthony Tommasini's project to create a New York Times top ten list of the greatest composers in history. Whose idea was this? And - more crucially - what does "greatest" really mean in this context? Tommasini's project is still incomplete, but an alternative top ten list by A. C. Douglas, reads as follows:
1: Bach
2: Mozart
3: Beethoven
4: Wagner
5: Haydn
6: Stravinsky
7: Palestrina
8: Bartók
9: Schubert
10: Schoenberg
The juxtapositions on this list are striking: Palestrina greater than Bartók, but not quite as great as Stravinsky? It's hard to know what musical criteria could possibly be used to compare Palestrina's mellifluous, unperturbable polyphony with the lithe, sharp-edged modernism of Stravinsky.

Nevertheless, here are my picks for the Top Ten Greatest Composers of All Time:

1: Johann Georg Albrechtsberger
2: Herman Berlinski
3: Jacob Clemens non Papa
4: Rolv Yttrehus
5: Adolphe Charles Adam
6: Friedrich von Flotow
7: Osbert Parsley
8: Rigaut de Berbezilh
9: Christian Petzold
10: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco


cnb said...

Nice list, Osbert. I agree that Albrechtsberger deserves top spot, though I doubt that our judgement would be seconded (or, I suppose, thirded) by many others.

I remember that at the turn of the millenium quite a few of the leading classical music magazines indulged in this kind of ranking exercise. I think Bach got top billing in at least a few of them, which is interesting. In the nineteenth century Beethoven would have won hands down. Crazy nineteenth-century.

How Bartok got on that list, I'll never understand.

Kevin said...

I love how AC Douglas finds a new way to articulate air quotes every time he speaks about new music. What's in his craw?

Osbert Parsley said...

Craig: I love Bartók, and while he may not belong on a top-ten list it's certainly nice to see his work receiving some promotion. For me, the odd ones out on that list are Palestrina (Renaissance polyphonic style is too different from common-practice tonality to make a meaningful comparison, and I would hesitate to place Palestrina ahead of Byrd, Victoria or Lassus as a representative of that style) and Schoenberg (whose work I just don't think is that good, despite his historical importance). The omission of Brahms is also, for me, pretty inexplicable.

Anonymous said...

Hello Osbert,

I'd bet that a 'Times' editor dreamed up this stunt. It has all to to do with marketing: someone had the undoubtedly correct idea that a feature like this, spread out over a week or more, complete with video and audio examples, would attract eyes.

By the way, I'd rank Mussorgsky way above Stravinsky... 'Boris Godunov', 'Khovanschina' and his songs are just too good !

David said...

Pfft. They forgot James Blunt.

Steven said...


Wonjung said...

Ahhh, I concur with Stevens, Where is Brahms?

Anonymous said...

I am amused by Jacob Clemens non Papa's name -- I initially thought it meant he was a bastard, but Wikipedia suggests less colourful origins for the 'non Papa' suffix.

I've just commended your list to the BBC, who are doing a breakfast programme on the NYT top-ten list (and its alternatives...). I'll let you know if it gets a mention on the programme. :)


Andrew Desiderio said...

This is an interesting list, although I'm curious as to why you chose these 10 composers. It looks like a lineup of second-rate composers, but maybe there is something I'm missing? (Unless this is an exercise in irony, of course)