For classical music lovers like me, trying to identify a list of personal favorites is almost sacrilegious. So much great orchestral music has been composed over the last three hundred years (an entirely arbitrary period, but one that includes the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern and post-Modern eras) that to single out ten of the creators of that music and call them the best seems unduly presumptuous.
And it probably is.
But with the onset of another season of concerts by Sacramento’s own Philharmonic Orchestra marked by the performance of Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony (see my review, below), the occasion may be as appropriate now as ever to take a stab at just such an undertaking.
I boast no fancy résumé for this task. Over the years, I have studied, played, and sung the great works of the repertoire at various times and with varying degrees of intensity. I own no other claim to fame and certainly do not intend the list that follows to represent anything other than my personal tastes in this field of artistic creativity. Therefore, I offer the list most humbly, more as food for thought than as the final word on the subject.
And my tastes, while broad and generally eclectic, certainly favor the pre-modern period of classical music. I like my music structured and harmonious as opposed to free-form and atonal. So, read the list with those implicit caveats in mind, and consider it, at best, a vehicle for conversation, rather than an encyclopedia of definitive rankings.
As I’ve done with similar listings in the past, I’ll start at the bottom and proceed to the top.
10. Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) – It’s hard to justify having the father of the symphony ranked this low on this list. Haydn is rightly credited with inventing the modern symphonic form, and he was extremely prolific, with 104 symphonies to his credit. But his contributions don’t stop there, because he is also considered the father of the string quartet and was also instrumental in the development of the sonata form.
9. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) – This amazingly diverse composer is responsible for three of the great ballets of the twentieth century (“The Firebird,” “Petrushka,” and “The Rite of Spring”). He also composed heavily in the neo-classical form in the earlier part of the century and in the atonal form that was in vogue later in the century. And in each of these forms, his music is nothing short of mind-boggling.
8. Aaron Copland (1900-1990) – The “dean of American composers,” composer of “Appalachian Spring,” “Rodeo,” “Fanfare for the Common Man,” “Billy the Kid,” and numerous films scores, Copland was a marvel of composition. His works sound classically American, yet they are uniquely personal to his style and heritage. It is almost impossible to mis-identify a Copland composition. That fact alone earns him his place on this list.
7. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) – The composer of the grand symphonies of the late Romantic/early Modern era, Mahler composed ten great symphonies and any number of “song-cycles,” occasionally combining the two forms, as in his “Das Lied von der Erde.” His symphonies were originally considered too difficult and complex for most orchestras, often scored for 100 players, but they now are readily accepted as part of the standard repertoire.
6. Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) – Dvorak is probably best known for his “New World Symphony,” his ninth, but any of this great composer’s symphonic works are loaded with intricate and stimulating passages. Drawing heavily on his Czech nationality, his melodies are lush and romantic, yet not without rewarding surprises. In addition to his nine symphonies, he composed operas, chamber music and a highly regarded concerto for cello.
5. Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) – The composer of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” five terrific symphonies (the Reformation, his last, is my favorite) and any number of chamber and choral works, Mendelssohn’s compositions are full of youthful energy and spirit. He was a child prodigy, composing notable pieces before he was a teenager. His early death undoubtedly robbed the music world of many additional gems, but those he did create are much beloved and admired.
4. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – I must apologize for placing this master so low on my list. Many would argue that he should be first, so prolific and powerful a force was he in the development of modern music during the Baroque era. His six Brandenburg concertos alone would merit top ten recognition, but the full body of his work (including choral, solo instrument and orchestral compositions) is revered for its intellectual depth, artistic beauty and technical command.
3. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) – Of course he should be first. How can he not be with his nine great symphonies, his numerous piano sonatas, his string quartets, his great chamber pieces and his overall continuing impact on the music scene fully two centuries after he established himself as the heir to the Mozart legacy? The Ninth is almost universally regarded as the greatest of all symphonies, and he composed it when he was completely unable to hear a single note!
2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) – The boy wonder who died far too young, the great Amadeus was both the most prolific (with 652 published works in his short 35 years of life), the most technically proficient, and the most creatively ingenious of all the composers on this list. His forty-one symphonies trace the evolution of orchestral music during the Classical period, and his last three are generally credited with introducing the Romantic era. Beethoven was greatly influenced by him, as have been, whether they know it or not, just about every composer since.
1. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) – Tchaikovsky’s melodies are pure gems of the Romantic era, and his orchestrations around them, in his six great symphonies and in his many other orchestral works (including his scores for ballets and his ten operas), more than justify the esteem in which he is held. My first introduction to music was with his 1812 Overture, and I would hope that the last movement of his sixth symphony, the Pathetique, might be played at my funeral.