x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Ranking history's '10 greatest composers' fans flames

The New York Times list of the '10 greatest composers in history' provoked a passionate debate. We choose classical music's five most underrated. Email in and tell us what you think.

Recently named as history’s top composer by The New York Times, Johann Sebastian Bach’s position at the top of the tree has become a hot topic in the blogosphere.
Recently named as history’s top composer by The New York Times, Johann Sebastian Bach’s position at the top of the tree has become a hot topic in the blogosphere.

The New York Times list of the '10 greatest composers in history' provoked a passionate debate. We choose classical music's five most underrated. Email in or write a comment at the bottom of the page and tell us what you think.

It has been decided once and for all: Bach is better than Beethoven, Stravinsky beats Bartók, and Debussy trumps Brahms. These, at least, are the controversial judgements made by the New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini this month. In one of the most passionately debated events in recent music journalism, Tommasini has just compiled a list of the "10 greatest classical composers ever", helped by an almost unprecedented 1,500-plus comments from readers on the newspaper's website.

The buzz about the list has spread through the media, with some making predictably arch comments about the tastes of the "East Coast haute bourgeoisie", while the blogosphere has been gripped with a mix of contempt and fascination. "How can the history of classical music be reduced to a 10-name list?" many have asked, often undercutting their argument by then compiling their own lists.

Considering all the fuss, Tommasini's choices are not particularly controversial. They are:

1. Bach

2. Beethoven

3. Mozart

4. Schubert

5. Debussy

6. Stravinsky

7. Brahms

8. Verdi

9. Wagner

10. Bartók

That isn't the sort of list that should set anyone's hair on fire. These are all established names and stalwarts of classical top 20s, widely admired and constantly performed around the world.

There are still some mild surprises in their order, however. The standard dogma is that Mozart was a greater composer than Beethoven, but here the later composer comes in one ranking higher.

Likewise, Wagner, whose music had a huge influence beyond the world of opera, usually comes before Verdi, whose music didn't. And while Debussy was undeniably influential, his phenomenal number five rating is perhaps unexpectedly high. Most controversially, the extremely influential classicist Haydn, the main developer of the string quartet, is missing.

Is the list fair? It's certainly from a restricted period. Tommasini controversially ruled out including anything before the late Baroque, leaving the now revered Monteverdi out in the cold, while he also felt it too early to judge anything from the past 50 years. Personally, I should have liked to see Mahler in there rather than Brahms, would have given Wagner a higher rating and miss greatly both Handel and Schoenberg. For populists, meanwhile, the absence of Tchaikovsky and Puccini might be construed as the triumph of elitism over popularity.

But then why have a list at all? There is always a potential danger that a project like this might reduce rather than expand people's appreciation of music, focusing on a boiled-down musical canon that values influence over beauty. The media are infatuated with such lists, of course. From the 10 worst love scenes in literature to the 100 best advertisements, press and broadcasting are saturated with rankings that often appear quite arbitrary.

The popularity of such exercises is partly to do with laziness: organising an article or programme around a list gives it an instant, easy to follow structure. But the phenomenon is not restricted to the professional media alone. Anyone with a Facebook profile will have been inundated with requests for lists of favourite novels or songs.

While there's inevitably something reductive about these lists (they are, after all, about reducing a large body to a small one), I still think that the buzz created by Tommasini's top 10 proves that ultimately they can be very worthwhile. The significance of the list is not necessarily the end result - sales of Beethoven CDs are unlikely to soar at the expense of Mozart simply because of a piece in the paper. It is the process of creating the list that matters, and Tommasini's was the result of a fortnight's worth of deliberation in print, with readers making passionate petitions to have their favourite composers included.

Rather than fixing a canon, this helps to open up a conversation about what constitutes greatness in music. Is it influence? Or originality? Being ahead of everyone else? Certainly, if Bach is the greatest composer, then being avant garde is not key, as the Baroque composer's music was considered old-fashioned by his later career. Originality does not seem to be the most treasured quality, either. Brahms may have been a wonderful composer, but his attempt to continue Beethoven's legacy within the same musical forms means other figures might be considered more original.

It's never possible to answer these questions definitively, but that doesn't mean that encouraging people to think about them is not healthy. All told, the fact that so many people have wanted to rework the New York Times list shows that its ranking is in no danger of becoming dogma. It would be far more worrying if all classical music fans were happy and in agreement, a sure sign that the western repertoire's life inside people's heads had stagnated and become fixed.

There is, however, the problem of the ones left behind. While the excitement the list has caused is positive, it is shining a spotlight on composers who are already very well illuminated indeed. Meanwhile, out in the wings are many figures still waiting for the full appreciation they deserve.

Despite its stuffy reputation, the classical music world is fairly dynamic - composer's reputations still wax and wane - and ultimately, the figures jostling for attention on the fringes can be more interesting than the ones who have been basking in it for centuries. Accordingly, below is The National's composer list to answer that of The New York Times - not of the 10 greatest composers, but five most underrated - those who deserve to make it on to lists but never quite do.

Feargus O'Sullivan's five most underrated composers

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)

As an early developer of the classical style, Gluck always gets a respectful footnote in musical history for helping opera out of its sluggishly elaborate Baroque straitjacket. What people forget, however, is that his operas are full-blooded and exciting in their own right, giving Mozart a run for his money with their seamless brilliance.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Enjoying his 200th birthday this year, this showman pianist with a heavily publicised public persona, also quietly wrote some of the most strikingly original music of the 19th century, providing inspiration for figures as disparate as Ravel and Schoenberg.

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

A quiet, self-effacing Romantic, Bruckner was never good at blowing his own trumpet, but his reputation has grown hugely (though not enough) since his death. Listen to one of his masterly symphonies and you'll be blown away by the sheer beauty and depth of feeling - and wonder why his name isn't on everyone's lips.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition may be one of the 19th century's most durably popular pieces of music, but the Russian composer's phenomenal skills as a songwriter are still largely obscure. This is a pity; bringing a Slavonic intensity to the Germanic Lieder tradition, they're some of the best of their kind.

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)

A victim of fashion, the rarefied atmosphere of the Pole Szymanowski's music must have seemed tragically unhip after the First World War, when a love of jazz and machines gripped Europe's musical trendsetters. Heard nowadays, however, his sensuous East-meets-West romanticism still sounds fresh and remarkably heady.