Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ten Most Influential Classical Composers

A New York Times music critic is spending his time picking the "ten top Classical composers of all time."  He's seeking the "greatest" composers.  The essential criterion will be, I suppose, the opinions of classical audiences.  After all, composers become great because people keep listening to their music. 

This idea got me thinking about which classical composers have the most influence on living composers.   When living composers are lucky enough to get performed they often must share the bill with the honored dead ones.  Those dead composers bring us musical ideas from the past.  Some of those ideas, but not all, still have life to them. Presumably living composers are commenting, in some fashion, on what has come before.

I suspect there are plenty of contemporary composers like myself who were inspired to take up the craft by the musical classics.  Most likely we still feel the weight of that tradition, along with other influences, when we sit down to write.  This is true even if we are not as interested in classical music now as we once may have been. 

Please note that the reasons I'm about to give for including these particular names won't seem particularly positive.  Regular readers of Mixed Meters will not be too surprised by this.  If you happen to be a composer (and who isn't) I'm sure your opinions will differ.  If you're not a composer, this might make no sense at all.  There's a comment form where good natured responses will be published.

Here's my list.  The links all lead to earlier Mixed Meters articles.

Johann Sebastian Bach   Finding a balance between beauty and technique, between inspiration and academicism is always an issue for composers.  It's a matter of simplicity versus complexity, freedom versus control.  Bach used dry, complicated musical rules and produced perfect elegance with them.  It's an unattainable standard.  How depressing.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  Yes, he wrote some of the greatest pieces ever.  He's possibly my favorite composer.  But the real burden of Mozart for modern composers is that he was so blasted young.  The cult of the young genius lives on strongly.  These days a 30-year old composer who hasn't made it yet, won't.  We may well ask whatever happened to Jay Greenberg (who isn't even 20 yet.)

Ludwig van Beethoven He wrote some great music.  But he did two things wrong.  First, he invented the tormented composer, the Great Artiste who pours out his stormy inner life through music.  These days that idea seems really old.   Second, he went deaf - which by rights ought to be a compositional kiss of death - but Ludwig wouldn't stop writing.  Worse yet, once deaf, he wrote an unendurably grandiose symphony with one hummable tune and a few lyrics of desperate hope.  Modern audiences still can't get enough of that one.  How's a modern composer going to compete?

Richard Wagner  Mixed Meters has been bashing Wagner for over a year now.  He deserves it for the villainous political ideas which have so easily shackled themselves to his work.  But his musical innovations, possibly the most influential ever, still cloud contemporary music.  And the vast scope of some of his works, especially the Ring, ought to provoke us into keeping our music on a more human scale.     

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky  Maybe a surprising choice.  He's never been one of my favorites, but he has symphonies, concertos and ballets that audiences can't get enough of.  It's not just about shooting off canons.  I think it's about his melodies.  Contemporary composers don't seem to write melodies.  We might have lost the ability.  More likely, however, we know that if we try to compose hummable tunes, the audience will reject them in favor of ones they already know and love.

Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel  These two count as one.  (They both wrote the same string quartet.)  Audiences have come to love their lush sound worlds.  Some contemporary orchestra composers  have recognized that they can't go far wrong by imitating the colors and textures of Impressionism.  In other words, when a new piece restricts itself to musical techniques at least 100 years old, ones that Ravel and Debussy would have understood, the audiences will go home happy.  

Arnold Schoenberg Audiences still revile Schoenberg's music.  I don't blame them.  But as the spirtual inspiration behind the serial tradition and the technique of pre-composition and the emancipation of the dissonance and the notion of "composer as professor", he's still a potent nagging voice inside any composer's head.  Also, it never hurts to reflect on how Schoenberg's career (but not his influence) was ruined by the politics of his countrymen.

George Gershwin Along with Sondheim and Ellington, Gershwin was specifically disqualified from the New York Times ten greatest competition.  While the first two don't seem like classical composers to me, George most certainly does.  Think about the popularity of his rhapsody, his concerto and his opera in concert halls.  This popularity manifests itself in ever so many pleasantly upbeat Pops concerts.  The notion of harnessing vernacular music to make a serious piece more accessible is very alluring to any composer.

John Cage His music is a long long way from the standard repertory.  Infinitely far away.  He has absolutely no chance of getting on the New York Times list.  But a serious composer has to come to terms with Cage's ideas.  And that's what his music was about: ideas.  Ideas and not much else - in my opinion.  A decent composer's education should fry the brain with Cagian philosophy.  After that you can ignore him, but he won't really go away.

Philip Glass  He's also disqualified from the Times list because he's still alive.  But I think many other composers look at him with a combination of awe and disgust.  Awe because he's so successful - with a steady string of commissions for symphonies, operas and film scores.  Disgust because we can't find a simple compositional style of our own, the way he has, one that's both direct and elegant and will bring some of our own listeners into the concert hall so we don't have to worry so much about what the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky fans think.

Don't be fooled into the notion that the great classical composers are the only influences on us lesser lights.  There are hundreds of semi-greats who can also look over a composer's shoulder if we let them.  Composition is an old art, highly developed.  There have been countless branches and offshoots.  The heavy weight of this past can be stifling if it is taken too seriously.

And any half-way decent composer is also influenced by many other types of music besides classical.  But this article was inspired by a purely "classical music" project - a futile effort to quantitatively rank composers on what must be, in the end, purely subjective judgements.  To me it sounds like a fools errand.


Due to multiple comments I'm adding a bonus selection, a runner up.

Igor Stravinsky  He made it clear that staying current and staying famous is the most important thing for a composer.  During his career he was three different composers,  radically changing his musical style twice, both times taking ideas from others.  It would have been a gracious gesture on his part to adopt serialism before his neighbor Schoenberg died.   But had he been a really nice guy he would have stopped composing in the 1920s and given two other composers a chance to be famous in his place.

Ten Greatest Tags: . . . . . .


Peter (the other) said...

I ponder the great harm done to the arts by the human need to create hierarchies, but I admire your courage (for if any subject invited argument it is this) and industry (for even thinking about it).

I have to say I find that fellow instigating this silly search (that is a perennial parlour game in the institution, for the reverence of its gods) in video form at the piano, as the abject personification of all I find distasteful in the institution of "good" music. Yes, it NEEDS to be further defined as western, European canonical composers, for the exclusionary assumption about all the composers of the rest of the world's cultures is ugly. And, it is not just the hermeneutic folderol, which is only more dancing about architecture, but the grandiose affect as displayed in his hand gestures that smacks of habitual parent pleasing.

Then there is the sheer imperialism, reverence to its own baroque perversions that imagines because it can describe its musical cloud-castles going by that the poor native just has to also admire them for their depth and profundity, missing of course, from the native's own silly little drum bangings.

Oh don't get me started :-) , for if ever there was a cultural institution as perverted as bound feet, it is "classical music.

As a newly invigorated populist, I'll have to go with your Tchai (and perhaps Schubert for melodies too), and the froggy impression boys. I would love to include Gershwin, but I would lump him in with Copland (ballets) for the Yank chunk....
Ohhhh nooo,,, you have tricked me into doing it (I have just lost a couple of minutes to the "All the Composers I have Loooooved Before" reverie (in which Stravinsky and Prokofiev popped right up, hmmmm), and I have work to do...

captcha=cracku hmmmm

MarK said...

The first four are pretty much beyond any doubt; Deb-Rav and Schoenberg are strong solid choices too. The rest, however, looks far more problematic to me. If this is the top ten list for you personally, then it is perfectly fine. But you have described your criteria as "which classical composers have the most influence on living composers". Not on just this one and not on your American colleagues only, but on ALL living composers. Then why the melodic Pyotr is in while the astonishingly versatile Igor is inexplicably out? And why does your choice for the last three, representing (along with Schoenberg) virtually the entire past century, look so exclusively US-centric? What kind of calculations led you to the conclusion that every single member of the undeniably important Gershwin-Cage-Glass trio is more influential for ALL LIVING COMPOSERS OF THE ENTIRE WORLD than not only Stravinsky but also Bartok, Hindemith, Berg, Webern, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Britten - to name just the first few that immediately come to my mind?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I'm still waiting for the comment form "where good natured responses will be published"

I laughed, I cried, I may even quote. You are delightfully funny; even for one who claims her advanced degree from Cal State LA

David Ocker said...

The "good-natured responses" business refers to a couple private ill-tempered responses I've gotten recently (about other posts). That's why the blog owner is happy that he still approves all comments. If you see your comment online you can rest assured that your own good nature is Mixed Meters certified.

David Ocker said...

Mark, it's entirely up to you whether the list is just about influences on me or on all other composers. I made my personal subjectivity and the foolishness of the project quite clear. You could easily make your own list if mine bothers you.

My lack of Euro-centrism comes up from time to time. That's a lot of baggage I'm happy to shed. Read this (including the comments) and then read my Musical Manifesto for more provocation.

I think that John Cage, by virtue of the ideas he put forward, is without question the most influential composer since World War II. If you have trouble getting a feel for his work I suggest listening to the music of Morton Feldman first. I commend you to Mortie's modest second string quartet.

You may be interested that I added Stravinsky as a runner-up on the main list although I doubt my reasons for his influence on contemporary composers will satisfy you.

MarK said...

If it's "entirely up to" me, then the list is definitely about your influences only, and therefore my "satisfaction" with it is irrelevant. As for the "Manifesto", i found it notable that you invited your readers to comment on it and calculate their agreements with its content, but not a single person seemed to be interested enough to respond (the one and only comment there does not really respond to your challenge). So, i've decided that i should gladly join the chorus of silence on that one.

David Ocker said...

Mark, I recognize that you hold your opinions honestly and they come from a background of long experience, musical ability and reverence for tradition. Your comments are reasoned, informed and well written. But your interests and mine seem to overlap in only limited areas and certain of my opinions clearly annoy you. I wonder why you keep coming back. I can only suppose you enjoy rapping my knuckles because I express unorthodox ideas about music. It has become tiring for me.

I have few readers so I do not make a request like this lightly (and I'm sincerely trying to ask as politely as I know how): would you please consider becoming a permanent member of the chorus of silence and find another blog to read instead of mine? I'd be grateful for that. Thanks.