Nano Note:

On the front page of the Times Arts & Leisure section yesterday, the trouble with Anthony Tommasini‘s article began with the title: “The Greatest: A Critic Tries To Pick the Top 10 Classical Composers.” Why ten? The pervasiveness of the “top ten” meme in popular culture ought to be irrelevant to thinking “bigger,” as Tommasini puts it, dismissing the ritual end-of-year lists of bests. His only excuse is inexperience: the critic claims, “I don’t do ranking.” Well, he does now, so let’s hope that he gets better at it.

This isn’t to quibble with his choices; in the event, he doesn’t make any. The piece turns out to be the announcement of a project that Tommasini will carry out in the coming months, with input from readers. No, my complaint is with that procrustean figure. The simple truth is that there is no way to compose a list of “top ten classical composers.” Such is the state of the art, so to speak, that many names cannot appear on a list of ten if other names are excluded.

The difficult is manifest in the article’s illustration, a montage of thirteen, not ten, portraits. Whether or not a “top thirteen” list would be useful, it wouldn’t be comprised of the composers chosen by the Times, for the simple reason that three faces are missing, those of Verdi, Wagner, and Mahler. A “top sixteen,” then?

There are many traditional lists of seven — vices, virtues, wonders — and as it happens we can put together a list of Seven Classical Masters in an instant — all of them speakers of German.

  • Bach
  • Handel
  • Haydn
  • Mozart
  • Beethoven
  • Schubert
  • Brahms

I think that this is about as unobjectionable a list as can be. Bach and Handel wrote with a seriousness that inspired the Viennese classicists to put on gravitas, and in Brahms the tradition flowered metamorphically. You might extend this list to eight, by including Mahler (who apotheosized the lineage), or to nine, naming Mendelssohn and Schumann (captivating crossers of classical and romantic currents), or to ten, by adding all three. But you could expect a good deal of argument against each choice. And it must be borne in mind that the restriction to German-speaking composers, working in a narrow, if powerful tradition, is not a musical restriction.

A list of great composers that includes Schumann but not Chopin doesn’t make much sense. And a list that includes Chopin but not Tchaikovsky is equally unstable. Once Tchaikovsky appears, then the absence of Verdi and Wagner becomes intolerable. I am not ranking composers here; I’m just pointing out the inevitable consequences of trying to put together a list of important composers. In my opinion, a list that includes Beethoven but excludes Verdi and Wager is myopic, reflecting a mistrust of opera that every really musical mind outgrows. And I expect that, over time, Puccini and Strauss will stand in relation to Verdi and Wagner much as Brahms does to Beethoven, and Mahler to Brahms, indispensably.

Our crowd of sixteen composers fairly screams with the injustice of overlooking Debussy and Ravel, two composers whose names are often coupled but whose works are deeply different. Eighteen! Can we go for twenty? Easily: how can Stravinsky and Prokofiev be left out? The problem lies in stopping there. A list of “21 Great Composers” would surely include Rachmaninov.

One face from the Times that doesn’t figure in my lists is Arnold Schoenberg’s. For reasons that I won’t expound now, I see Schoenberg’s break with tonality as severing him from the classical tradition, which unlike fashionable critics I regard as a closed book. Schoenberg is important; he wrote what I’ll call “serious” music. But so did George Gershwin and Duke Ellington and Steve Reich and John Adams and….

The task of filling up the list I’ll gladly leave to you — just so long as you don’t start out with a number in mind.