You would expect that the question, “Who is the greatest composer ever?” would yield abetter discussion than “Who is the fourth-greatest composer ever?” but you’d be wrong. I would like to get your input in the poll at the end, but first we need to set some parameters.
Of course, to determine a list of “greatest” composers, I realize we must admit the subjectivity of the discussion at the outset. There are many criteria I could use to rank composers and the quality of their works. Given a standard list of categories such as variety of compositional genre, overall quality, influence on other composers, and recognized significance of their works by the public, I make my case for the following three composers at the top.
1. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
In my mind, Bach is obviously in the top three, and I am not even sure if one can make a case for him being anything than No. 1. He wrote works for so many great solo instruments: organ, keyboard, cello, violin, and flute. Bach also wrote large orchestral works (his suites, the Brandenburg concertos), and works for singers (cantatas, motets, and chorales). Moreover, he wrote both works for church and dramas (St. Matthew and John Passions). Excepting some of his early cantatas, these works were all of the highest quality and are enjoyed today. Bach’s legacy has influenced countless composers over the years, including Mozart, Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven.
2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
There may be some disagreement as to whether Mozart should be ranked second or third. The master of melody, Mozart also excelled at numerous genres. He singlehandedly established the piano concerto as well as making the clarinet more important with his clarinet concerto. He wrote incidental works, piano sonatas, and chamber works for strings and wind bands. There are also a number of church works for instruments and voices (a number of masses in addition to the Requiem) as well as his operas which have remained in the popular canon for so long. Many criticize the saccharine nature of Mozart’s music, but if one limits one’s gaze at what Mozart wrote after he turned 25 (his last ten years), one finds a great number of quality compositions in a very short time.
3. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven is described by Donald J. Grout as being one of “the great disruptive forces in the history of music.” His influence on composers is almost unmeasurable. Even composers who disagreed with each other on what music should be — Berlioz, Brahms, Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler — were individually affected by Beethoven’s legacy.
The nine symphonies of Beethoven are standard works, as well as his 32 piano sonatas, 5 piano concertos, violin and triple concertos, 16 string quartets and other chamber works, sonatas, and songs. There are also the “church” works such as the Missa Solemnis and Mass in C. While Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio, his work in the Missa Solemnis and Choral Symphony show that he was able to write both dramatic and liturgical music. He did have some famous “missess,” including the infamous Wellington’s Victory, but I cannot imagine leaving Beethoven out of the top three.
Those are the top three. Sure, there may be a composer whose music you like more than these, but I don’t think you can make much of a case for actually saying that they are better composers than the three up there.
But here’s where it gets interesting. I can make a case for a number of composers to be ranked fourth. In fact, I’m not exactly sure who I would put as fourth, and there are some very different possibilities. I will make a case for a number of options below, and then I have a poll at the end. Which of the following composers is fourth best? Have I left someone out — if so, you can add that in the comments when you vote!
A. Josquin Des Prez (c. 1450-1521)
This is probably the most provocative selection. He is certainly the least well known of my nominations and his music is least performed today. Yet during his lifetime, Josquin was widely accepted as the greatest living composer, his works being some of the first music printed by Petrucci in the early 1500s. Other than perhaps Beethoven, nobody else enjoyed as much fame and respect during their lifetimes than Josquin. He was a master at every genre that existed during his day — Masses, sacred motets, and chansons. While both are a cappella compositions, “El grillo” and the “Missa Pange lingua” are drastically different in style and technique.
B. Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809)
Haydn is another respected composer whom one could make a case for. He is known as the “Father of the Symphony” and also had a great influence on the string quartet and sonata-allegro form in general. Mozart and Haydn knew each other well and had great respect for each other. Haydn wrote 104 symphonies and a number of string quartets, as well as a famous Trumpet Concerto and keyboard works. He also wrote 12 masses and two great oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons. Haydn composed a number of operas that are seldom performed today (I have always wondered if these will ever be revived at some point). While many of his works are unmistakably great, his duties as Kapellmeister probably caused him to need to compose works at a hurried pace. The last 12 London symphonies are the most commonly performed and respected of that genre, and it is Haydn’s later works in general that garner the most praise. Working against Haydn’s legacy is the fact that both Mozart and Beethoven, Haydn’s contemporaries, are more highly regarded than Haydn himself.
C. Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Brahms is another of these Austro-Germanic composers we have mentioned so far. He was a great influence on a number of composers including Bartok, Dvorak, Webern, Elgar, and Mag Reger. A Romantic pioneer with traditionalist roots, many of Brahms’s compositions are considered master works today: his four symphonies, two piano concertos, violin concerto, double concerto, German Requiem, piano works, violin sonatas, choral works, songs, organ preludes, and other chamber works. Yet while Brahms has a long list of works across multiple genres, there is one glaring omission: opera. Brahms has nearly no record of dramatic music (the closest thing can be his symphonies and German Requiem). Is that enough to keep him out of the top four?
D. Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Unlike Brahms, Wagner’s greatest works are primarily operas and little else. There are the Wesendock Lieder and Siegfried Idyll, but the bulk of Wagner’s reputation lies on the great vocal dramas: The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, the Ring Cycle, Parsifal, Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde, and Lohengrin. These works not only dominate the operatic repertoire, but excerpts have become common works for symphony orchestras and even everyday culture. The Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin is now known as “Here Comes the Bride,” for instance. Wagner was the most influential composer after than Beethoven — he had a profound effect on the careers of Richard Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner, Wolf, Franck, Massenet, and many others. It was Wagner who helped lead composers into the intense chromaticism and endless melody of the late Romantics, and it was Wagner’s legacy that composers such as Debussy, Satie, and Hindemith wanted to break from. Wagner was the only composer to build his own opera house in Bayreuth (still operating today).
E. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Stravinsky is the final composer I can make a case for and he is the only 20th century composer. Born in Russia, Stravinsky would live in Switzerland, France and later the United States, settling in North Hollywood. Nobody else has had the influence on 20th century music than Stravinsky. His distinctive use of rhythm and harmony had an enormous effect during his Russian ballet period, neoclassical period, and his treatment of twelve-tone and serialist music. Stravinsky’s works also span a number of different genres. Most know his ballets — The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, Firebird, A Soldier’s Tale — but there are also his symphonies (Symphony of Psalms, Symphony in C, and the Symphony in Three Movements), choral works, chamber works, and his opera, The Rake’s Progress. In a century of specialists, Stravinsky is the only composer who has such variety of well regarded works.
So that’s my list of proposed composers to put after Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. What do you think? Vote in the poll below. If you choose Someone else, please leave a comment as to who you would select.