Classical Music

Top 10: Best Dead (And Deader) European Composers

New York Times music and food critic Anthony Tommasini is exploring the qualities that make a classical composer great, maybe even...the best! On January 21st, he will unveil his list of the top ten classical composers of all time. Period. The best. And none of them get a prize because they're dead. Tommasini describes the whole process as "absurd, of course, but fascinating." And we agree!

This sort of bold list-making is exactly what we expect from The New York Times. Composers such as Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig Van Beethoven (to name just a few) are all long overdue for some well-deserved exposure to fans of notated music. As Johann Nikolaus Forkel recently wrote in his 1802 expose of composer Johann Sebastian Bach, "If the art is to remain an art and not to be degraded into a mere idle amusement, more use must be made of classical works than has been done for some time." That these great men could be so unfairly unrepresented in the mainstream world of music is not only a tragedy, but a clear indication of a conspiracy to bury the history of Western civilization - specifically that of Europe. Thankfully, there are radical papers like the New York Times and writers like Tommasini who are seeking to correct this imbalance. Tommasini writes: "I'm looking roughly at the era an undergraduate survey of Western civilization might define as modern history." Absolutely. Makes sense. Otherwise you'd have to consider that the majority of music made on this planet isn't even notated. Somewhere, we have to draw the line!

Already the comment threads beneath Tommasini's articles and videos (he's posting them almost daily) are burning with the flames of passionate intellectual discourse. Is Bela Bartok a better composer than Benjamin Britten? Is Britten better than Bartok? What about Brahms? Was Brahms a better composer than Bartok? Or Britten? There's so much to consider!

Keeping in mind that the criteria here is "dead guys from Europe," we thought it would be helpful to provide readers with some detailed biographical information for three composers who will more than likely end up on Tommasini's top 10. Their recordings are hard to find and along with their wigs, usually fetch hundreds of dollars when sold on eBay. However, the music lover willing to explore music and culture outside of their comfort zone will be rewarded. But first, here's the scoop on three under-appreciated giants of the Western canon!

Johannes Brahms Club kid, DJ, and sometime model Johannes Brahms, known for his woolly beard as well as a single teardrop tattooed beneath his right eye, rose up from a Gangeviertel slum to become one of Germany's hottest and most eligible late 19th century composers. When asked why at 18 he had yet to compose his first symphony, Brahms coyly implied that he was "saving himself" for the right orchestra. But with that "what me worry?" smile, not to mention Brahms' well-documented dalliances with certain "ladies" in the lower dives along the Rhine, that initial reluctance to throw down a symphony may have had much to do with what classical music freaks refer to as "too many quills in the inkwell."

Thankfully, at 43, Brahms decided to get serious and compose his truly awesome Symphony No. 1 as well as--after years of mutual dissing in the press--get in the ring with a certain psycho named Richard Wagner, who went down for the count in round three thanks to a well-timed and perfectly executed round house kick from Johannes "Brutus" Brahms. Underground fighting and classical music would never be the same.

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Chris Becker
Contact: Chris Becker