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.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart The most famous Freemason and card-carrying member of the Illuminati next to Jay-Z and Lady Gaga, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart brought the occult to the general public in the disguise of his deceptively whimsical opera The Magic Flute. By the age of 10, Mozart could play approximately a hundred instruments, play piano music backwards while suspended upside down (as shown in the gritty 1984 documentary film Amadeus), and throw back a dozen or so peach schnapps without getting sick. The source of his fascination with the occult is unclear, but ghosts, fairy queens, and giant single eyeballs appear in all of his operas as well as in his letters and diaries. Mozart died broke. But his spirit lives on in the sales of Mozart for Babies CDs played by parents for their children in order to brainwash them into avoiding pursuit of any college degree associated with the liberal arts.
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Ludwig Van Beethoven Many now-dead composers began their studies at the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, a Montessori-styled boarding school designed to harness mutant skills so that they can be used in a controlled manner. Xavier grad Ludwig Van Beethoven possessed the ability to compose away from any instrument, usually wandering in a self-induced trance with only napkins and backs of menus available to notate his ideas. He could also jump as high as 20 feet and teleport a distance of approximately six feet. These abilities frightened Beethoven's parents and completely freaked out late 18th century royalty to a point where Beethoven could scare just about anyone into giving him a juicy commission and then take his sweet time completing the piece.
Motivic development came slowly to Beethoven, and a three-minute piece for pianoforte usually took as many years to compose. Given then the extent of his published works which include symphonies, string quartets, and several Broadway musicals, historians estimate Beethoven lived to be 197 years old, giving him time to have met and collaborated with all four of The Beatles!
There you have it, a little more history to chew on before you cast your vote online or try to flame Tommasini on the Times artsbeat blog. We wish all of the composers be they dead or...deader, the best of luck in making the cut!