Bartok, Dvorak, and the “Top Ten Composers”

About seven weeks ago, music critic Anthony Tommasini took on the thankless task of listing the “the top 10 classical music composers in history, not including those still with us.” Of course this task is impossible; no matter whom he chose, there would be more people disagreeing with him than agreeing with him. But fortunately he made the right choice for the #1 position:

I am about to reveal my list, though as those who have been with me on this quest already know, I’ve dropped hints along the way. And the winner, the all-time great, is … Bach!

You wouldn’t really disagree, would you?

Tommasini continues…

My top spot goes to Bach, for his matchless combination of masterly musical engineering (as one reader put it) and profound expressivity. Since writing about Bach in the first article of this series I have been thinking more about the perception that he was considered old-fashioned in his day. Haydn was 18 when Bach died, in 1750, and Classicism was stirring. Bach was surely aware of the new trends. Yet he reacted by digging deeper into his way of doing things. In his austerely beautiful “Art of Fugue,” left incomplete at his death, Bach reduced complex counterpoint to its bare essentials, not even indicating the instrument (or instruments) for which these works were composed.

On his own terms he could be plenty modern. Though Bach never wrote an opera, he demonstrated visceral flair for drama in his sacred choral works, as in the crowd scenes in the Passions where people cry out with chilling vehemence for Jesus to be crucified. In keyboard works like the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Bach anticipated the rhapsodic Romantic fervor of Liszt, even Rachmaninoff. And as I tried to show in the first video for this project, through his chorales alone Bach explored the far reaches of tonal harmony.

So, who comes after Bach? Here’s the entire list:

  1. Bach
  2. Mozart
  3. Beethoven
  4. Schubert
  5. Debussy
  6. Stravinsky
  7. Brahms
  8. Verdi
  9. Wagner
  10. Bartok

It’s not my list — but close enough. (Actually, it isn’t solely Tommasini’s list either, since he had solicited input from readers prior to assembling it.) The only one of the ten who does nothing for me is Debussy, but I certainly have no complaints about admiring nine out of the ten.

And speaking of #10 on the list, Bartok, a composer who would probably not make most people’s top ten, I need to report on a terrific concert I attended last night at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. The renowned Benjamin Zander conducted the NEC Philharmonia in Bartok’s wonderful Concerto for Orchestra and Dvorak’s beautiful Cello Concerto. The soloist for the Dvorak was fellow Dorchesterite Tony Rymer — “the famous Tony Rymer” as one of my former students once referred to this gifted 21-year-old back when he was only 18. Tony is a truly outstanding cellist who will indeed be famous, and I predict it will happen not too many years from now.

Categories: Dorchester/Boston, Life