The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear needs your help. Rank major Baroque composers Bach, Handel, Telemann and Vivaldi in terms of enjoyability and quality. | September 18, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger


Last week, The Ear struck a nerve.

He commented that he sometimes wished that the Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann (below) – the most prolific composer ever of classical music – had composed less because he might have composed even more compelling music.

georg philipp telemann

Here is a link to that post, which also featured Telemann’s lovely Concerto for Viola in G Major, which The Ear finds quite beautiful and engaging.

Of course what I said was considered heresy by some. I heard some pretty strong rebukes from devout Telemann fans and -– no surprise -– a Telemann scholar.

It’s not that The Ear doesn’t listen to music by Telemann or like many of his works. (One such work is Telemann’s own “Water Music,” which stands comparison to Handel’s “Water Music” and which you can hear in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

But he has to be honest: Telemann is just not tops on his playlist.

Consider the Big Four of Baroque composers (in alphabetical order):

Johann Sebastian Bach


George Frideric Handel

Handel etching

Georg Philipp Telemann

and Antonio Vivaldi


When The Ear looks over his CD collection and reviews his listening habits, he finds that what he most often listens to and what he likes best, falls in to the follow ranking: 1. Bach, 2. Vivaldi, 3. Handel and 4. Telemann.

True, Handel would probably rank a spot higher if The Ear really listened to his operas. But even Bach turned to Vivaldi for insights into composing.

So here is what The Ear wants to know:

When you listen to the four Baroque composers, what is the ranking of the four for frequency of listening and enjoyability?

And how do you rank them in terms of quality?

Granted, this business of ranking artists is something of a parlor game. And the results will hardly be definitive in proving anything.

But just maybe others will see that The Ear is not alone in his opinion about the comparative virtues of Telemann, who is certainly a major composer.

So leave your views and ranking in the COMMENTS section.

The Ear wants to hear!


  1. Listen to this Mass by the Czech composer, Zelenka, and ask yourself what is the merit of such lists:

    (By the way, this YouTube video has almost 100,000 hits so the public really enjoys this composer).

    Comment by fflambeau — September 18, 2015 @ 11:14 pm

    • By the way, the audience in the Dutch city of Utrecht (where this music by Zelenka was performed) was so moved by this performance that they gave it 2 standing ovations (much rarer in Europe than in the USA) and the musicians in return gave them 2 encores from the same music (something almost unheard of in Europe).

      See the last 12 or so minutes of the video.

      Comment by fflambeau — September 19, 2015 @ 12:20 am

  2. Here’s the link to my Telemann review by the way to complement:

    Comment by Musicophile — September 18, 2015 @ 9:10 pm

  3. I had a somewhat similar discussion several times now on my blog. My personal ranking still is Bach, then pretty long nothing, then Händel, but mainly for his operas and oratorios, not for his orchestral music.

    And then? I’m still a relative newbie on French baroque, but often struggle with the harmonic developments of a Lully. Couperin has written some beautiful stuff. Telemann is indeed more nice to have than must have, although I positively reviewed the recent Alexis Kossenko recording.

    That particular post triggered an interesting Twitter discussion on Scarlatti, which I had previously not really appreciated, and Ionart’s Jens F. Laurson pointed me towards Pletnev’s recording which I really like.

    For the rest of Italy, Vivaldi I could easily live without, but Pergolesi is outstanding (his stabat mater is literally to die for). Most of the remaining Italian school, all the Caldara’s had their role in the development of modern music I just don’t care much about them. Corelli being the exception to the rule.

    And yes, agree with several previous posters that Zelenka is worth discovering.

    Comment by Musicophile — September 18, 2015 @ 6:51 pm

  4. I checked with Drew, and his ranking and mine differ. His is Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Telemann. Mine is Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Telemann. Interesting question to think about!
    Ed H.

    Comment by Ed Haertel — September 18, 2015 @ 5:10 pm

  5. Well of course Bach is number one. But why the need to rank them? Sometimes the composer one is currently listening to is “the best”!

    Comment by Bici Pettit-Barron — September 18, 2015 @ 4:28 pm

  6. Several commentators are giving Handel a hard time for borrowing. Shakespeare borrowed everywhere but nearly always improved what he barrowed. Would you say he was wrong?

    One of my pleasures in listening to music is discovering a musical phrase or refrain carried from composer to composer, composition to composition. Voices aside the instrumentals in a piece by Vivaldi, Bach-Gonoud’s Ave Maria and a piece by Frieda Boccara for RTDF’s winning entry in the Eurovision contest for best musical entry are, it seems to me, almost note for note instrumentally, but how different and wonderful overall.

    Unless the copying is almost word for word or note for note, without any original work added, clearly passing off someone else’s work as your own, I don’t see a problem with it. I find much of Handel completely enticing and care not if it is based on a theme or composition of another.

    While clearly some works are greater than others, I find some works by nearly all of the composers mentioned by any of the commentators above so ravishing that at that moment nothing could be greater.

    Daryl S.

    Comment by Daryl K.. Sherman — September 18, 2015 @ 2:46 pm

    • I accidentally touch something on this iPad and the entire message vanishes. So here is a shorter version of what I just typed with one finger. Handel’s borrowings range from motives to an entire movement. In Egypt was glad when they departed Handel composed zero notes and Kerll composed 100 percent of the notes. Handel fit the text to Kerll’s canzona. So did Handel compose that movement or Kerll? It’s stile antico so the instruments are colla parte. How do you define composing in this case?

      Comment by Jeanne — September 18, 2015 @ 4:52 pm

    • Daryl, The problem with Handel is that he “borrowed” so much (and frequently went beyond what that word implies). William Crotch way back in 1831 questioned (and rightly so) Handel’s “borrowings”. Crotch later became Professor of Music at Oxford and the first Principal of the Royal Academy of Music so he knew what he was talking about.

      One Handel scholar, John H. Roberts, much more recently has written to the effect that Handel borrowed so much because of his “basic lack of facility in inventing original ideas.” That is quite damning; in other fields (like history or literature) it would result in that person, the plagiarist, being treated as an outcast.

      Research has pretty much established that Handel reused the works of: Alessandro Stradella, Gottlieb Muffat, Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti, Giacomo Carissimi, Georg Philipp Telemann, Carl Heinrich Graun, Leonardo Vinci, Jacobus Gallus, Francesco Antonio Urio, Reinhard Keiser, Francesco Gasparini, Giovanni Bononcini, Agostino Steffani, Francesco Gasparini, Franz Johann Habermann, and numerous others. And once again, the “borrowings” went beyond having once heard one of these composer’s tunes and somehow reworking it. Oftentimes, he simply lifted material and called it his own.

      In history, Stephen Ambrose, the well known writer of “Band of Brothers” and many other works, has been shown to have used work from at least 12 other authors without proper attribution. But in Ambrose’s case, he at least footnoted the other writers (but used their words without quotation marks). Note that Ambrose, who received his History Ph.D. from Wisconsin, has a named professorship at UW but that it has been coupled in naming with another former historian on the faculty.

      In my opinion, Handel was a musical plagiarist who plundered others works and sold it as his own. No other great musician I know of has had to do that.

      Comment by fflambeau — September 18, 2015 @ 10:24 pm

  7. The important thing is that Baroque music gets played. I really prefer it to most other Classical music.

    Comment by Rebecca — September 18, 2015 @ 9:15 am

  8. When the music is playing it’s
    # 1 Bach
    # 1 Handel
    # 1 Vivaldi
    # 1 Telemann
    # 1 …..

    Comment by Marius — September 18, 2015 @ 8:37 am

  9. Bach. His music is in a sphere of its own, and one could spend a lifetime listening to and playing Bach, and always uncover new insights. Each of the others has written some sublime music but in a different league. Handel. Then Corelli / Telemann.

    Comment by Linda Marquardt — September 18, 2015 @ 8:03 am

  10. Post #4 hints at another important consideration in these rankings: geography/nationality. Of the Big 4 mentioned, 3 out of 4 were born in what is now Germany and spoke the German language as native speakers.

    For many reasons–heritage, number of great conductors coming from the Germanic tradition, music education, the Germanic tradition and its importance in recordings of classical music–classical music in America seems to be very much slanted towards the Germanic traditions.

    But what is odd about this is that in German speaking Europe at that time (or what is now Germany since it did not then exist) the German speaking composers almost to a person saw Italy as the spring source for great music and composers. That’s why so many journeyed there to study and meet important composers (Mozart did the same thing even later). Yet there is only one Italian on the list of great Baroque composers.

    Here are some other Italians who were certainly very important in Baroque music: Corelli; Alessandro Scarlatti, Antonio Caldara, Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti, Nicola (Antonio) Porpora, Francesco Saverio Geminiani, Leonardo Vinci, Giuseppe Tartini, Pietro Antonio Locatelli, Riccardo Broschi, Baldassare Galuppi, and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. In fact, by terms of number, perhaps the “Italian school” was the largest of any nationality in terms of development of classical music in the Baroque period.*

    Moeover, many of the Italians listed above were very important in the development of the opera, whereas in the Big 4, it is mostly instrumental music and music for the church that is dominant. So the type of music one listens to, and one’s heritage, plus geography, can also be indicators of who will be on a list of important composers.

    *Note too that there are zero French native speakers on the Big 4 list, despite the likes of Rameau, Charpentier, Lully and others! And Zelnka, of course, was a Czech. So perhaps it is not odd that Mozart’s best audiences were not in Vienna but in Prague.

    Comment by fflambeau — September 18, 2015 @ 7:27 am

  11. I find myself agreeing with Jeanne’s views? Why rank these 4? Someone missing on your list, for instance, is Claudio Monteverdi, an early Baroque composer who was very, very important for many reasons. His L’Orfeo, is often considered the first mature opera ever written. And he wrote several others of high quality.

    Yet another composer who should be on such a list is Arcangelo Corelli. I have yet to hear anything by him that I do not like. Two people on your list, J.S. Bach and F. Handel, both used his compositions as models. His concerti grosso are considered turning points in Western music. Unfortunately, because of lists like yours, he does not get the playing time he deserves because he is not on the list.

    Some would argue that the great French composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau, should be considered in such rankings. Thanks to UW School of Music this past year when they featured much of his music and did much to educate the public about Rameau, I now tend to agree.

    There are two further problems with such ranking lists. First, they tend to favor people who had long lives, like Telemann for instance or Handel. Johann Beer, a German court official and composer, had a relatively short life (he was killed in a hunting accident at the relatively young age of 45 in 1700). But he wrote a superb mass, Missa S. Marcellini, which I think compares favorably with anything written by those on your list.

    And that brings up another problem: there have been composers, like Beer, who wrote some terrific pieces (on a level with just about anything else) but they didn’t write much (for various reasons) or their music is of an uneven quality. Hence, they are not on such lists and remain largely unknown. Johann Pachelbel is such a composer. Yet, I think there are lots of gems out there awaiting rediscovery, many of them written by people not on such lists.

    Of the four composers you have ranked, I think that Handel is pretty much over-rated and the least original of the group. And I agree with the poster who wrote that he “borrowed” far too much from others. He did write one great, great work, of course, but the others? Far inferior to it.

    Bach, on the other hand, is in a universe of his own. He was, in my opinion, the greatest composer/musician who has ever lived.

    Comment by fflambeau — September 18, 2015 @ 6:18 am

    • One further plug for Telemann. He was a huge Francophile, whereas he found a lot of modern Italian instrumental writing to be empty virtuosity. His music often plays in ingenious was with national styles and genres in novel combinations. He was also completely taken with Polish folk music (try the finale of the concerto in E minor for traverse and recorder). He spent 8 months in Paris in 1737-38 on invitation of the leading instrumentalists in Paris, performing, premiering works, and publishing music (hence the wonderful “Paris” Quartets. My Baroque class voted “Pimpinone” their favorite piece of the course year after year. I can’t get enough Monteverdi or Schütz. Zelenka’s aria writing is the only aria writing I’ve seen with a technique similar to Bach’s. He was an underappreciated Bohemian composer at the Dresden court. Bach admired him, as he did his friend Telemann. In Handel’s defense, he did send the aging Telemann a wonderful gift of exotic plants for his collection.

      Comment by Jeanne — September 18, 2015 @ 9:51 am

      • “In Handel’s defense, he did send the aging Telemann a wonderful gift of exotic plants for his collection.”

        Were the flowers Handel’s own or did they belong to someone else?

        Comment by fflambeau — September 18, 2015 @ 10:28 pm

      • Touché.

        Comment by Jeanne — September 18, 2015 @ 11:37 pm

  12. Ranking these four is difficult, because it all depends on what parts of each composer’s oeuvre you listen to. Personally, I find Vivaldi’s Four Seasons overplayed and fairly boring, including when I have to play them (as I don’t find the viola parts very interesting), but the Gloria is extremely enjoyable to listen and great fun to play.

    For Bach, again, it depends. I’m happy to pass on almost all of his keyboard works, and the violin Sonatas and Partitas. For the Brandenburg Concertos, even though I’m a violist, my favourite is the third. Pair it with the Mendelssohn Octet on a concert, and I am the happiest camper in the room. Those two pieces are just about my ultimates in chamber music.

    The cello suites are nice, and I like the first, third and fifth, in reverse order, but the others just leave me cold.

    Handel? Messiah is nice, but way overplayed, and when you go to a performance that purports to be a “complete” performance, and then find out that for some purpose unknown to the audience, the conductor has decided to cut a batch of movements, well, my enjoy,ent ends pretty quickly. The operas are also nice, but sometimes interchangeable.

    And the charges of stealing form other composers? They ALL did it, and the practice continues to this day.

    In the long run, I think that what I am trying to say is that they can’t be ranked, other than by personal preference, so why bother trying?

    Comment by bratschespeilerin — September 18, 2015 @ 1:11 am

    • The Zelenka Lamentations are absolutely fantastic. I’m so glad the person above found them. Look at his late Masses as well-fantastic music. As to Handel and “everybody did it,” everyone borrowed a theme here and there, but no one else, at least no other major composer, centered his compositional practice around borrowed music. Since a lot of his model composers are quite obscure to us (Erba Magnificat, Urio Te Deum, for example), and he often spread a large model work over several pieces, there are clearly many unknown models out there. Consider that Keiser was one of the composers he used the most, and that more of Keiser’s works are lost than extant. I think if Jake wants to rank composers it really doesn’t matter to anybody. Everyone has favorites. But if it’s on a blog it asks for reactions. It’s really just the composer he likes best, but composers aren’t really “rankable”, except that there are definite hacks, which doesn’t apply here.

      Comment by Jeanne — September 18, 2015 @ 8:23 am

  13. I just typed a long post that utterly vanished, so I will attempt it again. Handel copied prodigiously from other composers. Telemann’s flute sonata in b minor became the organ concerto in d minor. The cantata Aria Deine Toten werden leben becomes And he shall purify in Messiah. In Israel in Egypt Egypt was glad when they departed is copied from a keyboard canzona by another composer note for note. Handel simply added a text. He systematically raided works by Urio, Stradella, Erba, Habermann, Keiser, etc. this is how he could write an oratorio in 3 weeks. Jennens made snide remarks about it, and Telemann (his friend) was displeased. He did it before his neurological even in the late 1730s, which kept relapsing.
    How about Zelenka?

    Comment by Jeanne — September 18, 2015 @ 12:49 am

    • Jeanne, Thanks to you for the thumbs up on Jan Dismas Zelenka, whom I had never heard of before. Just listened to his “Lamentations of Jeremiah” on YouTube.

      Magnificent music. On a par with anything written by the “Big 4”.

      His work is a great reason for chucking the usual rankings (or at least for coming up with an “underrated and deserves attention” list.

      Comment by fflambeau — September 18, 2015 @ 6:44 am

  14. Why is it so necessary to rank these composers? They are all superb, not to mention many other Baroque composers— such as Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti, Lully, Corelli, Albinoni, Couperin, Rameau, and many more.

    Comment by Susan Cable — September 18, 2015 @ 12:30 am

    • I’m pleased that you added some French composers.

      Comment by Jeanne — September 18, 2015 @ 12:50 am

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