The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Who are the greatest classical composers? And how do you decide? | November 24, 2018

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By Jacob Stockinger

Who are the greatest composers of classical music?

Who are the most influential composers?

And which composer is the greatest of all time?

Just as important, how do you decide? How do you pick them and make your choice?

And finally, should such choices matter?

You could ask Anthony Tommasini (below), senior classical music critic for The New York Times  — who came to the UW-Madison during the Pro Arte Quartet centennial several years ago and lectured in the Wisconsin Union Theater — who has just published a new book about those very questions.

The new book is “The Indispenable Composers: A Personal Guide” (below) and is published by Penguin Books. (It could make a nice holiday gift for a classical music fan.)

In a recent story, Tommasini – who readily admits to the project being very much a subjective game – discussed the process, which comes in the wake of his publishing a two-week project in 2011 when he named the 10 greatest composers of all time.

This time he uses (below, from left) Gustav Mahler, Ludwig van Beethoven and Edvard Grieg as test cases for asking: Who is a great composer, and how do you know or decide what makes a composer great?

The Ear doesn’t agree with all the results, but he found it a fascinating and thought-provoking discussion, and figures you might too:

Here is a link:

Read the overview story, and then leave word if you agree with Tommasini about the greatest of all composers. (A clue is in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Which composers would you include that he didn’t?

Who did he include whom you wouldn’t?

And let’s play along: Which composers would be on your own personal list of the Top 5 or Top 10 indispensable composers? And in what order?

Have fun!

And, pro or con, don’t be shy in saying what you think. The more controversial and stronger the opinion and the words, the better.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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  1. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer. For me, as a pianist, it’s Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Scriabin. But again, this is more my personal taste than anything else.

    Comment by Tom — November 24, 2018 @ 10:01 am

  2. For me, it depends partly on what I’ve listened to recently, or what mood I’m in. But here is my overall ranking:

    J.S. Bach (for counterpoint, the heartbeat always present in his music, its psychological power, and the great variety of musical styles he composed in)

    Schubert (for lyrical, soulful melodies that leave a lasting imprint in the mind)

    Chopin(for his unique, ethereal, flowing sound, and his delicacy and drama)

    Mozart (the range of musical forms his work embraces and his charming, joyful melodies)

    Among modern composers I would include: Astor Piazzola (whom I consider to be classical) for his unique, mysterious harmonies, John Rutter for his gorgeous carols and the accessabilty of his writing, and Morten Lauridsen, for his built-up textures and the shimmering quality of his compositions.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — November 24, 2018 @ 7:26 am

  3. Overlooked (2):

    Rachmaninoff. Much loved by the public and until recently, despised by academics. One of the greatest pianists of all time too. You want a melody? He had them to spare, seemingly, as did his compatriot, Peter Tchaikovsky (one of the reasons critics didn’t like him/them either).

    Comment by fflambeau — November 24, 2018 @ 3:20 am

  4. Good question with no definite answer (it all depends on the individual).

    For me, I would rate composers as follows (but not recent ones):

    1. Mozart (God the Father);
    2. Bach (God the Son);
    3. Beethoven (God the Holy Ghost)(this Trinity could be interchangeable but I think Mozart wins out on flexibility and the sheer extent of his compositions across many genres, like opera, the symphony, piano compositions, works for the horn, clarinet etc. Plus, there is a charm and supremely beautiful touch in virtually everything he did which is not always apparent in other greats).
    4. Tchaikovsky;
    5. Handel, he is much more than the writer of the Messiah (check out his wonderful keyboard compositions)
    6. Debussy (a real revolutionary; wonderful writer for piano, for the symphony and more);
    7. Wagner (another revolutionary but his output is over just one genre: opera, so he gets downgraded a bit);
    8. Sibelius. Not only did he write some of the greatest symphonies of all time he also wrote some terrific pieces for smaller groups and his symphonic tone poem, Pélleas et Mélisande, is a knockout. Check it out:

    9. Vivaldi. Vastly underestimated.
    10. Dvorak. (It could have been Mahler too who I would also rate highly but I think Dvorak wrote more types of music).

    Comment by fflambeau — November 24, 2018 @ 1:57 am

    • Here are some HONORABLE MENTIONS (in no specific order except for Brahms) :

      Brahms (probably should be in Vivaldi’s place on the top 10 but I am feeling Italian today, plus look at all the German speakers in the top 10);
      Stravinsky (another revolutionary);
      Chopin (wonderful but just for one instrument, the piano, and Debussy is just as good at the piano);
      Robert Shumann (ditto plus his wife may have had a significant hand in “his” compositions)


      1. Haydn, his “supreme work” the Creation, sounds as if God went to sleep the first week on the job or was on Quaaludes, or both; lots of symphonies which all sound the same;
      2. Nielsen. P for ponderous (or, painful?);
      3. Hindemith;
      4. Charles Ives. Not even Osmo’s magic could work with his clunker of a second symphony (much of it lifted from others) at the BBC Proms.


      1. Gershwin, his early death was a huge blow to music in general;
      2. Amy Beach;
      3. Alan Hovhaness (a unique sound and he wrote so much and for so many groups and instruments); knocked by academics because he was not into tonality and was something of a mystic.
      4. Copeland (not really underrated but he is just so good).


      1) Arvo Pärt;
      2) Morten Lauridsen;
      3) Dale Warland;
      4) John Rutter;
      5) Pēteris Vasks;
      6) Ola Gjeilo

      Comment by fflambeau — November 24, 2018 @ 2:46 am

      • Overlooked:

        Franz Schubert. Much beloved. Wonderful symphonies and also small works. And, another German language speaker.

        Comment by fflambeau — November 24, 2018 @ 3:15 am

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