Who Is the Greatest of Them All?
The Times‘ music critic, Anthony Tommasini, as many undoubtedly know, has been embarked over the past two weeks in a quixotic, but intriguing effort to select the ten greatest classical music composers. He has announced his Oscar choices here. Along the way Tommasini has made a number of insightful comments, in articles, videos, and blog posts, on the composers he has considered. Interestingly, he suggests that it would have been easier to name the top five or the top twenty than to struggle with the limitations of ten.
It will come as no surprise that Bach tops the list. Tommasini writes:
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.
To my considerable delight Giuseppe Verdi ranked eighth on the list. and, of all the comments that I read, here is the one that most warmed my Italianate heart:
Verdi should not be blamed for his own popularity nor tainted by the excessive devotion of the most fanatical opera buffs. Those who dispute the sophistication of his craft don’t know what they’re talking about.
Let me defer to a rather authoritative voice, that of Stravinsky. In his book “Poetics of Music,” Stravinsky challenges the assertion that the early Verdi works, steeped in the traditions of Italian opera and thick with oom-pah-pah arias, are somehow negligible, and that only with the more experimental operas of his later years did Verdi reach his potential.
“I know that I am going counter to the general opinion that sees Verdi’s best work in the deterioration of the genius that gave us ‘Rigoletto,’ ‘Il Trovatore,’ ‘Aida’ and ‘La Traviata,’ ” Stravinsky wrote. But, he added, “I maintain that there is more substance and true invention in the aria ‘La donna è mobile,’ for example, in which this elite saw nothing but deplorable facility, than in the rhetoric and vociferations of the ‘Ring.’ ”
I disagree with Stravinsky about Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. But the elite he was referring to were his fellow composers, and Stravinsky’s astute defense of Verdi shook up contemporary music circles.