Several years ago Steve Schwartz (I think) speculated about who the
greatest composer was. The major criterion, as I remember it, was that
the composer had to show talent across all forms of musical expression.
After eliminating the three B's, Mozart, and others, the author came up
with an obscure composer who had shown at least a facility in every type
of musical expression. I can't remember the composer.
Steve, if that was indeed him, was wrong.
If the *only* criterion for greatness is an ability to express genius
across all or nearly all types of music, then who else but Tchaikovsky
is the greatest composer ever? I came to this conclusion, of course,
after last night's all-Tchaikovsky program at the Kennedy Center, a
report on which I posted a few minutes ago.
Tchaikovsky composed probably the world's most frequently heard piano
concerto, one of the most frequently heard violin concertos, possibly
the two most frequently performed ballets, one of the greatest operas,
six symphonies all of which have their strengths, and one of the greatest
pieces of stand-alone anthems (1812) ever written. He has even excelled
in string quartets, one of whose movements is immediately recognizable
to all lovers of classical music; and I have heard people say his most
underrated works are his songs, none of which, sadly, I have yet heard.
I'm having a hard time recalling a piece of liturgical or church music
by Tchaikovsky, but isn't that the only major field in which he has not
written something memorable?
Can anyone beat that? Steve, was that actually you?
[If Machaut is "obscure", then Mitch has some listening to do. :-)
Steve probably never though this would come back and haunt him
seven years later. But it has. Unfortunately, due to the limit
on archive space we've been allotted for the list, Steve's original
post is no longer online, however, I have included it below for
Date: Mon, 18 May 1998 09:26:37 -0500
From: Steven Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: World's Greatest Composer Ever
Who is the Greatest Musical Genius of All Time?
First, let's establish some criteria, as objective as we can
make them. Merely liking a composer the most of course doesn't
mean that composer is the GM GoAT, nor does most people liking
a composer the most - that's just the vox populi fallacy. I've
come up with five criteria that seem reasonable to me. The
Greatest Musical Genius of All Time must
1. Have a lasting influence on the course of music.
2. Be proficient in all genres of his day.
3. Show a wide expressive range.
4. A consistency of result. Not everything must be wonderful,
but a preponderance should.
5. I'm not as sure about this one, but at least one semi-popular
hit. To me, this shows that the music speaks to everybody.
At least these criteria I feel must be met. You may have others,
but for now grant me these five. Since most of this ultimately
comes down to a process of elimination, let's survey the list
of obvious candidates:
1. Josquin, considered by his contemporaries the greatest
composer of his time
2. Henry Purcell
3. J. S. Bach
4. G. F. Handel
5. F. J. Haydn
6. W. A. Mozart
8. Berlioz (admittedly, a long shot)
13. Richard Strauss
It seems to me that we must eliminate Josquin on the grounds of
lasting influence. Even his fans probably admit that Josquin's
music requires a kind of mental time-travel. I think we can
eliminate Purcell on the same grounds. J. S. Bach gets dropped
because he did not excel in opera; Handel, because his fugal
technique is just about non-existent and because his instrumental
chamber works are noticeably lesser than his vocal music and
large orchestra pieces.
Haydn disappears because, again, he did not excel in opera.
Mozart's tough to eliminate, but I'd do so on the basis of lack
of variety in his orchestral sound - which indicates a limitation
on his expressive range.
Beethoven - well, what can possibly be said against Beethoven? For
one thing, his handling of form, while daring, is by no means sure.
For details, read Ernst Toch's essay on the Fifth Symphony in The
Shaping Forces of Music or Vaughan Williams's essay on the Ninth in
National Music and Other Essays. Also, his songs are on a markedly
lower level than his instrumental and choral music.
Berlioz - eliminated by #2. No chamber music to speak of. Damn, I
thought he had a better chance.
Brahms - again, done in by criterion #2. No opera. Wagner
eliminated by the same criterion, but for the reason of only one
decent piece of absolute music and that he couldn't write fast,
Bruckner - an exalted mode of expression, but essentially limited
to that. No opera.
Mahler - no opera or mature chamber work.
Strauss - too variable throughout his career.
Debussy - very hard to eliminate, but no mature symphony.
Ravel - ditto.
Schoenberg - I believe his influence will last, even if composers
only react against him. His expressive range is enormous, from
delicate and humorous to exalted. He excels in chamber music,
symphony, concerto, variation form, etc. But he's no opera
composer. Moses und Aron bores the earwax out of most people.
Reluctantly, I let him go.
Stravinsky - weak chamber output. His influence has waned.
Bartok - no symphony.
Hindemith - no lasting influence.
Varese - limited output. No hit.
Sessions - limited expressive range
Carter - no hit
Boulez - no hit.
That eliminates the first group of candidates. Perhaps they're
merely popular choices after all. But let's not give up just
yet. I could go through another list of candidates, but for
my money, there is only one composer who meets all criteria:
Guillaume de Machaut, who invented polyphony. Now THAT's a
lasting influence. He excelled in all the genres of his day,
including poetic ones. He was also a major literary theoretician.
His expressive range is wider than any other composer of his
time. Everything that has survived is beautifully worked. And
he has a semi-hit - the Messe de Notre Dame.