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The Greatest Composer of All Time?


I have lately been thinking about composers and their contributions to music, especially comparisons between Mozart and Beethoven, as well as the question of who is overall, the greatest composer of all time.  To be clear, when I refer to “the greatest composer of all time,” I am referring to the one with the greatest overall mastery of compositional techniques, musical forms (sonata form, rondo, theme and variations, fugue, etc.), and genres (symphony, concerto, opera, etc.) – not necessarily the one whom one might find their own personal favorite.  There are several composers I enjoy for various reasons, and when it comes to contemplating which composer is the greatest overall, I decided to do some research on how composers were ranked within various genres of music. When coming up with my ranking process, I reasoned that logically speaking, the more genres a composer has mastered, the greater their mastery and overall ranking as a composer.

The Rankings

For composer rankings, I have followed a process like the scoring used in bodybuilding competitions in which physiques are judged in “rounds,” which represent different aspects of physique assessment such as symmetry, muscularity, and presentation. Each round is individually judged and scored numerically with the number 1 representing the top placement, and each subsequent larger number representing the placing from best to least best. The placement number of each “round,” or in this case, musical genre for each composer, are added together to create a “total score.”   The overall placements are ranked from lowest to highest total score numbers, with the lowest number representing the best to the highest number representing the least best. I have chosen ten classical music composers to rank and have noted the ranking for each of them in the seven genres of music as listed on the digitaldreamdoor.com website. Eight of my top ten composers are listed in the top ten on the digitaldreamdoor.com website, although not in the exact order as they appear on my list. As with all subjective art forms, opinions about these rankings will inevitably vary among different people. However, I find the rankings at digitaldreamdoor.com to be reasonably fair and accurate. While I do not entirely agree with their overall rankings of “greatest” to “least great” composers, I agree for the most part with their rankings of the composers by genre.

Below is a list of my rankings showing each individual score in each major genre of music as listed on the digitaldreamdoor.com website. The overall combined total score for each composer is listed under the “total score” column. This list should serve as a helpful visual representation of why I consider Mozart the greatest composer, and why I ranked the others in the order I did. There are some notable exceptions however, in which I do not consider only the “total score” when placing composers in order of ranking. For example, despite the identical total score of Beethoven and Brahms, I ranked Beethoven over Brahms because of Beethoven’s enormous influence on music, as well as on Brahms himself, along with Beethoven’s unprecedented influential innovations in music, his nine symphonies and their groundbreaking achievement in instrumental music. Also, despite the higher score of Brahms over Bach, I ranked Bach over Brahms because of Bach’s achievements in counterpoint, harmony, and form which were foundational for all of Western music as we have come to know it in the modern era. That alone could have potentially made me place Bach at the top of the list, but there are other considerations I made for why I did not give him the top ranking. Bach composed during an era in which the string quartet and symphony had not yet been invented. He did, however write during an era in which opera was written, and produced none. Even Handel, a contemporary of Bach who wrote several operas, did not rank in the top 15 composers for opera, while Mozart is ranked among the top three composers in the history of music for opera. He is the only pre-19th century composer to hold the distinction of being among the top ten composers of opera in the history of music. He is also the only pre-19th century composer whose operas are staples in the core operatic repertoire today. This is one reason I rank Mozart over Bach. Also, when we compare all forms both Mozart and Bach either did write, or could have written – namely concertos, choral, opera, and organ music, Mozart still outscores Bach with a score of 11 to Bach’s 21. For those composers who were not ranked in a given genre, I have indicated the number for their ranking in that category exactly one numerical value after the largest ranked number for the last composer listed on the digitaldreamdoor.com website. In other words, if the digitaldreamdoor.com website listed only the top 15 composers in a given category, and a composer was not ranked for that category, I gave them a 16 automatically, with the letters “nr.”

Ranking  Composer   Concertos   Symphonies   Chamber   Choral  

1.             MOZART              1                          5                      2                2

Opera     Piano   Organ     Total Score

3                 9           5                    27

Ranking   Composer    Concertos     Symphonies     Chamber   Choral

2.               BEETHOVEN      2                          1                          1               14

Opera     Piano    Organ       Total Score

16 (nr)     2             11 (nr)          47

Ranking     Composer   Concertos        Symphonies      Chamber   Choral

3.                  BACH                   3                             16 (nr)             16 (nr)       1

Opera      Piano        Organ    Total Score

16 (nr)     16 (nr)        1                 69

Ranking    Composer     Concertos        Symphonies       Chamber     Choral

4.                    BRAHMS          4                             3                            5                  8

Opera       Piano     Organ     Total Score

16 (nr)       5               6                 47

Ranking    Composer    Concertos       Symphonies       Chamber     Choral

5.                   HAYDN              14                        6                            4                   4

Opera     Piano         Organ         Total Score

16 (nr)      16 (nr)      11(nr)             71

Ranking    Composer    Concertos       Symphonies     Chamber      Choral

6.                SCHUBERT       16 (nr)                  9                      10                16 (nr)

Opera      Piano           Organ          Total Score

16 (nr)       3                    11 (nr)              81

Ranking         Composer      Concertos     Symphonies       Chamber       Choral

7.             SCHUMANN             11                    14                          10             16 (nr)

Opera     Piano    Organ     Total Score

16 (nr)      16 (nr)   11 (nr)       82

Ranking           Composer          Concertos       Symphonies   Chamber  Choral

8.              TCHAIKOVSKY          7                             4               16 (nr)  16(nr)

Opera      Piano          Organ    Total Score

16 (nr)      16 (nr)       11 (nr)      86

Ranking        Composer            Concertos      Symphonies    Chamber   Choral

9.            HANDEL                            9                          16 (nr)        16 (nr)          3

Opera      Piano          Organ         Total Score

16 (nr)    16 (nr)          11 (nr)          87

Ranking        Composer            Concertos      Symphonies    Chamber   Choral

10.   MENDELSSOHN               12                          13                   8                   11

Opera      Piano         Organ     Total Score

16 (nr)    16 (nr)       11 (nr)        87

As we can see from the chart above, Mozart is ranked highest when considering the overall “total score.” He is the only composer among the top ten composers listed above who is ranked in every major genre of music in the categories of opera, chamber music, symphonies, concertos, choral music, piano, and organ music. Not only is Mozart the only composer to be ranked in all of the above listed seven major genres, he is also the only major composer who wrote in every major genre while also ranking as a top composer of opera. To be ranked among the top three composers of opera in the history of music without being an essentially “opera-only” composer, as the top two opera composers Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi were, is extraordinary, especially in light of the fact Mozart also excelled in every other major genre of his day. The Kochel catalogue of Mozart’s music reveal a total number of 626 compositions, many of them multi-movement works for many different combinations of instruments often lasting between 20 to 30 minutes, and sometimes longer. This list also includes several operas lasting over two and a half hours. While the Kochel catalogue has been revised and become more comprehensive over the years, it still does not account for all of his works, so the number 626 is not entirely accurate, and actually understates his unbelievable production.

On top of this extraordinary quantity is the even more extraordinarily exceptional high quality of so much of his music. These amazing and unprecedented compositional achievements in the history of music by Mozart, not to mention the almost unbelievable fact he did it all within a lifespan of just 35 short years, beginning at the age of five, are the basis for my opinion he is the greatest composer of all time. I consider Mozart the greatest composer of all time simply because he had no weaknesses in music. Just as bodybuilders are judged as the “best” being the one with the fewest weaknesses, Mozart had none.  His formidable combination of both musical range and mastery is without parallel. There was no form, technique, or genre he did not master as a composer, and in most cases, he mastered them better than anyone else. This cannot be said for any other major composer in history. He was a master of all genres, techniques, and forms – not merely a “jack of some trades,” and master of some or none as several composers were.

Not only was Mozart a master of all genres, but of all techniques, not the least of which was melody. Mozart is widely regarded as the supreme master of melody, as many composers after him aspired to his melodic greatness, including Schubert, Chopin, and especially Tchaikovsky, who idolized Mozart. While Mozart was not a “tunesmith” as composers like Schubert, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky were, he was still an amazing melodist. Is it this feature in his music which makes him immediately stand out from Haydn and Beethoven, both of whom dealt more with gesture and motif than with melody on the whole. With Mozart, melody reigns supreme, even though he too used gesture and motifs. This distinction between Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven is for me, most evident in their string quartets. With Beethoven especially, his secondary themes are typically motific, very rhythmic, and often utilizes silence as much as sound. Haydn also has this same tendency as Beethoven, but to a lesser degree than Beethoven. With Mozart, his secondary themes are always essentially melodious, even if they can be more rhythmic than the principle theme, and are often even more striking and more beautiful than the principle theme. This is why the essence of Mozart is melody.

He was also a master of counterpoint, brilliantly exemplified in his string quartets and quintets, the last movement of his Symphony No. 41, the “Jupiter,” the “Great” Mass in C Minor, and the Requiem. He is unsurpassed in the history of music as a master of formal perfection, who brilliantly mastered the formal structures of the sonata, rondo, theme and variations, and fugue among others.  Mozart often imaginatively expanded the formal structure of his works with delayed cadences, extended phrases, and unexpected resolutions which could have been much more conventional and less interesting in the hands of lesser composers. What is amazing is he did this without compromising the overall structure and balance of the phrase, the entire movement, and indeed the entire work.  His choices are perfect – with never too much or too little.  Even as he attains a level of beauty and perfection in an idea which takes your breath away, he is at once off again to the next idea, even more beautiful than the one before. This is most especially evident in the transcendentally beautiful second movement of his only completed string trio, the “Divertimento” as Mozart titled it, in E-flat major, K. 563.   While it is true that compared to Haydn and Beethoven, Mozart is the most harmonically conservative, his modulations and progressions often surprise and delight, especially in his chamber music.  Mozart was not so much an innovator as was Beethoven, but rather a perfecter of the Classical style.

Mozart not only excelled in all genres and techniques of music as a composer – a colossal feat in and of itself, but was an extraordinary performer and improviser as well. He would spontaneously improvise entire compositions at the piano during his subscription concerts, sometimes writing them down later, and played at a concert level on the piano as well as the violin, performing both his own piano concertos and violin concertos at concerts.  Of the major composers, only Bach and Mozart can be said to have been able to play more than one instrument at a concert level. While Paganini was the best violinist of his day, he was not a major composer nor did he play at a concert level on more than one instrument. Beethoven, as great as a composer and accomplished pianist he was, could also not play more than one instrument at a concert level. Franz Liszt was also the most extraordinary pianist of his day, and while he was a respectable composer, he was not among the greatest, and like Paganini, could not play more than one instrument at a concert level. Mozart also performed as a child prodigy from the age of 6 on, dazzling royalty and clergy by playing the harpsichord and violin blindfolded, transposing complicated pieces at the keyboard on request, and had an extraordinary memory, able to write down entire pieces after just one hearing. All of these facts put Mozart in a class all by himself as the greatest overall musician in history.

Subjective Considerations

As I have mentioned above, to simply take the rankings of composers in each major genre and rank them in order does not take into account other more subjective considerations when assessing the greatness of composers, such as historical influence, innovative musical thought, etc. Also, some composers, such as Bach were not writing during a time in which the symphony and string quartet had been technically invented, and other composers, such as Stravinsky, were not always focusing on “traditional” formal structures, and/or were writing during a time in which the traditional forms of symphonies, concertos, and quartets were not always written with the same frequency they were written in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Some composers seem to embody a real sea change in music, such as Beethoven whose career was truly the embodiment of the end of Classicism and the birth of Romanticism. This makes sense given the fact he lived almost exactly half his life in the 18th century, and half of his life in the 19th century. Hector Berlioz, almost exclusively known for his “Symphonie Fantastique,” was an amazing trailblazer in orchestration, creating sounds in the orchestra and exploring possibilities which had never been known before him. Frederic Chopin did for the piano what Berlioz did for the orchestra, although Chopin has far more music in the repertoire than does Berlioz. Chopin wrote almost exclusively for the piano, and explored sounds and possibilities of the piano which had never been heard before, much as Debussy did this for the piano in the late 19th, early 20th century, embodying Impressionism. However, unlike Chopin, Debussy was a skilled and brilliant orchestral composer as well. His pieces “La Mer,” and “Prelude to the Afternoon of the Fawn” are just two of his numerous examples of shimmering orchestral beauty the likes of which had not been heard before. Stravinsky was also a brilliant trailblazer in orchestral composition in the early 20th century with “The Firebird” and “The Rite of Spring” ballets, who like Berlioz in the early 19th century, created orchestral sounds and explored exotic sonorities never before heard. Wagner took harmony in new and highly influential directions with his opera “Tristan und Isola,”ultimately paving the way for atonal music as championed by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern in the 20th century. Wagner also took opera and the “total art work” concept to unprecedented heights, while Mahler did the same for the symphony, employing enormous orchestral forces, solo voices, and sometimes choruses in his works.

In Conclusion

We all have subjective tastes, and ultimately the music which moves us most will depend on our personalities, our tastes, our moods, and myriad other variables. No single composer or genre embodies the whole of music. Music is larger than all of the greatest composers and musicians combined, so in a sense, the question of who is the “greatest composer” is not even the point. All composers and musicians are ultimately vehicles for the larger purpose of expressing through music. How wonderful it is we have such an incredible variety of music to listen to across generations, genres, styles, composers, etc. One could focus on only one small part of music and spend a lifetime on that alone. Such is the vast expansiveness and limitlessness of this wonderful world of music.

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