Tag Archives: mendelssohn

Mozart’s Early Masterpieces

I recently read an article which said that Felix Mendelssohn was an even greater compositional child prodigy than Mozart, and George Grove, the founding editor of “Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians” has called Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” overture, Op. 21 “the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music.” This work was completed by Mendelssohn on August 6, 1826 when Mendelssohn was 17 years and 6 months old. While it is true Mendelssohn was a remarkable and most gifted compositional child prodigy, producing mature masterpieces in his teen years, it is not quite accurate in my estimation to say he was a greater compositional child prodigy than Mozart, who also produced several mature masterpieces in his teen years. Given the weight, scope, and influence of Mozart’s mature compositional output, it may seem easy to ignore or overlook his early masterpieces, but there are several early works he created which give no hint of his chronological age, and are composed with an assuredness, mastery, and quality which often equal and occasionally surpass works Mozart composed during his mature Vienna years.

1) The three string “Quartet Divertimenti,” K. 136, 137, and 138, composed in Salzburg in 1772, when Mozart was 16 years old have always impressed me as works of exceptionally rare beauty and Classical-style elegance. Whether performed by a string quartet, as they apparently were intended, or by a full string ensemble, which also comes off with beautiful effect, they are remarkable works, which show Mozart in full command of the Classical style, and the depth of the slow movements of these works are especially profound. The autograph manuscripts of these works resemble fair copies with clear handwriting and few corrections, reflecting the perfect and carefree nature of this music, while not being shallow. There is truly no difference between the mastery and maturity of these slow movements especially, and almost anything Mozart wrote during his mature Vienna years. While these three divertimenti are much different than the Divertimento in E-Flat Major,” K. 563 for string trio Mozart composed in 1788, this music is still beyond mere “light entertainment” Mozart often composed during his Salzburg years as a teenager.

2) The “String Quintet in B-Flat Major, K. 174, composed in 1773 at the age of 17, was a watershed in string ensemble writing for Mozart, especially when compared to the set of six “Viennese” string quartets he completed immediately before this work. This set of six “Viennese” string quartets, drawing at least in part from the influence of Haydn’s Op. 20 set, with fugal finales in the first and the sixth quartet,  and the addition of minuets, are a definite advance from Mozart’s earlier six “Milanese” string quartets, which featured three movements in the “Italian” style. Still, Mozart’s finales in these “Viennese” quartets tend to be quite short, and while I myself consider all of them masterpieces except for the second of the set in A major, they are still fairly “lightweight” in content and are still some distance away from the maturity and mastery found in his six string quartets dedicated to his friend and mentor, Joseph Haydn.  Nevertheless they are still quite lovely, elegant, and gracefully epitomizing the Classical style.   In the “Haydn” quartets, Mozart achieved the pinnacle of his string quartet writing, composed between 1782 and 1785 when Mozart had settled in Vienna, and after he had been exposed to Haydn’s latest and highly influential Op. 33 set of six string quartets of 1781. What is most striking about the “String Quintet in B-Flat Major,” K. 174 is the overall scope of the work in comparison to the “Viennese” quartets. As if literally overnight, Mozart jumped to full maturity in his string writing, with this work lasting nearly twice as long – almost 30 minutes compared to the last of the “Viennese” quartets, K. 173 in D minor, which lasts some 15 minutes with a short 3-minute fugal finale. In the “String Quintet” K. 174, Mozart wrote a long and fully developed sonata-form first movement replete with amazing contrapuntal execution in the development section, followed by a moving and transcendentally beautiful adagio. The minuet has an energy and a vitality beyond that of some of the minuets found in the “Viennese” quartets, and Mozart even composed a very interesting and lovely second trio of this minuet he discarded from the final version. But the crowning jewel of this work which really makes it stand out above all of his string writing to date is the finale. Mozart must have placed great value on this work, trying to make it more and more perfect, as evidenced by the composition of the second trio in the minuet, and even going so far as to compose an entire second finale for it. Both finales last approximately five and a half minutes – almost twice as long as the K. 173 string quartet finale written immediately before this work. Mozart decided on the version which utilizes the main motific eighth-note theme to start the movement, instead of the other discarded version which begins with the running sixteenth-note figure. The two finales reveal an insightful look into Mozart’s compositional process, how he would rework themes and motifs, and rearrange them to achieve what he considered the best version of those combined ideas. It is fascinating in both finales, how Mozart handled the same musical ideas in very different ways in two equally perfect finales. It is one of many testaments to his amazingly ingenious compositional ability. The finales of this quintet are extended rondos which display a staggering contrapuntal mastery and complexity in conception which was unprecedented for Mozart’s string writing at the time, and is at least the equal in skill and execution of any finale Mozart wrote for the “Haydn” quartets several years later, not to mention in his late string quintets of 1787, and 1790-91.

3) “Symphonies No. 25 in G Minor, K. 183, and No. 29 in A Major,” K. 201. Mozart wrote literally dozens of symphonies in his youth, starting with his first at the age of eight. However, while some are more interesting and convincing than others, none can compare to the maturity and mastery of these two symphonies, epitomizing the elegance, balance, and contrast of the Classical style – one reflecting the dark side, and in the other, the light. Once again, we have a watershed moment in Mozart’s development as a composer at the age of 17 when on October 5, 1773 he completed the “Symphony No. 25 in G Minor,” K. 183, the “little G-minor,” and at the age of 18, in 1774, when he composed the “Symphony No. 29 in A Major,” K. 201. Both are undisputed masterpieces lasting almost a half hour in duration, and featuring four movements which include minuets and trios, brilliant rondo-finales, and a seriousness and maturity in their conception unequalled in all of his symphonies preceding them.

4) The five violin concertos by Mozart, K. 207, 211, 216, 218, and 219 are said to have been composed within a span of just eight months – between April and December of 1775 – an amazing achievement by any composer of any age, let alone a young composer coming into his own at 19 years old while working on other compositions at the same time. While some research has revealed the first of these concertos in B-flat major, K. 207 may have been written as early as 1773 at age 17, it is still remarkable to hear the maturity and progressive growth revealed in these five violin concertos over such a short period of time, even if we assume Mozart composed only numbers 2-5 during that eight month time frame in 1775. While not all of these works may be considered masterpieces by everyone, at least the third, in G Major, K. 216 and the fifth in A Major, K. 219, also known as the “Turkish” for its exotic “Turkish” style in the fast section of the rondo finale, are undisputed masterpieces. The slow movements of all of these works are extremely beautiful arias for violin and orchestra. They demonstrate Mozart’s inexhaustible and ingenious melodic gift, and in these concertos in general, his gift for subtle yet perfect contrasting harmonic and tonal color. It is remarkable in the last movements of the “Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major,” K. 219, and the “Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major,” K. 216, how much contrast he achieves with tone color and orchestral texture with such a small orchestra featuring only pairs of oboes and horns, strings, and solo violin, and in the K. 219 “Turkish” concerto, he uses none of the traditional “Turkish” instruments of bass drum, cymbal, piccolo, and triangle to achieve this “Turkish” atmosphere. In both concertos, the last movements feature lots of interesting contrast achieved from the use of pizzicato in the string section, tempo changes, contrasting articulations, and masterful melodic exploitation of the high and low registers of the solo violin.

5) The “Piano Concerto No. 5 in D Major,” K. 175 was also another remarkable advance for Mozart, who wrote his first original piano concerto at the age of 17, in December of 1773. His four previous numbered piano concertos were written as arrangements of works by other composers such as Raupach, Honauer, and Schobert, and his next three unnumbered piano concertos, K. 107 were arrangements of works by Johann Christian Bach, so for all intents and purposes, this is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 1. However, his mastery of the concerto form already at the age of 17 shows little signs of a novice learning his way, but a mature composer in full command of the virtuosic and melodic effects he wanted to achieve in the concerto form on the instrument for which he would write the vast majority of his concertos – the pianoforte. What’s more, this work was only the beginning of what was to come in his great Viennese piano concertos he composed for subscription concerts in the 1780s – arguably Mozart’s most impressive body of work. Mozart himself thought highly of it, taking it with him on his tours to Munich in 1774, and to Mannheim and Paris in 1777-1778, and adding a new finale for it, the “Rondo in D Major,” K. 382, in 1782 while preparing it for performance just after arriving in Vienna the year before. This piano concerto is a work I was late to discover in my Mozart studies, having purchased only a couple years ago, a box set of all the piano concertos on period instruments, performed by Malcolm Bilson and the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. My personal feeling is Mozart should have left the original finale as it was – a brilliant and virtuosic rondo, and not changed it because stylistically, the new rondo does not fit the first two movements, and was likely written to suit Viennese taste at the time. While Mozart said the new rondo was quite enthusiastically received by its first audiences, its content and execution is not as inspired or as masterful as that of the original rondo, and serves as an example of Mozart’s earlier Salzburg work surpassing a work from his mature Vienna years. The original rondo is a perfect finale to an amazing composition.

It is easy to underestimate Mozart at any age, because his work sounds so inevitable, so easy, and so perfect, we tend to take it for granted. Even so, it is clear when Mozart wrote music primarily to satisfy his listeners, and when he was truly stepping out into worlds and sounds never before heard, yet still within the elegance and style of the Classical era. Even in his teens, Mozart stepped out and went beyond the conventions of his time far more often than he is usually given credit for. There are other works I could include in this category of early masterpieces, such as the lovely motet, “Exsultate Jubilate,” K. 165, written just shy of Mozart’s 17th birthday, and the “Divertimento in D Major,” K. 131, written in Salzburg during the summer of 1772 when Mozart was 16 years old, in which Mozart displays ingenious writing for four horns and imaginative concertante writing for woodwinds throughout this work, which essentially amounts to an ambitious, six-movement serenade in everything but name. The second movement is an exquisitely beautiful adagio for strings alone, which again is as masterful and moving as almost any slow movement Mozart composed during his mature Vienna years.

While it is true much of Mozart’s early music falls into the category of “pleasant light entertainment,” there are many early Mozart masterpieces, some more or less known, which definitely deserve to be heard and appreciated for the mature and beautiful masterpieces they are.

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.

Listen to the audio version of “The Greatest Composer of All Time.”