It is remarkably ironic how Beethoven, no respector of persons, nor status, nor aristocratic ideals, managed to be befriended by so many aristocratic patrons who were perhaps drawn to him by his audacity in not conforming to either authority or tradition. Beethoven knew he needed the patronage of the aristocracy, even while criticising their old-world, non-democratic ruling structure, “enlightened despots” or no. One of Beethoven’s most important aristocratic patrons – perhaps the most important was Archduke Rudolph (pictured above), the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II. Rudolph began to study piano and composition with Beethoven in 1804, and Beethoven dedicated 14 compositions to him, including the famous “Piano Trio in B-flat major,” Op. 97, also known as the “Archduke Trio,” and the “Missa Solemnis,” Op. 123. Rudolph returned the favor by dedicating one of his own compositions to Beethoven. Count Andreas Razumovsky was also a patron of Beethoven, who commissioned the Op. 59, Nos. 1-3 “Razumovsky Quartets,” as I discussed in my last post.
In the fall of 1808, the year of Beethoven’s famous grand concert on December 22nd, he received an offer from Napoleon’s brother Jerome Bonaparte, who was then the king of Westphalia, for a position as Kapellmeister at the court in Cassel. Beethoven initially accepted the offer to the surprise of at least three of his patrons. In a move unprecedented in the history of music, these three aristocratic patrons persuaded Beethoven to remain in Vienna at a pension of 4,000 florins per year, equal to about 2,240 US dollars. While that sum may seem small by today’s standards, we have to remember this was 1808. For some perspective, Mozart averaged about 2,500 florins per year, and that was from working – opera commissions, fees from publications, piano and composition students, etc. – not simply staying in Vienna. Mozart’s income in 1989 dollars from data provided by Moore (1989, p. 21) amounted a real wage equivalent of about $120,000 – a handsome sum even in today’s dollars.
The three patrons who agreed to pay Beethoven were the Archduke Rudolph, Prince Kinsky, and Prince Lobkowitz, who had commissioned Beethoven’s Op. 18 string quartets, and to whom Beethoven dedicated his third, fifth, and sixth symphonies. Only Archduke Rudolph paid his share of the pension, while Kinsky died soon afterwards after falling from his horse, and Lobkowitz stopped paying in September of 1811, leaving Beethoven to rely on publishing his compositions along with his small remaining pension to make ends meet.
The fact three royal patrons would have agreed to pay Beethoven a pension on the sole condition he simply stay in Vienna speaks volumes to what a powerful figure Beethoven was. The aristocracy did not generally “serve” the people they ruled over, and most certainly not in the extraordinary way they assisted Beethoven, who truly lived out this role reversal of the aristocracy requesting something so remarkable of a commoner, whom they clearly believed was not just an “ordinary commoner.” Indeed he was not.
Mozart never found this kind of support from royal patrons that Beethoven did, although he was commissioned by Emperor Joseph II to compose the singspiel opera, “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail,” K. 384.He was also commissioned to compose the opera, “La Clemenza di Tito,” K. 621 for the coronation of Joseph’s brother Leopold II in 1791. He composed his three “Prussian Quartets,” K. 575, K. 589, K. 590, for the cellist King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, as well as a piano sonata (K. 576) for the king’s daughter Princess Friederike. Mozart had intended to compose six string quartets for the king, but only completed three, and only one of what was supposed to be a set of six piano sonatas for the princess. He was paid for the sonata, but received no more of his promised fees, which is probably why he stopped work on the project. In the end, in a letter to Michael Puchberg, he said he had to sell his quartets to a publisher – those “difficult works for a mere song” as he put it, to meet his financial circumstances.
In a letter dated September 30, 1786, Mozart tried to offer exclusive works for Prince Joseph Maria Benedikt of Furstenberg, who published three of Mozart’s symphonies, K. 319, K. 338, and K. 425, and the piano concertos K. 451, K. 459, and K. 488. Mozart had also proposed to compose exclusive works for the prince on a regular basis for a fee, but on this offer, Mozart was turned down. An incomplete letter dated May of 1790 reveals that Mozart was at least contemplating a petition to the Archduke Franz of Austria for the post of second Kapellmeister. Interestingly, Mozart in this letter states he is more qualified for the position than Salieri as stated in his letter, “…especially as Salieri, although very well qualified as a Kapellmeister, has never devoted himself to church music, whereas I have made this style entirely my own from my youth onwards.” In the end, even if Mozart did petition the Archduke eventually or Leopold II himself, it did not come to fruition.
It may have been Mozart was simply too early in the historical timeline for the kind of support Beethoven would later enjoy from aristocratic patrons as a freelance composer. It may be Mozart was simply ahead of his time in trying to do what Beethoven was eventually able to do. Haydn beautifully and poetically expressed his feelings on Mozart’s value in being patronized as Beethoven was with the following words.. “If only I could impress Mozart’s inimitable works on the soul of every friend of music, and the soul of high personages in particular, as deeply, with the same musical understanding and with the same deep feeling, as I understand and feel them, the nations would vie with each other to possess such a jewel.” Had Mozart lived just a little longer, he would have become the next paid Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and may well have enjoyed a similar kind of patronage Beethoven enjoyed, but it was not to be. The elderly Leopold Hoffman, the then current Kapellmeister of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, was quite ill at the time Mozart was taken on as an unpaid assistant at St. Stephen’s, but Hoffman ended up outliving Mozart by two years.
It is also possible Mozart may not have been as good at marketing himself as was Beethoven. For whatever reason, Mozart never made the kind of lasting connections he needed for sustained financial success, and even Beethoven eventually had his pension cut due to recession and war with the French. Such is the life of a freelance composer – their income is up one day and down the next. While Mozart made large sums, he also had times he was very short on cash, as his numerous begging letters to his fellow Freemason friend Michael Puchberg bear witness to. As a freelance musician, there is no steady stream of consistent income. It is as true today as much as it was true in Beethoven and Mozart’s time, although composers are much better protected today by copyright laws and paid royalties for the performance, sale, and recordings of their works. Had Beethoven and Mozart had these kinds of financial opportunities, combined with their incredible production, especially Mozart with his operatic production, they may well have been if not rich men, extremely well off. While Haydn did well financially, he worked almost his entire lifetime as a court musician for the wealthy Esterhazy family – an entirely different situation than being a freelance musician seeking royal patronage from the outside as Mozart and Beethoven did.
The time was perfect for Beethoven, who found a way to obtain sustained patronage from the aristocracy throughout his career. His overpowering personality, defiance of authority, and his undeniable compositional genius and pianistic ability combined with the spirit of liberty, fraternity, and equality of the French Revolution which swept through European society at the time in which Beethoven was coming into his own, just after Mozart died, created a perfect storm for Beethoven to take the musical world, and indeed the entire social structure – by storm.
I must confess when I first heard the “Third Razumovsky Quartet in C Major,” Op. 59, No. 3 by Beethoven, I was not exactly sure what to think. In this work I heard some wonderful moments, but did not know what to make of this “strange music” – a sentiment shared by some of its first listeners, who also found these quartets “difficult.” It is a sentiment which was reflected by the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung’s Vienna correspondent on February 27, 1807 with the following words…
“Three new, very long and difficult Beethoven violin quartets dedicated to the Russian ambassador, Count Razumovsky, are attracting the attention of all connoisseurs. They are profound in conception and admirably written, but not generally comprehensible – with perhaps the exception of the third in C major, which through its individuality, melody and harmonic strength cannot fail to win the favor of every cultured music lover.”
For me, it was only after repeated hearings of all three of these quartets that I came to appreciate not only their formal coherency, but this amazingly new and beautiful style of string quartet composition that truly changed the way string quartets were written.
What is most striking about these three “Razumovsky Quartets” is a great “symphonic” seriousness Beethoven brings to these remarkable works. Gone are the days of the string quartet composed simply as light background music for social gatherings. These works truly sound like symphonies for string quartet. They are grand in conception, and about ten to fifteen minutes longer than the Op. 18 string quartets, lasting about forty minutes to perform each quartet. They are serious works with amazingly original and beautiful musical ideas, incredibly varied and rich tone color, and a deep and penetrating sadness in the slow movements. While Beethoven’s late quartets are often lauded as some of the greatest and most exalted music ever written, I would have to put the three “Razumovsky Quartets” at least as their equal if not their superior, with the exception of the astounding “String Quartet in C-Sharp Minor,” Op. 131. I feel the “Razumovsky Quartets” have better balance and formal coherency overall than some of Beethoven’s late quartets. While the Op. 130 quartet has some wonderfully transcendent moments and individual movements, as in the “Cavatina” slow movement, I do not feel the piece as a whole works as well as any of the “Razumovsky Quartets,” or the Op. 135 in F Major – the last string quartet Beethoven completed and the last complete work he composed in his life.
Shortly after Beethoven had completed his groundbreaking “Symphony No. 3,” Op. 55, the “Eroica” or “Heroic” Symphony as Beethoven later entitled it after rescinding his “Bonaparte” dedication, he was commissioned by Count Andrey Razumovsky (pictured above), the Russian Tsar’s diplomatic representative to the Hapsburg court in Vienna, to compose three new string quartets, which came to be known as Beethoven’s “RazumovskyQuartets,” Op. 59. Count Razumovsky was the brother-in-law of one of Beethoven’s other patrons – Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz, who had commissioned Beethoven’s first set of six string quartets, Op. 18, and to whom Beethoven also dedicated his third, fifth, and sixth symphonies, his “Harp” “String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major,” Op. 74, the “Triple Concerto in C major,” for violin, cello, and piano, Op. 56,and the song cycle, “An die ferne Geliebte,” Op. 98.
The “Razumovsky Quartets” were written between April and November of 1806, around the same time Beethoven was composing his “Fourth Piano Concerto in G major,” Op. 58. While listening to and studying his second of the three “Razumovsky Quartets,” I noticed certain similarities this work has with Beethoven’s “Fourth Piano Concerto.” At the opening of the concerto, Beethoven begins with the thematic material stated in the piano alone, and in the tonic key of G major, only to have the orchestra respond with an expanded version of the same theme, except now in B major – a key related to the tonic only by the fact it is the third scale degree in G major. Beethoven had used and would continue to use these same kind of key associations in works like his “Fifth Piano Concerto in E-flat major,” Op. 73, “the Emperor,” the “Third Piano Concerto in C minor,” Op. 37,and his “Fifth Symphony in C minor,” Op. 67, among others. In the opening of the “Second Razumovsky Quartet,” Op 59, No. 2, the piece opens in the tonic key of E minor – perhaps not coincidentally the relative minor of G major – the home key of the “Fourth Piano Concerto.” Beethoven, in the very next phrase, transposes the theme up a half-step to F-major, changing the tonality within the first two phrases of the work as he does in the “Fourth Piano Concerto.” It is also interesting how in the final movement of both works, Beethoven not only segues into these last movements without a break, he also starts these movements in the “wrong key” – not the home key of each work. In the “Fourth Piano Concerto,” he starts in C major – the same key he begins the last movement of the “Second Razumovsky Quartet.” Eventually in both works, at the end of each piece, he ends up in the home keys of G major and E minor respectively. While these are only a few details, they are notable for their parallels, and show how Beethoven was a very careful planner of his key associations and formal structures. Another feature which is very unique in Beethoven’s treatment of key choice in his “Second Razumovsky Quartet” is that the first three movements are in the tonality of E – E minor for the first movement, E major for the second movement, and E minor again for the third movement.
The “Second Razumovsky Quartet” is truly a remarkable work. All three of the “Razumovsky Quartets” were monumentally original in their conception at the time they were composed as Haydn’s Op. 33 set of six string quartets were 25 years before, in 1781. Both sets are in a sense, known as “Russian” quartets because Haydn’s were dedicated to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia, while Beethoven’s were dedicated to the Russian ambassador Razumovsky. Both sets of quartets changed the way string quartets were written, as both included new features and possibilities in the treatment of the quartet medium which were never before imagined. In Haydn’s Op. 33 quartets, he includes elements of surprise and great humor, with the second quartet of the set in E-flat major nicknamed, “The Joke.” In the last movement, Haydn uses the rondo form, which had become immensely popular at the time, and has at the end of the last movement, almost uncomfortably long pauses until it finally ends quietly with the opening phrase stated one last time pianissimo, in a kind of “winking humor” that is so characteristic of Haydn. This same humor of Haydn is also evident in his “Surprise” “Symphony No. 94” in G major in which Haydn, after a quiet introduction of the main theme, then calls for a very loud fortissimo chord, complete with timpani and all the instruments playing at the same time. When later asked if he did this to awaken the audience, he said he did not, but did it to do something new. In this Op. 33 set of string quartets, Haydn also changed from writing minuets to scherzi – a practice Beethoven would also adopt. However, this did not entirely change the nature of the music for Haydn, as it still often sounds like a minuet, while Beethoven’s scherzi almost never resemble a minuet. However, Haydn’s rhythmic innovations with the utilization of hemiola , putting the accents off the downbeat, and the utilization of silence as much as sound, along with imaginative textural contrast in the scherzo movement of the fifth string quartet of the Op. 33 set in particular, is truly something remarkably brilliant and was especially innovative for the time. Beethoven would take this even further in his scherzi, with one excellent example in the third movement of the “Second Razumovsky Quartet.”
Beethoven’s “Second Razumovsky Quartet” is primarily about gesture, motif, harmony, and relatively conventional formal structures. The first movement is in sonata form with the traditional repetition of both the exposition and the recapitulation with a coda. The second movement is an incredibly beautiful molto adagio, which begins with a hymn-like theme, followed by an immediate variation with a “limping” motif under the theme. This is followed later with the main theme accompanied by triplet figures and a lovely counter-melody in the second violin, which returns again towards the end of the piece. The third movement is a scherzo, and the last movement a rondo. What is less conventional is the use of the extreme higher registers, especially in the first violin part, and sometimes the cello, which is often used to gorgeous effect, as in the beginning of the first movement after the first violin “answers” the cello melody twice, and then finally soars in a light, floating melody above the cello and viola accompaniment, with the melody soon picked up seamlessly by the second violin.
In the molto adagio second movement, it is impossible for me to believe Mahler was not somehow influenced by Beethoven’s string quartets, and most especially his middle and late-period quartets which in the slow movements utilize rich harmonic textures and half-step voice leading to change the harmony, which is especially present in Mahler’s slow movements of his third and ninth symphonies. I can hear Beethoven looking more than a half-century ahead of his time towards Mahler, especially in the second movement of the “Second Razumovsky Quartet,” and in the slow third movement of his last string quartet – “No. 16 in F major,” Op. 135. In this second movement of the “Second Razumovsky Quartet,” Beethoven looks ahead to the tone of the famous Cavatina Adagio molto espressivo movement from his “String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major,” Op. 130. In it, I hear the same tenderness and love as I do in this movement, but the “Razumovsky” molto adagio definitely has more scope and dynamic and rhythmic contrast than the Cavatina.
The heavy and extremely dissonant chords, especially in the scherzo with its equally daring and ingenious rhythmic and textural originality, with the melody beginning just off the first beat, which leaves a feeling not of 3/4 time, but an unsettled sense of rhythmic ambiguity. This is an even more sophisticated use of rhythmic ambiguity than that of Haydn, with fortissimos off the downbeat, are are also unique features of this piece. Beethoven also masterfully adds a Russian tune, passed between each of the instruments in the “B” section of this scherzo under a busy triplet accompaniment. Beethoven even indicates the theme with the words, “Theme russe” in his score. He also uses an exuberant version of a Russian-sounding theme as the main melodic idea in the rondo of the last movement in the bright key of C major, only to complete the movement in a breathless, dramatically intense “Presto” race to the finish in E minor.
The “Razumovsky Quartets” were composed after Heiligenstadt, and in these works Beethoven did indeed live up to his word to “make a new way” creatively as he put it. It is truly remarkable in this composition how much ingenious textural contrast Beethoven manages to create with just four instruments, showing his complete command of string tone color and its brilliant utilization in his compositional ideas. These are just some of many characteristics which make this work anything but a mere continuation of the excellent Op. 18 set, published just 5 years before. Regardless of how much Count Razumovsky paid Beethoven for these three string quartets, what Beethoven accomplished in these works is without price, as all three comprise a true watershed in the history of the string quartet and indeed in the history of music.
There is a wonderful painting of Beethoven composing I have cited at the top of this post which I find most fascinating. It perfectly represents exactly what I envision it might have been like to watch Beethoven compose – lost in thought, papers scattered everywhere, seated at the piano trying to find the right notes for the next phrase or chord progression. On the surface, it would appear Beethoven is the embodiment of total disorganization – unkempt, wild hair, piles of papers in no apparent order, yet in his music, and most especially his early works, I hear not disorganization, but a total mastery of form and very careful planning and organization, as he learned from the great Classical masters Haydn and Mozart before him. In his first set of six string quartets, Op. 18, Beethoven demonstrates complete command of the Classical style, paying homage to Haydn and Mozart, while also making the Classical style his own, with his personality shining through in these relatively “behaved” pieces of music compared to his later works. This is also clearly evident in his first two symphonies and piano concertos, not to mention his early cello sonatas, violin sonatas, piano sonatas, and other beautiful chamber works he composed with an assuredness of being the equal of Haydn and Mozart. It is quite impressive how Beethoven, under what must have been the overpowering shadow of Haydn and Mozart forged ahead to establish himself as the next great Viennese composer. It had to have taken an incredible amount of courage and self-confidence to pull this off, and he succeeded brilliantly. It was a character trait that little did Beethoven know then, would be indispensable for him to survive the crushing trials that were ahead of him.
It is amazing how Beethoven could have found such beauty, coherence, and clarity in his music as his world and his own personal life was crumbling around him – with the French occupation of Vienna and Napoleon’s Army shelling the city, the gradual loss of his hearing, his eventual early retirement as a pianist after his last public performance on the concert stage at the age of 38 at his December 22, 1808 concert, and the breakdown of his relationship with his nephew Karl. It is incredible how he had the ability to keep his sanity well enough to enable him to continue to compose some of his most beloved and enduring masterpieces such as the 9th Symphony, his last string quartets, and his Missa Solemnis. Other people of a less courageous and a weaker constitution would have simply folded, gone insane, created nothing further, or committed suicide – an option Beethoven seriously considered more than once in his life, and especially at Heiligenstadt, where he wrote his famous testament reflecting his despair over his increasing deafness.
But Beethoven’s will was extraordinary. With more defiance and determination than ever, he emerged from Heiligenstadt committed to live for his art, and to go in a new direction creatively. He may well have been the most strong-willed and courageous artist in the history of music. It is one of the reasons we identify with him – because his struggles are our struggles. He rises above his adverse circumstances and emerges triumphant. He is the underdog, the champion of the everyman. He is an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. In many ways, he is a hero. It is no coincidence his middle creative period after Heiligenstadt is often referred to as the “heroic” period which saw the composition of his heroic, “Eroica” Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, the 4th and 5th Piano Concertos, the Razumovsky Quartets, the “Kreutzer” Sonata for Violin and Piano, and the 4th through 8th Symphonies to name only some of his middle period works.
It can be said that Beethoven took on every challenge life threw at him musically, and found a way to answer that challenge masterfully. However, he was a continual failure in his personal life, never able to find lasting love in a lifelong mate, and was so overbearing to his adopted nephew Karl that he eventually attempted suicide. Beethoven is the classic example of an extremely gifted, abused child. Like most people who are abused, he ended up abusing others – most especially his nephew and lived to regret it. In many ways, Beethoven’s story is a tragic story, and perhaps more than any other illustrates the incredibly high price of genius – a life lived in isolation, married to one’s work, socially inept, and producing creative riches which reflect the beauty of life in all its fullness and joy, sorrow, and longings, yet one which ironically makes the creator themselves unable to personally participate in that life to the fullest. In a sense the creative genius is like a soldier who gives their life not so they may live a better life, but so others might. The creative genius gives their life to their art. It is those after them who enjoy the fruits of their incredible sacrifice and labor. We see how composers like Brahms, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky had to accept a life of general solitude in commitment to their work. Mahler’s marriage failed in part because of his single-minded and impassioned dedication to his work at the expense of his marriage, and because he forbade his wife Alma to compose. He could never find a balance and his personal life suffered because of it. In some ways, it seems there is not enough room for both – for total commitment to one’s art and to living. For the creative genius this is an impossible situation, because they cannot deny either side to them, but feel they must choose.
Mozart tried to find a middle ground between living and being committed to his art. He knew he needed a marital partner, and found one in Constanze Weber. Together they had six children, only two of which survived infancy. While Mozart tried to have a “normal” domestic life, and his surviving letters to his wife reveal himself to be an affectionate, loving, protective, and sometimes jealous and possessive husband, it is hard to imagine exactly how involved as a father and husband he could have possibly been given his almost superhuman compositional production, not to mention the innumerable concerts, rehearsals, meetings with librettists, royalty, collegues and friends, billiard playing, and entertaining he did in his home. It is no wonder his light burned out only too quickly. He tried to do it all – to live fully and be an artist fully, but he could not keep up the pace. He paid the price with his life, as Beethoven did, but in a different way.
I recognized this dilemma of the conflict between living and being an artist for myself when I was studying to be a composer while in college. The film “Amadeus” inspired me to decide to become a composer at age 13. I naively thought if I worked hard enough I could “catch up” and become another Mozart. It is with the deepest humility I can now say almost 30 years later, I never had any chance at that, because the likes of a talent like Mozart’s and Beethoven’s has not been seen since, and may never be seen again. While musically talented, I am nowhere close to either man in ability. I thought it would be great to be a genius like Mozart. How naive I was, as I did not then realize the incredibly high price of genius, and what it meant to be enslaved to one’s work in many ways, even if it is so often a joy. I did very well in college, and wrote some very good music while in school, and especially after I graduated. While I can say I have perhaps had some “ingenious” moments as a composer, I certainly never lived as one the way Beethoven and Mozart did, who dedicated their entire lifetime to music. I have several other interests in addition to music, a desire to live life, to work on my relationships with others as passionately as I pursue my artistic endeavors, and so I can say now, in retrospect how glad I am not to be a genius as they were. I can enjoy the fruits of their labors, admire them, appreciate them, and perhaps say a word or two which might at least somewhat reflect the incredible impact they have on those who sincerely appreciate what riches they have given us through their sacrifice…
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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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