[CLEF] Top Ten Composers

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Gustav Mahler is, no question, the greatest composer of our age --- and a composer truly of our age. When he said it would take 50 years for people to understand his music, he was not wrong --- and they've come to understand it with a vengeance. His anxiety, his hope, his heaven-storming and his hell-plumbing speak to us much more directly than they ever could to his contemporaries. And his lieder are the greatest ever written --- again, no question: Revelge is the March; Der Tamburg'sell is the Dirge; Urlicht is the Epiphany.
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Shostakovich learnt well from Mahler --- and went on to tell a story of his own. Having squandered all my superlatives on Mahler, I'm at something of a loss to describe Shostakovich fittingly. Maybe I'd best do so by claim them as complementary figures --- where Mahler looks heavenwards, Shostakovich looks to the earth; where Mahler can still hope, Shostakovich can only wryly grimace. And yet Mahler was a master of wryness, and Shostakovich's music can soar with the best of them. What can be said? --- they are both greats, and they both give meaning to our century.
Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949)
Disciple of Schönberg, and therefore second violinist paid a pittance in Athens until his death, Skalkottas is Greece's claim to fame in classical music --- and a claim, unfortunately, not often staked. He's mostly famous for his brilliantly orchestrated (and, for those who know the original versions, frequently ironic) 24 Greek Dances. The idiotic thing is, that what most people have heard of these gems of orchestration are the 5 dances arranged for strings! His 15 Little Variations for piano is a gem of miniaturisation, and I'm also rather fond of his Passacaglia and Piano Suite No. 4. I don't know all there is to know about Skalkottas, and recordings of his are not exactly easy to come by, but I'll be keeping my ear open for more...
John Adams (1947- )
The salvation of modern music is alive and well, and his name is John Adams. Yes, yes, I say this having heard only Nixon in China and Death of Klinghoffer, and not even having heard the latter properly yet, but no matter: it's clear double-plus that Adams writes music both approachable and not ashamed to be modernist, with deep feeling and ingenuity. He is brilliant, he is fabbo, he looks cute yet menacing in the one-week growth on the front page of the Klinghoffer CD booklet (and a right prat, shaven, on the back page), he is a superstar, and should be given lots of money...
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)
As you may or may not know, I used to play the violin, and there is nothing more pleasant to play than Corelli's Op. 5 violin sonatas. To tell the truth, they're much more interesting to play than to listen to, but hey, we are talking anno domini 1700, here --- and the first major composer for the violin...
John Tavener (1945- )
There's more than one minimalist on this list (good thing Michael Nyman isn't here) --- and Tavener is a member of the group known as the Holy Minimalists, alongside Arvo Pärt and the other guy I've forgotten for the moment. A member of the Orthodox church, Tavener draws heavily on both the lyrics and music of the Greek and Russian Orthodox church --- which makes his stuff sound very familiar to me. The music is serene, uncomplicated, and very deep...
Philip Glass (1937- )
I hesitate to call Philip Glass the salvation of modern music while John Adams exists. Better to call him the much-needed kick-in-the-pants of modern music. However many knock-knock jokes one hears about the guy (Sample one: "Knock knock." "Who's there?" "Knock knock"... Yeah, you know it. Sample two, courtesy of Emo Philips (to whom thanks for the precise wording): "I bought a Philip Glass record the other day. Listened to it for three whole hours! Until I realized it had a scratch"), Glass does write effective music: the Anima Mundi soundtrack is a virtual recantation of minimalism; Akhnaten is as minimalism-lite as Nixon in China; and the 3.5 hour severe minimalism of Einstein On The Beach, torture on first hearing, is quite a mind-expander once you get into it --- and goes by surprisingly fast on stage.
Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Ok, Berg is only here for Wozzeck and the Violin Concerto; I haven't heard anything else by him (except for the Lyric Suite, and I didn't get it.) They're both quite enough: brilliant, moving pieces, proving that atonal music doesn't have to be a circle jerk.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Ah, Bach! as they say in the classics. Not as close to my heart as the more recent guys, but there is a drive and purposefulness to his music that few have been able to capture since. My Hit Pick: the Double Violin Concerto in d minor (the theme to the first movement of which does not sound like the theme from Inspector Gadget!) The Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor is pretty sublime too.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
I hate to praise Mozart; it's such an easy thing to do --- and so popular. Mozart was even Mahler's last word. And yet, when I let my guard down, and allow myself to be caught up in the symmetries and orderliness of his world, I find an ideal humanity never to be equalled by any other. I'd hate to live there, myself --- but it's a wondrous place to visit...
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Last revision: 1999-3-29