Ten Greatest Composers: Beyond the Usual Suspects

A Podcast Debate on the Greatest Composers of All Time

Friday, January 21, 2011

Except for the occasional outlier, lists of the greatest composers usually end up touting the same critical favorites you've been hearing about for years. Not that we don't like Beethoven or Brahms, but it can get a little boring.

For this special podcast, Terrance McKnight sits down with three experts from across the musical spectrum and asks them to rank the 10 greatest classical composers of all time. It comes in the wake of an exhaustively researched top 10 list by New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini, unveiled in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section (and discussed here).

Below are our three guest’s lists. Enjoy the segment and tell us what you think in the comments box below.

Olivia Giovetti, music writer for Time Out New York, Gramophone and Classical Singer

1. Hildegard von Bingen
2. Johann Sebastian Bach
3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
4. Ludwig van Beethoven
5. Franz Schubert
6. Giuseppe Verdi
7. Gustav Mahler
8. Charles Ives
9. Igor Stravinsky
10. David Lang

Judd Greenstein, composer, curator of the Ecstatic Music Festival, co-director of New Amsterdam Records

1. Claudio Monteverdi
2. Johann Sebastian Bach
3. Ludwig van Beethoven
4. Richard Wagner
5. Igor Stravinsky
6. Edgard Varese
7. Philip Glass
8. Olivier Messiaen
9. John Coltrane
10. Meredith Monk

Fred Plotkin, author of several books including Classical Music 101 and Opera 101

1. Franz Joseph Haydn
2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
3. Ludwig van Beethoven
4. Franz Schubert
5. Hector Berlioz
6. Vincenzo Bellini
7. Frederic Chopin
8. Richard Wagner
9. Piotr Tchaikovsky
10. Richard Strauss

...And from Anthony Tommasini, Chief Classical Music Critic, New York Times

1. Bach
2. Beethoven
3. Mozart
4. Schubert
5. Debussy
6. Stravinsky
7. Brahms
8. Verdi
9. Wagner
10. Bartok

The Executive Producer of this podcast is Graham Parker.

* To download the audio file, simply right click on "download" and click "save link as." From there you can save the file in a desired folder. Or you can simply listen to the audio stream here.

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Terrance McKnight


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Comments [69]

mary soilex from LOS ANGLES, CA

i wont make a list...ist infantile....musik aint only a competition..NEIN!



May. 23 2013 11:45 PM

ISTEN to TCHAIKOVSKY less well-known composition such as romance op 5 f minor orchestre, orchestre 12 month season june barcolle.December, october, november, april Symphony Manfred.Melancholic Waltz.Nocturne in C.Chanson Triste arranger James Last.Чайковский a charm, it always was 4 after Bach Mozart Beethoven.
My List
7-J.Strauss II
10-Verdi and Chopin

Mar. 16 2013 04:23 PM

I have never had any trouble listing my favorite ten composers, because long ago I gave myself the permission to name 100 composers to that short-list. So here are 100 of my favorite ten composers:

JS Bach, Mozart, van Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, J Haydn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Händel, Verdi, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Debussy, Berlioz, Strauss, da Palestrina, Puccini, Vivaldi, Rossini, Saint-Saëns, Purcell, Elgar, Grieg, Bellini, Fauré, Bizet, Donizetti, Strauss II, de Lassus, Tallis, Barber, de Victoria, Albinoni, Biebl, Boito, Catalani, de Morales, Gottschalk, Korngold, Orff, R Schumann, Dvořák, Prokofiev, Monteverdi, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Mussorgsky, Vaughan Williams, Rimsky-Korsakov, Telemann, Copland, Satie, Borodin, CPE Bach, Corelli, Massenet, Gounod, de Falla, Albéniz, Alfvén, Allegri, Bernstein, Boccherini, Bortniansky, Canteloube, Chabrier, G Charpentier, M-A Charpentier, Clarke, Delibes, Górecki, Hummel, Humperdinck, Marcello, Offenbach, Paganini, Pärt, Ponchielli, Rheinberger, A Scarlatti, von Holst, Stravinsky, Bartók, Bruckner, Ives, Sibelius, Messiaen, Desprez, Hindemith, Rameau, Lully, von Weber, Franck, Couperin, Byrd, Britten, D Scarlatti.

Mar. 01 2013 11:02 PM

I know a lot of people here will probably disagree with me on this, but here is a good example of history's greatest ever compositional musicians, as they start with the greatest on top:
1) Beethoven
2) Bach
3) Mozart
4) Liszt
5) Chopin
6) Wagner
7) Tchaikovsky
8) Ellington
9) Haydn
10) Brahms

This is my estimate, though there is always a chance it will change over time. I felt that no one deserved the top more than Beethoven because of his high intelligence with an I.Q. said to possibly be as high as 200 and the fact that his genius was enhanced probably due to his eventual hearing loss, though no offense to the late great composer. Thank you for your time and no offense to those who disagree with me on this subject.

Dec. 09 2012 09:23 PM



Dec. 07 2012 02:01 PM

I am engaged some years in estimates of creativity of classical composers, I ask the well-known critics of Europe, America, Asia. There are 2 main criteria of an assessment: 1-quantity of composition to which top 600 in different years got in list the best composition.2-victories on years. 1-BACH-16 time on years/37 of compositions entered into top 600. 2-MOZART-14/26, 3-BEETHOVEN-14/21,
4-CHAIKOVSKY-8/35, 5-CHOPIN-8/32,
9-BRAHMS-3/21 at the expense of 21 quantities of compositions.
11 - VIVALDI - 6/11,
12-J.STRAUSS II-5/13,
Here 20 greatest. Instead of list crazy Tomazzini

Oct. 29 2012 04:44 PM
Ian Elliott from Drøbak, Norway

Dear Josh from Queens,

Bernard Hermann did a nice adaptation of a theme from Villa-Lobos' 5th (I believe) string quartet in North by Northwest, but it is not different enough to qualify as an original composition on his part. Sorry.

Top ten composers? For me, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Balakirev, Glazounov, Debussy, Sibelius, Janacek, Martinu, Villa-Lobos.

Aug. 30 2012 02:20 PM
William Zucker from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Josh from Queens - if we're now talking about light mujsic, let me furnish another list here - Morton Gould, Leroy Anderson,
Robert Russell Bennett, Robert Farnon, David Rose, Victor Young, Percy Faith,
Mantovani (in his pre-Charmaine recordings), Camarata, Alec Wilder.

Here too it is somewhat flexible, just as with my other list, and I'm not necessarily looking for innovators; just those who most immediately speak to me in some way.

Jun. 04 2011 11:24 PM
Josh from Queens

Here is my 10 'favorite' composers (don't feel qualified to say 'best') list:
Tchaikovsky - the most versatile and melodic composer, and Tommasini did not give a very compelling reason why he left him out other than he is too accessible
(why is that bad??)
As alternates I would include the great Broadway composers of Rodgers (esp orchestral music from Carousel, On Your Toes, and King & I), Bernstein, and Sondheim, and Bernard Hermann great film scores for Hitchcock films Vertigo and North by Northwest

May. 30 2011 02:25 AM
William Zucker from Brooklyn, N.Y.

During my Juilliard days, quite a number of years ago, I named seven composers who in effect I felt were the ones who best spoke to me. This is very subjective and I'm sure tons out there will disagree with me. It is also very fluid, because as with every composer, even thsoe on my list, there will be some works that turn me on less or even not at all, while with many other composers there will be works that speak to me as works by no other composer. Again, we all hear various works of music in our own way, lsiten for different things. So in the end, here are the seven names that I had given at the time which still to a degree hold true for me today: Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams. For the remaining three, it is a matter of picking out individual works and not at all easy to pinpoint a composer.

Again, I have to emphasize that it is a matter of which composers speak to me best, not necessarily groundbreakers who produced something entirely new.

May. 28 2011 09:34 AM
Mila Lipovski from New Jersey

I don't like the idea of ranking the greatest composers. There is no objective criteria. I would feel much better should the list had been titled "10 Favorite..." rather than "the Greatest". I wonder, how has it been figured out that, say, J.S.Bach is greater than Beethoven? To me, Bach's music is "how we speak to God". Beethoven's - is like "what God answers us".
Who dares to say what is greater?

There is a wonderful city in Russia - Odessa.
It is famous not only because of being a hometown of David Oistrakh, Sviatoslav Rihter, Emil Gilels.... It is known for its resident's unbelievable sense of humor and their taking pride in the native city.

So, once a list of the Greatest Cities of Russia was being created. Moscow has been proclaimed to be #1. Odessa felt insulted. The reaction was: "of course Moscow is #1. It is our capital. But Odessa is not a #2 also!"

Mr. Tommasini, you are absolutely right - J.S.Bach is #1. But Beethoven is not a #2 also.

May. 27 2011 04:03 PM
Frank Feldman

Why do you care what critics think? Ask composers. Though your first two entries have enormous comic appeal.

May. 26 2011 11:05 PM
Rosemary from Elberon, NJ, USA

I'm a list lover so any time I get a chance to read or make a list, I'm in my element. So my "Top 10" are (in no particular order except my own):
1.) WA Mozart
2.) Jean Sibelius
3.) Frederic Delius
4.) Felix Mendelssohn
5.) Sergei Rachmaninoff
6.) Fredric Chopin
7.) Claude Debussy
8.) Ludwig van Beethoven
9.) Gustav Holst
10.) Maurice Ravel
You gave us only 10 and these are my top 10 but I also know there are others I could add such as Rodrigo, Respighi, Puccini and all those monks who composed Gregorian Chant.

May. 26 2011 10:05 PM
Andrea Becker from N.Y.C.

Choosing a "Top Ten" is an impossible and insane task. Everyone has his/her idea of beauty. The ear of the listener is completely and totally subjective. Didn't Copeland write of Rachmaninoff, "All those notes, think I, and to what end?" Yet I cannot stomach Copeland and cannot live without Rachmaninoff. Where is Grieg? What about Bizet? Where is recognition of Brazilian, Mexican, and Argentinian musical genius? Why Adams and not Villa-Lobos? Where's Vivaldi?

My point is, perhaps an attempt to compose a list of 100 of the greatest classical composers is a possibility. Otherwise this is an exercise in futility and even egotism. Let us instead celebrate our good fortune in having a station [WQXR] that airs the richness and variety of the above-named and countless other classical music geniuses.

May. 26 2011 06:26 PM
David from Flushing

My feeling is that a "greatest" composer is one that influenced musical history in addition to the merit their own work.

One can see how Handel led to Mozart and Haydn, but this is not the case with J. S. Bach. In my thinking, Bach was an evolutionary dead end that was forgotten for many years. I know I am poking a hornet's nest with this statement, but that is how I see it.

May. 26 2011 05:04 PM
Ronald Cohen

I suppose that if you select from columns A, B & C you could come up with a list that would be acceptable to all however I would throw Berg into the ring if only based on Lulu and the Violin Concerto and Domenico Scarlatti for the sheer inventiveness of writing 550 non-boring sonatas for 1 instrument!

May. 26 2011 02:05 PM
dianne carla hay from Silicon Valley

I would like everyone to consider that Anna Magdalena Bach was by far the superior composer to Sebastian, her spouse. As evidence I would offer the sheer magnitude of their combined output and Sebastian's penchant for wandering off in the last year's of his life. My sense is that the two of them mostly collaborated, but some scholars attribute the aria for the Goldberg Variations, solely to AMB.

May. 26 2011 09:52 AM
Arthur Nash from Monroe Township, NJ

Some of the choices and omissions are so
ridiculous that I am too upset to even comment on these lists.

May. 26 2011 09:43 AM
Daryn Kent-Duncan from New York City

The best are:

May. 26 2011 08:54 AM
Ferenc from Queens

As many have said before me, lists are rather ridiculous, and stem from an infantile desire to validate ones own opinions. Therefore I condemn anyone who participates in this meaningless activity - and that goes for me as well! Now that I have that off my chest, I will submit a list of what I consider to be the 10 most influential composers of all time, and in so doing will leave off many of my "favorites", most regrettably Mozart.

1. Palestrina
2. Monteverdi
3. J.S. Bach
4. F. J. Haydn
5. Beethoven
6. Liszt
7. Wagner
8. Debussy
9. Schonberg
10. Cage

May. 26 2011 08:34 AM
Harry Matthews from Brooklyn, NY

How do you judge a "10 Best"? I'd prefer to start with clear standards for including composers, without trying to confine the list to ten names.

First, we need the "founding fathers" of Western music: J.S. Bach and "Papa" Haydn, with a shout-out to Monteverdi for more or less inventing grand opera. Moving into the Classical era, we must recognize the monumental geniuses, Mozart and Beethoven. Then we come to Brahms, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Verdi, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, et al. Writing music for amateurs -- Hausmusik in German -- was the way to make the big bucks, but the Romantic Era inspired lots of wildly visionary pieces. It's difficult to choose among artists in this field, and I'm sure there are other candidates for this list.

In the post-Romantic age, we find Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, and above all, Stravinsky. Though all of these composers violated various traditional rules, their works are now part of the conventional repertory. They made the un-familiar (eg, the 7/4 time signature in FIREBIRD) familiar, even to conservative audiences. Writing for theatre and ballet (as all of these men did) proved a useful tool to expand their audiences.

Finally, we come to contemporary composers, whom I would choose not to judge. Only time will tell if Ives or Cage or Meredith Monk or John Adams or Philip Glass has created works we will want to hear again and again into the future.

Cage gets extra points for redefining "music." I once attended a Cunningham Dance Company performance, which featured a particularly, well, spikey, Cage score. At intermission, Cage (as usual) was in the lobby chatting with friends. An irate patron charged up to him and exclaimed. "How can you force us to sit through that terrible racket?" He calmly replied, "Think of how beautiful the street will sound when you leave the theatre."

May. 26 2011 03:52 AM
Mike Storms from Howard Beach, NY

These, I think, are the greatest composers (rather than strictly my favorites:

1. Beethoven
2. W.A. Mozart
3. J.S. Bach
4. Handel
5. Brahms
6. Verdi
7. Haydn
8. Donizetti
9. Schubert
10. Mahler. Tied with Chopin, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky,
Mendelssohn, Saint-Saens, Wagner, Berlioz, Bizet, Shostakovich, Britten, Rossini, Sibelius, Schoenberg, R.Schumann, Vivaldi, R. Strauss

May. 25 2011 10:20 PM
David Gravitz from Ardsley, NY

Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Dvorak, Bach, Sibelius and Haydn are my 10 best. I did not appreciate Bach until about 10 years ago and before then I probably would have named Robert Schumann instead. While some of my favorite music is by others, I feel that the 10 best have to be consistently good so some composers with just one great piece (Franck, Orff, etc.) didn't make it with me. I am just starting to enjoy Mahler and he might make my list in 10 more years (assuming I live long enough) although I can't imagine whom I would remove - possibly Haydn.

May. 25 2011 08:12 PM
Edward Lazansky from Woodstock, NY

Kudos to Fred Plotkin- his chronology of greats from Haydn to Berlioz is right on. Without Berlioz, Wagner, Liszt, Debussy, The Russians, might be of lesser consequence. Richard Strauss admitted to his greatness but for the fact that he didn't compose from the piano. Recall that Liszt arranged the 'Fantastique' for the piano(a disaster). The transparency of his orchestra (in contrast to the thick mud of most 19th century orchestral sound) points towards 20th c. coloration. Peter Cornelius created "The Three B's"; it was Von Bulow who replaced Berlioz for Brahms (speaking of the 'greats'). They didn"t have the phonograph or cinema then.

Jan. 30 2011 02:50 PM
Edward from NEW YORK, NY 10014

Where is Mendelssohn? Not only should he be included, but anyone after him should be out. .

Jan. 30 2011 12:20 PM
Michael Meltzer

Mr. Ahmad is a gentleman and a scholar.

Jan. 30 2011 05:47 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

ALL major composers have something special to communicate in either epic or soulful or emotionally charged fashion that inspires and uplifts. TEN COMPOSERS is too, too few a number to recognize ALL the extraordinary music. ALL music formats deserve exploration, especially if they are contemporary. As my acting teacher Lee Strasberg put it, "to maximize your potential you must 'stretch,' going beyond the comfortable norm of your previous ventures." As a composer, I cherish the creations of hundreds of composers who have have created their own pathways, their own individualistic styles, that give pleasure, REAL PLEASURE, DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHERS.

Jan. 30 2011 01:54 AM
shadeed ahmad from New York City

Michael Meltzer, are you sure you don't want to take a prisoner (smile)? We need more non-negotiable people like you in the world. You make fluff an endangered species. Mr. Michael Meltzer, bravo!

Jan. 29 2011 01:19 PM
Michael Meltzer

Be thankful that critics are airheads. They are hired because they write very well, and if they actually knew anything, they'd be dangerous.

Jan. 28 2011 08:16 AM

to be frank, only a female would choose hildegard von bingen as one of the top ten. Even if you ONLY consider influence on music as a reason, von bingen STILL wouldn't be on a top ten list. Unless you consider her influence on modern day *cou(feminazi[s])gh* like yourself.

Olivia, I think that the feminist movement happened a long time ago and women are usually given equal opportunity in today's society, and only idiots still believe that there are inequalities (although clearly there are differences) between the sexes. Anyway, sorry to have offended you, or anyone with these statements if I have, but i think they needed to be said.

Anyone who bothers to think about it very much would probably realize that list making is not only pointless but also rather ridiculous.

I think that there are a great number of great composers and that when you try and choose between Beethoven, Mozart, or Bach (I could list 50 more but i am sure you get the idea), you have already fallen off of the cliff of objectivity, and you're probably drowning in the pool of subjectivity far below. That isn't to say that i am some type of relativist, but only to say that at least a small part of music IS subjective and that you will never be able to choose a definitive best.


Jan. 28 2011 12:59 AM
Mark Paulson from New Jersey

All of the nominees are regularly heard on WQXR. This discussion is limited to classical composers. Duke Ellington is considered the most influential composer of big-band music. Louis Armstrong introduced the music of New Orleans to the world. He introduced scat singing and influenced many followers with his improvisation. The Beatles created music that has been imitated but never surpassed. Rock and Roll would not be the same without them. There is non-western music that is astounding, even though it does not meet the marketability standards of record producers. Determining the greatest composer needs dozens of categories. Putting Beethoven and other obvious nominees on this list indicates a prejudice towards all other forms of music. I make my living teaching and performing classical music, but I am still grateful for all of the other genres that exist. Classical music is not the only music that people enjoy.

Jan. 27 2011 05:53 PM
serafino calello

Well, lets state the obvious, we have idiots for music critics, those lists were deplorable. Someone stated that you can not do a top 10 list being that there are so many great composers, thats true without a doubt, but, you can certainly make a top ten list. also who in their right mind would put Hayden before Mozart?! Thank you Chris and Mike from riverdale for restoring my faith. Here is my top ten:Mozart, Bach,Beethoven,Tchaikovsky,Brahms,Chopin, Strauss jr,Mendelson,Vilvaldi,Hayden. Also Beethoven is so overrated, big deal that he scored symphany #5, if Mozart had heard it, he would have told him,yes, great idea, now lets finish it! Mozart had a lifetime of many works , (626 completed) and wrote 3 Of his greatest symphanies in six weeks along with the great piano sonata K.545, let Beethoven claim that. Hayden himself admitted to Mozart that he was the greatest composer he ever knew, in person or reputation. Mozart made composing seem effortlessly and there is no piece by him that can't be enjoyed, even when writing for instruments he did not like, his writings for wind instrument are unrivaled, well , at least it is nice to know so many people enjoy this wonderfull music by all the great composers given how far music has fallen, enjoy

Jan. 27 2011 04:12 PM
Jack S from Setauket

Unlike many of the commentators, I am not a trained musician - I just love it. My favorite composers are those that thrill, excite, or move me. No early music does that for me. I was weaned on Ravel, Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. On my list would be: Bethoven, Wagner, R. Strauss, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Mahler, Stravinsky, Copeland.

Jan. 26 2011 05:31 PM
Reynaldo T. Lauron from Jackson Hts. Queens

I was such in a rush to vote putting at once the 3 great B's I learned from the conservatory that I missed Mozart. Then hearing the other day at 2 pm from Naomi lewin that nobody but Tomassini mentioned Brahms. Otherwise, I almost hit all the Ten Best list. But I agree with all the comments on their general preferences: subjective or objective. And the winner goes to . . . . . . . WQXR.

Jan. 26 2011 12:44 PM
shadeed ahmad from New York City

In my humble opinion if any of the ten composers that are broadcast on WQXR on a regular basis were suddenly gone for good there would be a prodigious and glaring hole in the quality of the station's programming.

Keep up the evolving, progressive and good work, WQXR.

Jan. 26 2011 10:48 AM
Mark Paulson from New Jersey

I like to define music as anything that consists of sound or silence. It does not have to be organized. It does not have to be played on an instrument. It does not have to express a thought or an emotion. If you are dead in the grave, music is serenading you with silence forever. Music is everywhere. John Cage made us all aware of this when he wrote 4'33. It is more omnipresent than the air we breathe. That is why it is so vital to everyone in the world. I have never heard greater music than when I listen to the ocean or hear the crack of thunder. A new born baby's cry is a masterpiece. If we take time to listen to God's music, every other composition pales in comparison. I would put God as the greatest composer. Beethoven might disagree but the idea is worth considering.

Jan. 26 2011 08:15 AM
Michael Meltzer

The contrapuntal developments of Palestrina and di Lasso, and the refinements and instrumental blossoming of the Gabrielis were learned at San Marco's in Venice and brought back to Germany and developed further by Heinrich Schuetz, born 100 years before J.S. Bach. It is difficult to imagine Bach having developed exactly the way he did if Schuetz had not been there first.

Jan. 25 2011 05:16 PM
Jc from Luxembourg

I think that one of the most important Composers that has been forgotten is Bruckner.
And if you mention Messiaen than you can mentioun Schönberg too. Even if his music is sometimes a bit strange, he influenced classical music of the 19th and 20th century

Jan. 25 2011 11:38 AM
Ralph from Delaware

Interesting. All this time I thought is was a rose.

I would add Giovanni Palestrina as one of the great composeres.

Jan. 25 2011 09:28 AM
Michael Meltzer

I posted a comment critical of the tulip in Beethoven's mouth. It seems to have been deleted as offensive.
I find the tulip in Beethoven's mouth to be deeply offensive. Would you put a tulip in the mouth of a picture of the president of your radio station? I think not.

Jan. 24 2011 07:10 PM
Michael Meltzer

The central question is, in the long run, is WQXR really doing itself any good with these "competitions?"
I think not.

Jan. 24 2011 05:18 PM
Frank Ventrola from Los Angeles

My objection to this mania for list-making is twofold: a) it is futile to project a hierarchy of excellence in an art that has no genuine objective criteria (these change over time), and are based on accessibility, popularity, familiarity, national preference, education, not to say bias) by which to measure those elements that touch a listener's heart and mind so profoundly, especially as that level of "excellence" can be reached by most kinds of musical art: tango, folk song, pop ballads, bebop, not to mention the music of other cultures from gamelan to the tribal songs of the bushmen; and b) these invidious comparisons can only lead to stress, ill-will, even violence, but more especially bad list-making. In the face of true art, all this categorizing is rather silly, and certainly specious. Allow me to paraphrase Stravinsky, in which he compares two great composers: if Beethoven were capable of writing melodies of such perfect beauty as those of Bellini, he would have had no need of thematic development, harmonic ingenuity, perfection of sonata form, etc. Amen. The basis of all art is a mystery that even (or especially) the artists themselves are little aware of, all of whom stand on the shoulders of their teachers and forebears.

Jan. 24 2011 03:29 PM

Well folks...you KNOW who I think the champ is......( is the ''Washington Post'' considered ''classical''?)

Jan. 24 2011 03:18 PM
Fosberry from NJ

The paucity of pre-Classical era composers on these lists stands out, and also that the few to make these lists rank exceedingly highly.

Only 3 composers on these 4 lists were born before 1700, yet they occupy 5 slots, and in *none* of those slots are any ranked below a composer born after 1700. Not surprisingly Bach is ranked on 3 lists, as #1 once and #2 twice, each time behind an earlier composer (Hildegard von Bingen in Ms. Giovetti's list, interestingly the only woman on any list; and Claudio Monteverdi on Mr. Greenstein's list).

Others have commented on the absence of Vivaldi and Handel, and while Bach indeed admired their works, he traveled 200 miles on foot to hear Dietrich Buxtehude play the organ. Now *that's* a ringing endorsement.

Jean Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau deserve mention somewhere, as does Henry Purcell.

But the most glaring omission in my opinion is the lack of any Renaissance composers. If forced to pick just one, I'd go with Josquin des Prez, but I wouldn't complain if one opted for Giovanni da Palestrina instead.

Jan. 24 2011 10:45 AM
Maurice from Westchester, NY

What is the point of this ridiculous excercise? Anyone who proposes to have some objective way of judging "how good" any type of artist is when it is obviously, to a large degree subjective, is just creating controversy for the sake of controversy. Then it is left to the rest of us to take the bait. In a day and age where so much cheap commercial programming involves making everything into a competition (Survivor, American Idol, Dance With The Stars, Iron Chef, Biggest Loser, etc. ad infinitum) do we really need this from the Times and QXR? Why not do a skit where you have the humiliated rejects stand amongst their competitors while a host pronounces that they have been eliminated?
Truth be told, I do have my personal favorites. But I think I'll keep it to myself!

Jan. 24 2011 10:25 AM
herbert vaughan, MD from stamford CT

why Hildegaard Von bingen? what did she do for classical music? did she invent it?

Jan. 24 2011 10:00 AM
Jordan Rab from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

To omit composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff from any list and include Coltrane and Glass instead is like creating a list of favorite painters and excluding the likes of Van Gogh and Chagall for Andy Warhol instead. Classic(al) errors.

Jan. 24 2011 08:30 AM

I know these things are subjective, but let's face it, any top 10 without Mozart is a joke.

Jan. 23 2011 10:17 PM
k. bryski from NYC

It's interesting that the ONLY composer who is present on every single list --- is Beethoven.

Jan. 23 2011 07:36 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned Vivaldi. He'd very likely have been on Bach's "best" list.

Jan. 23 2011 06:34 PM
Mike from Riverdale

I just have to put in my two cents. You need a separate list for opera composers. That way you'll have room for Haydn. A grievous omission. And such a great human being besides. Only Mozart can be #1 or 2 or both lists. Bach can only be #1 if you have Vulcan DNA. Clearly, Beethoven and Mozart are 1 and 2 depending on the individual. Everyone else is leagues behind them.

Jan. 23 2011 03:03 PM
Mark Paulson from New Jersey

I believe that none of these composers would be on the list if they were writing today. All of their original ideas would have come from other people. What makes the great composers great is their original ideas. Neil Armstrong is more famous than Buzz Aldrin even though they both walked on the moon. Being first is very important. John Cage could be considered one of the greatest composers because of his ideas, such as 4'33. When a list of the greatest composers is compiled, I believe that a composer's influence on other composers must be a primary factor. Monteverdi, Haydn, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy,Stravinsky, Cage, Ives, Glass and Wagner came up with new ideas. Just improving or contributing more of the same old ideas eliminates anyone from this list in my opinion. Some of these nominees are worthy while others composers were simply followers of old ideas.

Jan. 23 2011 02:08 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Just listening to Copland's Appalachian(?) Spring. How could I not put him on my list?
10 is not enough. The music he wrote for Our Town is unbelievably beautiful. I think he was from Brooklyn. Not bad.

Jan. 23 2011 01:09 PM
Jo from CT

I'm enjoying the various best-of lists. Why get hot under the collar when it's clear these are individual lists? Well, why not? I love the Greenstein and Giovetti lists because they shake up the field. To me, Monteverdi is incredibly hip and sounds contemporary. My own list may have Monteverdi but I'm not going to lambast Tommasini for leaving him out. Anyway, I agree that Bach is #1. To me, Bach is eternally fresh, and even sounds like jazz (as the Flecktones and others demonstrate). And I wouldn't have Beethoven in the top 8, and I get annoyed when his work is always in the top of the reader poll at year's end. Am I a heathen? Maybe.

Thanks to Tommasini for getting us all worked up! And to WQXR and Q2 for making the music world so much more interesting this past year, plus some.

Of course, our collective getting-emotional-about-top-ten-lists shows that so-called classical music is not dead, and is ever worth re-interpreting. I saw an Ecstatic Music Festival concert this week and loved how the dead guys (in my parlance, guys includes women, Hildegard an onward) can survive musically with/on top/under/over/inside the live guys. (fwiw, I'm over 50.)

Jan. 23 2011 01:02 PM
Serge Ledan from Queens,NY

First, I have to say that I cannot agree more with Mr. Meltzer's comments above the stupid remarks "not that we don't like ... but it gets a little boring etc...". Indeed this should have never come from somebody in a position of authority in a classical music station and the immortals are indeed beginning to be treated like chopped livers at the hands of the modern ignorami. This comment should have been better posted on Q2 than on QXR anyway!! Here are my ten favorites: Beethoven Mozart Handel Brahms Wagner Verdi Schubert Gounod St-Saens Chopin

Jan. 23 2011 12:46 PM
Dr Ray from New York

Since one is not limited to strictly classical music (seeing that at least Greenstein feels that way and must be pseudo "avant garde", haha), despite this being a classical music station and again despite the fact that recently many non-classical music seems to slip in (such as "jazz inspired" or some such)- might I add the rapper/hip hop artist Dr. Dre who manages to get some really dope beats and killer ryhmes?

Jan. 23 2011 12:26 PM
ray from New York

bach, bruckner, beethoven, brahms, sibelius, maybe a little mozart. the rest i can do without. as for mahler, no thanks.

Jan. 23 2011 11:37 AM
Michael Meltzer

Beethoven called Handel the "greatest of all composers."
What did he know, anyway?

Jan. 23 2011 10:07 AM
Victor Goodstone from Brooklyn, NY

While this is in many ways individual preference, it's never boring, as long as it's your greatest. For me, Beethoven, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Mahler, Saint -Saens, Brahms, Mozart, Richard Strauss, and Rimsky - Korsakov always do it. I leave out Verdi, Wagner, and Massenet, only because their main focus was the operatic repetoire, but they've always kept me attentive too.

Jan. 23 2011 05:12 AM
Michael Meltzer

"Not that we don't like Beethoven or Brahms, but it can get a little boring," is so glib and trite a statement that it could only come from a journalist, not a musician, and should never have come from someone in a position of authority in a classical radio station (such a person might think it occasionally, that's as far as it should go).
The "top ten" mentality is beginning to treat the immortals like chopped liver.

Jan. 23 2011 01:46 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane

ALL major composers have something special to communicate in either epic or soulful or emotionally charged fashion that inspires and uplifts. TEN COMPOSERS is too, too few a number to recognize all the extraordinary music. ALL music formats deserve exploration, especially if they are contemporary. As my acting teacher Lee Strasberg put it, "to maximize your potential you must 'stretch,' going beyond the comfortable norm of your previous ventures." As a composer, I cherish the creations of hundreds of composers who have have created their own pathways, their own individualistic styles, that give pleasure, REAL PLEASURE, DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHERS. On Saturday March 19th, I will perform a three hour solo concert, "Love as expressed in all the vocal music formats" at the New Life Expo at the New Yorker Hotel at 34th Street and 8th Avenue, from 6 pm to 9 pm at the Wall Street venue. Formats included in the concert are opera, operetta, Broadway musicals, "pop," folk and western songs, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, sacred literature, blues, and lieder.

Jan. 22 2011 09:24 PM
Sandra Frank

Can't fathom that Mahler was omitted. My list is Mahler times 10. Talk about sublime. His music is densely orchestrated, layer on layer. I fall into it and am most deeply moved. No other composer's music sounds like Mahler's. Also on my list the distincitive sound of Berlioz, Debusey, Wagner, Stravinsky. All innovators. I go to Tsychaikovksy for a cathartic cry when I am sad.

Jan. 22 2011 09:03 PM
Perry Winer from Brooklyn

Tomassini's list is excellent, from my point of view. I would put Brahms a bit higher, It's interesting to me that so feelingful, fastidious, and even lofty a composer--no less a genius than Schubert, Haydn, or Mozart should be "off" so many lists. Brahms' chamber and choral works are radiant, his symphonies stupendous(all can agree on the transcendent slow movements, no?) and his piano music thoughtful, lyrical and perfectly wrought. His craftsmanship is consummate and the compositional quality of his work is probably better than any other composer's. His omission is just a question of fashion, I would think.

Jan. 22 2011 03:55 PM
Frank from NY City

I would say that picking the 10 greatest composers, is much like picking the 10 greatest baseball players. We have to employ varied criteria, and of course, personal bias always plays a role in the choices. Who was the greates hitter in Baseball? One could answer Ted Williams, because of his high batting average. Or, one could say Pete Rose, because he had the most total base-hits. Ichiro Suzuki has the most consecutive 200-hit seasons. These 3 players must be in the top 10 in Baseball. What about composers? Well, Beethoven composed one of the greates symphonies of all time, when he was deaf, or almost deaf. I see Mr. Tchaikovsky is not on some of the lists, which is mind-boggling. Let's not forget, that any great achiver, in any field, stands on the shoulders of his or her predecessors.

Jan. 22 2011 02:02 PM
Ed Aguilar from Costa Rica

Seriously, no Mozart on Judd Greenstein's list??

Jan. 22 2011 01:54 PM
Pete B from Staten Island, NY

It is difficult to narrow down the ten "greatest" composers when there are so many out there who wrote such magnificent music. As for my own picks, the following masters are my "can't go wrong" choices: Beethoven, Bizet, Delibes, Grieg, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky, and Verdi. I'd have loved to include some others, such as Liszt, Rossini, Sullivan, and Berlioz, but once I get started, I'll end up going through the whole gamut! What constitutes "great" is a very subjective matter, but there is nothing I've heard by any of the ten I named that I did not find impressive and inspirational.

Jan. 22 2011 12:37 PM
Max Power

Is the David Lang bit a joke?

Jan. 22 2011 09:27 AM
Mark Catanzaro

I agree with Mr. Meltzer above. However, if I had to choose my 10 favorite composers, my criterion would be composers whose music reaches sublime moments that literally transfix me and make me stop whatever I'm doing to just listen in awe. For me, the composers who do this the most on a consistent basis are: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsy, Chopin, Wagner, Verdi, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, and Debussy. There are so many more who achieve the sublime, but in my opinion none do it as often or as well as these men.

Jan. 22 2011 08:47 AM
Michael Meltzer

The lists are fine, the parameters drawn by WQXR for listener voting were flawed and ill-defined.
For instance: Is your favorite composer the one who wrote the single musical work that moves you the most, or the composer who wrote only things that you like a lot and nothing that you don't like?
Is the emotional spectrum of an educated listener so narrow that 10 composers can adequately cover the territory? If not, how distorted by omisssion is any final overall tally?
In the above lists is a "greatest" composer one with the most impact in a single work? One with the most influence on later composers? One most often performed and recorded? Just what are we talking about?
P.S.: In the Plotkin list, it's Ludwig van Beethoven, not "von." He had Dutch ancestors.

Jan. 22 2011 12:54 AM

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WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

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