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The Mount Rushmore of Classical Music

Updated on April 14, 2016

Great Composers in South Dakota

It has become sort of trendy to quantify the "greatest" of anything by saying they should be placed on the Mount Rushmore of that particular field. You see it in sports (the Mr. Rushmore of quarterbacks), comedy (the Mr. Rushmore of stand-up comics), and acting (the Mt. Rushmore of Actors).

Below is my Mt. Rushmore of Composers. I have given great thought to taking classical music, a genre with over 500 years of music (good and bad), and narrowing it down to four giants. It wasn't easy, and no doubt, there will be disagreements, but below is my "final answer."

Making the Cut

Let's start with the final two composers to be eliminated; Joseph Haydn and Richard Wagner.

The most important factor in determining my Mt. Rushmore was a composer's impact on future music. Did he revolutionize music to the extent that future composers built on his foundation? With Messrs Haydn and Wagner above, the answer is yes...but.

Haydn (1732-1809) did nothing short of inventing the string quartet and symphony as they exist today. He created the four-movement form of both, and this form held true for over 100 years. Even today, composers use Haydn's inventions as a template for their own works.

Haydn also wrote a giant catalog of compositions. He was incredibly prolific, and that's where his exclusion from my mountain comes from. He wrote 104 symphonies and over 80 string quartets, but only a few of each are "great" works (some of his string quartets were truly revolutionary - so much so that Mozart wrote his final 10 great string quartets dedicated to Haydn).

So while Haydn actually invented the form of both the symphony and string quartet, he didn't excel at either (but for a few exceptions). He didn't stretch tonality (see Wagner below) or redefine rhythm (see Stravinsky even farther below). He wrote good music and lots of it. Unfortunately not enough to make the cut.

Wagner (1813-1883) did redefine tonality and push the limits of structure in his music. He simply didn't write enough of it. His operas revolutionized drama in music, and Tristan and Isolde was the cornerstone for abandoning tonality (see Schoenberg and Webern). But he spent too much of his energy telling the world about what music should be rather than actually writing more of it.

Another aspect of Wagner's life cannot be ignored. He was a rabid anti-Semite. He wrote many articles in newspapers and magazines at the time decrying the "Jewry in Music" (the actual title of one of his more famous rants). While no one can blame Wagner for atrocities that took place 100 years later, his writings and music were central to Hitler's message to Germany before and during WWII.

So he was a bit of a @#$%!, but his music sure was great.

Ahhh, Bach

J.S. Bach (1685-1750) is the elder statesman on my mountain. He didn't invent the major or minor scale or the chords that make the building blocks of tonality in music, but he basically wrote the book on how to use them. He was one of the greatest "geniuses" both within music and everyday life. A lot of his music has been analyzed mathematically and the results are amazing.

He also pioneered the modern piano. Prior to Bach, tuning of instruments was subjective, meaning that if a piano were tuned exactly on pitch (F# and G-flat were exactly the same pitch), it would sound out of tune in certain keys. Because of this, instruments were tuned based on what key a particular piece was written in. Bach championed "well-tempered" tuning which was a method of tuning a piano so it would sound "in tune" in any key. He even wrote a complete set of preludes and fugues in every key called the Well-Tempered Klavier.

Bach's music and the rules it introduced (he practically invented counterpoint) are still taught today in composition classes everywhere. Even in popular music, the chord progressions owe a lot to J.S. Bach. In other words, Bach set the foundation on which all later music would be built. Not too shabby.

Recommended works: Brandenburg Concertos, Mass in b Minor, Concerto for 2 Violins in d Minor

Hey, Where Can I Get That Cool Pic of Mt. Rushmore?

You can get it here. This is my Zazzle shop where I sell lots of music-themed stuff. You can get my designs on t-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, canvas bags, and lots of other great items.

Mr. Perfect

If Haydn laid the concrete of musical form, Mozart (1756-1791) wrote his initials in it before it dried.

Mozart perfected the symphony, string quartet, and concerto, and revolutionized opera for good measure. He was the very definition of child prodigy, composing great music in his early teens. His music is precise, beautiful, and inspiring. If you've seen Amadeus, you will agree that Mozart's music does not have "too many notes." It is perfect.

One of the things about Mozart that is simply amazing is that he composed all of his music without a single revision. He didn't erase or cross out anything (unlike Herr Beethoven) as he wrote it down. It was all in his head, and he just transcribed it onto paper.

His operas are still considered among the best of the genre. He seemed to have a great talent for writing opera (again, not so much with Beethoven later), and he poured his heart and soul into each one he composed.

He was not nearly as prolific as Haydn, but still managed 41 symphonies, 23 string quartets, 21 operas, and countless other great works like piano, violin, and horn concertos, sacred music, and solo piano sonatas. His only sin was dying too soon.

Recommended works: Symphony #41 "Jupiter," Requiem, Don Giovanni, Sinfonia Concertante (violin & viola concerto)

The Big Fish

I won't hide it. Beethoven is my favorite composer, and it isn't even close.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was arguably the most important composer who ever lived. His compositions dragged the music world, kicking and screaming, out of the uptight and boring classical period and into the romantic period and beyond.

Of course we all know that he wrote most of his greatest works while mostly or (later) completely deaf. Unlike today's composers (myself included) Beethoven did not have the luxury of a laptop with music creation software on it. He decided what he wanted to write and he wrote it down. Then, he painstakingly edited his music, scratching out huge sections at a time in order to get it just right. His manuscripts look like a 9th grader's history notes.

After a few years composing in the style (and shadow) of Mozart, Herr Beethoven embarked on a "new path" and music has never been the same. His third symphony, "Eroica," is the one piece of his that loudly breaks the mold. It is long, loud, and completely different than anything written before it - Beethoven or otherwise.

Beethoven expanded the "development" section of his works with new and unique variations. He invented the scherzo and inserted it into many of his pieces instead of the standard minuet. He also took older forms like the fugue and went nuts (see movement 1 of the 9th symphony, or the Grosse Fugue from String Quartet in B-flat op 130). All of these, though, he did within the boundaries of the existing forms.

In his final years, he composed wonderful music that I like to call addition through subtraction. In his string quartets especially, the late period was more concise (the average length of any given piece much shorter), but far more experimental. He also grew more sentimental which can be seen in his 9th symphony, Missa Solemnis, and final quartets.

Recommended works: Missa Solemnis, late string quartets, Violin Concerto, Piano Concerto #5 "Emperor," and 3rd Symphony "Eroica"

Here Come the Arguments

The final face on my mountain is certainly the most controversial.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) composed unique and revolutionary music that (mostly) abandoned tonality and redefined rhythm. There were composers before him that dabbled in atonality and rhythmic experimentation, but none did so with the craftsmanship of Stravinsky.

I mean, how can you leave someone off the list who had a near riot at one of his premiers (The Rite of Spring in 1913)? His music evokes a wide range of emotions and opinions, but it isn't boring!

While his most popular music are his ballets (Rite of Spring, The Firebird), he wrote ingenious chamber music, great symphonic music, and lovely music for solo instruments. He was a master at orchestration, and in his rhythmic experimentation, you can see the influence of Bach's mathematical genius.

His music influenced some of the great contemporary composers of the 20th century like Elliot Carter, Leonard Bernstein, and Lucas Foss. To say his music was influential is grand understatement.

Recommended works: The Rite of Spring, Octet, Symphony in C

What all of the fuss was about

Who's the Best?

See results

Who Else Didn't Make It?

The process for determining my Mt. Rushmore was one of elimination. I put together a list of the greatest composers, and then started taking away one at a time until I was left with four. So, who else besides Haydn and Wager just missed?

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is among my favorite four composers, but I don't think he belongs on Mt. Rushmore. His music took Beethoven to the next level, but instead of looking ahead, he looked backward to Bach and Handel. He expanded tonality but not as much as Wagner (and Schoenberg, a contemporary of Brahms). There is no doubt that Brahms is one of the greatest composers, just not one of the four greatest.

Recommended works: German Requiem, 4th Symphony, Piano Quintet, Double Concerto (violin & cello).

Petr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) began the long line of great Russian composers. Without him, there could be no Rachmaninoff, Shostakovitch, or Prokofiev. His ballets (Swan Lake, The Nutcracker) are among the most beloved of all music, and his symphonies and concertos are all masterpieces. Unfortunately, like his German contemporary above (they met once, and didn't like each other), he just didn't pass muster.

Recommended works: Swan Lake, 4th Symphony, Piano Trio, 1st Piano Concerto

And, the final honorable mentions: G.F. Handel, Jean Sibelius, Aaron Copland, Dmitri Shostakovitch

And Finally...

I don't claim to be the authority on classical music, but I like to think I know some stuff (or as my girlfriend likes to say - I think I know everything). The reason behind this essay is not to show the world how smart and sophisticated I am, but rather to get more people talking about classical music.

Given the state of the performing arts right now, I think we could use it.



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