Classical music fans: Who would you rate as history's second-tier composers?

Opinions vary, but the general consensus is that the Big Three of classical music were Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Who would you count among them?

More importantly, which composers would you count among the second tier? For the latter, I’d include Chopin, Brahms, Dvorak, Debussey, and perhaps Mahler.

[I’m defining “classical” music more broadly than the historic “classical” period.]

“Second tier” sounds like such a putdown. Few rank up with the big three you mention, but there are plenty of great composers to go around; I’d add Tchaikovsky and Gershwin to your list.

Mahler? Few composers cast a greater shadow over the past hundred years. Unquestionably first-tier in every way.

And where would you put such giants as Handel and Vivaldi?

It is?

Let’s define terms here. For want of better ideas, I’ll re-cast classical music as “symphonic”. This is the music that orchestras play from the repertoire of European traditional composers, based on forms laid down by the Church and then elite society from the 16th century to the early 20th century.

That allows me to use “classical” as “Classical”, the important and formative time of 18th century symphonic music. I put Hadyn, Handel, and Mozart here.

Bach is a bit of a precursor. He is the transition from earlier, Church-dominated forms to the secular forms of Classicism, but he’s also a brilliant and innovative composer.

Mozart dominates the classical period, followed closely by Hadyn. Mozart is so unusual in so many ways that you could never leave him out as one of the top people in the symphonic tradition. Yet Hadyn not Mozart really invented the symphonic form.

Handel brings the symphonic form into the English-speaking world.

Beethoven is transitional. He starts out in what we normally call the “classical” tradition, but at the end shows definite Romantic influences. He uses classical devices to express a Romantic lyricism. Overall, I would rank him below Mozart and Bach, though, and on a level with Hadyn and Handel.

If you take away Brahms, who do you leave in his place to represent mid-19th century symphonic music?! You can’t take away Brahms, dear sir!

Chopin is very important for the piano, but no more. He rates below Brahms overall.

Mahler, like Richard Strauss, is a bridge between the Romanticism of the 19th century and the much more complex and exploratory style of modern music.

I find it easier to mark the truly second-level composers than I do marking the first-level ones. Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saens, Bruckner, are definitely not at the top. Still, they’re well-known.

Tchiakovsky is at the second-level, though I admit he’s amazingly popular. I think Rimsky-Korsakov is more important.

My list isn’t intended to be exhaustive. It’s a starting point, to open discussion.

That is too narrow a definition. For starters, your definition leaves out chamber music.

The broader definition as the union of Baroque, Classical & Romantic eras is preferable. Some may append Renaissance and pre-1960 Modern eras to that.

Can’t we just skip the semantics and talk about classical music in the wider sense?

I agree with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Of course this is all somewhat subjective, but these three make a lot of sense, not only in their enduring popularity, but in their influence.

For the second tier, I would put Handel, Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Chopin (despite being just a piano guy)

Worth considering are Haydn, Dvorak.

Also-rans are Vivaldi, Verdi, Wagner, Rachmaninov, Ravel (but not Debussy).

A bit further back are Mahler, Mendelsohn, Sibelius, Grieg, Shostakovitz, Prokofiev, Saint-Saens, Telemann, Monteverdi, Palestrina

Honourable Mentions: CPE Bach, Berlioz, Elgar, Rossini, Vaughan-Williams

Guilty Pleasures: Arthur Sullivan, Scott Joplin, Johann Strauss Jr., Puccini

Most Over-Rated: Schumann

Interesting choice of Tchaikovsky before Saint-Saens–and Ravel before Mahler. No mention of Debussy at all. I agree on Chopin.

That’s what I specified in the OP; otherwise, we spin our wheels on slippery definitions.

It’s interesting how certain composers are downgraded in the popular imagination from “first tier” because of a relatively large output of work.

Haydn’s achievements for instance should rationally place him as an equal of Mozart. Vivaldi seems to get left out of the top ranking of Baroque composers occupied by Bach and Handel, but his work to me ranks right up there with the Big Two.

I’m amazed by the way that no one has yet mentioned John Philip Sousa, without whom the traditional Fourth of July parade would yield but bitter fruit. And you can hardly mention Mendelssohn and Schumann without a nod to giants like Zez Confrey.

Brahms? “Second Tier” ? Ouch. Well, that’s what makes horse races.

As has been mentioned, some composers may have been “first tier” if their output, or the present-day accessibility of their output, hadn’t been hampered. Fanny Mendelssohn (hampered by her sex) and Alexander Borodin (hampered by his day job as a leading research chemist) come to mind in the first category, while the fact that Bach was rediscovered and repopularized by a 19th-century composer (can´t remember which) makes you wonder if there are other “Bachs” out there we’ll never know about.

Stravinsky as well.

As long as we’re reaching into the early 20th century, I’ll mention Gustav Holst and Erik Satie.

Holst and Satie as first or second rate, mack? (Or third-rate? :wink: )

On a combination of creative achievement and influence, Debussy and Ravel are first-rate, while Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn and Schumann are way down the pecking order. Popular != important.

Shostakovich and Prokofiev are tricky ones. I’m tempted to say that they’re first rate, the swing vote being their far-reaching influence.

The problem with my first, second, third-tier construct becomes apparent here. Are you placing Ravel and Shostakovich on par with Bach and Mozart?

Interesting how Rimsky-Korsakov appears on no one’s list … and Borodin on only one. Though I heartily disagree, Tchaikovsky has the cred of Kenny G, among many serious classical music listeners.

It was Mendelssohn.

OK, your problem is that you arrive at the three tiers with the ‘big three’ preconception already in place. The initial question should not be ‘who ranks as highly as Beethoven and Bach’, but ‘who are the composers who had a significant and individual impact on the history and progression of western music’. Taking this as the starting point, Beethoven is joined by Wagner, Monteverdi, Philippe de Vitry, Stravinsky…and dare I say it, Bach and Mozart drop out of the highest rank.

Second tier.

I can’t call Holst second- or third- “rate” since I’ve enjoyed The Planets from my youth to this day. He’s clearly not among the first tier (big three, etc), though, and I don’t know enough composers to differentiate between a second and third tier.

How about Bela Bartok? Not broadly popular, but important. Arnold Schoenberg, too.

What about John Williams? He of Star Wars, Indiana Jones et al fame?