My Classical Composer Pantheon

For unknown reasons I have made a number of arbitrary decisions which I inexplicably want to share with you.

I have constructed a Pantheon consisting of a number of tiers, and have slotted my favourite classical composers in it.

3 in Tier 1.
7 in Tier 2.
15 in Tier 3, etc
order within a tier is not important.

Here we go:

Tier 1: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven
Tier 2: Handel, Haydn, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky
Tier 3:

Vivaldi, Rossini, Verdi
Bizet, Debussy, Ravel
Mendelssohn, Wagner, Mahler
Elgar, Vaughan-Williams
Grieg, Sibelius
Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich

I have spoilered Tier 3 in case you want to guess my thinking. There are 3 Italians, 3 French, 3 Germans, 2 English, 2 Scandinavians, 2 Russians.

Some notables that fall into Tier 4 are Rimsky-Korsakov, Schumann, Liszt, Saint-Saens

So, what are your thoughts?

Here are my tiered favorites:

Tier 1: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach

Tier 2: Liszt, Chopin

Tier 3: Rachmaninoff, Alkan, Scriabin, Prokofiev

Tier 4: Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens, Handel

Tier 5: Grieg, Ravel, Shostakovich, Haydn, Barber, Gershwin

I’m partial to piano composers

My favorite contemporary concert pianist is Yuja Wang.

Me, I’d put innovators who made a path for future composers on top: Henry Purcell, Mozart, Debussy, Mahler and Stravinsky, who I enjoy (sorry, Charles Ives).

Then comes the great composers to enjoy listening to: Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Barber, etc

Everyone always forgets about Faure.

John Field, too.

I have little knowledge of serious classical music of any era, but I do like all the classical music that occurs outside of classrooms and formal study, the stuff that one hears without trying to study Baroque or Classical music.

That being said, this poster seems to indicate that Carl Czerny influenced quite a few players and composers:

Over the course of time, my household managed to accumulate a number of technique books that have the same exercises from very simple all in quarter notes – through to quite complex (for me and mine that include e and a counting and I believe two notes per each count). I have never heard of him being considered a great composer, but he did rub shoulders with some few masters I believe.

Tier 1: Rimsky-Korsakov, Wagner, Beethoven

Tier 2: Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Stokowski, Holst, Grieg, Vaughn Williams, Grofe

Tier 3: Sibelius, Mussorgsky, Verdi, Borodin, Copland, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, J. Strauss, Handel, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Victoria, Purcell

Lots of y’all like Mozart a shitload better than I do.

We’re singing his Requiem this spring, and I have to admit it’s a phenomenal piece of work. But he put out oceans of utter crap, and there are only a few pieces of his that I like.

If there is a general consensus among classical music fans and critics, your ranking matches looks to me like it matches that consensus pretty closely. And so, while I totally respect it, I would find it a little more interesting if you had included at least one or two relatively obscure or underrated composers whom you, personally, love.


^^^ I went back to see if I could delete this but waited too long. I apologize for peeing in the thread. Carry on.

3 Germans

Mendelssohn, Wagner, Mahler

I had always thought of Mahler as being Austrian. But looking it up just now, I see that it is complicated. (Austrian, German, Czech? I suppose all could make some claim. But I’ll stick with Austrian!)

No Renaissance composers at all?

Palestrina, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Gabrieli, Allegri, Lassus, Victoria, Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons…

If we’re talking personal favourites in terms of emotional impact, for me the top tier would be Schubert, Brahms, Sibelius. It seems to me there’s an underlying common element that I can’t quite find the word for - melancholy? wistful? elegiac?

Which is not to say I dismiss the importance of most of the rest or the pleasure they give (except maybe most of Liszt and Percy Grainger). BBC Radio 3 has done a good job of opening my ears and mind over the years.

Tier 2: Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Stokowski, Holst, Grieg, Vaughn Williams, Grofe

Tier 3: Sibelius, Mussorgsky, Verdi, Borodin, Copland, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, J. Strauss, Handel, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Victoria, Purcell

My test for composers is simply how I’d feel if all of their compositions would suddenly be lost. In other words, I look mainly at the best compositions, while taking into account also the number of good compositions. I don’t care if they also produced a lot of dross.

From that perspective, looking at the OP, I agree with Tier 1 (would be hard to dispute). Although for me Brahms is on the boundary between both tiers.

For Tier 2 I’d lose Chopin and Dvorak, who wrote music that I like but in my mind not really great music (with the exception of Dvorak’s Cello concerto). I’m not entirely sure about Haydn either: I find a lot of his work very good but not great. Possibly I’d add Mahler who I feel is more deserving of a spot here, and I’d consider Shostakovich and Vivaldi as well. Both have written a number of excellent works.

Tier 3 for me consists mostly of composers who have written only a few great works among many more mediocre or serviceable ones. Schumann and Bruckner, Elgar, but also Bruch or Prokoviev, Franck, Richard Strauss, Rachmaninov. I’d really miss their well-known works, but those are rare stand-outs in the entire oeuvre.

Stravinsky is a hard one to classify because he is unquestionably a great composer, but he impresses me more than that he touches me.

I’m not much of an opera fan, hence cannot fairly rate Bizet and Verdi.

So I’d get to

Tier 1: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms

Tier 2: Mahler, Shostakovich, Vivaldi, Handel, Schubert, Tchaikovsky

Tier 3: Dvorak, Grieg, Schumann, Bruckner, Elgar, Bruch, Prokoviev, Franck, Richard Strauss, Rachmaninov and many more.

I’m not sure who I should put in Tier 4. Possibly I should differentiate and only put in Tier 3 composers who have shown good workmanship generally, which probably would move Rachmaninov down a tier. Saint-Saens would for me be in Tier 3.

Compared to the OPs list I’d remove Vaughn-Williams and Liszt who I wouldn’t miss at all.

Looking at the other posts: I’m not sure about the general output of a lot of early composers and therefore hesitate where to put them. I know only Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater which of course is as close to heaven as you can get, but as I don’t know his other work I’d hesitate where to put him. A lot of the late romantic and modern composers mentioned by the others would be Tier 3 or 4 to me.

Don’t underestimate the value of writing a lot of very good work. I love Haydn because he wrote so many different pieves that I enjoy listening to. In my mind, he’s like a prolific author who can always be counted on for readible, enjoyable entertainment.

Just feel obligated to point out a certain Eurocentrism in the responses… (unless that is the intended scope)

If the tiers were for single compositions, Beethoven would be my first slot of Tier 1 by a wide margin with Symphony #9. It’s as though he said, screw it, I’m going to break all the rules and create the greatest artistic masterpiece of all time. And he did.

My Slot 2, Tier 1 would be something by J.S. Bach, and slot 3, something by Mozart. So many pieces to choose from, not sure which I’d pick yet. Depends on my mood.

Slot 1, Tier 2 is Rachmaninoff’s 2nd concerto (Romantic era at its finest). Slot 2, Tier 2 is Liszt’s 2nd concerto (it’s a sleeper, give it a listen if you’re not familiar with it). Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is Slot 3, Tier 2. His fusion of classical and jazz in that piece is mesmerizing.

I prefer composers who were virtuosos with their instruments of choice and it shows in their compositions. That’s why I place Liszt so high. His body of work both touches and amazes me. He was the first and best longhair rock star. Sorry, Beatles.

Beethoven and Mozart were both top piano virtuosos of their time. Mozart was a child prodigy, playing and composing from age 3. His genius is self-evident and breathtaking. Beethoven was of course also a musical genius, but it wasn’t innate, like Mozart. Ludwig had to work at it, but ultimately paid off in spades. So sad he and Wolfgang lived such tortured lives, after giving so much to all mankind.

And Bach? Well, he’s Bach, what more can one say, except ah Bach? There’s a reason Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart are the Big 3—they are the undisputed greatest of the greats. The Goats. I don’t believe their greatness will ever be surpassed. Not on this planet anyway.

With regard to performers, some musicians are technical wizards, others excel at emotional depth. Very few master both sides of the coin, except, IMHO, V. Horowitz, and Y. Wang.

I forgot Mahler, and I think I’ll have to bump Borodin off to insert Mahler instead.

Without Liszt, I am afraid Bugs Bunny would have been a very marginal piano player, same for Tom & Jerry. Since cartoons were among my first experiences with classical music, I have to insist that the piece that is not just background but actual substance must be very highly placed.

I believe The Rabbit of Seville and What’s Opera, Doc? are the only other cartoons where the music is the whole point of the work, but neither of them had as much impact upon me as Rhapsody #2 did. The OP however placed the composers that inspired these two works in his third tier, while Liszt only made tier #4. Perhaps the Op, and most of the rest of the posters in this thread are not as influenced by children’s cartoons as I am which would make sense.

Nothing wrong with Bugs, Tom and Jerry introducing you to classical music. Cartoons can have a lifelong effect on young, malleable minds. I recall those particular cartoons inspiring me, too.

Speaking of Hungarian Rhapsody #2, Horowitz’s 1953 performance of it is jaw dropping, particularly the cadenza.