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The Three B's and Seven More

In a New York Times article published January 7, 2011, Anthony Tommasini considers who are the ten greatest classical composers and how one would go about deciding who should and shouldn't make the cut.

He doesn't really give any criteria, except he makes the decision to narrow the field by limiting the candidates to "Western classical music," excluding living composers, and, most arbitrarily,
I am focusing on the eras since the late Baroque. You could make a good case for Josquin or Monteverdi, but I won’t. The traditions and styles were so different back then as to have been almost another art form. I’m looking roughly at the era an undergraduate survey of Western civilization might define as modern history.
Okay, it's his game, so I decided to play by his rules. I posted my reasoning and my list on the Times Arts Blog, but I'm going to expand on it here.

My goal was to be objective and ignore my personal bias. I don't think it's appropriate for this list to be the same as my ten favorite composers to listen to. That list would be different and equally valid for everyone, and it's not very interesting to think about why Debussy is on your list but not mine if the answer is simply because you like Debussy more than I do.

Of course, many of my favorite composers do make the list. One of my absolute favorite composers, Benjamin Britten, almost makes it, but I left him off because I don't trust myself. If I included him, I'd have to suspect that my affection for his music was influencing me.

My three objective criteria are

Composers on this list must be generally recognized as significant and broadly included in public performances. Popular, to be sure, but much more than that. Essential to the study and performance of music.

Composers on this list have to be seen as having had a broad influence on other composers, on Zeitgeist, and on our understanding of music history.

Composers on this list must have at least a few extraordinary, sublime works of staggering genius among their output -- the prime examples of music in their genre and of their time.

I admit freely that assigning these objective criteria to composers involves a high degree of subjectivity. For example, I just don't think Tchaikovsky and Debussy quite meet the Genius standard. But it would be perfectly reasonable for someone to disagree.

There are also composers on the cusp. Chopin just barely ekes out Haydn, but with further consideration, on another day Haydn makes the cut and Chopin doesn't.

With those ideas in mind, here's my list, in chronological order:


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