Anthony Tommasini at the New York Times has a silly but entertaining project: to name the 10 greatest classical composers in history. He has videos in which he discusses the likely nominees; seated at the piano, he shares personal and technical insights into (so far) Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Essays discuss their contributions. Readers are invited to nominate their own lists, and hundreds are chiming in.
It’s silly because it’s arbitrary. Why start, as Tommasini seems to want to, at Bach? Monteverdi fans will be in the streets. Apples-to-oranges comparisons are inevitable. Tommasini cheerfully admits all of this, thus making it more fun. The names on a list, and their order, matter less than the thinking behind them because it expresses a set of ideas about what makes music beautiful and lasting.
Readers are invited to discuss Tommasini’s project below, or on the Times comment boards. My own list would start with Beethoven, followed in this order by Bach, Mozart and Haydn. Below that, Brahms, Mahler and Wagner would show up somewhere. Schubert wouldn’t. I’m pleased that Benjamin Britten’s music is nominated by many of Tommasini’s readers. He’d be a dark-horse candidate even among 20th-century composers, but he’d be one of mine. It’s a whimsical exercise, but this week more than some, paying attention to what works and is beautiful seems preferable to the alternatives.