The Top Ten:

So over at the New York Times, music critic Anthony Tomassini has completed his excursion through Western “classical” music to come up with his Top Ten composers all time. It’s as silly, and as interesting, as these sorts of exercises usually are — maybe a bit less silly, and more interesting, given that Tomassini gives a good, spirited defense of his choices (while not over-stating the case or denigrating the views of those who disagree with him).

Here’s his final list:

JS Bach
Beethoven
Mozart
Schubert
Debussy

Stravinsky
Brahms
Verdi
Wagner
Bartok

It’s a defensible selection — but it’s not the top ten. No way. Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart in the top three are probably inevitable — a world without any one of them is simply inconceivably dull and lifeless. Filling the next two slots with Schubert and Debussy, though, is mystifying and misguided, to my ears. Schubert probably deserves a place on the list — but not there at the top. Sure, as Tommasini writes, “You have to love the guy, who died at 31, ill, impoverished and neglected except by a circle of friends who were in awe of his genius. For his hundreds of songs alone — including the haunting cycle “Winterreise,” which will never release its tenacious hold on singers and audiences — Schubert is central to our concert life.” Hey, I’m as sorry as the next guy that Schubert died at 31 — as with Mozart, had Schubert lived out his full biblical fourscore and ten we would undoubtedly have been treated to one masterpiece after another, as his later works (the last two symphonies, the late piano sonatas) prefigure breakthroughs to come (that of course never actually came). But it seems wrong to me to give composers credit for the works they didn’t write. Schubert’s songs are surely among the great works in the canon – but the larger works, while wonderful, are not in, say, Brahms’ league — too repetitive, too lacking in texture and color.

And the inclusion of Debussy (at number 5, no less) is indefensible; the more Debussy I hear the less interesting his music sounds. I have never understood the fascination his music seems to have for some people; outside a few masterpieces (the String Quartet foremost among them, some of his piano pieces) I find it repetitive and rather boring. Pelleas and Melisande, his opera that Debussy-philes pant over, is, to my ears, well-nigh unlistenable.

Finally, Tomassini leaves off three composers whom I think deserve inclusion: Shostakovich, Haydn, and Chopin. There is no music that better captures the agonies of the twentieth century than Shostakovich’s (in particular, the magnificent string quartets and (many of) the symphonies) – by turns painful, ironic, angry, and sarcastic. And Chopin – well, it’s a limited oeuvre, certainly, but unless you have some sort of prejudice against the solo piano repertory, the desert island would be unacceptably duller without the Ballades, the Scherzos, the Piano Sonatas, the Nocturnes, . . .

There are lots of other talking points here, of course – and I invite readers to provide their own lists. Here’s mine:

JS Bach
Beethoven
Brahms
Mozart
Wagner

Verdi
Shostakovich
Schubert
Haydn
Chopin

If I were headed to the desert island to finish out my days, these are the composers I’d need to take with me.