Ranking Composers

This post is a node to a post by Jodru over at Anablog who sited a reference to a book 'The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1000 Greatest Works' and then proceeds to provide his own way of ranking composers. After a couple of days of pondering this topic (amid reading news about the election which occupies 98% of the news coverage at present) I have come to a few conclusions. First of all, I feel woefully unqualified to "judge" composers whose abilities I feel far exceed my own skills. However, it is still possible to provide an opinion to their music - so my own ranking system is based on how I resonate with a composer (and their music) and not necessarily with the quality of their composition (although I will touch on that aspect in ranking some of these composers).

Another aspect of ranking composers is to understand that the scope of this post is inadequate to cover all composers. There are numerous unknown/little known composers whom I admire greatly, but they have yet to achieve a sense of notoriety that would include them as a main-stream composer. There are many well known composers that are also not included on this list simply because I wanted to give a sample of what my tastes are in music. Below the ratings table is the criteria used to create the list.

Finally, I will not deal with many composers prior to the 20th century. Some are worth talking about as they are just too important to exclude. If a pre-20th century composer is listed it is because they are too important to my musical lexicon to exclude. Some pre 20th-century composers could be on this list, but didn't make it as my focus tends to be in modern music. The 20th-century composers are a more complete list, and still some are not listed due to space. Making it onto this list says something about the composer and is meant as a compliment.

I have studied all to the composers listed to some degree, if only just to listen to their body of works to gain some idea as to their style.

The Ratings:

Tier ITier IITier IIITier IV
Palestrina
Bach
Haydn
Beethoven
Wagner
Debussy
Stravinsky
Shostakovich
Gershwin
J. Williams
J. Adams
Vivaldi
Rossini
Handel
Mozart
Brahms
Mussorgsky
Tchaikovsky
Mahler
R. Strauss
Rachmaninoff
Ravel
Rimsky-Korsakov
Dvořák
Ives
Korngold
Copland
Britten
Bernstein
Reich
Glass
Ferneyhough
Schütz
Donizetti
Mendelssohn
Borodin
Bruckner
Grieg
Puccini
Vaughan Williams
Fauré
Janáček
Holst
Bartók
Kodály
Szymanowski
Berg
Prokofiev
Hindemith
Tippett
Carter
Persichetti
Ligeti
Kurtág
Górecki
Maxwell Davies
Corigliano
Nyman
Tavener
Golijov
Adès
Greenberg
Messiaen
Webern
Lutosławski
Babbitt
Xenakis
Berio
Boulez
Stockhausen
Penderecki
Lachenmann

The Reasons:

If the composer is rated Tier I, they are not only a composer whom I feel contributed greatly to the advance of music, but produced a significant body of work to be considered one of the truly great composers. If the composer is rated Tier II, I very much respect their work, I may even envy some of their work, but... some of their work is not of a quality for me to rank them as really great composers. This is a difficult rating as many of these composers are really wonderful; I just feel they don't quite have what it takes to make it to Tier I. If the composer is rated Tier III, they have some music I like, but overall I am rather lukewarm about their music. This may sound odd since I list Holst an influence, but his work is a perfect example. I marvel at "The Planets", but other works by Holst are no where near as exceptional. Prokofiev is a really good composer, but again, many of his pieces leave me less than excited so he ends up in Tier III. Greenberg is still very young and so hasn't composed enough to move up (yet). If the composer is rated Tier IV, I enjoyed studying their music and feel they are worthy of study (definitely), but I would not listen to their music out of choice.

Tier IV is the most unique rating as these composers are not composers whose music I have any affinity for, but still consider them among the list of people other composers should study. They brought(bring) new ideas to music and that's a good thing. For the purposes of this list, most of their ideas are a bit far afield for me. This should not be taken as derogatory; their music is just not in my taste. The rest of composers (Tier I-III) are all composers whose music I very much enjoy.


Another ranking of pianist composers is listed here.

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