In an article published on January 21st, New York Times music columnist Anthony Tommasini gives a rundown of his top 10 composers of all-time. Mr. Tommasini tries to argue in favor of his preferences, but it’s ultimately a fruitless venture. If you try and base such a list on any criteria other than personal taste, 10 is not nearly a big enough number. If you use personal preference to narrow down the list…you’re still inevitably going to leave out a deserving composer.
There are two major issues with Tommasini’s list though. All 10 of his selections are great composers, and there’s a reason we’re still enjoying their music decades, centuries after their death. But therein lies one of the problems. There aren’t any composers representing the “modern” voice on the list. No Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varese, Steve Reich or Astor Piazzolla. Some of the most important and distinct voices of the 20th century are absent.
By arbitrarily deciding to name only the 10 greatest “classical” music composers of all-time, Tommasini ignores the vast well of creativity that is jazz music. Surely the compositions of Duke Ellington or Miles Davis offer up just as much musical bounty as those of the artists on the list.
Limiting the list to “classical” music, and using somebody who died in 1971 as the most modern composer on the list ignores vast swathes of music history. It’s a real shame—some of the best and most innovative music-making in history has happened in the last 50 years.