100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 41


20 Greatest Western Classical Musicians

Music is the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds or tones in varying melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre. Classical music is music composed chiefly for concerts, opera, ballet, and religious services. It includes music for solo instruments, groups of instruments, voices, and both instruments and voices. The term classical music is used to contrast with popular music, which includes folk, jazz, country, and rock music.

1. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525? – 2 February 1594), was an Italian composer of Renaissance music who became the most famous 16th century representative of the Roman school of music composition. He had a tremendous influence on the development of Roman Catholic Church music, and his work can be seen as a summation of Renaissance polyphony, much the way J.S. Bach is for counterpoint in the Baroque era. Palestrina wrote about 250 unaccompanied choral works called motets, and 93 masses for the Roman Catholic Church. Two of his most famous works are the mass called Missa Papae Marcelli (about 1562) and his setting of the Stabat Mater (about 1563). He also composed unaccompanied nonreligious choral pieces called madrigals. The most famous is Vestiva i colli (1566).

2. Antonio Vivaldi (4 March 1678 – 28 July 1741), was an accomplished violinist who wrote music for operas, solo instruments, and small ensembles. He was one of the most productive composers in the baroque style, marked by regular rhythm and elaborate melody. His finest work is thought to be his concerti in which virtuoso solo passages alternate with passages for the whole orchestra. He orchestrated in new ways and prepared the way for the late baroque concerto. A very prolific composer he has some 500 concertos to his credit.

3. Johann Sebastian Bach (31 March 1685 – 28 July 1750), was a German composer and organist of the Baroque period, and is universally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time. His works, noted for their intellectual depth, technical command, and artistic beauty, have provided inspiration to nearly every musician in the European tradition from Mozart to Schoenberg. As an organist and choirmaster for Lutheran churches near his birthplace, Bach devoted his life to composing music for church services. His incredible output marks the summit of the polyphonic, or contrapuntal, style, and brought to a climax the baroque period during which many new forms and styles were developed.

4. George Frideric Handel, (5 March 1685 – 14 April 1759), was a German-born English composer of the late baroque period. He is best known today mainly through his musical compositions called oratorios. His famous oratorio Messiah is one of the most popular works in music. In the mid-twentieth century, Handel's operas, neglected for 200 years, gained recognition as at least equal in quality to his oratorios. He also composed much orchestral music, chamber music (music for small groups of instruments), and solo music for harpsichord. He successfully combined German, French, Italian, and English musical styles in about 40 operas, 20 oratorios, and numerous other vocal pieces, instrumental works, and church music.

5. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, (27 January 1756 – 5 December 1791), A central figure of the Viennese classical school, Mozart is often considered the greatest musical genius of all time. With Joseph Haydn, he was the leading composer of the classical style of the late eighteenth century. His output—especially in view of his short life—was enormous, including 16 operas, 41 symphonies, 27 piano and 5 violin concerti, 25 string quartets, 19 masses, and other works in every form popular in his time. Perhaps his greatest single achievement is in the characterization of his operatic figures. During the last ten years of his life, Mozart produced most of his great piano concerti; the four horn concerti; the Haffner, Prague, Linz, and Jupiter symphonies; the six string quartets dedicated to Haydn; five string quintets; and the major operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così Fan Tutte, La Clemenza di Tito, and The Magic Flute. Mozart was unable to complete his final work, the Requiem, because of illness.

6. Ludwig van Beethoven, (16 December 1770 – 26 March 1827), The composer of some of the most influential pieces of music ever written, Ludwig van Beethoven created a bridge between the 18th century classical period and the new beginnings of Romanticism. His works are characterized by great intensity of feeling, enormous but rigorously controlled energy, and exceptionally fine design. It expressed the new spirit of humanism as well as the ideals of the French Revolution, with its passionate concern for the freedom and dignity of the individual. Several of Beethoven's nine symphonies are among the most famous of all musical compositions: the third or Eroica, which he originally called the Bonaparte but later renamed when he withdrew the dedication to Napoleon; the Fifth, inspired by man's struggle against fate; the sixth or Pastorale, which has five rather than four movements, and his titanic Ninth Symphony which includes the noble Choral using a chorus in the last movement. The deep and varied emotion of Beethoven is also evident in his 32 piano sonatas—including the Moonlight, Pathétique, and Appassionata—as well as in his 17 string quartets, many composed after he had become deaf. He also composed an opera, Fidelio, and a religious composition Missa solemnis. Beethoven won for composers a new freedom to express themselves. Before his time, composers wrote works for religious services, to teach, and to entertain people at social functions. But people listened to Beethoven's music for its own sake. As a result, he made music more independent of social, religious, or teaching purposes.

7. Franz Schubert, (31 January 1797 – 19 November 1828), One of the originators of the Romantic style, the Viennese composer Franz Schubert was also the greatest of the post-classicists. He served as a bridge between the two eras. As a composer of songs Schubert is without rival. He turned poems into music effortlessly. He wrote eight songs in one day, 146 in a single year, more than 600 in his lifetime. His compositions brought the art of German songwriting to its peak; they would have placed him among the great composers even if he had written nothing more.

8. Niccolò Paganini, (27 October 1782 – 27 May 1840), Paganini wrote 24 caprices for unaccompanied violin that are among the most difficult works ever written for the instrument. He also challenged musicians with such compositions as his 12 sonatas for violin and guitar; six violin concerti; and six quartets for violin, viola, cello, and guitar. Stupendous technique and revolutionary ideas for playing stringed instruments made Paganini a legend in his own time. The Italian violinist and composer was a flamboyant showman; once Paganini won his fame, his life became a combination of artistic triumphs and extravagant living.

9. Felix Mendelssohn, (3 February 1809 – 4 November 1847), A composer, pianist, and conductor Mendelssohn was a pivotal figure of 19th century romanticism. He was also a major force in the revival of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Mendelssohn's output was considerable, especially considering his short lifetime. Works include the Scottish, Italian, and Reformation symphonies; two piano concerti and one for violin; the oratorios St. Paul and Elijah (Hymn of Praise is considered a symphony-cantata); chamber music; piano music, including 48 Songs Without Words; many songs; and organ pieces. Mendelssohn held high standards of excellence in composition, performance, and musical training that have had an enormous effect on musicians in the 19th and 20th centuries.

10. Frédéric Chopin, (1 March 1810 – 17 October 1849), A Polish-born composer he is perhaps the greatest of all composers for the piano. Chopin started composing works designed for his original piano style after he gave two successful concerts in Vienna when he was 19. He wrote few concertos and sonatas, instead perfecting freer musical forms. Among his compositions are: 50 mazurkas, 26 preludes, 24 études, 19 nocturnes, 15 waltzes, 11 polonaises, 4 ballades, and 3 sonatas. Chopin did much to influence piano composition: he had a keen appreciation for the capability of the piano to produce beautiful music, and designed his compositions to display the resources of the instrument to full effect. His best works were written in patterns that he worked out or perfected himself. Chopin also influenced the whole future of music by including Slavic folk harmonies and rhythms in his work.

11. Hector Berlioz, (11 December 1803 – 8 March 1869), A leading figure in the French Romantic movement, Berlioz expressed in musical terms the subject matter of Romantic literature, drama, and painting. Alone among French composers of his time, he had an international following and, in freeing music from traditional forms, was able to influence composition and performance in the later 19th century. He is known for his orchestrating genius; his long, uninterrupted melodies; and his way of relating his musical compositions to stories and ideas, known as program music. Berlioz drew from his own life experiences for many of these programs. His symphonies include the Symphonie fantastique (1830); Harold in Italy (1834), with viola solo; and Romeo and Juliet (1839), with solo voices and chorus. He composed five operas, including Benvenuto Cellini (1838), Beatrice and Benedict (1862), and The Trojans (1863, 1890). His other works for soloists, chorus, and orchestra include the Requiem (1837), L'Enfance du Christ (1854), and The Damnation of Faust (1846).

12. Richard Wagner, (22 May 1813 – 13 February 1883), Among the great composers for the theater, he was the only one who created plot, characters, text, symbolism as well as the music. In his earlier works, he used elements of the German, French, and Italian operatic styles of his time. He reached a climax in Lohengrin, which brought these diverse elements to intense, expressive unity. After Lohengrin, Wagner developed a new musical language and moved to a freer chain of many melodic ideas (called motives) and keys, using new ways to blend them into the vast dimensions of his musical dramas. He thus raised German music to its highest emotional intensity, changing the course of Western music by either the extension of his methods or the reaction against them. He based his mature works on episodes from history and from medieval myths and legends. His music dramas based on the Nibelung tales became his most notable works. These include Das Rheingold, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, (The Twilight of the Gods). Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal are part of the King Arthur cycle. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is the story of the cobbler Hans Sachs.

13. Franz Liszt, (22 October 1811 – 31 July 1886), A Hungarian-born composer he was the most brilliant and celebrated concert pianist of the 19th century. A distinguished composer of great originality, he was a major figure in Romantic music writing many works for the piano and orchestra. Liszt's father taught him to play the piano, and at the age of 9 he gave concerts at Sopron, Pozsony, and at Prince Nicolas Esterházy's palace. Liszt went to Vienna, where he studied with two well-known teachers, Karl Czerny and Antonio Salieri. He gave his first public concerts in Vienna in 1822 and in Paris and London in 1824. His playing moved Beethoven to kiss him. The Hungarian government named him president of the Academy of Music at Budapest in 1870. He also performed an invaluable service to music as the teacher and sponsor of most of the brilliant musicians of his time.

14. Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, (7 May 1840 – 6 November 1893), One of the finest orchestrators, and one of the supreme melody writers in all of music, few composers have put as much of themselves into their work as Tchaikovsky who had a gift for contrasting instrumental sounds, particularly those of wind instruments. In 1861 he began to study with Anton Rubinstein, and five years later became a teacher at the Moscow Conservatory. During his years there, Tchaikovsky composed some of his most famous works: the ballet Swan Lake, the overture Romeo and Juliet, the instrumental fantasy Francesca da Rimini, and the popular First Piano Concerto. Later he also composed a violin concerto, the Nutcracker Suite, and his Symphony No. 6, usually called the Pathétique. Some of his most original and appealing music appears in his ballet scores, from which he arranged concert suites. His music contains quotations and other elements of Russian folk melodies, along with varied and contrasting moods. The last movement of the Pathétique (1893) projects a dark and sad atmosphere. However, Tchaikovsky's Slavonic March (1876) and the 1812 Overture (1882) are spirited and colorful examples of nationalism in Russian music.

15. Johannes Brahms, (7 May 1833 – 3 April 1897), The “three B's” is a phrase often applied to the composers Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. In linking him with two of the world's greatest composers, a sentiment is expressed that is still accepted today. Brahms was one of the relatively few composers whose works were fully recognized during their lifetimes. The first of his compositions to bring him fame was his German Requiem, which commemorated the death of his mother. He composed more than 300 songs and numerous orchestral, choral, piano, and chamber works. In mid-1896, though seriously ill, he wrote his Eleven Chorale Preludes for the organ. His life’s work includes four symphonies, two piano concertos, one violin concerto, a requiem, chamber music, piano music, and solo songs with piano accompaniment. His music reflects many traits of the Romantic movement while it is organized into elements of classical order.

16. Guiseppi Verdi, (10 October 1813 – 27 January 1901), One of the leading composers of Italian operas in the 19th century his Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore and La Traviata (both 1853), and Aïda (1871) will be staged as long as operas are performed. In his operas, Verdi's music shapes and advances the dramatic action. He often links musical themes and motifs with specific characters and events, especially in such late masterpieces as Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). The emotional impact, drama, and soaring melodies that characterize his operas are also found in such non-operatic works as his Requiem and Four Sacred Pieces. His works are performed more often today than those of any other opera composer. Between 1851 and 1871, Verdi produced a remarkable series of masterpieces, including Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore (1853), La Traviata (1853), The Sicilian Vespers (1855), Simon Boccanegra (1857, revised 1881), A Masked Ball (1859), La Forza del Destino (1862), Don Carlos (1867), and Aida (1871). He composed all his operas to Italian librettos (texts) except the Sicilian Vespers and Don Carlos, which he wrote to French librettos.

17. Claude Debussy (22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918), unusual chords, based on the whole-tone scale, laid the groundwork for an unconventional style of music called impressionism. He used rich harmonies and a wide array of tone colors to evoke moods, impressions, and images of great subtlety. Listen to his symphonic poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) for an example or the opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Other works included his cycle of Nocturnes for orchestra. Clair de lune (Moonlight), for solo piano, is one of his most popular compositions. His famous La Mer (The Sea) for orchestra was first performed in 1905 and many of his best piano pieces were composed during his late period, including his Préludes and Études (Studies). His revolutionary treatment of musical form and harmony helped change the direction of music in the early twentieth century.

18. Ignacy Paderewski, (6 November 1860 – 29 June 1941), At the age of 12, young Paderewski entered the conservatory at Warsaw and graduated in 1878, then taught piano there until 1883. He further studied in Vienna, with the renowned teacher Theodor Leschetizky, who did much to improve his limited technique. After which he began his concert career playing in Vienna in 1887 and then Paris and London. He made the first of many concert tours of the United States in 1891. His compositions were performed widely during his lifetime, but only his Minuet in G for piano has remained popular. Paderewski's compositions include the opera Manru, Sonata in A minor for violin and piano, six humoresques for piano, Polish Fantasy, and Concerto in A minor for piano and orchestra. His last composition, Symphony in B minor, is a musical picture of the tragic history of Poland. He also prepared an edition of the works of Chopin. After World War I he became the first premier of the Republic of Poland. His Memoirs were published in 1938.

19. Sergei Rachmaninoff, (1 April 1873 – 28 March 1943), Uprooted from his native Russia by the 1917 revolution, Sergei Rachmaninoff discovered the vital role his homeland had played in his compositions. Although he continued performing as a concert pianist, he produced only two major works during the 25 years he lived in the United States—the familiar Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra (1934), and his Third Symphony (1936). The first of his compositions to attract attention, however, was his Prelude in C Sharp Minor (1892), a piece his concert audiences were to insist on hearing for the rest of his life. A symphony first performed in 1897 was not well received, but his Second Piano Concerto (1901) established his reputation as a pianist and as a composer and shows the melancholy lyricism of his mature style and his skillful writing of virtuoso piano compositions. He wrote a number of songs and piano pieces; the symphonic poem, The Isle of the Dead (1909); and a choral symphony, The Bells (1913). Rachmaninoff represents a culmination of the Russian romantic tradition.

20. Igor Stravinsky, (17 June 1882 – 6 April 1971), One of the giants in 20th-century musical composition, the Russian-born Igor Stravinsky was both original and influential. His accomplishments include: restoring a healthy unwavering pulse essential to ballet; being meticulous about degrees of articulation and emphasis; creating a “clean” sound, with no filling in merely for the sake of filling in; writing for different instrumental groupings and creating a different sound in every work; reviving musical forms from the past; and making a lasting contribution to serial, or 12-tone, music. Stravinsky first gained world fame for three major ballets—The Firebird (1910), Petrouchka (1911, revised 1947), and The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) (1913). All were produced in Paris in collaboration with the famous Russian ballet manager Sergei Diaghilev and remain Stravinsky's best-known works.