Who is the Greatest Composer of All Time?

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Hi, this is Robert Estrin at LivingPianos.com. Today’s topic is, “Who is the Greatest Composer of All Time?” There are many aspects to this question. First, let’s consider innovative music versus joyful music. If you’ve ever listened to John William’s scores, they are absolutely fantastic – beautifully crafted romantic era style music. There’s wide variety in his scores for different films. It’s great music, yet he’s not necessarily regarded as one of the great composers of all time. Why is that? It’s because he’s writing music that could have been composed a hundred years ago or longer. There’s nothing new in regards to style and innovation.

How important is innovation?

Let’s take for example a late 19th century composer like Brahms, one of my favorite composers of all time. His crafting of music was unparalleled, yet there was nothing really groundbreaking other than the beauty of the actual scores. It could have been written decades earlier. Franz Liszt on the other hand was writing tone poems in the early 1800’s, decades before Wagner and Richard Strauss were composing tone poems, so he was a great innovator.

Aside from innovation, how else can we measure who is the the greatest composer of all time?

Obviously there are composers who are regarded as the greatest. Mozart is on most people’s short list of great composers. Because of the fine crafting of his music, the turning of a phrase that was just so elegant and perfect. But with a composer like Mozart there’s another aspect that’s important to talk about, which is the depth of the compositions. I’m not talking about depth within each piece, but a varied output. Mozart wrote choral works, solo piano works, concertos, flute concertos, string quartets, etc. He wrote for many different types of ensembles. Comparatively, let’s look at the great composer Frederic Chopin. If you take away Chopin’s piano music, you don’t have much music of great consequence in his output. So is Chopin one of the greatest composers of all time? He’s certainly one of the greatest piano composers of all time.

If we are talking about a depth of musical output we must mention Beethoven.

You had Mozart, you had Haydn, two of the great Classical era composers, as well as many great Baroque composers who preceded them. But Beethoven took the music to new places with the expansion of the forms and expansion of the instruments. He worked with instrument builders expanding the instruments. Late Beethoven piano music was written for a very different instrument than early Beethoven, in no small part because of how he worked with instrument builders. He also expanded the orchestra. He used larger orchestras, and also larger forms. Instead of three movement symphonies, four movement works in symphonies, concertos, sonatas and chamber music became much more common in his later works. So I would definitely put Beethoven high on the list of greatest composers of all time, but not because I necessarily prefer his music to some other great composers.

I’m going to get a lot of different opinions here, and they’re all justifiable because ultimately it’s like asking, “Who’s your favorite child?” That’s a really tough question to answer. If you’re like most parents, you love all your kids for what they bring to the family. I feel that way about composers. But if I had to pick intellectually, not emotionally, I would choose Johann Sebastian Bach.

In terms of innovation, output, and range of composition, it’s hard to imagine how Bach was able to achieve so much such a long time ago.

Not only that, but did you know that a good proportion of his music got destroyed and we don’t even know what he wrote? There is an amazing body of work he wrote for keyboard, organ and orchestra, the Brandenburg concertos, his oratorios and masses, the depth and the range of his compositions, and considering anything before him, it’s mind boggling to think of what Johann Sebastian Bach achieved. He also wrote in so many different styles from French, to English, to Italian compositions even though he travelled very little. He made a point of attending concerts of visiting artists who came through where he lived in Germany and wrote great music in so many different styles. So I would have to put Bach on the top of my list of greatest composers of all time. Although there are other composers whose music is no less great.

I welcome your comments, because there are many valid viewpoints. I’m not saying that Bach was absolutely the greatest composer of all time, but he’s arguably one of the greatest composers for the reasons I just articulated. I hope this is interesting for you and thought provoking.
Send your questions to Robert@LivingPianos.com so I can answer them in upcoming videos. See you next time!