Casual Musings on Top 10s and Greatness

By Alan Gilbert

I have followed Anthony Tommasini’s recent series in The New York Times on the Top 10 composers with great interest, both because I was curious about what the final list would be, and also because it is reminiscent of one of my favorite parlor games that I have played for years with my fellow “muzoids” (with thanks to Tom Morris for the term). Our rules are slightly different, however: we always limit ourselves to the Top Five, and we work with the premise that each time we return to the exercise, we have to introduce to the list at least one different composer. I like this fluid approach to something that, on at least a superficial level, sounds dogmatic. What becomes important in coming up with a new pantheon each time is an enthusiasm for music itself and, further, for the different criteria we use to measure greatness.

After all, what is “greatness”? I have often allowed myself a non-rigorous definition, i.e., “you know it when you see it.” Admittedly, this immediately presents problems, since it relies on recognition as the determining factor, and throughout the history of music, how many composers can we think of who were not considered to be great until many years had passed? Does this mean that their music was not “great” until long after it was written?

Perhaps time is an important element, though. Many would say that the ability to withstand the test of time is an essential aspect of great art. Further, I guess that I believe that great art often does have the capacity to speak across generations and cultural differences.

I recently spoke about this subject with my good friend Marc Neikrug and, interestingly, he identified the attribute of profound ambition as being necessary for a composer to be truly great. He meant that great composers all share the desire and capacity to say something deep and important about our humanity. Beethoven had this most Shakespearean quality more than any other composer — every note he wrote was infused with an illuminating aspect. Delibes was less great than, say, Debussy, because his music doesn’t achieve or even aspire to true profundity.

I realize that, philosophically, these musings may carry very little weight, but they have been occupying my mind, and I thought I would share them.

(For more information on Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, visit




Related posts

4 Responses to “Casual Musings on Top 10s and Greatness”

  1. Matthew Says:

    Hello Alan,

    Although I adore Schubert, his placing him at number four is indefensible. Needless to say, Wagner was a much greater composer and he deserves to be placed fourth followed by Debussy at fifth. His omitting Chopin is just unforgivable. And sorry but this Bela (Bartok) doesn’t ring, not for the precious tenth spot, anyway.

    Greatness has to involve impact on music in general and on untold numbers of listeners over time. If Bartok had never composed, who would know the difference? What impact did he have on anything outside dedicated musicians who care to explore the confines of expression? And Stravinsky. He influenced music and its evolution, but what impact did he have on a small sub-set of music lovers who actually want to listen to his specialized expression?

    But Chopin has influenced — to the great positive in all of life’s measure of enjoyment and expression of feeling — every pianist, every music-lover, every romantic who ever heard his music. To pick Bartok as greater than Chopin is utterly absurd. I just don’t see by what measure Bartok or could be rated as top-ten great. I think Tommasini and the average reader is picking his/her favorites, not evaluating greatness as this series claims. So who should take Bartok’s place? Either Mahler or Schoenberg both of whom dwarf him in inspiration and output.

    I think it’s fun and intellectually stimulating to consider “greatness” as a measure of these composers. But that measuring stick is more objective than most people can adhere to — even Mr Tommasini! I will admit that at times I felt rather turned off by this article. His reasoning seemed, frankly, trite and superficial. If I’m going to read an NY Times article about what made the masters great, I want it to go a little deeper than a Wikipedia article would.

  2. Henry Holland Says:

    “Delibes was less great than, say, Debussy, because his music doesn’t achieve or even aspire to true profundity”

    So that’s the metric then, aspiring to be profound? Brahms aspired to be profound yet his music bores me to tears.

    I prefer Jim Svejda of KUSC radio here in Los Angeles and his idea that there’s been 4 revolutions in music:

    Beethoven with form
    Wagner with harmony
    Debussy with sound/tone color
    Stravinsky with rhythm

  3. Jim Allen Says:

    “If Bartok had never composed, who would know the difference?”

    The numerous fans of his music and the composers who were influenced by him? Duh. I mean, we could use your rubric for dozens of composers. Handel? Schumann? Brahms? Dvorak? R. Strauss? (note: I love Schumann, Dvorak and Strauss’ music)

    “And Stravinsky. He influenced music and its evolution, but what impact did he have on a small sub-set of music lovers who actually want to listen to his specialized expression?”

    What on earth does that mean? I suspect you meant “but what impact did he have EXCEPT for that on a small sub-set etc.”

    Stravinsky’s influence on 20th century music is vast and profound and I don’t even like his music apart from “The Firebird” and “Le Rossignol”! Neo-classicism, primativism, his ballet scores, using blocks of music as a mean to assemble larger structures, rhythm as a major factor in composition and on and on. He’s also the acceptable face of serialism to a lot of people. He’s certainly had more impact on classical music than Chopin and his influence even extends to the rock genre as well.

    “But Chopin has influenced — to the great positive in all of life’s measure of enjoyment and expression of feeling”

    Yikes! My pretentiousness meter just went in to the red.

    ” — every pianist”

    not all of us are pianists

    “every music-lover”

    EVERY music-lover? Every single one? I know of two people personally that find Chopin’s music lightweight, same-y and insubstantial, and they aren’t alone. I love his music, but you overstate your case.

    “every romantic who ever heard his music”

    Not all of us are romantics, in fact some of us are anti-Romanticism. Really, it’s true! Some of us would rather listen to Debussy when dining by candlelight with a loved one if that’s what you meant by “romantic”.

    “To pick Bartok as greater than Chopin is utterly absurd”

    To YOU. I don’t rate Chopin because he was a one-trick pony. That trick was amazing -writing great solo piano music- but where’s Chopin’s opera or vocal music? The symphonies or other orchestral pieces? His chamber output is small and is never played as far as I can tell. His orchestrations are routinely snickered at, because….he was a one-trick pony.

    Bartok wrote one fantastic opera, 2 terrific ballets, 3 great piano concertos, some terrific solo piano music, 6 string quartets that are widely played and admired, some terrific orchestral pieces (the early 4 Pieces, Music for S, P & C, the masterpiece that is the Concerto for Orchestra) and so on. Not to mention, Bartok was crucial in the movement to record and notate folk-songs, which has had a wide influence.

    “His reasoning seemed, frankly, trite and superficial”

    Well, if your cases would be made like the one that you made for Chopin, I’ll pass.

  4. Jeffrey Biegel Says:

    You nailed it exactly, Alan. I also agree with Mark. Barbra Streisand once said that, it is not just the winners of the Academy Awards, it’s the films that withstand the test of time. As the world ever evolves, and society alters its shifts amidst the tides of politics, religious awareness and basic human behavior co-existing alongside these tides of change, the music, art and literature which survives the longer distances will be considered ‘great’. As in the Lexicon of the Modern Invective, many great works which were negatively reviewed, are now considered great. The same shall follow in 100 years from now. As musicians and stewards of our craft, it is our duty to bring these new works–great or not in our time–to the public, and then let future history allow these works to fall into the categories of greatness or obscurity as time often does.