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I don't subscribe to the idea that whether you like a piece or not depends on your emotional disposition or 'preferences for a particular style. Evidently there are pieces out there which are liked by the majority. Why is this so? Well I thought about why is 'La campanella', 'Fur Elise', 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' and others so famous when there are other equally as beautiful pieces. Well clearly these 'equally as beautiful pieces' aren't as beautiful as the most played pieces of classical music. Why? Well I think, and I could be wrong, that they're all such coherent pieces of music. By that I mean the melodies are very memorable. It's the same with anything beautiful I guess. The more 'refined' and coherent something is, the more beautiful we seem to find it. Everything that constitutes to the design of something has a purpose - it's not something extraneous. Every note has a purpose to produce something that is whole and 'perfect'. If you started removing even one note then the melody would alter dramatically to become unrecognisable. Music like this seems to be very dense and 'interconnected' in an illusive sense and I hear something that is so precise and delicate but has overwhelming meaning to exist. As if there is a three dimensional underpinning that connects the piece by pulling it together and exposing only the notes that are relevant. That's why I think other pieces aren't as popular because they are facets of these more coherent pieces.... Bach's music is so enjoyable to listen to for this reason. Every note has a purpose... It's quite difficult to explain really but imagine I wanted to extract sodium crystals from a saline solution. I'm sure you've probably done this in school. You leave it out to dry so that the liquid evaporates and you're left with the sodium crystals. In this sense, the liquid is the extraneous notes and the sodium crystal the melody. It's a refining process. 

Which kind of begs the question: What do I have to do to become a good composer. You need to ensure your music is coherent, whole and interconnected with an overwhelming reason to exist. This is most important. I am struggling to find words in my vocabulary to explain my point. Ornamentation and such like doesn't detract from a piece being coherent. It's a question of: Does what's written down produce on the whole something that is coherent. It's very difficult to explain! But imagine if I were going to choose a particular chord or sequence. What if I had chosen one with lesser musical effect? Continually doing this would produce nothing of significance. It's all about how musical units are connected with each other.

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Well, a ZEN-Deist-Christian-Existentialist. I should have known.

Given that ZEN is put first, I wonder how you evaluate John Cage's music, from the Zen perspective, given that Zen serves as the essential aesthetic and philosophical ground of his compositional and performing technique.

We ask, "Why are some people's music more liked than others' music," in this thread.

Let me see.

Pull out the old list.

John Cage ranks 59 out of 500, in the list of composers by rank, which is a thoroughly scientific, and therefore, reasonably accurate assessment of his worth.

That's fairly high.

He ranks just above these 20 composers:

60. 58. Scriabin, Alexander 60.969
61. 55. Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel 61.653
62. 71. Wolf, Hugo 63.082
63. 65. Messiaen, Oliver 64.148
64. 56. Janácek, Leos 64.762
65. 75. Scarlatti, Domenico 65.290
66. 60. Falla, Manuel de 65.291
67. 53. Villa-Lobos, Heitor 66.222
68. 81. Gluck, Christopher W. R. von 69.017
69. 76. Paganini, Niccolo 69.612
70. 67. Satie, Erik 71.279
71. 91. Byrd, William 72.011
72. 57. Berg, Alban 72.252
73. 90. Weill, Kurt 74.249
74. 86. Kodály, Zoltán 76.701
75. 79. Webern, Anton (von) 77.015
76. 74. Offenbach, Jacques 77.169
77. 124. Lasso, Orlando di 77.269
78. 130. Josquin Desprez 79.458
79. 77. Borodin, Alexander 81.175
80. 115. Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da 81.194

And he ranks, just below these composers:

40. 44. Purcell, Henry 40.194
41. 31. Saint-Saëns, (Charles-)Camille 40.298
42. 46. Weber, Carl Maria von 42.920
43. 52. Ives, Charles 43.040
44. 39. Hindemith, Paul 44.046
45. 34. Elgar, Edward 45.568
46. 51. Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolay 45.868
47. 50. Bruckner, Anton 46.197
48. 33. Strauss, Johann Jr. 46.593
49. 47. Mussorgsky, Modest 46.717
50. 78. Bernstein, Leonard 46.859
51. 59. Bellini, Vincenzo 48.540
52. 49. Franck, Cesar 49.262
53. 48. Monteverdi, Claudio 49.916
54. 54. Barber, Samuel 51.091
55. 43. Poulenc, Francis 54.133
56. 61. Gounod, Charles 55.398
57. 66. Massenet, Jules 57.163
58. 93. Sullivan, Arthur 59.090


To what do we attribute the fact that his work is liked more than that of Scriabin, Borodin, Offenbach and Palestrina (and less liked than what was composed by Ives, Hindemith, Bruckner and Saint-Saens)?

Chop wood, carry water.




michael diemer said:

Chop wood, carry water.

Thanks for the Byrd music, Kristofer. I'm listening to it now. I first heard the Tallis Scolars on an episode of "With Heart and Voice" years ago and was blown away. I especially remember this one piece where the soprano has to hit an outrageously high note repeatedly. Can't remember the piece, or the note, but I may have taped it. I used to tape that show along with "Pipe Dreams." One time I was walking through Union Station, DC with a case full of cassettes of these shows, and it burst open all over the place. I believe MP3 players had been invented, but I was still in the recorded music stone age. Embarrasing, but I couldn't leave home without my music!

Thank you, Mr. Wu. The wood and the water are me, I am the wood and the water.

Ondib Olmnilnlolm said:




Just had a thought (I get them occasionally). Maybe people like tonal/traditional music because it is more connected to speech than "modern" music. So they feel that it is about something, not just some disjointed sounds that have no connection to human speech patterns. As I said, just a thought, and I'm sure it's been thunk before.

Kristofer, Thank you for providing the link to the Mass for Five Voices, by William Byrd. Of course, it is an outstanding work of most rare beauty. I attempt to return the favor by providing a few links below. This is a good conversation, I think, because we are dealing with specifics. You said, “Provide for me an example of vocal work from each of those 70 composers, Bach aside, which will compare favourably with (or against) Byrd's Mass for Five Voices, because that is the only way you'll ever alter my opinion.”

Now, we are speaking of the 70 composers who ranked above Byrd. I am not attempting to “alter your opinion.” I think this thread is about what makes a composer’s work “more liked than others,” according to the thread title. One person’s opinion, yours or mine alone, may not be all that relevant, though I welcome yours, and am glad to have you share it. I don’t think the applause given to Lady Gaga and Snoop Dog are relevant at all here (and you do appear to agree); we are obviously not talking about the opinions of people who have little or no knowledge of the music written through the ages, or little or no knowledge about music written by composers familiar with that long tradition.

I think we also agree, this is not about “consensus” in the ordinary sense of the word. “Consensus,” among certain types of people may play some role. The list of 500 is to a large degree “objective” and “scientific,” since it is based upon (among other things) objective determinations (in so far as such determinations are possible) made within the larger community of trained musicians, musicologists, composers, music librarians, et cetera. Twelve broad scientific and objective criteria are provided:

I don’t think anyone on this forum has tried to explain why these complex criteria are invalid in the overall determination of a composer’s worth, at least in a broad sense, with some give and take, allowing for a little movement one way or another, up or down, in the ranking. In other words, I don’t think anyone would say the list is “wrong” in ranking the famed member of the French “Les Six,” George Auric, in the 400’s in a list of 500, well below Haydn, who ranks Number 9. George Auric wrote some very good works, and few people could say he is not a good composer. He just doesn’t deserve to be ranked with the likes of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, and Handel. We could quibble about very precise rankings, but not so much, I think, with general locations on the list as a whole.

The list- 500 composers ranked:

So back to the question: Kristofer asks to be provided with “an example of vocal work from each of those 70 composers, Bach aside, which will compare favourably with (or against) Byrd's Mass for Five Voices…” Aren’t there many examples that would qualify? Can we simply look at the list and choose great choral works by the composers who rank most highly? If not, why not? Why would Mozart’s magnificent opera, The Magic Flute, or parts of it not compare favorably? The final movement of Beethoven’s monumental Symphony Number Nine, including the Ode to Joy? Wagner’s Epic Ring Cycle, or parts thereof? Handel’s Messiah?

The list of top 500 composers is not a list of specific works; still, given that Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Handel all rank well above Byrd, and since they are known for their achievements in vocal writing (in addition to other accomplishments), I wonder, why we should accept the notion such oeuvres do not “compare favorably” with Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices? The latter is an excellent work, to be sure. I don’t wish to minimize its greatness. But I think we can affirm that the above mentioned works—by Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner and Handel—not only compare favorably, but are superior. I would suggest that even Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” may be compared favorably with the Mass. It’s possible (though I admit Beethoven has written many poor works that are inferior to Byrd’s). Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy

As we come to the modern period, we note that Stravinsky ranks much more highly than Byrd. Stravinsky (ranked at 16) is not so well known for his vocal music as he is for works like the Rite of Spring, Petrouchka, and the Firebird. Still, I cannot in my mind exclude the possibility that the “Symphony of Psalms,” especially the conclusion and coda, compares favorably with the Byrd Mass for Five Voices.

It would be too tedious and time consuming to find choral, vocal or operatic works by EACH of the 70 composers on the list that rank above Byrd, as you ask people to do. Some truly great composers are not well known for their vocal work, like Bruckner (who did write Masses) or Bartok (who wrote the opera, Bluebird’s Castle); let’s keep in mind that such composers are better known for their orchestral or chamber works. Nevertheless, I can satisfy your request with SOME EXAMPLES of specific works (written by composers who rank at 70 or closer to the top) that can be compared favorably with Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices. I would suggest the final movements from Mahler’s Second, Fourth, and Eighth Symphonies. I would cite operas, such as Prokofiev’s “The Gambler,” “The Flaming Angel,” or Shostakovich’s “Lady MacBeth” that could be said to contain writing comparable in quality to that found in Byrd’s choral work.

A Fantastic Production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (2006):
Only recently posted on youtube (Feb 9, 2014).
(Famous Death scene, due to poisoned mushrooms, starts at 1:09)

Some may wish to advocate for the operatic output of Richard Strauss (ranked highly but not a particular favorite of mine, though Electra and Salome are undoubted masterpieces). Operas by Janacek have a certain appeal, and his “vocal work” has recently been gaining in reputation and significance. Rossini’s merit was such that even Beethoven envied his ability to write for voice, and said so. I don’t think it is even necessary for me to try to explain why Schubert lieder have such a high reputation, in this context. What about Vivaldi’s Gloria, and other choral works? One might go on and on about Verdi and Puccini (I won’t though, but that’s largely a matter of my own idiosyncratic personal taste, rather than due to any investigation of the artistic merit of their opera writing made by me. I dare say Puccini and Verdi are truly great.) I have a personal fondness for Prokofiev and Shostakovich, which is rather strong, so I would add many of their works to the list that include great vocal writing, such as “The Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Russian Revolution” (1936) by the former, and by the latter, “The Execution of Stephan Razin,” especially the very powerful opening, in the version below, performed by singer Vitaly Gromadsky. Prokofiev’s October Cantata (Listen to “Philosophy,” starting at 3:00. That compares favorably to Byrd’s work, without a doubt, in my mind). Shostakovich’s Execution of Stephan Razin (Gromadsky) (The opening has as much power and emotional force as nearly any choral work I have ever heard, which astounded me the very first time I heard the piece, in the 1970’s when it was originally released).

As long as I am speaking at least somewhat subjectively (though Prokofiev and Shostakovich do rank “objectively” above Byrd), I might even go further. I know that Karlheinz Stockhausen (at 106) ranks below William Byrd (at 71). Still, I think that—even if the former’s choral work “Momente” might not be considered superior, or even to “compare favorably,” with Byrd’s best vocal pieces—that work by Stockhausen still contains many outstanding passages that I personally find very moving.

Since Fredrick was so kind as to present the link to the Byrd Mass, I present here the link to the second part of Stockhausen’s “Momente,” and invite people to listen, if they wish, to a brief passage, about three minutes long. This particular passage has impressed itself upon my musical memory, so much so that I find it more aesthetically pleasing even than the work by Byrd that was so graciously posted.

The work as a whole is rather long, so I am only suggesting this 3- minute section:

26:45 - 29:45 (the section I find particularly outstanding)
Stockhausen- Momente

Whatever anyone’s personal reaction to this work may be, I would be willing to concede that Byrd is a greater composer of vocal / choral music than Stockhausen. That is part of why Byrd ranks higher than Stockhausen.

Nevertheless, all subjective considerations aside, I think the majority of composers who have written extensively for voice, and who rank above Byrd, have produced works that not only compare favorably with the Mass for Five Voices, but also works that might be arguably superior. That may include all or the vast majority of the specific works I have mentioned above. (The list of 500 composers is not perfect, of course; and I also laugh with Fredrick at granting Arthur Sullivan a ranking slightly above Byrd. That’s merely an anomaly, I believe. Still, however valuable the rankings may be, I would be the last to say they should somehow be “set in stone.”)

The list of 500 composers is lacking in one imporant thing: it is a list compiled by people alive today. for such a list to have real validity, it would need to include people from the time periods when all these composers were alive and writing their music. In other words, the sample is skewed. It only reflects the views of a small and unrepresentative pool of responses.

Michael Dernier,

I understand what you are saying. You pointed out:

“The list of 500 composers is lacking in one imporant thing: it is a list compiled by people alive today. for such a list to have real validity, it would need to include people from the time periods when all these composers were alive and writing their music.”

You are correct, and you compel me to reveal this fact: I do know about another list, compiled with the help of time travel technology: It was compiled by people from all the past centuries of recorded history. It also contains judgments made by people from the distant future. But that’s not all. Alien intelligences from nearby planets, from other distant star sectors within our Milky Way and from planets in other galaxies have also contributed. I shouldn’t mention this part, since it’s rather sensitive, but sentient beings from many alternative universes and parallel quantum realities have also had extensive influence on the final rankings on the list.

I would like to share this list, but I am told, it is being withheld. I am being informed that—with the Earth in its current state of technological, cultural and artistic development—the Trans-Temporal Minister for Ancient and Future Culture, the Head of Interplanetary and Interstellar Exchange, and the Assistant Deputy Director for Inter-Universal Communications have agreed to wait, until Earth evolves further, before we are given any more information on this subject.

In the meantime, we will have to do the best we can with institutions we have, and the judgments of people who are alive today on our planet.

I apologize for any inconvenience that may cause.

I don't blame them. They should stay away from us.

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