Whenever I encounter an article trying to make a ranking of the greatest composers of all time, I usually turn away and try to make better use of my time. But the sheer amount of people ardently defending or diminishing this or that composer makes me think that the issue is truly important for some, the reasons not being very clear to me yet. Admittedly there are great and greater composers, but wouldn’t it be better to simply make a list of our favorite composers and leave it at that? Why do we passionately want our favorites to be everyone else’s favorites as well?
I would approach the issue from a different perspective. In all fields there are people whose impact reaches only those immediately surrounding them. Then there are those who have an impact on their communities. Some can have a strong influence on their nation as a whole, while others can make an impact on their time. Finally, there are those who transcend time. Not everyone aspires to be great and not everyone can achieve greatness, but that does not take value away from his or her contribution no matter how small it may seem. Let’s take a look at each one of them.
A composer who transcends time is usually a visionary, a man who was capable not only to master his art but also to elevate the field to a whole new level. Those are the men who change the course of history and whose music we still listen today almost everywhere. The icons that almost everyone in the planet knows by name and whose music is still inspiring people of all ages around the world and will continue resounding for centuries to come. Among them are Bach, Mozart and Beethoven (just to mention a few); men who have transcended language, culture, politics, war, nationality and time. They are the immortals, and they still live among us.
Those who are widely recognized as great during their lifetimes are capable of producing works that capture the zeitgeist or spirit of their time. A composer like this is celebrated around the world during his lifetime and beyond, but his light starts to dim gradually after a few decades. His works are played less and less and only a few compositions survive. With time, this composer becomes increasingly associated with only one or a few of the many compositions he wrote, and although some of his works have managed to transcend time, the composer did not transcend himself. Yes, his name will be remembered, but only in regards to a specific work; his oeuvre as a whole has not survived the test of time. These are the Albinonis, the Pachelbels and the Orffs and although their legacy might have been reduced to a single piece, let’s not underestimate these men; very few people are able to accomplish this incredible feat.
A composer whose music is capable of reaching a whole nation has enjoyed a considerable amount of international success during his lifetime; his name sounded loud and strong among his contemporaries. He might have occupied important administrative positions in his country and was capable of shaping the future of music and music education within his borders. His works are still performed, but mainly in his country of origin. Some musicians from other places might have interest in reviving his works but this is usually done at a modest scale. None of his or her works has been capable of capturing the public imagination at a worldwide scale, and today their names are obscure and practically unknown to general audiences outside their countries of origin. Some examples are Panufnik, Myaskovsky and Kuula. They are cherished in their respective countries and justifiably so. Their light is dim, but still shines for a few.
Composers who had an impact on their communities are unknown to us. But some of their compositions have survived, although the original scores might be lost forever. They are behind the works that are labeled “anonymous” and “traditional”, and they created something that meant a lot for their people. Their creations have undergone change after change and their music is now the result of a collective endeavor. Although they are not remembered by name, their contribution has made its way to us.
Finally, not a single note has survived from those who had an impact to those immediately surrounding them. But although their compositions might be completely forgotten, perhaps they taught composition at their local music school and shared their knowledge with their family and especially their children. Although their works might never get a chance to be performed again, their impact, albeit an indirect one, cannot be underestimated. A great composer is a rare gem and many great composers learned their art from men and women whose names and works have fallen into oblivion.
Of course we could make more subdivisions, especially between the “immortals” and the one-piece composers, but what I’m trying to point out here is that, although some composers might be greater than others, nobody is entitled to belittle anyone else’s work. I feel that a ranking does not do justice to anyone and does not quite contribute anything to our understanding of music and musicians. This is why here I have approached the issue from the point of view of transcendence and influence (time is the best tool we have at our disposal when measuring these factors) rather than determining who is categorically better or worse. Admittedly, some are born with greater talent than others, but what really matters is how we all make use of our talent. We should always strive to achieve the maximum within our own possibilities without establishing comparisons. Comparisons can work both ways, they can help us go forward but they can also lead us to stagnation. It is always better to look inwards and constantly demand the maximum from us.
Ultimately, the contribution of every musician -no matter how small- is still felt today either directly or indirectly. Yes, there are a few names that stand out in History, but music is a collective experience; we build up on each other’s achievements and we will continue creating and recreating music for as long as our race exists. Like the stars, the contribution of each individual composer has a place in the night sky, some shine brighter than others, but they all shed their light upon us.