10 Greatest Composers

“I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.”

Richard Strauss

At the New York Times, music critic Anthony Tommasini is compiling a list of the ten greatest composers. He acknowledges that:

…the resulting list would not be the point. But the process of coming up with such a list might be clarifying and instructive, as well as exasperating and fun.

Mr. Tommasini’s basic guidelines are that the composers be from the late Baroque and before our lifetime. So neither Josquin nor Barber could be considered. As justification, he says in the comments:

I find it almost possible to compare the achievements of, say, Schumann and Beethoven. How do you compare Schumann and Dufay?

If composers before Bach could be considered, I’d find room for Monteverdi definitely and possibly Josquin and Palestrina. But then we do get into a mess because you could make a good case for Phillipe de Vitry, Leonin, Machaut, Dufay, and Perotin. Hmmm.

The limitation is essential for this.

How to Decide

So what would be your list? And more importantly, what would you use to decide?

I would have to balance quality and influence. Of course, then you would have to decide what having “quality” means (see Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and how to measure influence. Is it influence on myself or on other people regardless of my feelings about that composer’s music?

Mr. Tommasini’s starting point is J.S. Bach. Certainly most of us could agree on that, yes?

Then we begin stating obvious choices…Mozart…Beethoven…Haydn? Handel? Brahms? Where is Wagner, Verdi, and Schubert? How about Berlioz and Gluck? Does Debussy stand on his own? How about Ravel? And the Russians, where are they? How about pianists like Chopin and Liszt? Does the vast output of Telemann put him in this league?

My Current List

So here’s my – if you had a gun up to my head – 10 Greatest list. This is not necessarily in any order either:

  • J.S Bach
  • Mozart
  • Beethoven
  • Wagner
  • Schubert
  • Debussy
  • Brahms
  • Verdi
  • Haydn
  • Tchaikovsky

I defined quality through a mixture of conscious understanding of technique and my own emotional reaction to these composers’ music. I’ve picked pretty obvious composers – I believe – so their influence is understood if not totally fleshed out here. Since I’m a singer, I am biased toward vocal music composers.

My analytical brain really questions Tchaikovsky, but I’m not sure who would replace him (Mahler maybe? Schumann?). Besides, I just love listening to his stuff.

It is unfortunate that there are no English (Britten and Purcell are both disqualified) nor American composers nor any women. Most come from the Germanic countries and Vienna in particular. I don’t know what to do about this though. If Mahler and Schumann were added, then this skew would be further exaggerated. Alas.

I would love love love to know if you’re putting together your own list and how you would do it. Let me know what you decide.


  1. says

    According to iTunes, my most-played composers are…. Flight of the Conchords, distantly followed by Debussy and Wagner.

    Perhaps I’m not qualified to write any Top 10 Composers lists, eh?

  2. Ian Sidden says


    Well, I’m not sure that I am either. Anyone can be argued for or against, so it’s totally subjective in the end until somebody comes up with a definitive system for measuring.

  3. jean says

    I’m definitely not qualified but I think if you can only choose ten you’ve got some of the best. Wouldn’t want to leave Tchaikovsky out. After a while it looks like Germany completely owns it so let’s mix it up. If I was brave enough to make a list I’d have to throw Chopin on it as a personal favorite.

  4. Ian Sidden says

    Yes, I’m sure Chopin would be on many people’s lists. His music is totally moving and has a unique musical voice. One can always tell that it’s Chopin.