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Thread: Bach, Mozart and Beethoven

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    Default Bach, Mozart and Beethoven

    I was just reading an interview of Michael Tilson Thomas which prompted me to do a quick search of him on the internet. I came across a quotation attributed to him with which he expressed a much (too) familiar sentiment when asked about his favourite composers:

    Quote Originally Posted by Thomas
    You can't have Bach, Mozart and Beethoven as your favourite composers. They simply define what music is!
    Whatever each of our individual tastes may be, I think it's fairly undeniable that these three composers have achieved a certain, untouchable, God-like status. My question is not why them, but rather, why only them?

    This idea quite clearly suggests that nobody since Beethoven has ever reached the same heights as these three Titans. We know of a tremendous number of masterpieces by later composers; we call them geniuses and we listen to their works with the same feeling of awe, but does no one else qualify to be uttered in the same breath as being truly on par with these giants?

    It seems to me that these three composers, deserving as they may be of the esteem in which they are held, have been somewhat removed from their works and idolised as entities of their own. Even if one could make the academic argument that a later composer was just as good (if not better), it almost feels like blasphemy to voice such an opinion.

    Why? I get the impression that it's just too soon. What these three composers have on their side is a temporal distance - they stand as looming figures in history that we cannot reasonably challenge. Later composers are perhaps just a bit too close. Maybe in the next century we'll comfortably tack on a fourth or fifth name to this mightily exclusive list...

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    Super Moderator jhar26's Avatar
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    I think part of the reason is that not only is their work of a very high quality, but there's also so much of it. That's also true for most of the other composers that usually end up in the top 6-8. - Schubert, Haydn and Handel. You can spend a lifetime listening to the music of any of those guys and still discover some jewel that you haven't heard before. Later composers usually have ended up with a much lower opus number. Some of them were arguably just as great, but they were less productive. Of course not every work from those baroque or classical greats is a masterpiece, but even if you only count what's really good it's still more than most romantic or modern greats' entire body of work.
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    History likes headliners. They just wound up the chosen ones. Not too hard to see why. Lots of great music, mass appeal, constant repetition and praise...soon enough they're the untouchables.

    I'd guess Tchaikovsky is most likely 4th on any such list.

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    Untouchable? I have seen lots of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven bashing, how often do you hear Mozart being called shallow and borderline pop music? How often do you hear about how all of Mahler/Dvorak/Brahms symphonies are born equal, unlike Beethoven's symphonies?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Polednice View Post
    My question is not why them, but rather, why only them?
    ...
    Much or all of what Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart etc. composed are accessible to us modern folks, as were to their audiences (with the possible exception of some of Bach's "musical science" pieces). There is nothing elitist, bombastic, "hey, look at me", type of approach in their music. They didn't get out of their beds each day thinking "what shall I compose today that will be completely revolutionary for posterity, given that Mr. X composed a particular piece of such quality before me", but they usually wrote a piece for a scheduled evening's entertainment or for commission to get paid to pay bills, or as a CV piece as a job application; pragmatic considerations along the way, and they just happened to be geniuses too, which helped! There is also a consistency of quality in their works.

    With many of the Romantic and beyond composers, you often read of them tearing up/destroying their own works because it wasn't good enough in their own minds. Many wanted to write an equivalent to Beethoven's ninth, or a piano concerto that was better than Mr X's. Or let's do away with recitatives and write a 15 hour long series of operas. Such thinking probably made the music less accessible, as a means of seeking new originality. Handel did not break new grounds in terms of developing a new genre or form, but wrote music of great uplifting quality based on existing styles and forms of his day; he basically "got on with composing".
    Last edited by HarpsichordConcerto; Jan-09-2010 at 14:33.

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    I know there is an amount of lionization that takes place, but I also know I can hear a Beethoven work I'm not very familiar with come up in my random playlist, and not knowing it's Beethoven still be moved by it's undeniable appeal, as if some universal aspect of the human condition were made into sound. Or maybe I am just responding to the Beethovenian gestures of the unfamiliar piece. Who can say?

    Many other composers do that, but not as consistently for me.

    If I had to pick another candidate for untouchable I'd bet on a Russian composer, but I am torn between Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Stravinsky is the more ground breaking, but maybe a little inconsistent. Shosty is consistently rewarding and might have been more ground breaking if he had been allowed. I'm sure other names will come to mind as soon as I hit the Post button.

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    I simply find it amazing how, in a field so inherently defined by personal taste, we can still find absolutes like Bach, Beethoven, etc. Even someone who does not like e.g. Wagner will, no, must admit that he was a genius.

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    Quote Originally Posted by HarpsichordConcerto View Post

    With many of the Romantic and beyond composers, you often read of them tearing up/destroying their own works because it wasn't good enough in their own minds.
    let us remember that in each successive periods the composers composed less. I believe this was in a large part due to the body of work they had to study and master.
    Bach wrote thousands of works, Mozart comes in at 626, Beethoven at 132 plus some Wo0, Brahms 120 only published.

    Mozart basically had to master Handel and Bach. Haydn the same thing. Beethoven had to master Handel, Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Salieri. Mendelssohn had to master Handel, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Salieri and Beethoven. Brahms had to master Handel, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Salieri, and Beethoven etc.

    Of course Raff was an exception.

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    I'd guess Tchaikovsky is most likely 4th on any such list.

    Wagner, Schubert, Brahms, Haydn, Handel would all certainly precede Tchaikovsky... after that...? All bets are off.

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    I don't think it's so much about mastering the previous generations styles...it's more so a "of the times" situation. In the Baroque period, composers were seen more as having a skill-set just as a wig maker had his, productivity was what was cherished, same for the classical period...the Romantic period is where people started taking notice of the greats and music became something people could readily cherish as it became more accessible.

    I think Bach Beethoven Mozart will always be untouchable because - they're popular, they're mythical, and they made some amazing music that still has it's place in todays mainstream culture (judge judy theme song anybody?).

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    I find this a relevant topic to me because even though I have many favorites, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms have and will always remain "the greats" for me.

    Why are they so famous? Is it because they are the most accessible to the public? Or is it just that not enough listeners have pushed the boundaries to try anything else beyond these "trite cliches"?

    Let me make it clear that Bach and Mozart are by no means accessible. Most beginners will prefer a Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, or Johann Strauss to the boring music of Mozart or purely intellectual fugues of Bach.

    But what I discover, and this is just my personal speculation, is that as tastes mature, instead of starting from the "greats" and moving outwards, people do the exact opposite. Mozart and Bach have only become greater, Schubert, Brahms, and Wagner too. I will admit, though, that personally, I still have exploring Haydn to look forward to.

    Saint-Saens, on the other hand, I rarely listen to now. Why is that if he engaged me so much when I first started listening to classical music?

    It's simply because I have moved on from my starting point and have discovered new things, that I don't have time to bother with such composers much anymore.

    It simply tires me when people think that Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart are cliches. They say that there are so many composers out there that are greater, for whatever reason. Let me remind you that any musicologist will consider these composers as great as they are claimed to be. Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart's rise to fame has nothing to do with the mere opinion of the public, as the public seems to prefer their Johann Strauss's, Tchaikovsky's and such. In addition, do not assume that the musically educated do not know their Tubin's, Raff's, and Nogard's, because they probably do. They have heard many obscure composers, yet the greats continue to remain the greats. Maybe not favorites... but simply... and may I add indisputably... great.
    "Summit or death, either way, I win" ~R. Schumann

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    I also agree that these three composers deserve all the recognition they receive.

    But what of other composers who are equally deserving?
    Haydn certainly is. His music is the perfect example of classicism and he was a major innovator. Many students start with Haydn rather than Mozart.

    Spohr was considered the equal of mozart during his life and today not many people have heard of him let alone consider him a great composer. Unfair I say...

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    Quote Originally Posted by emiellucifuge View Post
    I also agree that these three composers deserve all the recognition they receive.

    But what of other composers who are equally deserving?
    Haydn certainly is. His music is the perfect example of classicism and he was a major innovator. Many students start with Haydn rather than Mozart.

    Spohr was considered the equal of mozart during his life and today not many people have heard of him let alone consider him a great composer. Unfair I say...
    Well, Haydn is usually ranked halfway through the top 10 of all time greats, so he's getting a lot of (fully deserved) recognition already. I have some cd's from Spohr and while I think he was a very talented composer I think he misses that little bit extra to consider him the equal of a Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. I agree that he deserves more attention than he's getting though.

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    Quote Originally Posted by jhar26 View Post
    I think part of the reason is that not only is their work of a very high quality, but there's also so much of it. That's also true for most of the other composers that usually end up in the top 6-8. - Schubert, Haydn and Handel. You can spend a lifetime listening to the music of any of those guys and still discover some jewel that you haven't heard before. Later composers usually have ended up with a much lower opus number. Some of them were arguably just as great, but they were less productive. Of course not every work from those baroque or classical greats is a masterpiece, but even if you only count what's really good it's still more than most romantic or modern greats' entire body of work.
    I regard Mozart as a genius, but there are quite a few pieces I cannot listen to. Mozart didn't excrete gold from his quill every time.

    Beethoven had many songs that could be called mediocre.

    I think that these non-masterpieces were just fodder. Sometimes you just have to get paid.

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    Quote Originally Posted by emiellucifuge View Post
    I also agree that these three composers deserve all the recognition they receive.

    But what of other composers who are equally deserving?
    Haydn certainly is. His music is the perfect example of classicism and he was a major innovator. Many students start with Haydn rather than Mozart.

    Spohr was considered the equal of mozart during his life and today not many people have heard of him let alone consider him a great composer. Unfair I say...
    How did Spohr fall into obscurity anyway? I know it was common for composers from the 18th century who were massively popular in their time such as Süssmayr to wind up completely absent from the concert repertoire, but Spohr was around during Mendellsohn's time and their music was not that dissimilar.

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