Favorite Classical Composers

First Posted Prior to October 2013


I was late getting on board the .mp3 express, so what music I own is mostly on CD. It's an eclectic mix - pop, classical, jazz, nature sounds. Really, I'm open to most kinds of music except opera, bluegrass, and violent and/or misogynistic forms of rap and hip hop. The largest portion of my collection is given over to classical, and it's a tiny fraction of what I owned in the days when I had over a thousand classical LPs and hundreds of cassette tapes, now all gone.

Economists are fond of saying that the best indicator of a person's preferences is that person's behavior. If my preferences are truly reflected by how much of their music I own, then here are my ten favorite classical music composers.

1. Beethoven. 1770-1827. German. Maybe the most famous composer of all time. He battled against encroaching deafness and somehow overcame it. Favorites include the symphonies, string quartets, and most of the cello and violin sonatas.

2. Haydn. 1732-1809. Austrian. This guy doesn't get the credit from critics that I think he deserves, perhaps because of the enormous quantity of music he wrote. Yet, most of it is very good indeed. He wrote at least 30 great symphonies; all of the string quartets from Opus 20 on are superb; the piano sonatas are unjustly neglected.

3. Mozart. 1756-1791. Austrian. Mozart, or as my friend Eugene calls him, Wonderboy, only lived to 35 but wrote some of the greatest music in history. Critics celebrate his operas, though I don't. My nod goes to the piano concerti, particularly the sublime 19th.

4. Piston. 1894-1976. American. I'd never heard of Walter Piston until I happened to catch a broadcast of one of his eight symphonies. From then on I was hooked. He's best known for his ballet The Incredible Flutist, but for me the eight symphonies are the undisputed core of his work.

5. Brahms. 1833-1897. German. I used to listen to Brahms almost obsessively, but it can be somber and ultimately depressing. Every written mention of the man seems to include the word "autumnal", and I've just added to that tradition. The symphonies are masterpieces, as are most of the chamber works, though I confess to finding the string quartets almost unlistenable.

6. Sibelius. 1865-1957. Finnish. I like the idea of liking Sibelius more than I like his music. Seeing him ranked this high on my list reminds me that I need to unload some of my Sibelius CDs. Favorites include the first, second, or fifth symphonies. The seventh isn't bad either.

7. Bach. 1685-1750. German. I'm not a big fan of baroque music, but Bach is so good that he overwhelms my prejudices in that regard. It's a cliche to like the Brandenburg Concerti, but there's no avoiding it. The violin concerti are among my all time favorites.

8. Bartok. 1881-1945. Hungarian. Some classical radio stations have "No Bartok" policies. It's easy to understand why, though that doesn't make it less of a shame. There's lots to like here, including the piano concerti, string quartets, and the Concerto for Orchestra.

9. Dvorak. 1841-1904. Czech. My sense is that it took Dvorak some time to find his musical feet. His later work doesn't disappoint. The late symphonies, the late string quartets, and the violin concerto are all excellent.

10. Hanson. 1896-1981. American. Once I discovered Piston I went looking for other American composers, and Howard Hanson (born in Wahoo, Nebraska) was one of my most fortuitous finds. I'd start with the second symphony.