Please help me find the fifth in my weird list of classical music composers.
June 5, 2009 6:57 PM   Subscribe

My list of favorite classical composers makes sense to me intuitively but not logically, and I don't know how to continue the list. Can anyone help?

I tried to list my five favorite composers for someone the other day. What I got was:

1. Rameau (b. 1682)
2. J.S. Bach (b. 1685)
3. Chopin (b. 1810)
4. Ravel (b. 1875)
5. ???

I cannot find an n-space in which these four are all close to each other, but if anyone can parameterize this and tell me who #5 is, I'm all ears. If someone could do so in a way that convinces me I'm not insane for grouping these four, all the better.

I am not fond of Beethoven or Mozart, as far as "usual suspects" go, but I would think that someone who could say that would fall on one or the other side historically -- not just jump a couple of centuries.
posted by quarantine to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Holst (b. 1874)?
posted by torquemaniac at 7:03 PM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm afraid I can only find a grouping that would include composers 2-4, and that would be that their music was used by the two great choreographers of the New York City Ballet, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins for several of their masterpieces. So I might include another composer whose music they were drawn to, such as Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky. Sorry about leaving out Rameau.
posted by quintno at 7:14 PM on June 5, 2009

You're right, this list makes pretty much no sense along any single vector. Bach is the canonical baroque composer and, though I'm not familiar with Rameau I'm guessing he's similar given the time period and his description in Wikipedia. Baroque music tends to be very dense, in terms of sheer number of notes played, and also kind of numeric in the sense that it often relies on a cycle of variations that is completely predictable if you know your scales. For this reason lots of baroque pieces were considered very "clever" by other genteel people who knew music well. Instrumentation tends to be simple, either a solo klavier or small ensemble.

On the other hand, Chopin is a prototypical romantic composer, and Ravel in some ways even moreso - their music tends to be lush, bombastic, and go from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other, often relying on harsh dissonance to set a mood. Instrumentation tends to be a large orchestra, though of course Chopin is known for his piano etudes.

So, you might want to follow up on both of these strains and stop trying to make sense of it as a single thing.

It might help if you listed some of your favorite pieces by each composer and tried to make sense of it that way. Honestly if you're a fan of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the piano etudes, and the Bolero, then I'm going to have to say you just have a diverse taste in instrumental music and there is no single thread to it. But if you like, say, piano/klavier pieces by all of these guys, or concertos and other small ensemble pieces, then maybe that is your consistency.
posted by rkent at 7:17 PM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree that this list is kind of random, but given your apparent predilection for atmospheric keyboard music, I'd recommend trying Liszt or Scriabin next.
posted by dfan at 7:29 PM on June 5, 2009

Response by poster: It might help if you listed some of your favorite pieces by each composer

Yeah, not a bad idea.

Bach: Fugues, predominantly.
Rameau: Solo harpsichord works, the "weirder" the better.
Ravel: Trio and sonatas
Chopin: Noctunes, preludes, the moodier études

There's a lot of keyboarding on that list, and I may have stumbled upon something with the adjective "moody". Your "dense" is good, too, and while I'm navel-gazing a bit, those adjectives would also apply to the rock I like (grunge, Tool, etc.) Bach annoys me when he's being "pretty", and Chopin when he's being flashy (although I began to seriously doubt whether Ashkenazy's interpretations of the études were anything close to accurate after Idil Biret's fantastic renderings [her thesis is that all Chopin is chamber music.])

This previous post has also been helpful.
posted by quarantine at 7:33 PM on June 5, 2009

Response by poster: apparent predilection for atmospheric keyboard music, I'd recommend trying Liszt

Yeah, that's not a bad net, either. And, yes, I'm a Liszt fan. but Scriabin is utterly unknown to me (indeed I had to cut-and-paste the name because I was sure I'd mis-transcribe it.)
posted by quarantine at 7:34 PM on June 5, 2009

posted by hortense at 7:38 PM on June 5, 2009

Best answer: Yep...seconding Scriabin. Really, go for the Russians. I'll bet you'll love them. Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, et al.
posted by nosila at 7:44 PM on June 5, 2009

Here are some of my favorite late Romantic composers:

Ernest Chausson
Gabriel Faure
Ferruccio Busoni
Charles-Valentin Alkan
Cesar Franck
posted by aquafortis at 9:14 PM on June 5, 2009

Based on your comments I would also recommend the Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns. You'd probably prefer an arrangement where the orchestra part is played on keyboards, like this one. It's "moody" and "weird" and has the solo violin's E string tuned down to an E flat. Oh, and a great descending glissando in the string section if you find an orchestral version! Anyway see what you think.
posted by rkent at 9:44 PM on June 5, 2009

Response by poster: Based on your comments I would also recommend the Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns. You'd probably prefer an arrangement where the orchestra part is played on keyboards, like this one.

Ha! When I studied piano as a child, I was completely obsessed with this piece (presumably simplified), and now, years later, it is one of only two pieces I can still play (the other, oddly, being Deck the Halls.)
posted by quarantine at 10:00 PM on June 5, 2009

Best answer: It seems as though the commonality between these a composers is a certain elegance and integrity of form and material. I know the perfect composer for you, and that is Stravinsky in his neo-classical period. His work during this period is much more reserved and much less bombastically dissonant than the Rite of Spring and his other Russian period works. An example is his Octet, a masterpiece of structure and texture, and the particular wind ensemble he chose makes it great fun to listen to.

Other wonderful pieces of his from this period:

Histoire du Soldat
Violin Concerto in D Major
Dumbarton Oaks
Ebony Concerto (written for jazz band, it isn't Count Basie but it's an interesting interpretation of big band jazz)

On a side note, the harpsichord works of François Couperin (after whom Ravel named his piano suite Le tombeau de Couperin, which is one of my favorite works by Ravel) are beautiful, intricate things and worth investigating if you like Bach and harpsichord.
posted by invitapriore at 10:11 PM on June 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and I think the reason you don't like Mozart, even though he fits in with how I've categorized your list, is because he tends to offer less purely sensual appeal than any of the other four, especially harmonically.

Beethoven is out because he's often entirely lacking in elegance. Don't let that discourage you from checking out his late string quartets, though (numbers thirteen through sixteen, opus numbers 130, 131, 132 and 135 respectively). They have nothing of the bad parts of Beethoven and are just some beautiful, honest and intimate pieces.
posted by invitapriore at 10:19 PM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you wanted to extend the list in the other direction, by adding '0', I'd try some of Bach's musical predecessors -- Hassler, Praetorius, Schein, and so on...
posted by impluvium at 12:43 AM on June 6, 2009

Yes yes yes to Stravinski's neoclassical phase. You might also get a kick out of some of the other neoclassicists — I'd give Hindemith, Shostakovich, and Poulenc a try, for instance, and Prokofiev also fits into this category.

Given that you like keyboard counterpoint, you might find Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis and Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues especially interesting. They're both modern takeoffs on the Well Tempered Clavier, and they're, yes, elegant, dense and intermittently weird.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:27 AM on June 6, 2009

Erik Satie?
posted by bzbb at 10:00 AM on June 6, 2009

Best answer: Composers to try: Arvo Pärt, Alan Hovhannes, Arnold Bax, Gesualdo, Mompou.

I second Debussy, Scriabin, and Shostakovich's underappreciated 24 Preludes and Fugues (not to be confused with his 24 Preludes), though probably not Shostakovich overall.

The above comment that "this list makes pretty much no sense along any single vector" is missing something. You like composers who put the emphasis on in-the-moment melodic flow as opposed to overall dramatic structure. That's true of all Baroque music (Bach, Rameau), a lot of impressionist music (Ravel), and Chopin (whose structures were pretty random compared with most classical music). That's why you're less interested in Mozart and Beethoven. Notice that this is not a criticism of Mozart/Beethoven's melodies or Bach's structures. (After all, Mozart was as great a melodist as anyone who's ever lived -- this doesn't contradict what I'm saying.) The musicologist Donald Francis Tovey said the difference between the "Classical" (capital C) era of Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven and the Baroque era is you can dip into a random spot in the middle of a Classical movement and know whether it's near the beginning, middle, or end; this isn't the case with Baroque music. This doesn't mean Baroque music has poor structure, but it isn't defined by a conventionally dramatic structure. You like composers who prioritize melody and emotion, tending to let the structure fall into place as an afterthought.

You also seem to prefer an overall atmosphere that's more slinky, restrained, refined, subdued, enigmatic ... over one that's bombastic, flashy, brilliant.

Bonus tip: don't miss this new album of Rameau harpsichord pieces, incongruously played on piano.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:36 AM on June 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

From what it seems, you like virtuosic piano music more than any one style or time period.

I agree with the previous sentiment of going for Russians:
Prokofiev -- the piano sonatas.
Schriabin --etudes.
Rachmaninoff -- preludes (the one in g minor is famous and beautiful), piano concerti.

You may also want to consider some of the virtuoso composers:
Liszt -- rhapsodies are a good start, he also arranged some bach preludes and fugues.
Brahms -- hungarian rhapsodies, solo piano stuff, sonatas, piano concerti.

Don't discount the quote-unquote 'greats', either.
Beethoven's piano sonatas are some of the best ever written/performed.
Also, take a listen to Schubert impromptus.
posted by chicago2penn at 1:20 PM on June 6, 2009

You may like Dvorak's Slavonic Dances (e.g. No. 8), and George Enescu's Rapsodia Romana.
posted by spiderskull at 2:26 AM on June 7, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, both for the suggestions and for the parameterization of my tastes -- neither of which I was able to accomplish on my own.
posted by quarantine at 1:24 PM on June 8, 2009

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