Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Greatest Composers Before Bach

Someone just left a couple of comments on an old post about the top ten greatest composers and I realized that one thing that might be fun is to start a fight about who the greatest composers BEFORE Bach were. I believe that Tommasini's list in the New York Times was supposed to cover non-living composers since Bach. So what about those thousand or more years of music history before Bach? Say from when music started being written down or, perhaps better, from when polyphonic music started to be written down, up until the death of Bach in 1750. That's about 800 years of great music that we don't know nearly as well as we should. It contains remarkable pieces like Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which are all too well known, Handel's Messiah, likewise, but also really unusual pieces like Marin Marais' depiction of a kidney operation or Jean-Féry Rebel's of chaos. But leaving those aside, the history of music before Bach includes some of the greatest songs ever written like John Dowland's "In Darkness Let Me Dwell", some of the greatest polyphonic masses like the Missa Caput by an anonymous English composer, a wealth of music for voice, lute, keyboard and other instruments and on and on. This brings up an interesting problem: the earlier we go in music history the more likely we are to run into the most prolific and long-lived composer of all, Mr. Anonymous! I can hear you saying, why doesn't he shut up and get on with it! So here it is, my provisional, draft list of the greatest composers pre-Bach:



  1. Anonymous. Pride of place has to go to him (or her) simply because for such a long time composers simply did not put their names on their compositions. Here, for example, is that Missa Caput I was mentioning. For a long time it was thought to be by DuFay, but it is now attributed to an anonymous English composer. Alas, there is no clip on YouTube of the original Missa Caput, so I have put up one of part of Ockeghem's mass based on the same cantus firmus. This performance is so wild and wooly you might almost think it a modern piece by Ligeti or someone!
  2. We do have to give a place to Antonio Vivaldi, he of the three hundred violin concertos and a couple of hundred ones for other instruments. He is most famous for the Four Seasons, so let's pick something different by him. How about the equally fine and very influentiaL'Estro Armonico from 1711? 


3. What about that great French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau who wrote the book on harmony? I would normally pick a performance on the original instrument, but Grigory Sokolov does such an astonishing job with harpsichord music on piano that I will post him playing a suite in D major by Rameau:


4. While we are in France, we can't neglect François Couperin, le grand, so-called to distinguish him from the other talented members of the family, like Louis Couperin. Here is François' collection of chamber sonatas titled Les Nations:


5. I must not forget to include the remarkable 15th century Burgundian composer Guillaume Dufay who, among other things, invented the idea of expressing the personal sentiments of the composer in a song. So he would be the one who cleared the path for Bob Dylan. He was also the one commissioned to write the music for the consecration of the great cathedral of Florence. Here is that masterpiece of polyphony, the motet Nuper Rosarum Flores:


6. John Dowland was one of the greatest song composers in history and possibly the greatest composer for the lute as well. Here is his wrenching, nearly expressionistic song "In Darkness Let Me Dwell":




7. One of the greatest composers of all time is Domenico Scarlatti. Like Chopin, almost everything he wrote was for keyboard--harpsichord in his case. His 550 sonatas for harpsichord are undoubtedly the greatest collection of music in a single form for a single instrument ever written. To give you a real sense of the astonishing variety, here is a whole CD of the sonatas performed by Scott Ross. It's like a glass of a crisp Prosecco followed by a shot of single malt:


I'm going to top this up to an even ten composers, but I have run out of time, so that will be a later update.

6 comments:

David said...

A small voice in the wilderness: "Don't forget about Buxtehude and Telemann." (The latter, more a contemporary than a predecessor, I suppose.)

Anonymous said...

Josquin? Ockeghem?

Rickard Dahl said...

Looks like Mr. Anonymous has already commented.

Will this be a top 10 list? I don't see any Machaut, Palestrina or Des Prez for instance.

Yes that mass is pretty wild. I know I've linked the mass by Machaut several times before (´https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Y1O-BcZQwY) and one thing to be noted about it is the way it's sung in that recording. As someone commented on the video clip there are ornaments/voice inflections added which make it sound more like arabic music. I don't know how accurate it is to perform it that way but it's certainly interesting and more "wild" or even "modern". As another commentor mentioned somewhere on a Youtube video with medieval music (paraphrasing): Even though medieval music is very old, it is very modern to our ears.
So the comparison with Ligeti is probably suiting. In a sense to our ears it's like we first had a modern period, then the baroque, classical etc. and then a modern period again.

Anyways, always refreshing to hear some medieval music. It's interesting to think about what the future will hold. We certainly can't go modernist forever (the boundaries were already broken by Cage etc.). We could however use modernist techniques like microtonality to actually compose good music. We could take Arabic or Turkish systems and develop those far beyond their current state for instance. However, chromatic and diatonic music still offers an incredible amount of possibilities and only our imaginations set the limit. I can certainly see a return to more solid aesthetic values rather than relying on ideological values.

Nathaniel Garbutt said...

These lists always pass over Claudio Monteverdi for some reason which is strange as he is basically the Haydn of the baroque and both the vespers of 1610 and selva morale contain fantastically awesome and radical music for its time.

I have a real soft spot for Henry Purcell too - especially as a composer of vocal music as his ability to set text exceeds all in my opinion (followed pretty closely by Handel).

Nathaniel Garbutt said...

Ockeghem has been mentioned and so has "masterpiece of polyphony"...

Missa Prolationum.

Bryan Townsend said...

After these great suggestions I am going to say to heck with the top ten list and go ahead with as many great pre-Bach composers as seem justifiable.