Doesn’t think she waltzes, but would rather like to try

So by now you’ve probably heard about this whole 10 Greatest Composers thing over at The New York Times. As link-bait goes, it’s reasonably high-minded, and Anthony Tommasini is right to frame the whole exercise as cocktail-party game rather than serious cultural investigation. Still, two comments in—two—and someone is turning up their nose at Schoenberg because he isn’t popular enough. There, as Gore Vidal would have Henry James say, it is.

So instead of wading into that morass, here’s my kind of top ten list, a list situated at various intersections of greatness and obscurity: The Top Ten Composers That Will Never Appear Anywhere Near The New York Times‘ Top Ten Composers List.

  • Etienne Nicolas Méhul. Wrote wildly inventive operas (listen to his greatest hit here); Beethoven ripped off a lot of his best tricks. Not enough influence for you? He was Napoleon’s favorite composer. Beat that with a stick!
  • Johan Helmich Roman. Often referred to as “The Swedish Handel.” When Sweden needed a Handel, Johan Helmich Roman was there.
  • Hans Rott. Only wrote one major piece, but made it count: the Symphony in E major is pretty much the template for the Mahlerian style—as Mahler himself admitted. Rott went mad at the age of 22, on a train: he started waving a gun around, claiming that Brahms had filled the train with dynamite. Talk about going in style.
  • Muzio Clementi. Had he never lived, God only knows what millions of piano students would have started with. Besides, dude wrote “A Groovy Kind of Love.”
  • Anthony Philip Heinrich. Went broke, hiked 700 miles into the middle of Kentucky, and proceeded to come up with some of the most awesomely crazy and crazily awesome music of the 19th century. Like if Schumann had been one of the Beats.
  • Pierre De Geyter. Wrote the Internationale. In a morning. What did you do this morning? I reheated some soup.
  • Percy Grainger. Has there ever been a composer as cheerfully perverse as Percy Grainger? Playing Grainger’s music feels like you’re doing Freudian analysis while rock climbing. In a good way, of course. Also: probably the best composer to ever have his teeth X-rayed by the inventor of corn flakes:

  • Simon Sechter. As a good God-fearing American, I know that quantity and value are synonymous. And Sechter wrote 5000 fugues. (He also taught Bruckner—by mail. Imagine the “can you draw this?” ad that could have inspired.)
  • Luigi Russolo. Just remember, reactionary New York Times internet commenters complaining that modern music is nothing but “noise,” Luigi Russolo was way ahead of you.
  • Soorjo Alexander William Langobard Oliphant Chuckerbutty. Others got the glory, but no composer was ever more majestically named. While organs still play, the Chuckerbutty Paean will forever endure.


  1. A good list, Matthew, but I think maybe Jean-François Le Sueur belongs here in place of Méhul, a very interesting composer (a superb orchestrator) who actually had considerable play in the last century due to Henry Wood. Le Sueur has the virtue of being despised by Méhul as well as having been Berlioz's teacher. In general, though, all of the Revolution-era French composers deserve more than they've got, and their harmonic practice (which seems to me to make a line direct through Berlioz to Debussy) is a valuable alternative, heterodox to the Germanic so-called common practice.

  2. A fugue a day isn't so impressive seeing how he didn't have Money Drop or The Event to distract him. Though, Sechter should have had Bruckner IM him. It would have been much faster and less expensive for both.

  3. Daniel: Méhul was kind of my stand-in (read:favorite) for all the French Revolutionary composers, who (if other readers don't know them yet) were quite the fascinating bunch: Le Sueur, Gossec, Cherubini. Plus they all had the “may you live in interesting times” thing in spades: from the Ancien Regime through the Bastille through the Republic, through the Terror through the Consulate through the Empire through the Restoration. Méhul in particular seems to have felt each turn of the wheel rather keenly.

    Acorns: Thanks!

    Kevin: In my imagination, Bruckner sends poor Sechter letters at an IM-like rate that makes the procrastinatory blandishments of the current television landscape pale in comparison….

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