OK, I admit a more accurate title would have been "My 10 favorite composers of the past millennium." My friend the composer Dennis Bathory-Kitsz used to teach a music appreciation class for adults and he once decided to ask all the participants to bring in their favorite record for the next class. Much to his surprise, two people brought in discs by Delius.
So, yes there are a few on my top ten list that I can't honestly say are objectively one of the ten best composers of the past thousand years, but happen to be incredible personal favorites of mine. And conversely, I decided to omit a few possible choices of composers who were among the very best, but I just don't have any affinity for their music myself.
I selected these composers on the following criteria, from most important to least important:
- overall quality
- personal affinity
- historical importance in and around their own time
- influence on composers who lived far after their time
I couldn't bring myself to rank these choices, so just listed them in chronological order.
1. Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377)
2. Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410-1497)
3. Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594)
4. William Byrd (1543-1623)
5. J.S. Bach (1685-1750)
6. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
7. Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
8. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
9. Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
10. György Ligeti (1923-2006)
Honorable mentions to the Top 10
Pérotin (c. 1200)
Josquin Desprez (c.1440-1521)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
If I had to pick the greatest all time classical composers from my top 10, I would probably choose Bach and Beethoven. Bach, for he was not only the greatest and most joyful writer of counterpoint ever, but he also figured out how to write a strong bass line (every ppop song of today owes a debt to Bach) and even more importantly, he is the model for how a melody in the treble should interact with a bass line. Beethoven also would make my all-time Top 2 because he was the first to put forward the idea that a composer's primary impulse should be their own individual persona rather than their social environment such as religion, the court, dance, theater, or any other externality. The miracle is that Beethoven's anti-social nature and turning inward produced music that was truuly universal, and that has been the model for most composers ever since - the hope is that by digging deep into your soul you will be paradoxically better able to connect with others, perhaps akin to the thought of the ancient Chinese Taoist Chuang-Tzu that you can see the whole world by staying in your room.