This installment focuses entirely on the good, a collection of pieces that in my estimation provides the best composite representation of composed music. Looking beyond the popular abuse of list-making, instead considering the innate cognitive tendency to organize both in quantitative and qualitative terms, I offer here my list of “The 100 Greatest Pieces of Music Ever Composed”—or something like it—intending not to propose the definitive “Top 100” (impossible), but rather to assemble a collection of works surpassing in quality and importance. I hope it will serve as a reference for those beginning a listening library, inspire those who have already begun the process, and engage those with already established libraries.
The challenge in such an exercise lies in organization and in maintaining the distinction between objective ranking and subjective list-making of this type. Balance, in terms of epoch and genre, though important, cannot sufficiently moderate the discussion. No injustice occurs in having Beethoven and Schubert as contemporaries (or Verdi and Wagner); the job remains to compile a group of works related by their lasting impact regardless of chronological distribution. In terms of numbers, the 18th and 19th centuries will contribute many more likely individual candidates than most others, perhaps all others combined. Yet, while including a less significant piece from a less productive era to the exclusion of, for instance, another Beethoven symphony may seem unfair, it does not transgress justice anymore than the supernatural decree that determined the inequitable distribution of talent across the ages. A generation devoid of great artistic contributions will not likely inspire the developments of the next, and though the giants seem to stand alone, inevitably important and recognizable influence almost always existed to inspire. Thinking along these lines, tracing developmental trends throughout history reveals stepping stones at regular intervals even in periods of relative inactivity.
Composers have left their artistic mark on history in various ways. Some have innovated, others perfected; some have built up, others destroyed; some have defined themselves by the trends they developed, others have defined themselves by resisting trend altogether. In the case of Perotin and Hildegard von Bingen, the music that followed them could not have existed without them; in the case of Beethoven and his nearly destructive disregard for formal convention, one marvels that any recognizable music at all could exist after him. Monteverdi the Renaissance master leaves systematic evidence in his nine books of madrigals of the epic shift from modal to tonal compositional sensibilities. Others defied such “evolutionary pressures”—Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov, Sibelius are among a generation of composers straddling the 19th and 20th centuries who remain underrated in elite circles if only because they insisted on writing defiantly beautiful and structurally traditional music at a time when musical modernism and abstractism exerted increasing influence. Bach and Ives fit neatly nowhere, artistic cul-de-sacs explicable perhaps by what preceded them, but unique not only in their reaction to these preceding influences, but also in their shared ability to write music of lasting importance in a style nearly none chose to imitate. Mozart never had to work hard enough to innovate—too much talent—and instead went beyond perfecting forms to toying with them; Schubert’s reserved genius could never rise above the din of Beethoven; Mendelssohn never wrote a misplaced note and ranks only behind Mozart as a prodigy, but composed so politely as never to have made an impact in any relation to his talent; other composers—Catholics in Tudor England, Soviet-era Russians—worried less about honestly pouring out their hearts than literally keeping their heads. All of these artists responded to their talents and circumstances by creating the masterworks listed below.
Regarding formatting, three things: dates, annotation, and classification. Dates provide not only a sense of historical context, but also a sobering reminder of mortality: many of these greats died shockingly young (see Berlioz, Schubert, Mozart, Purcell, and do the math…one wonders what the next decades would have produced). In terms of the brief accompanying annotation, I intend to provide some justification and historical context. Finally, I’ve classified the works as belonging in one (or perhaps two) of three categories: “AA” stands for “All Ages,” substantive yet immediately accessible music, mostly masterpieces composed in predictable forms and standard genres—many Baroque favorites fall into this category; “TYL” stands for “Try it—You’ll Like it!,” pieces slightly more challenging to the ear and not suitable for “background” music, but still comprehensible and rewarding to most after a few hearings; “HL” stands for “Heavy Lifting” (alternately referred to “ITSSG?”, or “Is This Supposed to Sound Good?”). HL pieces tend to fall into the “important” rather than the “beloved” category, and benefit from some technical training, or from extensive listening experience; though not immediately pleasing or comprehensible, these works nonetheless represent important phases of development. Now, The List…
Mass in B-minor (TYL for length and difficulty: the single composition I would choose above all others); St. Matthew Passion (TYL: a profound and varied musical meditation on the Passion); Brandenburg Concerti, Solo Cello Suites (AA).
Adagio for Strings (AA/TYL: the shortest entry on the list but one I can’t exclude, the Adagio is a breathtaking nine minute epitaph for tonality).
Symphony no. 9, Piano Concerto no. 5 (TYL: the redefinition of standard forms); String Quartet op. 132 (HL: the sound of Beethoven breaking the Classical mold); Piano Sonata no. 29, “Hammerklavier” (TYL: at the mid point of the slow movement, Beethoven has abandoned traditional structure to the extent that the piece seems to inhabit an alternate existential plane; disturbing from an analytical standpoint, but a singular instance of artistic honesty and revelation); Missa Solemnis (TYL/HL: a monument, but one “respected rather than loved,” at least initially).
Symphonie Fantastique (TYL/HL: “Program music,” a wild ride: after Beethoven, composers gained the “freedom” to do things like this…).
Carmen (TYL only because not everyone likes opera…yet; relentless, infectious music).
Symphony no. 4 (TYL: the last great Romantic symphony); music for solo piano, op. 116-118 (AA: my favorite piece of solo piano music: the Intermezzo op. 117 no. 1); German Requiem (TYL: a choral masterwork for grownups…).
Peter Grimes, opera (HL for music and content: unflinching depictions of human temperaments and the imposing beauty of nature); War Requiem (HL: appropriately disturbing music set to the text of British wartime poet Wilfred Owen); Canticles (TYL: highly rewarding for the vocal enthusiast).
Polyphonic Masses (AA: distinctly English, these Masses are remarkable for their simple beauty and clarity of texture).
Ballades for solo piano (AA/TYL: through-composed—in sections rather than movements—the moments of down-tempo reflection contain music of astonishing, if fleeting, beauty).
Concerti Grossi (AA: better than Vivaldi…).
Tenebrae Lessons (AA/TYL: gorgeous interplay of voices and instruments; plaintive but not somber).
Prelude on the Afternoon of a Fawn; Preludes, Suite Bergamasque, music for solo piano (TYL: ‘Impressionism’ does not suit every taste, but the patient listener reaps ample harmonic rewards).
Missa se la face ay pale (AA: curious cross-pollination—a Mass setting based on a secular tune).
Enigma Variations (AA: the riddle or enigma relates to identity—each of the variations, notated by initials or a name, represents an Elgar acquaintance. The “Nimrod” variation would make the list on its own).
Requiem (AA: elegant with a poignant sense of modality).
Canzone et Sonate (AA: monumental liturgical music for choir, brass, and orchestra—the sonic equivalent of the great Basilicas and Cathedrals).
Tenebrae (AA/TYL: a fascinating and harmonically dazzling contemplation).
The Pirates of Penzance (AA: everyone has a favorite G & S; this is mine. As always, Sullivan writes music of real substance).
Piano Concerto (AA: beautifully if carefully constructed, a staple of concert repertoire).
Messiah; Water Music/Music for the Royal Fireworks (AA: technical refinement in orchestral form; masterful writing in his operas and oratorios—no composer wrote better for the human voice).
London Symphonies (AA: no innovation or surprises, only technical elegance and formal perfection).
Concerti Grossi (AA: if you like the Four Seasons, you’ll love the Dresden Concerti).
Ordo Virtutum (TYL); Canticles (AA: known as a “musical mystic,” the Church lists this abbess in the Martyrology. The music—of real significance in terms of polyphonic development—has an otherworldly beauty).
The Planets (AA/TYL: not background or bedtime music…this marvel of orchestration requires one hand on the volume control at all times).
Symphony no. 2 (HL); Songs (AA/TYL: America’s defining composer, modern not modernist, innovative not iconoclastic. I recommend Songs of Charles Ives, Centaur Records no. 2796, strictly for your edification…).
Madrigals and Motets (AA: the greatest composer most people have never heard. I’ve said, exaggerating only slightly, that I would trade the entire musical output of the 20th century for his motet setting of the Ave Maria).
Piano Sonata no. 2 (TYL: this was a tough call in that I knew I would choose one of two Liszt compositions, both definitive examples of virtuoso piano music. The Années de pèlerinages provide a Liszt synopsis, but the Funeral March in the Sonata seals the deal).
Symphony no. 8, Das Lied von der Erde (TYL/HL: wondrous excess…every listening reveals more); Rückert Lieder (TYL: expansive intimacy—though not my favorite, the Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is the greatest song I’ve ever sung).
Violin Concerto (AA: superbly constructed and lovely—an appropriate description of nearly everything Mendelssohn wrote).
Pentecost Mass, for organ (HL: fascinating and kaleidoscopic).
L’Orfeo, opera; 1610 Vespers (TYL: Orfeo is considered the first successful opera; the 1610 Vespers represent a synopsis of Monteverdi’s madrigal style).
Symphony no. 41; Piano Concerto no. 21; “Haydn” String Quartets; The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, operas; Requiem (AA/TYL: unmatched facility and versatility as a composer; Mozart never failed in any form).
Pictures at an Exhibition (AA/TYL: with brilliant and entertaining orchestration by Ravel—see no. 66—Mussorgsky wrote in a defiantly and definitively Russian style).
Missa pro defunctis (AA: one of the defining medieval masters, with Dufay and Josquin. This is the earliest known polyphonic Requiem setting).
Polyphonic Masses (AA: high-renaissance liturgical compositions of supreme elegance).
Organum (TYL: this fascinating early polyphony takes some getting used to…).
Symphony no. 1; Romeo and Juliette, ballet (TYL: brilliance with a contemporary Russian accent; often poignant, always witty).
La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, operas (TYL: and the greatest opera of all time is…open to debate. But La Bohème is on the podium).
Dido and Aeneas, opera (AA: a baroque gem, Dido contains clever and stunning vocal writing).
Piano Concerto no. 2, Vespers (AA/TYL: the Vespers include all the greatness of the Russian choral tradition; the slow movement of the Concerto may be the most romantic piece of music ever composed).
String Quartet (TYL: the second movement is pure frolic).
The Barber of Seville, William Tell, operas (AA/TYL: known primarily for his comic operas—of which Barber has become the best-loved—Rossini’s William Tell is a forward-looking dramatic masterpiece).
Symphony no. 9, Quintet in C, Piano Sonata D. 959, Winterreise (TYL: an acknowledged giant, yet still underappreciated: due to his output of over 700 songs—and his lack of personal dynamism—his harmonic power and innovation often escapes notice; chronological proximity to Beethoven also doesn’t help his cause…though forced to choose, I’d take Schubert).
Piano Concerto; Dichterliebe, Frauenliebe und Leben, song cycles (TYL: the poignant richness of his harmonies never ceases to astonish. The songs are dual—vocal and pianistic—masterworks).
Op. 87 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano (HL…but worth it).
Symphony no. 2, Violin Concerto (TYL: Sibelius was a compositional traditionalist, but proved that artistic conservatism could have real vitality).
Death and Transfiguration, tone poem; Rosenkavalier, opera; Four Last Songs (TYL/HL: though few would or could continue in his mode, the juxtaposition of his late Romanticism with the prevailing emaciated abstractism of the early 20th century vindicates recognizably traditional procedures. His 1949 Four Last Songs stand as a fitting tribute to 400 years of tonal development).
The Rite of Spring, Firebird, ballets (HL: the Parisians rioted at the premiere of The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s brutal realism, however, never devolves into sensationalism).
Symphony no. 6; The Nutcracker, ballet (AA/TYL: the Sixth contains epic romantic music by a melancholic Russian composer—not for the faint or broken of heart. The Nutcracker rightly remains a cherished classic).
La Traviata, Rigoletto, Otello, Falstaff, operas (TYL: the king of opera when opera was king…Verdi’s Sir John Falstaff may be the single greatest operatic portrayal of a literary character, arguably surpassing Shakespeare’s own depiction in terms of revealing the man).
Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde, Der Ring des Nibelungen, operas (HL: an acquired obsession. Few have taken so long to say so little…The Ring cycle alone is a four-opera epic of Norse mythology lasting 20 hours. Wagner succeeds as well as anyone ever has, however, in creating entire worlds—and the harmonies are breathtakingly expansive).
Lieder (TYL: the specific list—Wolf composed some 600 songs—on request. He obsessed over text, and would not set the text of a previously composed song unless he considered that song deficient in some way; remarkable considering some of the texts he “re-composed.” The 3-minute song Anakreons Grab would make the list on its own).
Let the listening begin.