New York Times' music critic Anthony Tommasini begins his Top 10 composers list with J.S. Bach
New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini is engaging in one of those aesthetic parlor games writ large, as he invites interested readers to help him pick the Top 10 Western Ccomposers of all time -- or at least since the beginning of the 18th century.
Not a frivolous or gimmick-loving writer, Tommasini introduces the exerecise thus:
So if you were to try to compile a list of the 10 greatest composers in history, how would you go about it? For me the resulting list would not be the point. But the process of coming up with such a list might be clarifying and instructive, as well as exasperating and fun.
Tommasini's first nominee? Johann Sebastian Bach:
Bach stood right in the middle of this historical crossroads. His music is an astonishing synthesis of what had been and what was coming. Elements of the high polyphonic tradition run through his work. Yet the era of simpler Baroque textures and clear, strong tonal harmony had arrived.
In just the collected Bach chorales — the four-part, hymnlike settings of church tunes that crop up in his oratorios and cantatas — he codified everything that was known about harmony and anticipated the future, including wayward chromatic harmony à la Wagner. In the opening measures of the chorale “Es Ist Genug,” the one Berg incorporated into his final work, the Violin Concerto, Bach even anticipates atonality.
The 48 preludes and fugues of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” are the ultimate exploration of counterpoint in all its complexities, yet also a dazzling collection of quirky, sublime and sometimes showy character pieces.
What composer before or after Bach could have written the opening Kyrie of the Mass in B minor? It begins with choral cries of “Lord have mercy” (“Kyrie eleison”) as harmonically wrenching as anything in Brahms or Mahler. Then, with transfixing calm, the winding Kyrie theme is heard in the orchestra over a steady tread of a bass, as the inner voices build up. One by one the sections of the chorus enter, until Bach has constructed an intricate web of counterpoint at once intimidating in its complexity and consolingly beautiful.
My contribution to the Bach nomination is his St. Matthew Passion. I get goosebumps just thinking about the opening chorus. Her is Kurt Masur talking about the work, followed by the opening, as performed by the Rheinische Cantorei under condutor Hermann Max. It's slow, but powerful.