In some respects, this is a choice or judgement for every individual. I may consider WA Mozart to be the greatest composer who ever lived, whereas you might feel that accolade should rightfully be given to Robert Schumann.
To an extent what is great for you depends on your tastes, experience, mood, and perhaps your knowledge of music.
Alternatively, we could adopt the conclusions of music scholars and critics subscribing to that long list of great classical composers that often informs and colours our opinions.
We should not overlook the fact that by placing composers into some kind of league table with some at the pinnacle whilst others languish in the depths of the unknown there is the danger of missing out on some beautiful music.
What Makes A Great Composer
It might be fruitful to consider what attributes we could expect of any composer who is going to be called ‘great’. If we feel that output in terms of sheer quantity is key then composers such as Franz Schubert, WA Mozart, and Joseph Haydn would immediately spring to the front of the line.
We know that WA Mozart completed over six hundred compositions in his brief lifetime. Haydn has over one hundred symphonies and numerous other works.
Schubert added well over a thousand songs to the repertoire plus nine symphonies and countless further pieces. The question that naturally arises from this single criteria is how we know all of those many compositions were worthy of being called great? It’s another dilemma.
Ought we to place technical ability up there with the output? Here we run into further difficulties as what was considered an essential technique in the Renaissance does not necessarily parallel with what would have been applauded in the Romantic Era, or indeed today in the 21st Century.
Even if you appraise composers during the same period, you still have musical development during that span of time that could shift the emphasis from some techniques toward newer ones.
Can we pit JS Bach’s technique against that of Antonio Vivaldi and reasonably conclude whether one composer is therefore greater than the other?
The way popular culture distinguishes the great from the rest is by allowing the public to decide. Sure, there are heavyweight promotions that surround popular culture and media influence, but ultimately, individuals chose to buy, stream, and download certain tracks.
These provide quite clear statistical data that each week gives charts for singles and albums in the US and the UK. What is ‘great’ pop music is the tracks that sell and generate revenue for the artists and record labels.
Applying this rule to classical music composers at least is more challenging the further back in musical time you travel. It is possible, however, to know which composer’s music has endured and could be taken as a measure of greatness?
The risk here is this may not accurately reflect a composer’s popularity during the time in which they lived. Does this mean they are no longer great or that true greatness implies popular longevity?
Many composers who have enjoyed popularity during their lives have fallen into obscurity soon after. Do we rely on trends or fashion to dictate greatness?
There is something to be said for making a comparison between greatness and ‘originality’. I know this opens another can of worms, but deciding greatness by other means is proving unsatisfactory.
Why a composer’s originality can hold weight in this discussion is because it is these developments or quantum leaps forward made by these composers that allow new music to grow.
It is not so much that a composer was able to mirror the stylistic expectations of their age flawlessly but how they went against the fashionable tide and carved out their unique place in music.
Their contribution through their unconventional approaches to musical composition enables future and indeed even contemporary composers to carry the torch into future stages of musical development.
Ludwig van Beethoven, I would suggest, is just such a composer who under this criteria would deserve the title of great.
Beethoven’s work towards the middle and later periods of his life were unparalleled and unprecedented. His innovations were nothing short of remarkable and paved the way for so many composers of the next generation and beyond.
In the same light, it is these composers whose voice is something organic. By this, I mean that they did not attempt to carve a niche for themselves and then simply remain there until they stopped writing.
Instead, these ‘great’ composers evolved their sound at every step of the way never allowing their music to remain unchanged. They aspired to constantly strive for something different, to challenge convention, and yet remain true to their ideals.
This level of conviction and dedication to composition particularly if it leads to such innovation and progress must count for a significant proportion of a composer’s greatness.
One composer who springs to mind when making this point is Igor Stravinsky. Despite his early popularity with ballets like ‘Petrushka’ and the ‘Firebird’, he was not content to continue composing in the same way.
Stravinsky next produced a ballet called ‘The Rite of Spring’ (1913), which could not have been further away from his previous works than if he had employed another composer to write it.
It caused a huge and well-documented riot when first performed. Stravinsky constantly evolved absorbing current trends, new styles, and other cultures into his music.
Some of the compositions were more successful than others but for me, his greatness lies in his lifelong dedication to self-improvement, development, and his impact on the future generation of composers.
I will end as I began with the proposition that what is great to one person may not be great to another when thinking about great composers.
When you break the question down and give it a really hard look, maybe it is not such an easy one to be certain of answering.
I know the composers I feel are great and why they are important to me and that might be a good place to start if you are asking yourself the same question.