Cover image for The indispensable composers : a personal guide / Anthony Tommasini.
The indispensable composers : a personal guide / Anthony Tommasini.
Publication Information:
New York : Penguin Press, 2018.
Physical Description:
482 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Introduction: The greatness complex -- Creator of modern music : Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) -- Music for use, devotion, and personal profit : Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) -- "Vast effects with simple means" : George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) -- The "Vienna Four" : an introduction -- "I had to be original" : Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) -- "Right here in my noodle" : Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) -- The gift of inevitability : Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) -- "When I wished to sing of love it turned to sorrow" : Franz Schubert (1797-1828) -- An unforgettable day in 1836 : Fryderyk Franciszek (Frédéric François) Chopin (1810-1849), Robert Schumann (1810-1856) -- The Italian reformer and the German futurist : Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Richard Wagner (1813-1883) -- The synthesizer : Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) -- The refined radical : Claude Debussy (1862-1918) -- "The public will judge" : Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) -- New languages for a new century : Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Bela Bartók (1881-1945) -- Recommended recordings.
The chief classical music critic of "The New York Times" explores the concept of greatness in relation to composers, considering elements of biography, influence, and shifting attitudes toward a composer's work over time.


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780.922 TOM Book Adult General Collection

On Order



An exploration into the question of greatness from the Chief Classical Music Critic of the New York Times

When he began to listen to the great works of classical music as a child, Anthony Tommasini had many questions. Why did a particular piece move him? How did the music work? Over time, he realized that his passion for this music was not enough. He needed to understand it. Take Bach, for starters. Who was he? How does one account for his music and its unshakeable hold on us today?

As a critic, Tommasini has devoted particular attention to living composers and overlooked repertory. But, like all classical music lovers, the canon has remained central for him. In 2011, in his role as the Chief Classical Music Critic for the New York Times, he wrote a popular series in which he somewhat cheekily set out to determine the all-time top ten composers. Inviting input from readers, Tommasini wrestled with questions of greatness. Readers joined the exercise in droves. Some railed against classical music's obsession with greatness but then raged when Mahler was left off the final list. This intellectual game reminded them why they loved music in the first place.

Now in THE INDISPENSABLE COMPOSERS, Tommasini offers his own personal guide to the canon--and what greatness really means in classical music. What does it mean to be canonical now? Who gets to say? And do we have enough perspective on the 20th century to even begin assessing it? To make his case, Tommasini draws on elements of biography, the anxiety of influence, the composer's relationships with colleagues, and shifting attitudes toward a composer's work over time. Because he has spent his life contemplating these titans, Tommasini shares impressions from performances he has heard or given or moments when his own biography proves revealing.

As he argues for his particular pantheon of indispensable composers, Anthony Tommasini provides a masterclass in what to listen for and how to understand what music does to us.

Author Notes

Anthony Tommasini is the chief classical music critic for the New York Times . He graduated from Yale University, and later earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts from Boston University. He is the author of three books, including a biography of the composer and critic Virgil Thomson. As a pianist, he made two recordings of Thomson's music on the Northeastern label which were supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Seventeen classical composers are celebrated in these insightful critical essays. A concert pianist and New York Times classical music critic, Tommasini (Virgil Thompson: Composer in the Aisle) expands on a series of his newspaper articles to present a roster of favorites, including Renaissance pioneer Monteverdi; repertory pillars Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert; opera auteurs Verdi and Puccini; and the high modernist Schoenberg, whose atonal music he loves. Tommasini twines engaging biographical sketches of the maestros and their tragic ailments, love affairs, and endless scrambles for money with appreciations of masterpieces, the latter enriched by his memories of hearing and performing them. The portraits merge into a metanarrative about the emergence of the classical tonal language of comprehensible keys and lucid harmonies and its decay (or liberation) into unmoored dissonance. Tommasini's interpretations sometimes overreach-he detects a "gay sensibility" (as have other critics) in the music of Schubert, because "seemingly happy passages contain disquieting subliminal elements"-but he excels at the difficult task of capturing music in words. "[A] gnarly, slow theme, like the grim song of a Slavic bass" with "hulking, weighty, strange intervals and chords" nails Chopin's Prelude No. 2. The result is an engrossing study that will appeal to both classical music aficionados and novice listeners who want a road map. Agent: Andrew Wylie, the Wylie Agency. (Nov.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

Tommasini is no stranger to music: at 16, he won a piano competition in Manhattan and went on to study music at Yale and Boston University, earning both a master of arts and a doctor of arts in music. In his role as the chief classical music critic for the New York Times, he is eminently qualified to share his expertise in what became known as the Top Ten Composer Project, the basis for this book. The first thing readers will notice is that there are more than ten composers here-in all classical genres-as the author was encouraged to say more about why composers were, or were not, chosen. This expanded list is a treasure trove of biographical information and a primer on the language and notation of music itself, and, yes, he explains terminology as he goes. VERDICT Tommasini makes a potentially dry and academic subject accessible. This is, of course, of special interest to musicologists and performers, but it will also appeal to listeners of classical music.-Virginia Johnson, John Curtis P.L., Hanover, MA © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Author's Notep. xiii
Introduction: The Greatness Complexp. 1
1 Creator of Modern Music: Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)p. 19
2 Music for Use, Devotion, and Personal Profit: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)p. 39
3 "Vast Effects with Simple Means": George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)p. 65
4 The "Vienna Four": An Introductionp. 91
5 "I Had to be Original": Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)p. 97
6 "Right Here in My Noodle": Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1 791)p. 113
7 The Gift of Inevitability: Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)p. 145
8 "When I Wished to Sing of Love it Turned to Sorrow": Franz Schubert (1797-1828)p. 175
9 An Unforgettable Day in 1836: Fryderyk Franciszek (Frédéric François) Chopin (1810-1849) Robert Schumann (1810-1856)p. 205
10 The Italian Reformer and the German Futurist: Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) Richard Wagner (1813-1883)p. 247
11 The Synthesizer: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)p. 307
12 The Refined Radical: Claude Debussy (1862-1918)p. 339
13 "The Public Will Judge": Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)p. 369
14 New Languages for a New Century: Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) Béla Bartók (1881-1945)p. 397
Epiloguep. 433
Recommended Recordingsp. 441
Acknowledgmentsp. 447
Notesp. 449
Illustration Creditsp. 465
Indexp. 467