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John Williams selected 5 greatest composers of all time.

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The December 2019 issue of the BBC Classical Music Magazine features a poll of 174 leading composers of today about who the 5 greatest composers of all time were.

 

I'm told that John Williams selected Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and Brahms.

 

The results of the tally are otherwise quite wacky - Chopin on the 20th spot received only 6 votes, and Rachmaninoff on the 50th got just 3. Stravinsky on the other hand...

 

1. Bach
2. Stravinsky
3. Beethoven
4. Mozart
5. Debussy
6. Ligeti
7. Mahler
8. Wagner
9. Ravel
10. Monteverdi
11. Britten
12. Sibelius
13. Messiaen
14. Bartók
15. Shostakovich
16. Haydn
17. Saariaho
18. Brahms
19. Reich
20. Chopin
21. Vaughan Williams
22. Schoenberg
23. Gesualdo
24. Janáček
25. Schubert
26. Gershwin
27. Glass
28. Ives
29. Prokofiev
30. Lutoslawski
31. Cage
32. Tchaikovsky
33. Berg
34. Feldman
35. Varèse
36. Webern
37. Byrd
38. R.Strauss
39. Verdi
40. Elgar
41. Birtwistle
42. Knussen
43. Sondheim
44. Stockhausen
45. Satie
46. Tallis
47. Hildegard von Bingen
48. Boulez
49. Schumann
50. Rachmaninov

 

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Just now, Disco Stu said:

I thought everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they were finally allowed to admit how much they'd always hated Boulez.

Still higher than Haendel, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Brueckner, Berlioz, and Dvorak for example... (they are gone)

7 minutes ago, Tom said:

Boy, you are using the word "selected" in the most amphibolous way possible.  

What was I supposed to do? Kill Mufasa?

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10 hours ago, hornist said:

174 "leading composers" 🤭🤭🤭

 

 

What would they know? And I hate lists. 

 

I would ask the musicians!! 

 

Are you implying that composers aren't musicians?

 

12 hours ago, Modest Expectations said:

6. Ligeti

 

Surprised he came this high up.

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35 minutes ago, Jurassic Shark said:

 Ligeti

Surprised he came this high up.

 

I think it makes sense. He's one of the most towering musical figures of the 20th century, and very influential also in terms of a lot of contemporary film music. We can't only have 'dusty' old composers on the list. On that note, I'm glad to see a few LIVING composers on the list as well. Pärt, Adams or Penderecki would also have been good contenders here.

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1 hour ago, Thor said:

 

I think it makes sense. He's one of the most towering musical figures of the 20th century, and very influential also in terms of a lot of contemporary film music. We can't only have 'dusty' old composers on the list. On that note, I'm glad to see a few LIVING composers on the list as well. Pärt, Adams or Penderecki would also have been good contenders here.

 

Also, his work is much more appreciated by listeners and performers than compared to, say, Stockhausen or Boulez. Which is no small feat!

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Hmm, am I the only one here who hasn't heard about Saariaho, Birtwistle or Knussen? :)

But I guess these are guys worth checking out, then...

 

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I am not surprised at all that Stravinsky is so high up, there's something larger-than-life about the way he is perceived by professional musicians.

 

However, the fact that Liszt isn't even on the list is hugely disappointing. But I suspect it's something to do with the statistical nature of the poll. For example, perhaps Dvorak would be in many people's top 10 but very little top 5s, so he doesn't end up on the final list, whereas many people might skew all of their top 5s to modern composers, hence why we see someone like Knussen above Rachmaninov...

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JW predicted Brahms as also amongst the best?  Was he in the top five of the poll?  There are virtually no composers who would consider him in their top 5.  He is Dvorak good.  Very good but not top of everyone's list.  If you asked composers who their favorites were, the same names keep showing up and Brahms is not one of them.  He is an audience favorite, not a composer favorite.  Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, Mahler, Sibelius (more advanced composers) keep showing up!  I don't think I've ever met a composer who thought Brahms was one of the greatest...one who inspired them to become a composer.

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6 hours ago, karelm said:

JW predicted Brahms as also amongst the best?  Was he in the top five of the poll?  There are virtually no composers who would consider him in their top 5.  He is Dvorak good.  Very good but not top of everyone's list.  If you asked composers who their favorites were, the same names keep showing up and Brahms is not one of them.  He is an audience favorite, not a composer favorite.  Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, Mahler, Sibelius (more advanced composers) keep showing up!  I don't think I've ever met a composer who thought Brahms was one of the greatest...one who inspired them to become a composer.

Just like with Haydn (who is also an infrequent choice that high in rankings), I think Williams selected figures that represent something he aspires to be.

 

I've seen a rhetoric in one scientific study of composer careers / creativity (I have forgotten which one was that: only sure that it was by the great Dean K. Simonton) that if Williams was born a century earlier, his career might have well been similar to that of Brahms, based on their conservative / perfectioning relation to the musical trends of their time. Just like with Beethoven's preference for Haendel, I think Williams made an understandable choice. 

 

Interesting what you say about listeners and composers. I have also seen Brahms rated extremely high in polls, including up to the top 5. And I also found him not very inspiring.

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3 minutes ago, Modest Expectations said:

I have also seen Brahms rated very to extremely high (by listeners). But he never inspired me either.

 

This does not inspire you? Crazy!

 

 

10 hours ago, Remco said:

I’m not sure if I’ll ever get all the Stravinsky adoration. Until I turn into a musicologist or something.

 

Well, have you heard anything else than The Firebird and The Rite of Spring?

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It's a statistical mistake to ask to vote 5 composers, and then make a list of 50. If composer X were at place number 6 in the list of all voters, he would not show up at all in such a list, while it should definitely be at place n.6. In fact, the list kind-of makes sense close to the top spots, and then progressively becomes total nonsense scrolling down. 

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5 hours ago, Jurassic Shark said:

Well, have you heard anything else than The Firebird and The Rite of Spring?

 

Yes I have and I’m not crazy about it :)

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That’s fantastic of course, but what do you mean? Aside from the famous 3 ballets there’s just not much that interests me. Yet composers and musicologists see him as god it seems.

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16 hours ago, Score said:

It's a statistical mistake to ask to vote 5 composers, and then make a list of 50.

 

Nah. It only makes sense to ask for peoples' favorites in any list: People give much more personal weight/accuracy towards just their favorites, and Top 10-20 would be way too much to expect composers to quantify, as most composers don't even think about Top 10 or have that information handy or care about it. It would be inaccurate to poll that information. Most people know for sure their personal favorites and that's it. It would be silly to assume a composer in someone's 6 7 8 spots would not be represented, because lots of people already chose that composer for their top 5: Wagner, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, some may go with Mozart or Beethoven as their #6, all good choices for modern composers, and they are all definitely here on this list. To recommend polling for 6, 7, 8 spots, is only recommending that you want it less accurate, asking for unknowns that composers haven't clearly thought about. 

 

Making a Top 50 out of top 5s is perfectly fine as a demographic, showing which composers were nominated more. As much as everyone has a criticism towards this list, by logic everyone in the world disagrees with any list because it's not their own list, so there's no argument here. Just because you find a few people who sometimes agree with you about your criticisms, doesn't mean you're objectively right. In reality this list is fine, for the purpose it accomplishes: showing all the highest recommendations of professional composers. Everyone, including the polled composers, is going to personally disagree with the list because it's not their own personal list, it doesn't mean it's flawed.

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11 hours ago, Borodin said:

 

Nah. It only makes sense to ask for peoples' favorites in any list: People give much more personal weight/accuracy towards just their favorites, and Top 10-20 would be way too much to expect composers to quantify, as most composers don't even think about Top 10 or have that information handy or care about it. It would be inaccurate to poll that information. Most people know for sure their personal favorites and that's it. It would be silly to assume a composer in someone's 6 7 8 spots would not be represented, because lots of people already chose that composer for their top 5: Wagner, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, some may go with Mozart or Beethoven as their #6, all good choices for modern composers, and they are all definitely here on this list. To recommend polling for 6, 7, 8 spots, is only recommending that you want it less accurate, asking for unknowns that composers haven't clearly thought about. 

 

Making a Top 50 out of top 5s is perfectly fine as a demographic, showing which composers were nominated more. As much as everyone has a criticism towards this list, by logic everyone in the world disagrees with any list because it's not their own list, so there's no argument here. Just because you find a few people who sometimes agree with you about your criticisms, doesn't mean you're objectively right. In reality this list is fine, for the purpose it accomplishes: showing all the highest recommendations of professional composers. Everyone, including the polled composers, is going to personally disagree with the list because it's not their own personal list, it doesn't mean it's flawed.

 

It is a totally flawed concept, instead, because they are asking a question ("What are your favourite 5 composers?") and using the results to answer a very different question ("What are your favourite 50 composers?" - at least, this is what is implied by the very fact that they compiled a top-50 list). If they had asked "What are your favourite 10 composers?" instead, and made a top-50 list out of the result (which would have been similarly wrong anyway), the results would surely have been different. This is because composers that almost no one would put in their top 5 (and therefore, are totally absent from the above list) would likely show up in most top-10 lists, and so get enough votes to appear there. In other words, if you analyze the answers to a poll in a way that is not consistent with the posed question, the results cannot be robust. They progressively lose meaning the more you deviate from the posed question, i.e., the more you go below the first positions. The absence of pivotal composers such as Puccini and Liszt from the list above, should say enough. 

 

As a disclaimer, I don't really care about this and other similar lists, as they have zero influence on my opinions about music. I just wanted to point out that it is one of the many flawed ways in which data are presented nowadays. It's a bit worrying when similar mistakes are made on more important topics. 

 

 

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11 hours ago, Score said:

 

It is a totally flawed concept, instead, because they are asking a question ("What are your favourite 5 composers?") and using the results to answer a very different question ("What are your favourite 50 composers?" - at least, this is what is implied by the very fact that they compiled a top-50 list). If they had asked "What are your favourite 10 composers?" instead, and made a top-50 list out of the result (which would have been similarly wrong anyway), the results would surely have been different. This is because composers that almost no one would put in their top 5 (and therefore, are totally absent from the above list) would likely show up in their top-10 lists, and so get enough votes to appear there. In other words, if you analyze the answers to a poll in a way that is not consistent with the posed question, the results cannot be robust. They progressively lose meaning the more you deviate from the posed question, i.e., the more you go below the first positions. The absence of pivotal composers such as Puccini and Liszt from the list above, should say enough. 

 

As a disclaimer, I don't really care about this and other similar lists, as they have zero influence on my opinions about music. I just wanted to point out that it is one of the many flawed ways in which data are presented nowadays. It's a bit worrying when similar mistakes are made on more important topics. 

 

Like I said, polling for Top 10 or 20 is pointless, because that information is (a) unknown to composers, even if they can come up with a mainstream answer it would not be accurate to them personally, (b) their favorite 3-5 composers has way more personal weight, making the result actually something accurate. You're asking for a more nonsensical list than before, with simply more societal weight in the results. Nothing to do with their personal analysis and taste.

 

To say "most lists have Tchaikovsky or Liszt higher" wouldn't be a claim about these composers' opinions. Most lists don't have John Williams as #51, where as this one does.

 

I don't see how you can make a claim like the bold there, it seems like just a farfetched assumption: plenty of people have those 6, 7, 8 place composers in their top 5, I don't see how you can claim otherwise: It fits the logic of diversification, it fits the article results if you view the results, someone's 6 will definitely be another's 4, someone's 7 will be another's 3. You would have to have proof against this logic of diversification, as a special case.

 

The initial cut-off has to be reasonable. 5. The results gained from that can be any number, they can go all the way to listing 250 if they want to because the initial measure was accurate. It's only obvious that the lower down on any survey you go, it will always be less accurate. I don't think anyone is arguing that.

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44 minutes ago, Borodin said:

 

Like I said, polling for Top 10 or 20 is pointless, because that information is (a) unknown to composers, even if they can come up with a mainstream answer it would not be accurate to them personally, (b) their favorite 3-5 composers has way more personal weight, making the result actually something accurate. You're asking for a more nonsensical list than before, with simply more societal weight in the results. Nothing to do with their personal analysis and taste.

 

To say "most lists have Tchaikovsky or Liszt higher" wouldn't be a claim about these composers' opinions. Most lists don't have John Williams as #51, where as this one does.

 

I don't see how you can make a claim like the bold there, it seems like just a farfetched assumption: plenty of people have those 6, 7, 8 place composers in their top 5, I don't see how you can claim otherwise: It fits the logic of diversification, it fits the article results if you view the results, someone's 6 will definitely be another's 4, someone's 7 will be another's 3. You would have to have proof against this logic of diversification, as a special case.

 

The initial cut-off has to be reasonable. 5. The results gained from that can be any number, they can go all the way to listing 250 if they want to because the initial measure was accurate. It's only obvious that the lower down on any survey you go, it will always be less accurate. I don't think anyone is arguing that.

 

Hey, cool down, man. Were you the author of the survey? 

 

Anyway, as I said, I simply totally disagree with the way data are presented. And your assumption (a) sounds arbitrary to me (although I was making the top-10 example not to suggest a survey procedure, but just to say that a top-50 list based on that would have given different results and would have been questionable anyway). However, I don't care enough about this topic to enter a long debate about it. Enjoy the music!

 

 

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I don't have the magazine issue to see what their methodology was, but @Borodin is correct that asking for a top 10 or 20 results in much more arbitrary lists than a top 5 (especially if the list has to be ranked). This is known by survey methodologists. 

 

As @publicist wryly noted above, there is a lot of obfuscation in statistics. Rather than a simple list of composer names, I bet the frequency distribution would be far more revealing because it will show the distance between one rank and the next, and that distance is often where the interesting story lies. For instance, if #1Bach and #2Stravinsky and #3Beethoven are each separated by one vote and then #4Mozart is separated from #3 by 20 votes, that's more significant than third consecutive one-vote difference.

 

I also assume that composers were asked to name their top 5 choices without regard to rank; in other words, the BBC treated all five composers named by someone as equally "top." In his mind, JW might see Beethoven as slightly more important than Bach, but to the BBC methodology, the two composers are identical in value. If this is not the case, then we're missing information about how each of the five names from each respondent were weighted before being aggregated.

 

This is probably how we can have Chopin at #20 with only 9 votes--all the votes are piled up on the higher-ranking composers. But that raises the question of how the bottom 30 composers in that list can be distributed among 8 degrees of freedom. Assuming no weighting, there would have to be a lot of shared ranks (e.g., five composers each getting 7 votes, eight getting 6 votes, that kind of thing). In such a case, like I said, a frequency distribution would be much more informative.

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I agree with you there about the importance of ranking nuance. Though I wonder if they might've believed asking for ranks would give too much societal pressure, ie. "What? you think x composer is better than Bach and Beethoven?" so the composer being polled would just put these two 1st as to not cause embarassment or overthink it, having this fake/societal fear of being viewed incompetent. Even better would be to make their ranks unknown/anonymous to the public, so they might stay true to their personal rankings. Non-rank didn't seem to make the list more true/interesting anyway, it still yields popular composers in the top: Bach, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Mozart.

 

Many of us have a tendency to want to put the popular go-to choices higher than our own favorites, to sound "objective." I'm openly honest about my praise of Borodin and John Williams over other composers. That's why I'm on this forum, because music is subjective and based in evolutionary biology. If we wanted Beethoven's opinion on the best composer, he wouldn't say "Beethoven," so why would Williams do the same; it's up to every individual to decide their favorites. Hopefully others think a similar way about their favorites, making ranking preferable in gaining a better overall census. Even within John Williams, we can't all agree on the best pieces.

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