MUSIC: Church Organist Declared Greatest Composer by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

Church Organist Declared Greatest Composer by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic for the New York Times, once wrote a series of articles on the ten greatest classical music composers.  He acknowledged all the limitations of such a question and that even the word classical is problematic, not adequately conveying the richness and dynamism of our musical legacy.  Tommasini, a champion of contemporary music, decided he would not consider living composers because “we are too close” to them “to have perspective.  Besides, assessing greatness is the last thing on your mind when you are listening to an involving, exciting, or baffling new piece.”

Despite these limitations, Tommasini still wanted to pursue the matter: “I began this project with bravado, partly as an intellectual game but also as a real attempt to clarify – for myself as much as for anyone else – what exactly about the master composers makes them so astonishing.”  His project intrigued me, and as I read his analytical remarks, I reviewed in my head the music I knew of each composer he discussed, sometimes returning to a familiar piece and listening anew in light of his comments.  It was an exercise that deepened my sense of wonder at the impact of great music, not just upon my ears but upon my whole being.

In an earlier article announcing his intention to rank the top ten composers, Tommasini had invited readers to respond with their own suggestions and critical insights.  And respond they did, in droves!  One person wrote: “This is absurd, of course.  But here’s my list.  And don’t you dare leave out Mahler.”

This is Tommasini’s list: 1. Johann Sebastian Bach, 2. Ludwig van Beethoven, 3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 4. Franz Schubert, 5. Claude Debussy, 6. Igor Stravinsky, 7. Johannes Brahms, 8. Guiseppe Verdi, 9. Richard Wagner, 10. Bela Bartok.

As former chaplain to the American Guild of Organists, what strikes me immediately about Tommasini’s list is that a church organist is declared the greatest composer in history.  Of course, as Tommasini himself demonstrates in his appreciation for readers whose lists differed from his, no single ranking can be taken as the final word on the matter.  Indeed, one of Tommasini’s predecessors as chief music critic for the New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg, has written of Mozart: “More protean than Bach, musically more aristocratic than Beethoven, he can be put forward as the most perfect, best equipped, and most natural musician the world has ever known.”

But Tommasini has his own reasons for declaring Bach the greatest:

My top spot goes to Bach, for his matchless combination of masterly musical engineering (as one reader put it) and profound expressivity.  In his austerely beautiful “Art of the Fugue,” left incomplete at his death, Bach reduced complex counterpoint to its bare essentials, not even indicating the instrument (or instruments) for which these works were composed.  On his own terms he could be plenty modern.  Though Bach never wrote an opera, he demonstrated visceral flair for drama in his sacred choral works, as in the crowd scenes in the Passions where people cry out with chilling vehemence for Jesus to be crucified.  In keyboard works like the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Bach anticipated the rhapsodic Romantic fervor of Liszt, even Rachmaninoff.  And as I tried to show in the first video for this project, through his chorales alone Bach explored the far reaches of tonal harmony.

Where did all this great music come from?  We could rehearse Bach’s biography and the legacy of his musical forebears and name all kinds of influences.  But for today I want to focus on just one: Bach was an organist – a legendary organist – long before he was famous as a composer.  Mastering that instrument must have had astounding effects on the neurons and synapses of Bach’s body and brain.  What a blessed thought for those who play and those who love to listen to the organ: playing the pipe organ was one of the significant factors in creating “the world’s greatest composer.”



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