There are so many guides to classical music it’s hard to know which ones have anything different to say. Phil Goulding’s guide, released in 1995, has the virtue of the author not saying much at all. Instead, he lets the talking be done by others—mostly great composers themselves. “I remain a nonexpert,” Goulding says. “Ninety-five percent of [the book] comes from [what I gleaned in] used bookstores, new bookstores, and assorted public libraries.”
There’s certainly a lot of charm in Goulding’s pre-Internet methodology for learning about classical music. (He says he knew nothing about it before starting his project, which took him seven years.) Basically, he culled commentary from the world’s great composers and from musicologists and others and determined his list of the 50 greatest composers of all time based on who the composers themselves and other experts held in high esteem. It should come as little surprise that at the top of the list are three names widely considered the titans of music: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Indeed, Goulding calls these three the immortals, and says that their place at the top is so secure that it could never be tolerated, by anybody anywhere, that someone should try to demote them.
He then lists eight demigods, all either Classical or Romantic composers with the exception of Handel, and then he lists two additional categories: composers of genius and artists of a high order.
As you can guess from his labels, Goulding is quite the wit, and indeed the introductory part of the book is fun to read. The rest of the book is a fairly standard catalogue of the 50 composers , their principal works, and commentary on where their works fit in the context of musical development over the centuries.
Goulding is trying to cover roughly 500 years of music, so it’s hard to give due attention to everyone who deserves it. But he seems to put too much weight on Romatic-era composers, who comprise 27 of the 50 greats, compared to the Baroque era, the period of eight of the greats. Really?
Of the Baroque greats, you have everyone you would expect to have: Bach, Monetverdi, Couperin, Vivaldi, Telemann, Rameau, Handel, and Gluck (a Baroque-Classical transition figure). But there are so many who are not on the list.
You have to wonder if Goulding gave too much weight to Romantic-era composers simply because he had available to him so much more information on them. Does it really make sense to have Camille Saint Saens, the Romatic-era French organist, on the list while Arcangelo Corelli isn’t? Or what about Modest Mussorgsky, a Russian Romatic composer whose music is noted for—what? Okay, he tried to compose music in opposition to convention. So, his music is rough, dissonant. But is his contribution to music really that much greater than, again, Corelli’s, whose work was pivotal for the violin and for the idea that instrumentals could occupy as important a place as vocal works?
Of course, that’s the problem with any compilation. No one will ever be happy with who’s included and who’s not. For the fan of Baroque music, Goulding’s book just doesn’t offer that much. Bach sits at the top of the heap, at No.1, the first of the three immortals, but when more than half of your top 50 are Romantics, covering about 85 years of your 500-year period, than you have to think your compiler spent too much time in old and new book stores and in libraries reading about composers and not enough time listening to music.—Nabob, On Baroque
The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works
Ballantine Books, 1995
Phil G. Goulding
$15.82 on Amazon