50 Great Composers, 1 Not-so-Great Compilation

Goulding 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. Review 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

Classical Music
The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works
Ballantine Books, 1995
636 pages
Phil G. Goulding
$15.82 on Amazon

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Who is ‘The English Bach?’ I’m Going with Bach’s Son

The results of an interesting study came out not long ago that finds people’s brains respond similarly to music no matter how different people are.


“We’ve shown for the first time that despite our individual differences in musical experiences and preferences . . . music elicits a highly consistent pattern of activity across individuals,” says Vinod Menon, the Stanford University professor who led the study.

Although that’s an interesting finding, what caught my eye was that the research was built around the music of the English Baroque composer William Boyce. The researchers decided on Boyce because his work fits well into the canon of Western music but is little known to modern Americans, said the article, by Bruce Goldman. Goldman also said that the “musical cognoscenti” call Boyce “‘the English Bach’ because his late-Baroque compositions in some respects resembled those of the famed German composer.”

That’s funny, because I always though the musical cognoscenti referred to Johann Christian Bach as “The English Bach.” Does that mean there are two “English Bachs?” That’s awkward.

Johann Christian Bach, also known as J.C. Bach, was the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach and wasn’t a Baroque composer; he was a Classical composer who was much admired by Mozart. He was called “The English Bach” because he spent considerable time in London, where he was called John Bach and also sometimes referred to as “The London Bach.”


You can get all that information on J.C. Bach’s entry on Wikipedia. Encyclopedia Britannica also calls him The English Bach.

By contrast, on William Boyce’s Wikipedia page, there’s no mention of his being called The English Bach. In fact, the only other place I could find him being called The English Bach is in a review of Trevor Pinnock’s William Boyce album, Eight Symphonies: The English Concert. In that review, a mystery person named “A Customer” says “I love the overtures (or symphonies) of William Boyce, the ‘English Bach,’ as I’m sure most lovers of late Baroque music do.”

Well, that sounds authoritative.

The idea that J.C. Bach is called The Englsh Bach is all over the Internet, not just on the Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica pages. So, I have to go with the idea that The English Bach is really J.C. Bach and William Boyce, as much as I like his music, is just an English composer.

Of course, all of this raises another question, which is whether Boyce should even be considered a Baroque composer. He’s sometimes referred to as a composer of the high or late Baroque period. But in some lists of Baroque composers, he’s left out entirely or else identified as an early Galante-era composer, which is the period of transition between the late Baroque and early Classical periods.

I donlt know enough about it to have an informed opinion on the matter, but I can say his music is nothing at all like, say, Corelli or Tartini or other composers who are firmly in Baroque territory. In some ways, Boyce’s music has a quality that seems more fitting in a Classical context than in a Baroque context. Of course, that’s what the Galante period was all about: moving from one period to another.

In any case, Boyce is a striking composer and it’s good to know that, whatever you think of his music, or even of J.C. Bach’s music, our brains respond to their work in the same way. Meanwhile, we’ll leave it to other parts of our brain to debate who The English Bach is.—Nabob, On Baroque

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The Mystery of the Violetta Marina



It’s great acquainting yourself with composers who are unfamiliar to you and I was getting to know Pietro Castrucci when I read that he had invented something called the violetta marina. There was no explanation of what that was, but since “violetta” refers to a small violin, it appeared to be some type of string instrument.

Of course, the first thing I did was search the term on Google and there was little about it. But I did come across a discussion on the topic among violin makers, and one mentioned that he believed Handel used one in Orlando, his 1733 opera.


Handel’s Olando

The consensus among the violin makers was that the instrument was a type of viola with sympathetic strings, what’s called a viola d’amore. Sympathetic strings (sometimes also referred to as resonating strings), are strings that sit below the regular strings and vibrate, or resonate, in sympathy with the strings above them as they’re played. (Click on the violin image below.) A few Baroque composers, including Franz Biber and Attilio Ariosti, make fairly extensive use of instruments with sympathetic strings. Vivaldi also uses them in some of his compositions. I especially like Biber’s use of them in Harmonia Artificiosa. A good example is his Partia VII. Listen to the first 30 seconds and you’ll hear the resonating strings. (Click on the video at the end of this post.)

sympathetic strings

Sympathetic strings.
Click to enlarge.

And yet the mystery persists, because even violin makers can’t say with any certainty how the violetta marina differs from the viola d’amore. “I don’t think that any such instrument has been found,” says Myron Rosenblum, one of the participants in the violin makers’ discussion.

The Viola da Gamba Society of America thinks it’s a small, three-stringed viola with a sympathetic string.

Castrucci is a fairly obscure composer. I can find only one full album of his music on Amazon, his 6 Concerti Grossi, Op. 3. Castrucci Grossi He’s featured on some compilations with other Italian composers, but little of his work appears to be around today. Even the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), which is so thorough in cataloguing sheet music, has no Castrucci compositions in its databases. On YouTube there are performances of some sonatas featuring recorder solos (see the image below for Sonata No. 3), but other than those, plus the Concerti Grosso, there isn’t much.


Castrucci Sonata No. 3 for Recorder

We do know Castrucci studied with Corelli for a while and later was the leader of the opera orchestra of George Frideric Handel, so he would be familiar with Handel’s use of the viola d’amore in Orlando.

Ideally, we would go to that opera to hear what the violetta marina sounds like, since the piece calls for it, but contemporary recordings use the viola d’amore.

For a while I wondered if the instrument is in some way related, or developed in tribute, to French composer Marin Marais, who was noted for his basse de viol work. Indeed, he is probably the leading historical composer of that instrument. Given that Castrucci named his instument violetta marina, it makes you wonder if he wasn’t trying to produce an instrument with a sound that resonated with Marais’s work.

tromba marina

Tromba Marina

geiringer But then I came across a reference to the tromba marina in a book called Instruments in the History of Western Music by Karl Geiringer. The tromba marina is an unusual single-string instrument that makes the sound of a trumpet. One theory that has stuck to the instrument is that it was played by nuns to mimic the sound of the trumpet because they were prohibited from having brass instruments in their convent.

Whether there’s any connection between these two marinas, the tromba and the violetta, is unclear. Given that, and as long as even violin makers don’t know what the violetta marina is, the idea that it’s an instrument that tries to channel Marin Marais is probably as good a theory as any.

In any case, the viola d a’more produces a wonderful sound. I especially like it in Biber’s work. It would be great to eventually get to the bottom of the mystery of the violetta marina, because I’m sure many people would like to hear what works written for viola d’amore sound like using Castrucci’s invention.—Nabob, On Baroque

Franz Biber’s Partia VII:

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Keith Richards, Ben Mink, and Franz Biber’s Partia No. 1

HIF Biber


The highly regarded songwriter and producer Ben Mink once said of music writing that all you need is a good six minutes. He was referring to jamming but I think more broadly he was referring to inspiration. Mink is probably best know for his work with k.d. lang but he’s also worked with some of the biggest names in rock, including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and Geddy Lee of Rush, his friend and occasional collaborator.

Screen shot 2013-06-30 at 6.10.29 AM

Partia No. 1 excerpt

I think of Mink’s remark a lot when I listen to music, whether it’s contemporary music or Baroque, and it was the first thing I thought of when I heard Franz Biber’s Harmonia artificioso-arios for the first time. What really caught my attention was Partia No. 1, which, after the introductory part, goes into a modern-sounding sequence in which the harmony and melody play off each other in a dramatic way. To my ears, if ever there was a good six minutes (or, in this case, a good two minutes) this was it. An inspired bit of writing to be sure.


A cross-tuned violin. Note how the two middle strings are crossed at the bridge and tailpiece

Biber is widely regarded by musicologists and music theorists as one of the most important composers for the violin ever, and I’m guessing part of the reason for that is his use of cross-tuning, a technique called scordatura. I believe one of the reasons Partia No. 1 is so riveting is because of the cross-tuning while the melody and harmony play off each other in the dramatic fashion that they do. And, again, it’s so modern sounding.

One of the points made about Biber’s violin work is that his cross-tuning technique enables him to comfortably play otherwise difficult positions on the fingerboard, like the sixth and seventh positions, and to use multiple stops in “intricate polyphonic passages,” as it’s put on the Biber page on Wikipedia.

It’s interesting that Keith Richards, in his thoroughly enjoyable memoir, Life, couldn’t 41hBlPrGyfL._SY346_ say enough about how important alternative tuning is to his work. He says he spent years mastering alternative tunings, the results of which you can hear on some of the Rolling Stones’ biggest numbers like “Start Me Up” and “Street Fighting Man.” In fact, if I remember correctly what Richards said in his book, two of the Stones’ biggest hits, “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” are in many respects the same song but with different tuning.

In the two-minute video clip below, you’ll hear the part of Partia No. 1 that caught my attention for its drama and modern sensibility. It shows that good music never dates itself, and I think that’s something even Keith Richards would attest to.—Nabob, On Baroque

More on scordatura
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A generalist’s random reflections on Baroque music


Ignazio Albertini: We Hardly Knew You

Johann Schmelzer: The Most Underrated Baroque Composer

Rosa Giacinta Badalla: A First-round Draft Pick of Convent Music

The 55 Greatest Baroque Composers in One Sentence Each

Tension in the Service of the Sad: Pete Townshend Meets Henry Purcell

‘La Folia’: The ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of Baroque Music

The World’s Most Baroque Rock Band

He Knows a Good Time, and It’s Not Opera

Let’s Give Leonora Duarte the Hollywood Treatment

The World Awaits the Next Johann

Baroque Music in All Its Jargon

50 Great Composers, 1 Not-so-Great Compilation

Who is The English Bach? I’m Going with Bach’s Son

The Mystery of the Violetta Marina

Keith Richards, Ben Mink, and Franz Biber’s Partia No. 1

Basso Continuo: The Groove of Baroque

About On Baroque

Basso Continuo: The Groove of Baroque

One of the defining characteristics of Baroque music is the basso continuo, or figured bass, which you can think of as a piece’s rhythm section. The harpsichord and cello often play this continuo role together (although any bass and chord-producing instruments can do it), creating what in rock is called the song’s bottom line or in jazz, the groove: the note pattern that creates the feeling of continuous motion. In the continuo, the harpsichord, as a chord-producing instrument, accompanies the bass line with a chord series that thickens—or harmonizes with—the bass line. The continuo is sometimes called figured bass because the composer would simply write chord figures below the musical staff and let the musician figure out how to realize the harmony. Once the continuo is realized, the foundation is laid for the violin or other solo instrument to play the melody line on top of it.


Getting into the groove

The rise of classical music, with its cleaner textures, shorter melody lines, and quickly shifting dynamics, left little space for the continuo. Whether it’s really accurate or not, I like to think of jazz and rock ensembles as resurrecting the continuo in a new and cool way.

No doubt music theorists would quickly disabuse me of this notion, but until they do, I think of the basso continuo as the part of Baroque music that makes it groovy or cool, which I know are not terms you hear associated with Baroque music. But maybe they should be.

In any case, a great example of the basso continuo is in the 3rd movement of Corelli’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Major, Op. 5. (Thanks to a Columbia University site for pointing this out.) The movement is in the clip below. It’s 57 seconds long. Listen as the harpsichord and the cello (which is harder to hear) ground the song with the bass line while the violin plays the melody line on top of it.—Nabob, On Baroque

More on the basso continuo

Columbia University:

“Theory of Music” blog:

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