Composer duels!

July 11, 2020

On his YouTube channel, David Hurwitz recently set the cat among the pigeons by proposing a series of “composer duels”. It’s a fun parlour game, and I can’t resist setting them up and knocking them down myself.

Here are the duels he suggested:

Bach v. Handel: The easiest of the bunch. Bach all the way. Endless invention, dazzling playfulness, inexhaustible enjoyment. Sure, Handel wrote Messiah, for which I am grateful, but set beside the B Minor Mass, the Magnificat, the Passions, the motets, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Art of Fugue, the Musical Offering, the Passacaglia and Fugue (582), the English Suites, the GOLDBERGs, the music for solo violin, the cello suites — well, it’s no contest.

Scarlatti v. Couperin: No strong opinion on this one, as neither means much to me. Probably Scarlatti, just to spite the French.

Haydn v. Mozart: For his operas alone I have to pick Mozart. Then there are the Requiem, and Laudate Dominum, certain piano concertos, and the string quintets, and the clarinet concerto. Although I like and enjoy Haydn’s music a great deal, I don’t think I love anything of his as much as I love what I love by Mozart.

Dvorak v. Brahms: A tough one, but I’ll go with Brahms, if only for the late piano and clarinet works, which are the Brahms I love most. In orchestral music Dvorak has the edge with his wonderful tone poems, but it’s not enough for me to give him the palm.

Schumann v. Chopin. Chopin. Schumann makes me nervous and unhappy.

Sibelius v. Nielsen: Well, Nielsen’s music leaves me cold, so it’s not a fair fight. Sibelius, hands down. Violin concerto, late symphonies, tone poems.

Bruckner v. Mahler:  Both great symphonists, and there are times when I think Bruckner is God’s greatest gift to the nineteenth century, but pushed to choose I pick Mahler, whose marvellous symphonic landscapes have given me so much joy, and who wrote my very favourite symphony (No.2).

Ravel v. Debussy: An easy one for me: Debussy. The mysterious and evocative piano music, La Mer, the Nocturnes, the greatest mood opera of all time in Pelleas et Melisande. Apart from Gaspard I can’t say that I love anything of Ravel’s, and I have a marked dislike for his piano concertos.

Verdi v. Wagner: The biggest, baddest composer duel of them all! Verdi has the good tunes, which counts for something, I guess, but for sheer luxurious sound there’s nothing like Wagner, and I can’t cast my vote against the man who gave us Tristan and Parsifal

Stravinsky v. Schoenberg: Who-berg? Stravinsky is such a sunny, witty composer — Haydn for the twentieth century — that he wins easily for me. Even his serial music, however regrettable it may be in the grand scheme of things, nonetheless beat Schoenberg at his own game. 

Some other possible duels that come to mind: Shostakovich v. Prokofiev (though it would be fairer to Prokofiev to match him up against Weinberg); Beethoven v. Schubert (ouch!); Ockeghem v. Dufay (ouch!); Janacek v. Bartok (Janecek, without hesitation); Cage v. Feldman (Feldman in a heartbeat); Berg v. Webern (Webern, even though he was a Nazi). There are some good comments attached to the video chat:

16 Responses to “Composer duels!”

  1. Rob G Says:

    There are really only four here on which I’m able to take a definite side, owing to not being familiar enough with one or the other of the challengers.

    Bach v. Handel — I’m with you: Bach

    Haydn v. Mozart — with you again. Mozart

    Dvorak v. Brahms — for me it’s Dvorak, hands down. I don’t dislike Brahms, but Dvorak’s like Bach to me. I can throw him on anytime and enjoy it.

    Bruckner v. Mahler — I love Bruckner but I’ve never been able to warm up to Mahler, except for his wonderful adagios. The symphonies seem to me to be too overloaded with ideas. As I told Mac one time, Mahler to me is too ready to throw everything in but the kitchen sink.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I understand that judgement of Mahler, and it’s not entirely off the mark, of course. But the other side of the coin is that his music has a lot of variety, many different moods, and much wonderful orchestral colour. Familiarity with the pieces, I find, makes them feel less cluttered.

    I should know Dvorak’s music better than I do. Apart from a few pieces, I’ve not taken much time to get to know him.

  3. Rob G Says:

    Re: Dvorak — I like the last three symphonies very much, and also his chamber music. Oh, yes, and his cello concerto.

    • cburrell Says:

      Do you know his tone poems at all? “The Golden Spinning Wheel”, “The Water Goblin”. There are a few others. They are wonderful, substantial works that I don’t think get played very often.

      • Rob G Says:

        Yes, I have a disc with the tone poems on it but I haven’t got to know them very well yet.

        As for the Slavonic dances, there’s a great recording of them by Charles Mackerras with the Czech Philharmonic. I’ve given it as a gift a couple times, once to a Vivaldi lover who hadn’t heard them, but was a fan of Eastern European folk music. He thought it was fantastic — the best of both worlds! 🙂

  4. Rob G Says:

    And mustn’t forget the Slavonic Dances!

    • cburrell Says:

      I realized a few weeks ago, with some dismay, that I don’t have *any* of his Slavonic dances in my collection! They’ve gone onto my list.

  5. cburrell Says:

    That Mackerras recording of the Slavonic Dances is the same one I marked down to buy! He has a good reputation in Dvorak’s music. I have his recordings of the tone poems and the late symphonies, and they are excellent.

  6. Maclin Horton Says:

    I approve of your choices. The one significant change I would make is that Scarlatti would be a much more decisive victor over Couperin. As in “no contest.” I might well make Brahms vs. Dvorak less decisive for the former if I knew more of the latter’s music. But it’s doubtful. Brahms’s symphonies are in the Beethoven class, i.e. Supreme Master– for me; there just aren’t as many of them.

  7. cburrell Says:

    I’ve listened to more Scarlatti than Couperin, which I suppose might be an implicit vote in his favour, but I can’t say that I’ve been particularly taken with what I’ve heard. Part of the problem is the sheer scope — about 500 sonatas, I think? And all on more or less the same scale. Maybe I should pick 10 sonatas, listen to them repeatedly, and see if he grows on me. Not a bad idea.


    • If you have a Whats-is-name Plays Scarlatti disk in your collection, you could probably do worse than just listen to it several times, as such recitals naturally draw on the more appealing sonatas. There are a number that appear on many collections of that sort. K.491 is a perennial favorite. I certainly haven’t heard anything remotely close to all of them.

      I have probably a dozen all-Scarlatti disks, and can never remember which pieces I like and which disk they’re on. A few years ago I took the slightly crazy step of starting a spreadsheet listing every sonata and the albums on which it occurs, which is frequently more than one. Yevgeny Sudbin’s first one is a great one. I haven’t really listened to the second. The spreadsheet remains a work in progress. Well, not even in recent progress.

      Not many people favor Scarlatti on the harpsichord now, and I can’t say I *favor* it, but I really like Wanda Landowska’s Scarlatti album.

      • cburrell Says:

        You are a Scarlatti enthusiast! Anyone who gets to the “making a spreadsheet” stage has crossed the enthusiasm line.

        I think I’ll do as you suggest. I will undoubtedly take the piano route. Since January I’ve been embroiled in a HUGE Beethoven listening project, and I really haven’t room for anything else until I get that done, but I think it would be fun to turn to Scarlatti then.

        Apologies for taking such a long time to respond to you; I was on vacation.


      • I cannot deny it. Nay, I do not wish to deny it. Maybe I should have it put on a t-shirt or something.

        I think it goes back to a short story I read when I was in high school. I don’t remember the plot but somewhere along the line a snobbish guy was criticizing his girlfriend’s taste in music: “Darling, how many times must I tell you that there’s been no music *written* since Scarlatti?”

        I hate to think that I was attracted to his snobbishness, but I do know that the remark intrigued me because I had never heard of Scarlatti (or any classical composers apart from the half-dozen or so really big names). So I was disposed to listen when he came up in a music history class a few years later in college.


      • So I searched for “scarlatti t-shirt” and sure enough there is one available. And then I found…oh my goodness…:

        https://van-us.atavist.com/scarlatti-ranked

  8. cburrell Says:

    Well, there’s my list of sonatas to put on rotation! Many thanks.

    Have I shown you this before?


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