I’ve been a big fan of Anthony Tommasini’s reviews and articles in the New York Times for years. The Indispensable Composers: A Personal Guide provides a guided tour of the composers Tommasini loves and the music they created. Tommasini takes a chronological approach while putting the composer and his music into a larger context. I particularly enjoyed Tommasini’s chapters on Haydn and Mozart.

In addition, I found Tommasini’s “Recommended Recordings” list useful. I have some of the recordings Tommasini recommends, but I’ll have to buy several that I don’t own. If you’re a fan of classical music, there’s a lot in The Indispensable Composers you’ll find fascinating and enlightening. Tommasini’s writing is clear and lucid. Highly recommended! Do you have a favorite classical composer? GRADE: A
Introduction: The greatness complex 1
Creator of modern music : Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) 19
Music for use, devotion, and personal profit : Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) 39
“Vast effects with simple means” : George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) 65
The “Vienna Four” : an introduction 91
“I had to be original” : Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) 97
“Right here in my noodle” : Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) 113
The gift of inevitability : Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) 145
“When I wished to sing of love it turned to sorrow” : Franz Schubert (1797-1828) 175
An unforgettable day in 1836 : Fryderyk Franciszek (Frédéric François) Chopin (1810-1849), Robert Schumann (1810-1856) 205
The Italian reformer and the German futurist : Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Richard Wagner (1813-1883) 247
The synthesizer : Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) 307
The refined radical : Claude Debussy (1862-1918) 339
“The public will judge” : Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) 369
New languages for a new century : Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Bela Bartók (1881-1945) 397
Recommended recordings 441
Acknowledgements 447
Notes 449


  1. Jeff Smith

    Well, yes, I have a favorite classical composer, and it’s Beethoven. I never tire of listening to Beethoven. But most of my favorite composers are 20th century: Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Mahler, Bartok, Shostakovich. (Mahler’s 6th Symphony is playing now.)

    I certainly like some of the music Tommasini talks about in his book, but it’s not the stuff that generally speaks to me. I doubt I’ll read this.

    1. george Post author

      Jeff, Tommasini tends to discuss the music (and composers) he loves. Musical tastes vary. I’m mostly a Bach, Haydn, and Mozart guy.

    1. george Post author

      Dan, plenty of composers don’t get a chapter in Tommasini’s book. The Russians–Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Khachaturian–get short shrift.

    1. george Post author

      Jeff, I’m a big fan of Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto. I must have at least a dozen different performances on CDs.

  2. Deb

    Back when I listened to a lot more classical music than I do today, I could name my favorite works by many composers. Now I’ll just have to say Beethoven (especially the fourth movement of Symphony #9–Song of Joy), Bach (especially Toccata and Fugue in D Minor), and Mozart (anything, really).

    1. george Post author

      Deb, Mozart is my go-to composer. Yes, I have hundreds of other classical music CDs, but the ones that get played most often are Mozart pieces.

    2. wolf

      I’m not such a fan of classical music – maybe because it was played too much in school – and I really can’t stand operas – just sitting there listening and watching for more than two hours!
      But I could listen to Beethoven symphonies all day.
      I was so proud when the European Council made Ode to Joy the anthem of Europe and later the EU.

      1. george Post author

        Wolf, Beethoven seems to be the favorite composer of the commentators on this blog. He lived a tragic life, however.

  3. Jeff Meyerson

    I agree on Mozart, too. Definitely 18th to 19th Century. I am not a fan of most 20th Century classical composers.

      1. wolf

        I also was thinking about adding those two – still remember the late 60s when I heard “Bird on the Wire” for the first time – and then the version by Joe Cocker!
        Springsteen I discovered only in the 80s.

  4. Jeff Smith

    And for me, there are only a few (Jupiter, Clarinet Concerto) Mozart pieces that I can even stand to listen to.

    1. george Post author

      Jeff, Mozart’s produced a vast amount of music. When working on the computer, I like to play Mozart’s divertimenti as background music. I find my thoughts are clearer and my mood is elevated.

  5. Art Scott

    I have a lot of classical music survey books (mostly acquired cheap or free), and the contents page of Tommasini’s reads just like all the others. Yawn, nothing new here. Any eccentric, obscure choices for recordings? I rather doubt it; Jim Svejda’s my go-to for that. If Jeff Smith does one of these books, I’ll read it; his tastes are neatly aligned with mine.

    1. george Post author

      Art, I bought Jim Svejda’s book (in various editions) and that spurred some serious buying of classical music CDs. I’m still a subscriber to the AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE that you recommended years ago. However, the AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE seems to be shrinking in size with each issue. It used to be twice as thick!

      1. Art Scott

        Physical media like CDs are on the way to vanishing entirely (LPs are a somewhat different story). Ray, my expert on the music resale market, says there’s more demand for tape cassettes (for nostalgists driving old cars with tape players) than CDs these days. There are almost no new CD players being marketed, even at the high end. I’ve been buying DVD players (that also play CDs) at estate sales and thrift stores as backups, since I’ve had a string of failures with my CD-only machines. Unless ARG starts reviewing the music online from streaming services they will soon shrink to nothing. Apart from CD reviews (and Vroon’s delightful rants) its coverage of the concert scene, competitions and the like is a valuable resource for folks like me who are presenting classical concerts. Would hate to lose that.

  6. Rick Robinson

    Mahler, Delius, (both of whom seem to be missing here), Haydn (very relaxing), Bax (a favorite), and many others. Sure I like most of the war horses featured in this book, but there are so many others. I agree with Art on the Jim Svejda book.

      1. george Post author

        Bob, some reviewers (and audience members) didn’t get the joke in YESTERDAY with the lead character mangling the lyrics to the Beatle songs because he can’t remember them perfectly. I thought it was a funny twist on the plot.

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