Was John Cage the greatest composer of the 20th century?

Who was the greatest composer of the 20th century?  This was the question asked recently on a popular Classical Music forum.  Many names were put forward: Bartok, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, my choice was Cage, but even some argued for Mahler.

This raises the question how could a composer that died in 1911 be considered the greatest composer of the next 90 years?  The most common argument put forward was because of the composers he influenced, which included Arnold Schoenberg, Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten and many others.  Any of these composers could be considered the greatest, and they in turn influenced younger composers.

My choice of John Cage is not popular, and he might not even be considered a composer at all.  So many think of him more as a philosopher that it has become a cliché.  But it is how his thinking produced great music that matters to me.  His Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano is a modern classic; his Concert for Piano and Orchestra also very important.  And both beautiful in indescribable ways.  In his last decade he produced dozens of works, his “number pieces”, which can be seen as the culmination of his life’s work, are likely to become chamber music classics of the late 20th century.

The myriad methods he used for composing and notating his work produced music that challenged how we think of music. Beyond 4’33”, his Song Books, music that involved contact microphones on cactus, and kitchen furniture, that incorporated spoken text and stage action – his work took us beyond the boundaries of how we perceive music.  And the music is beautiful.

He in turn influenced a generation of composers, including Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown and even composers such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen were influenced, however briefly, by John Cage.

However, the hallmark of the 20th century is the many styles that were used by composers.  For every serialist there were neo-romantics or actual romantics.  For every minimalist there were composers writing music of the new complexity.  Composers created works from a pastiche of styles bridging world music, popular music, various classical styles and periods into a gumbo of post-modern expression which both referenced the past and spoke for a generation which refused to view the world, much less art, in hierarchical terms.

Depending upon our taste preferences, the composer who looms the largest could be any of the names mentioned.  What the 20th century ushered in is the freedom to appreciate all the different styles composers choose to work in and receive the music without filtering it through a cultural judgment of whether it is great or not and mitigating the idea of any single composer  as “the greatest”.

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