First of all, along with all of the 20th century composers, we need to rule out the composers that had no spiritual connection. All great artists have an inner, mystical connection, because great art always comes from the higher self: what people call inspiration. I know that people will argue about this forever, but if you peek into the biographies, the signs are always there.
Johann Sebastian Bach
No. 1 - The greatest composer who ever lived is Johann Sebastian Bach who died in 1750. All the violinists know this, because of the solo violin partitas and sonatas; the cello players all know this, because of the cello suites; the organists know it, the choir directors all know it, and all of the great pianists know this either through the elegance of the partitas and the English and French Suites, or from the unparalleled brilliance of the Well Tempered Clavier. Bach was the greatest master of the art of composition ever. His was a great spirit, that of a Pythagoras or a Michelangelo. His era was the Era of the Mind, the age of reason, and he was a great exemplar of the powers of logic. He was the greatest writer of counterpoint and the greatest writer of harmony ever, and his music is a supreme achievement.
Ludwig Van BeethovenNo. 2 – Beethoven, who died in 1827 was one of the greatest and most advanced souls that we have ever seen. His sacrifice was his outward hearing, enabling him to hear more perfectly the inner music. It was Beethoven's responsibility to open the door to the heart, unleashing naked passion onto the great molds for music that had been developed during the previous century: the century of Bach, Mozart and Haydn, who developed the sonata, the concerto, the rondo, and the fugal forms. Just as the people of Bach's time did not understand Bach, those of Beethoven’s day did not understand this master either. Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schumann wrote important works of music, but they didn't grasp the inner Beethoven.... the naked soul that he gave us in the last works... the piano sonatas and string quartets. In a troubled world, solace will not be found in the dark tones of the 1940’s Stravinsky (who no longer bothered to tune his piano), or in the agony of Bartok's disturbing string quartets. They will turn to Beethoven instead.
Richard WagnerNo. 3 – Wagner, who died in 1883, is still not understood today. First of all, most people have been deluded about Wagner because of all the trash that has been written about him since he first attacked the establishment in the 1840s. Thousands of books about him were in print when he died.... most of them negative. But Wagner was the first one to understand Beethoven's last works, considered at that time to be the works of a mad man. Wagner completely changed music and changed all of the composers who came after him. And he transformed harmony. The opening chord of Tristan und Isolde is recognized as such in all universities. But that's just one little chord. It's almost a joke to focus entire essays on it. What about Tristan und Isolde, the entire opera? There is no other work of art anywhere that can compare to it. With this work, Wagner upgraded Beethoven's passion into bliss. Wagner’s ring cycle is the greatest achievement ever staged, and his last work, Parsifal, is the most deeply spiritual drama ever created. But Wagner’s deep inward journeys scared many of the other composers, and after they absorbed what technique they could from him, they moved on into the darkness of the 20 century.
Cesar FranckNo. 4 is Cesar Franck (died 1890). As Cesar Franck is the most recent of these four composers, he is the most unknown. In fact, he is considered obscure, and even laughable in the Hallowed Halls of Schoenberg: our universities. Franck took Tristan und Isolde to a new level... not one of passion, but one of spirit. I can't say much about Franck yet, because he is so misunderstood, but I plan to write a great deal about him - to introduce this important composer to the world in general that does not yet recognize his greatness. If I had the ability to do something about any composer, I would do something about this man who's greatest works still remain unpublished! That's a very sad condition, but no different than a hundred years after Bach, when all of the cantatas were still in manuscript form. I don't know anyone in this country who understands Franck, so I have had to go to France and Germany to find them. I will say one thing at this point, something that I have not heard another person say: Cesar Franck is France's greatest composer!
Victoria and PalestrinaNo. 5 – My fifth position is a tie between Giovanni da Palestrina and Tomas Luis de Victoria. Victoria, the Spanish Renaissance composer who died in 1611, is my favorite composer of all time. Perhaps I should say, these two composers. If I could only listen to one man's compositions (or two) for the rest of my life, it would be Victoria and Palestrina. I discovered them in 1971 (Franck and Wagner about 1974) and Victoria has been my favorite ever since. This is a tie, however, with his contemporary Palestrina because Victoria had a very pure spiritual connection that brought to his music something very special. Palestrina's music is a supreme and magnificent achievement. He was a master composer, studied fervently by Wagner, Beethoven and Bach.
EnvoiI have placed this music from 16th century Renaissance as Number Five, but perhaps it belongs at Number One, because this is the MOST underestimated music of all five numbers, and yet it would be the most important to give to the people of this world at this most important time in our history. Its beauty, pure consonance, tone of human voices (especially when sung to perfection by those pure-of-heart who love the music) coexists with the next step in human evolution. I explained this in my book Kosmon of 1970. We are at the end of an evolutionary cycle, where everything comes apart. Music and art at this point have been completely desecrated, turned into nothing of value, reflecting the state of the planetary evolution of the world, where greed and power control the masses through mind-controlling mass media and mis-education in the schools. A turning point arrives when this monstrosity of darkness has eaten into itself to the point where it crashes, and from the ashes a new evolutionary cycle begins, and this beginning is always marked by the return to pure consonance, such as that of the great choral music of 16th century Renaissance, and especially that of these two great master composers: Tomas Luis de Victoria and Giovanni da Palestrina.