These ratings of Baroque and early Classical composers are of course subjective. Consider them conversation-starters in the exploration of great music.
Ludwig van Beethoven. No question that Beethoven’s symphonies are incredible, as are many of his other works. Nevertheless a good deal of his work is hard to understand and not exactly pleasant to listen to, despite its technical sophistication. His single opera, Fidelio, can’t hold a candle to Handel.
Joseph Haydn. Joseph is known for his symphonies, and he composed a ton of them and much more. It’s all pleasant enough to listen to, and makes good background music for ironing clothes or shoveling snow — but for me, that’s about as far as it goes.
Antonio Vivaldi. Of course everybody knows and loves The Four Seasons, but Vivaldi composed a lot of music that pales in comparison. He could be really good or really bad. His operas are bad.
Luigi Cherubini. Cherubini fired a few duds, but for the most part he was right on target. His sacred music, concert music and operas all hold your attention and contain many beautiful passages, some of which are astounding.
Christoph Willibald Gluck. Gluck was highly regarded in his time for his operas, and they have held up well. Orfe ed Euridice, Paride ed Elena, Iphigenie et Tauride and Armide, among others, are as good as it gets.
Michael Haydn. Joseph’s lesser known and less prolific brother, Michael, was concertmaster in Salzburg, a so-so position which home boy Mozart always aspired not to have. Nevertheless, Michael’s sacred music and concert music are rock solid and have many great moments. Try his Requiem in C Minor (H 559), Symphony No. 26 or Symphony No. 28 if you need convincing.
Jean-Baptiste Lully. Lully ran the musical show for Louis XIV and pretty much defined and controlled French music. Although he appears to have been a real bad guy, his works are consistently beautiful from first note to last. He shaped the French classical sound, which is unforgettable and quite different from the Italian and German.
Alessandro Scarlatti. Scarlatti composed terrific oratorios, concert music and sacred music. His works feature haunting melodies and a dramatic intensity well ahead of his time. Try Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Symphony No. 3 in D Minor, or L’Assunzione della Beata Vergine (oratorio).
Georg Philipp Telemann. Telemann is highly regarded by lovers of classical music, but not widely known by the general public. His record-setting output of music is astonishing and astonishingly strong. Read more about it here.
Jan Dismas Zelenka. Zelenka was so good he is now known as “The Czech Bach.” Toiling away in the outer reaches of Dresden, he was not widely known in his time, although J.S. Bach and Telemann thought his music was first rate. It is.
Rightly Rated Composers
Johann Sebastian Bach. A technical wizard, J.S. Bach is synonymous with classical music, a stature he richly deserves. If only we could hear the massive volume of his work that has not survived.
Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn enjoys a well-deserved reputation for being near the top. He wrote intense and entertaining music, even as a teenager. And, nobody knew how to open and close a number like he did. Try his oratorio Elijah, Symphony No. 4 in A, or the overture to A Midsummer’s Night Dream.
Wolfgang Mozart. Mozart was beyond brilliant. His music combines technical wizardry and entertainment value for the general public (something he consciously aimed for), and an overall sound that was original and innovative and still sparkles to this day. Every note he wrote was gold. Read more about him here.