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MusicWeb Christmas Challenge:

Who was (or is) the most prolific composer of all?

The American composer Charles Ives certainly wasn't particularly prolific but he did write a short piece with off-stage solo trumpet called The Unanswered Question. Our thanks go to everyone who entered the challenge but, despite their efforts, it is hard to escape the feeling that the question remains unanswered. Perhaps it was unanswerable and that was the argument advanced by Michael Whalley who suggested that "Music exists only while it is actually being performed … the most prolific composer at any given moment is the one whose music is being given the maximum number of performances worldwide", concluding that "No method exists of getting this information so the question cannot be answered".

To make a serious attempt to answer the question would require some kind of criteria for making the judgement and an awful lot of information trawling. It was suggested to us by Paul Serotsky and Marc Bridle that the number of notes might be the basic criterion. Paul also went further and suggested pen strokes, banning users of computer programmes and a "prolificness quotient"! Another approach is to rely on authoritative sources and in terms of what is the biggest, smallest, fastest etc. the Guinness Book of Worlds Records is a source which many of us would accept as reliable. According to a Wikipedia article (can we rely on that?) on Telemann this publication has declared him the most prolific of all time. Alternatively, Richard Masters proposed Carl Czerny - another composer whose output undoubtedly was remarkably large.

One answer - from Jim Moskowitz - caused more thought, discussion and scurrying around here than all the others put together. He suggested Rowan Taylor based on this entry in Wikipedia. This cites respected publications such as Who's Who in the World as listing him but a check of the 2004 edition didn't find an entry for him (he died in 2005). We were also sceptical about him because a search of the Pierce College website - he definitely taught there for many years - failed to find anything. In the end we resorted to searching Grove Online and found about 45 people with Taylor as part of their name - none of them were called Rowan. We do know that he wasn't a complete figment of someone's imagination, but the lack of an authoritative source made us unable to accept the claims made in Wikipedia about the number of his compositions. At our request, Wikipedia added the warning that the information in the entry is disputed. All this is no reflection on Jim Moskowitz who supplied the kind of answer we had expected might win - i.e. someone really obscure.

Given the difficulties of answering the question, several entries resorted to lateral thinking and, in general, we liked these answers. For example, Tom Gauterin argued for J.S. Bach because he was prolific in other ways - in particular fathering children and because several of his sons were composers. Michael Stubbart argued for John Cage solely on the basis of one work - As slowly and softly as possible which is currently in the early stages of a performance expected to last for 639 years, assuming the organ survives, and can be listened to live on the internet. Cage obviously took to heart the critic of 4 minutes and 33 seconds (of silence) who looked forward to his future works being of major length! Also testing out our sense of humour was Richard Saunders who proposed Vadim Salmanov on the basis that his second symphony is somewhere listed (presumably in error) as Opus 1959.

In terms of the composers mentioned, Telemann was the most frequent (4 times) and no one else was mentioned more than once. A complete list of suggestions in alphabetical order was as follows:

J.S. Bach
J. Strauss Jnr
Rowan Taylor

At the end of the day, we were looking for good justification, ingenuity and/or humour. Our judgements should not be taken as being a view on who actually was the most prolific composer! The prize winners and their answers were as follows:

1st. Michael Whalley

"I shall prove that the question posed by the MusicWeb Christmas Challenge is impossible to answer. (1) The key premise is your requirement that "the music must still exist". (2) Music exists only while it is actually being performed. The score of a symphony is not music. It doesn't matter a fig how much music a composer has written; we are concerned only with how much of it exists. (3) The most prolific composer at any given moment is the one whose music is being given the maximum number of performances worldwide (this may or may not include recordings, according to taste). At 8.28pm on a certain day, this might be, say, Mozart; a few seconds later it could be Delius (though I hope not). It could even be somebody who has written only a couple of works that just happen to be taken up by 'the media'. (4) Hence the most prolific composer varies from moment to moment. To decide who it is at time T, it would be necessary to detect what is being played everywhere in the world (the universe?) at that moment. (5) No method exists of getting this information. (6) So the question cannot be answered, QED."

2nd. David Oberg

"I nominate Georg Philip Telemann as the most prolific composer of all time. By my count, the Telemann Werkverzeichnis includes 431 sacred vocal works, 207 secular vocal works, 345 instrumental works, 626 chamber works, and 284 orchestral works. A grand total of 1,893 compositions! Yet, again by my tally, this number includes 183 lost works, several unverifiable works, 4 fragments plus a number of transposed works, second versions of several works, supplements, and transcriptions of works by other composers. Studies into Telemann's thematic catalogues published as recently as the 1980s and 1990s, have shown that he actually wrote over 3,000 compositions, many of which are now lost (many manuscripts were destroyed during WWII). Conversely, some works, thought lost, were recently discovered by noted musicologist Jason Grant (PhD '05, University of Pittsburgh).

However, is unlikely that Telemann is the most prolific composer to date. That honor goes to Simon Sechter (1788-1867), the Austrian music theorist, advocate of just intonation, organist, author of Die Grundsätze der musikalischen Komposition, and teacher of, among others, Anton Bruckner. It is estimated that he wrote over 8,000 pieces, thus leaving Telemann far behind. Sechter wrote operas (including Ali Hitsch-Hatsch), masses, oratorios, works for organ (including 32 Leichte Versetten), piano pieces, songs (including Gute Nacht), choruses (including one for Schiller's Die Braut von Messina), et al. Astoundingly, he penned approximately 5,000 fugues, attempting to write at least one each day. Perhaps mercifully, most of Sechter's oeuvre no longer exists. As an honorable mention, I am intensely compelled to nominate Sechter as a prolific sufferer of obsessive-compulsive fugatitis. (Via his studies with Sechter, did Bruckner master the fugue and cultivate his particular obsessive-compulsive traits [counting leaves on a tree, etc.]? I think about this subject and counter-subject constantly.)"

3rd. Richard Masters

"To the horror of piano students everywhere, the composer without a doubt most deserving of the "greatest" appellation (if one judges according to prolific output only) is none other than Carl Czerny. Remembered now as a disciple of Beethoven and a tireless composer of torturous etudes for recalcitrant children, Czerny was regarded in his time as a talented pianist, composer, arranger and pedagogue. Some might say that Czerny's most important contribution to the musical world was his pupil Franz Liszt, but his massive work list occasionally gives up a small jewel (if never a diamond) of musical inspiration.

Czerny's published works run to 856 opus numbers, including piano works (studies, sonatas, transcriptions), violin sonatas and other instrumental works, concerti, operas and symphonies; the list runs ever onward. Like his pupil Liszt, Herr Czerny never met an etude or operatic potpourri he didn't like, composing well over a thousand individual etudes and numerous fantasies on the works of composers as diverse as Schubert, Bellini and Wagner.

In addition to published works, there are two unpublished "grande" symphonies, nineteen string quartets and many other chamber works and choral pieces. Czerny also found the time to edit (some say re-write) the works of Bach and Beethoven, in addition to arranging symphonies and operas of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and Donizetti for the piano.

In the last fifty years, musicians have reevaluated Czerny's works, with luminaries such as Vladimir Horowitz, Anton Kuerti, Stephen Hough and Barry Tuckwell exploring his variations and sonatas. Several of Czerny's symphonies have been recorded, as well as various choral and chamber works. Perhaps this is the beginning of a Czerny renaissance? Whether or not his work deserves such wide exposure as that of his contemporaries Beethoven and Schubert (it doesn't), one cannot argue with the sheer size of his catalogue; if "prolificity" wins the race, then Herr Czerny is the greatest composer of his generation."

4th. Tom Gauterin

"The most prolific composer of all time, surely, must be J. S. Bach. Yes, he wrote 200-odd cantatas, set just about every word of the Bible to music at least twice, redefined what was possible on violin and cello, perfected the form of the concerto grosso, produced enough keyboard works to give harpsichordists, pianists and organists a lifetime's sustenance and (nearly) finished the definitive guide to fugue.

But never mind all that. The man fathered 20 children and, if that isn't prolific, I don't know what is."

Len Mullenger will be in contact with the prize winners - our congratulations go to them. As indicated in the challenge, we will not enter into individual correspondence related to our decision on the prizes but reflections on the exercise are welcome on the Bulletin board.


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