Which Composer Is The Biggest Badass? : Deceptive Cadence Sex, drugs, guts and politics: An idle query on Twitter ignites a fun debate online and in our offices.

Which Composer Is The Biggest Badass?

Dmitri Shostakovich topped our informal "who's the most badass composer" poll. Roger Rosing/Wikimedia/Deutshe Fotothek hide caption

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Roger Rosing/Wikimedia/Deutshe Fotothek

Dmitri Shostakovich topped our informal "who's the most badass composer" poll.

Roger Rosing/Wikimedia/Deutshe Fotothek

This intriguing question floated across the Twitter transom to us last Friday morning from Kara-Lis Coverdale (@kliscoverdale):

Who is the most badass composer there ever was? #drugs #sex #guts #politics

We loved Kara-Lis' question so much that we immediately threw it open to our fans and friends across Twitter and Facebook, a question to be pondered if not for the ages, at least over the course of a weekend. And boy, did you all respond.

We got impassioned proposals in less than 140 characters and dozens of write-in nominations on our Facebook poll, reveling in nominees who span five centuries and certainly stretch across the four areas of competition: drugs, sex, guts (which we took to mean musical style and innovation as well as personal bravery/craziness) and politics.

One composer who found many advocates on Twitter for his general badassery is Carlo Gesualdo. As Christian Hertzog (@hertzogsays) noted succintly, the Italian composer/nobleman "killed his wife and [her] lover and wrote crazy music." Oh, and he put the corpses in a display case. And if that weren't enough to put Gesualdo over the top, Hertzog sent in a some more bits of proof: "Prince of Venosa — how badass is that? Plus he violated all rules of harmony."

Ultimately, Dmitri Shostakovich topped our informal poll — we can only imagine on the grounds of politics, since he was not exactly known for other, shall we say, proclivities.


But the midcentury Russian master had his detractors as well. This, from music journalist Steve Holtje via Facebook: "Did Shostakovich kill anybody with a sword, then spend the rest of his life writing the most dissonant music within three centuries on either side? If so, it was left out of Testimony. Gotta go with Gesualdo!"

The unnamed Twitter scribe from the Orchestra of St. Luke's (@OSLMusic) went for Romantic overload, citing Franz Liszt: "You can't beat literally destroying so many pianos that a stronger one was invented!"

@EMIClassicsUS went for sheer volume — not of compositions (though there's that too), but of progeny: "Definitely Bach. The man had 20 children, if that's not badass I don't know what is."

Speaking of the romancing, Armando Bayolo (@ArmandoBayolo) came up with a modernist claim: "Gotta be Morton Feldman. The guy was a surprising badass when it came to the ladies."

Who do you think is the most "badass" composer? Tell us your ideas in the comments section.

Here's how the top ten shook out (with annotations) as of this morning.

The Top Ten Badass Composers:

1) Dmitri Shostakovich has topped our list, in the politics category. In 1936, he was slammed in the Soviet newspaper Pravda — perhaps by Stalin himself — for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which was denounced as "muddle instead of music." Since then, the man and his music have not escaped political scrutiny. Was Shostakovich a Soviet patriot or a secret dissident? You decide.

2) Frederic Chopin has ranked much higher than we anticipated. Must be for guts, in that no one before or since has drawn such deep poetry from the piano. He reportedly took opium drops on sugar cubes, but that was probably only to relieve his tuberculosis.

3) Ludwig van Beethoven was a gutsy guy, both in life (he had the habits of suing people and throwing food) and in his music. His symphonies were groundbreaking and the late string quartets and piano sonatas were far-reaching, tonally and emotionally. They continue to sound far ahead of their era.

4) Franz Liszt is running strong in the sex category. He had a lust for life that was all-encompassing, extending to the lovely Countess Marie d'Agoult, the wife of a French cavalry officer, whom Liszt lured away to be his lover and bear his children. Also, some would argue that his music paved the way for Wagner and Debussy.

5) Mozart's presence on this particular list is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps voters think he was a badass merely due to his depiction as a potty-mouthed goofball in the movie Amadeus? Beats us.

6) Igor Stravinsky ranks high in the guts department. His ballet The Rite of Spring ignited an actual riot at its world premiere in Paris in 1913. Hard to top that for marketing purposes.

7) Carlo Gesualdo is very badass indeed. He murdered his wife and her lover (in flagrante delicto), and got away with it because he happened to be a prince. He was also a composer whose unearthly, distantly related harmonies (from over 400 years ago) sound practically avant-garde even today.

8) Gustav Mahler moved up a few notches over the weekend. Mahler had the guts to believe that you could find the entire world in his symphonies. And to that end he made them long, large and complicated.

9) J.S. Bach was tossed in jail. Really. And the reason? He told his boss essentially to shove it, and quit for a better job. He also once pulled a sword on a student, which ups his street cred considerably. And as far as sex goes, like his music making, Bach was prolific in the baby-making department too, with 20 children to his credit.

10) Claude Debussy ranks in both the guts and sex catagories. With his breakthrough piece Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, he untethered harmony from its traditional moorings, letting the music shimmer in midair. He also left his wife for another woman, resulting in a scandal that estranged him from some of his friends and triggered the attempted suicide of his wife.


Hector Berlioz seemed to have dropped in from Mars. No one had heard music as feral and dangerous as the Symphonie Fantastique when it debuted in 1830. He also admitted to being a fan of the opiated state he so vividly depicts in his symphony.

John Cage may be the most badass in the guts department. He dared write a piece, 4:33, in which the performer makes no sound.