Who do today’s leading composers rate as the finest? We asked 174 of them that very question and here, in their own words, we present the fascinating results.
‘Making decisions concerning the “greatest” this or that is always problematic,’ replies composer Brian Ferneyhough, when BBC Music Magazine asks him to name his greatest five composers in history. And, to be fair, he has a point. Can one really compare figures who were writing music 800 years apart? Or weigh the intricate craftmanship of a two-minute piano piece up against the grand vision that goes into a four-hour opera?
Nonetheless, when faced with the same question, Ferneyhough gamely named his top five – as did 173 other leading composers from across the globe.
To clarify things, we set out the criteria for greatness as follows:
- originality – to what extent did your chosen composers take music in new and exciting directions?
- impact – how greatly did they influence the musical scene both in their own lifetime and in years/centuries to come?
- craftmanship – from a technical point of view, how brilliantly constructed is their music?
- sheer enjoyability – quite simply, how much pleasure does their music give you?
He we present the Top 50, in descending order, with each composer personally appraised by one of those who voted for them.
Russian virtuoso pianist, gifted melodist and one of the greats of late-Romanticism
John Rutter says:
Rachmaninov belongs to the aristocracy of composers. He never wrote a piece of music unless he had something to say and he never repeated himself; he never outstayed his welcome. No two of his piano pieces are alike, each one creates its own world. He lays his soul before us in music like the Second Symphony, yet it is noble as much as passionate.
His melodic invention is to die for, his harmonic flavour subtle and instantly recognisable, his orchestration rich yet never cloying. He has the gift of making his music seem as if he is speaking just to you.
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 4
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano); Philharmonia/Ettore Gracis (1957)
EMI 567 2382
German Romantic composer whose unstable mind spawned complex masterpieces
Bent Sørensen says:
Bach and Mozart write perfect music, but there’s a fragile quality to Schumann’s perfection. I grew up listening to violin concertos, because my father played the violin. There’s something about Schumann’s Violin Concerto; the music reminded me of myself. I feel close to Schumann, both personally and professionally.
Schumann: String Quartets Nos 1-3
Doric String Quartet
Chandos CHAN 10692
Serialist, modernist, conductor and founder of Ensemble intercontemporain
Dai Fujikura says:
Boulez is simply the best! Musically speaking, not only was he ground-breaking at the time, but his harmony and sonority are always gorgeous – if you slice his music, every bit is beautiful. He has done so much for other composers, too, building institutions and shaping how contemporary music is programmed in normal orchestral concerts.
Theologian, mystic and now a saint, Hildegard composed sacred monophony
Jessica Curry says:
I first discovered Hildegard’s music through the rave scene – Orbital’s 1991 trippy track Belfast uses a beautiful sample of O Euchari and I was instantly hooked. I eventually found out what the sample was and Hildegard has remained a constant companion ever since. As with all the best music, I think it’s impossible to describe her work – it is something that simply has be experienced. I’m a staunch atheist and yet somehow her music is a sublime taste of the divine.
English composer known best for his sacred polyphonic choral works
Gabriel Jackson says:
From ornate Marian effusions to syllabic settings in English, Tallis’s music encompasses all the diversity of styles that were required of a 16th-century English composer due to the frequent changes of monarch (and, therefore, religion): it’s ecstatic, propulsive, luminous, florid (or simple), with a harmonic richness and melodic grace that is very special.
Whether simple four-part homophony or the complex micropolyphony and dazzling sonic spectacle of Spem in alium, everything a composer interested in choral music needs to learn can be found here.
An original thinker, dadaist, artist, pianist and creator of furniture music
Gerald Barry says:
Just as Beckett withdrew from Joyce to carve his own world, Satie withdrew from Debussy to carve his. He came out of nowhere – nothing like him before or since. No wonder he wrote ‘furniture music’ (background music). His music is Things As They Are. His Vexations, to be played 840 times, might as well be played a million times.
It could go on until the world ends. Its unknowability, inscrutability and mystery allows that. His magnificent Socrate is like someone walking around a room thinking out loud, dictating to a poignantly detached typist.
German modernist; supporter of serialism; writer of electronic and aleatory music
Rolf Hind says:
That Stockhausen is on the front cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album simply attests to his massive reach in the 20th century. His own Gesamtkunst includes language, technology, dance, space and the planet. Stockhausen both benefited from the timing of his birth (massive investment in German radio stations, orchestras, technology) and suffered for it (the challenges of being German in the 20th century) to imbue all influences in his music.
Like the great obsessive German Sanskritists of the 19th century, he has come back from the brink with the key to extraordinary messages, discoveries from before, and perhaps beyond…
43 Stephen Sondheim (b.1930)
American composer, song writer and director specialising in musical theatre
Paul Mealor says:
The very greatest composers are able to sustain us in our darkest moments as well as making us laugh and filling us with joy. For me, Sondheim is one of those. From the most intense and brilliant large-scale, dramatic structures (such as Sweeney Todd or Assassins) to the lightest of melodies (A Little Night Music), and from the simplest of chords (Into the Woods) to the most dense harmonies (Follies), he has it all. He is clever without tricking us, and never ‘writes down’ to us.
The British conductor and composer was a popular Aldeburgh mentor
Charlotte Bray says:
Above all, it is the craftsmanship that makes Knussen’s music important. Every note and marking he made on the page was impeccably heard. No piece was complete until everything was precisely in place. His music is totally original and exciting, infused with a sense of adventure and wit, and will inspire for years to come.
Part of the New Manchester School, Birtwistle combines myth and modernism
Eleanor Alberga says:
Birtwistle’s music speaks in a voice totally its own. The endless re-invention and development as his music unfolds, together with the intensity of the contrapuntal textures, take the ear on an utterly unpredictable yet always completely immersive journey. Gawain and The Minotaur, the two operas I’m most familiar with, enveloped me in a primeval soundworld. I felt viscerally amazed and taken to a better ‘place’ as a result.
Britain’s symphonic master with a natural ear for yearning melodies
Christopher Gunning says:
Is it even possible to envisage the English countryside without hearing Elgar? To take individual pieces, I would say that all the variations of his Enigma Variations are perfect – not just ‘Nimrod’ – and it is one of the finest examples of that format ever written. His First Symphony, meanwhile, is one of the most profoundly optimistic things that has ever been written. It’s a work that goes back to Brahms, or probably pre-Brahms, and has that wonderful combination of lyricism on the one hand and real emotional striving on the other.
Italian operatic master whose enduring arias are beloved the world over
Qigang Chen says:
The five composers I voted for all have something in common: they were unconcerned with keeping up with the latest fashions and were relatively free of outside influence. They were, in short, utterly individual. Verdi’s age coincided with the height of Austro-Germanic rationalist dominance in philosophy, literature, and music, but he did without such glorious guiding principles. He had no philosopher friends, but was a common man, a farmer who retired to the countryside. True artistic vitality exists independently from the influence of worldly power, and Verdi’s music has this kind of particular quality.
Late-Romantic composer of richly scored tone poems and heady operas
Colin Matthews says:
It is all too easy to overlook Richard Strauss’s significance, but in the remarkable sequence of tone poems spanning 25 years, from Don Juan to the Alpine Symphony, he showed both an orchestral mastery and a remarkable capacity for invention and structural innovation. The operas Salome and Elektra are as stylistically advanced as almost anything being written in the first decade of the 20th century. The music of Strauss’s last years – starting with Capriccio in 1940, encompassing the two wind serenades, the Second Horn Concerto and the Oboe Concerto, and culminating in the Four Last Songs – is among the most perfect music of all time.
Tudor England’s choral great also composed dozens of refined keyboard works
Bob Chilcott says:
It took me a while to realise what a wonderful composer Byrd is. As a young chorister the thought of singing his ‘Great’ Service filled me with horror. Years later I listened endlessly to a recording of this piece by The Tallis Scholars and marvelled at its sonority and the tumbling counterpoint of the Nunc Dimittis. I later came to know his Advent motet Vigilate. There are tactile, sensual and deeply human elements in his music that transmit beautifully to the flow of breath and to singing lines.
Twelve-tone serialist and key member of the Second Viennese School
Howard Skempton says:
What is extraordinary is the integrity of Webern’s music. It has a sort of elegance and strength in itself. It’s almost as if he’s contemplating music like a mathematical formula, trying to work out what it might unlock. He reveals the possibility of a different musical landscape.
That’s what excited me when I first heard the Six Pieces for Orchestra in my late teens – I became aware that there was an entirely new way of composing. He influenced the post-War generation, the serialists, experimental composers and, beyond that, the minimalists. His reach has been extraordinary.
35 Edgar Varèse (1883-1965)
Electro-acoustic pioneer and creator of ‘organised sound’
Brian Ferneyhough says:
Varèse’s Octandre was the first ‘contemporary’ work to make a deep and lasting impression on me when, aged 15, I came across a partial recording at school. It struck me as unsentimental, sharp-contoured and authoritatively capricious. As a wind player, I could appreciate its skill in stretching each instrument just beyond its normal comfort zone, while its intersections of complex rhythmic and colouristic patterning seemed brilliantly realised.
Many years later, I wrote a work based on the exact ensemble used by Varèse, plus a solo violin. I have never understood why the Octandre instrumentation never became a standard combination, such as that of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.
American composer who experimented with notation and duration
Shiva Feshareki says:
Feldman’s music has its own aesthetic and pace. At the time of creation, his work seemed completely independent, yet somehow it formed a bridge between many schools of thought. In my mind, his music is like an intricate tapestry, which gets magnified until you experience every element of the work.
It requires commitment and concentration, as often his compositions last many hours. But eventually, it is as though the music has shifted your perspective on reality. You’re changed, and you think and feel with a broader perspective.
Part of the serialist collective, Berg’s music is packed with ciphers and codes
Outi Tarkiainen says:
Alban Berg brought into life the theoretical inventions of the Second Viennese School, creating 12-tone serialism that was not only technically masterful and internally coherent, but also powerful in expression and full of artistic pleasure. His music is a crucial link between eras – his forms and teleology are modern yet firmly drawing from the Romantic tradition. Unlike in the second half of the 20th century, today’s contemporary music is again daring to exploit many elements from the Romantic era, and so Berg’s influence continues to be utterly relevant.
Ballets and biographical symphonies are at the heart of this Russian Romantic’s work
Joby Talbot says:
If you were to greet some aliens who had landed and wanted to know what classical music sounded like, you could do much worse than point them in the direction of Tchaikovsky. To me, growing up, it was just the quintessential, beautiful, extraordinary, poetic and melodic orchestral and vocal music. He was obviously the master of melody, but I also love the heart-on-sleeve emotional palette and the rhythmic element of his music. You look at the dynamic markings in the scores; he has everything from ppppp to fffff! As a kid playing in orchestras it was like running a marathon, but always with a sense of inclusivity, fun and mischief.
- The best recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto
- Nine unexpected uses of Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’
Leader of the American avant-garde; inventor of the prepared piano
Gavin Bryars says:
For me, John Cage was one of the two major artists of the 20th century – the other being Marcel Duchamp. Both questioned what can count as art and both pursued their questioning to the most fundamental level, in Cage’s case through the rigours of his musical and philosophical thinking. He took music back to the condition of zero with the so-called silent piece 4’33”, but with a lightness of spirit that one could never find in other areas of the avant-garde. I first met him in 1966 when he performed in London with Merce Cunningham.
Witnessing the invention and elegance of their collaboration, I knew that this was what I wanted to do, moving away, as I was, from what I felt were the confines of jazz and free improvisation. Cage’s music is constantly surprising, often baffling and always liberating.
The brilliant Polish composer and conductor was a renowned orchestrator
Sebastian Fagerlund says:
I became acquainted with Lutosławski’s music in my early teenage years. His Livre pour Orchestre has since then remained one of the scores I regularly return to and in which I always find something new. In Lutosławski’s orchestral works there is a masterly control of the conception of time through the manipulation of timbre, texture and musical shapes and arcs.
What strikes me above all is what a humane composer he is. Even in the most aleatorically advanced and texturally complex sections, his music communicates with such directness. The music also feels simultaneously playfully inviting, as well as highly expressive and acutely demanding of one’s full attention.
Russian composer who balanced Romanticism with a hard modernist style
Gabriel Prokofiev says:
I guess people will think I’m prejudiced to choose my own grandfather, but I think my choice is justified. Prokofiev has an unmistakable sound, such a unique voice, particularly in his catchy yet quirky melodic writing and original approach to harmony; it’s almost impossible to mistake him for any other composer. He managed to continue composing exciting melodies right up until the 1950s when almost all other 20th-century composers had moved away from tonally rooted themes. His melodies still sounded fresh and new.
Plus, of course, his music has had a wide impact – Peter and the Wolf and Romeo and Juliet in particular have become part of the global musical canon beyond just the realms of classical music.
- The best recordings of Prokofiev’s Piano Concertos
- Six of the best musical settings of Romeo and Juliet
Way ahead of his time, the American composer invented modern music
Morten Lauridsen says:
Ives was possibly the most original composer in history, whose influence was only felt years after his astonishing works became known – a pioneer in new directions for orchestration, musical form, harmony, text setting (especially his 114 songs), rhythm, piano writing, tuning and more, predating many composers who later experimented in these areas. His Three Places in New England in particular remains a stunning model of his innovations.
- How Louisa May Alcott was immortalised by Charles Ives in his music
- A guide to Ives’s Symphony No. 2
First-wave minimalist and composer of hypnotic film music and opera
Oliver Davis says:
Despite the extremely varied styles of Philip Glass’s output over the years, as soon as you hear his music you instantly know it couldn’t be anyone else: his harmonic language is that distinctive and he has an extraordinary gift for melody. Though minimalism is now a very accepted genre, I wonder how difficult it must have been as a young composer in the 1960s to reject the assumed modernist path set by the likes of Stockhausen and Boulez, and instead start a new genus of music.
It must have taken enormous conviction and self belief. The result is a unique and lasting repertoire of stunning music that has credibility and universal appeal. His enduring influence cannot be underestimated.
Versatile American composer-pianist who melded jazz and classical
Gershwin is, for me, the first great American composer, whose career path followed a trajectory from Tin Pan Alley song-plugger into Broadway musicals and inevitably Hollywood film musicals. His jazz-infused Rhapsody in Blue premiered at the holy grail of classical music, Carnegie Hall, and while his glorious opera Porgy and Bess may have opened on Broadway, it eventually reached the Met and the Royal Opera House. Above all, there is the music itself: a tremendous achievement. His unique style never fails to both intrigue and move me.
Austrian Romantic famed for his profound song cycles and sublime sonatas
Stephen Hough says:
There are many reasons we might consider a composer great: innovation and originality, or the sheer consistency that results in many masterpieces. But for me, Schubert’s unique stature, alongside those traits, is his ability to speak to the human heart in all its fragility and vulnerability. Without sentimentality or falsehood he reaches beyond the ears of his listeners to their hearts. We sense that he empathises with the deepest longings of our souls, yet somehow still respects our boundaries.
After his body began to break down in illness, his inspiration took flight. It was a high price for him, but for us, left with his miraculous works, it is a trove of priceless treasures.
- The best recordings of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony
- Schubert: A Style Guide
- Four of the best Schubert recordings
- Six of the best Schubert songs
The Czech composer memorialised folkloric traditions through magical music
Anna Meredith says:
I’ve always returned to Janáček’s music over the years. There’s a lot of technical skill and his ear for orchestral colour and pacing really jump out to me, but I think it’s the boldness that I love, the theatricality and variety in his Sinfonietta, the humour in something like The Cunning Little Vixen, the big dramatic shapes of the chamber pieces. I think I once heard him described as a ‘composer’s composer’, which I agree with because I don’t know any composers who don’t like his music.
However, that statement could make his music seem like something to be admired or studied, but I think he’s so much more immediate than that. It takes a lot of skill to write in a way that sounds so instinctive and fresh, but that desire to communicate the identity of each moment is something that’s inspired me.
Murderous Italian choral composer with a taste, too, for twisted harmonies
Elena Langer says:
I first heard Gesualdo’s music while studying at the Moscow Conservatory and feeling suffocated by convention: old polyphony, Baroque, dodecaphony… Why did his 400-year-old music sound so fresh, shocking and timeless? Independent, passionate and flouting the rules, Gesualdo found the perfect musical means to express his tortured soul. Sliding chromatic voices always react precisely to their text, building into almost Wagnerian harmonies. The greatest composers speak the musical language of their times but transform it to say something important and unique. His madrigals are like really intense short operas.
Father of serialism, exquisite orchestrator and respected music theorist
Brian Elias says:
Schoenberg’s ideas have been immeasurably influential and his legacy still affects us today. His bravery and integrity are second to none; he discovered a new system of composition that has since proved to have its limitations but, at the same time, he initiated new and radical ways of thinking about how music is and should be composed. For so many composers of my generation, works such as Pierrot Lunaire and the Three Piano Pieces Op. 11 remain pinnacles of creative imagination and originality.
Pastoral scenes and Tudor influences are to the fore in this English composer’s output
David Bednall says:
For me, the power of Vaughan Williams’s music is its emotional directness and expressive power. His soundworld is so distinctive that you know immediately who the composer is, and yet it seems infinitely variable – simply compare his Fourth Symphony with his Fifth, for example.
It also has that quality of seeming to be very personal and for all its technical brilliance and skill, it was written for you to understand. There is also that incredible ability to combine the ancient and new into a unique mix which is neither one or the other but could only be RVW. The Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis is the most obvious example of this.
- Which is your favourite Vaughan Williams work?
- Six of the best recordings of Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony
- A guide to Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 4
Polish Romantic whose colossal output transformed the piano repertoire
Jake Heggie says:
Just a few notes and you know it’s him: a singular, indelible, inspired soul whose profoundly beautiful, brave, impeccably crafted music resonates across time and culture. Is there anyone like Chopin? He didn’t write symphonies or operas; he knew where his gifts lay and relentlessly explored the technical and expressive possibilities within that realm.
He has been the gateway and inspiration for millions of pianists, teachers and composers of all stripes. His humanity walked me through the toughest times of my life: my father’s suicide, coming out during the AIDS crisis, the hand injury that changed the course of my life. Chopin was always there with me.
Read our reviews of the latest Chopin recordings here
American minimalist, expert crafter of clean lines and propulsive melodies
Stewart Copeland says:
Steve Reich could be regarded as the saviour of modern classical music. Somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, the idea took hold among even the best composers that music sophistication equals pain. Reich himself started with intellectual high concept, but then landed on something that allowed him to take a different direction: simple beauty. His minimalism eschews rules of structure, form, contour and rhythm.
A Romantic composing giant of rich, ripe textures and winsome melodies
Mark Simpson says:
The best of Brahms exists in the moments when he transcends his grounded, earthy sense of being and take us to a higher state of spiritual awareness – the passage between the human and the spiritual world. He was in essence deeply human but also had a developed spiritual side that he had access to. It’s this striving for a higher state of expressive consciousness that I take most from his work.
17 Kaija Saariaho (b1952)
Finnish composer working across electro-serialist and spectralist fields
Anna Thorvaldsdottir says:
Kaija Saariaho is one of the monumental composers of our time. There are so many wonderful things that can be said about her music, especially her great pieces for larger forces – many of which are personal favourites. In addition, I feel that the powerful presence of her music over the years has been particularly important as a role model for younger generations, not least for younger women in music that find inspiration and encouragement in such a compelling composer. This multifaceted influence will, without doubt, carry on to shape the music of the future.
Symphonic pioneer who played a key role in the development of chamber music
Rodney Newton says:
The father of the symphony and the string quartet, ‘Papa’ Haydn laid the foundations for the development of these forms, and his inventiveness and originality were the inspiration and model for countless others.
As with JS Bach, the fecundity of Haydn’s output and its range is staggering. From the point of view of sheer enjoyment, he has few parallels – his humanity bubbles out of every work. And as a fellow composer once advised me, ‘If you want to learn to write melodies, study Haydn!’
15 Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75)
Post-Romantic composer of large-scale symphonies, orchestral works and opera
Danny Elfman says:
My first encounters with Shostakovich turned my musical perspective upside down. His Eighth String Quartet, for instance, hit me with such force. The opening four-note motif made an instant connection to me as it evolved into the most soulful and heartbreaking melody I had ever heard.
Then, the way he twists and turns that motif, exposing and hiding it throughout the quartet, seemed like an impossible magic trick… slowly winding down at the end to leave just the pure unadorned melodies, with a feeling of pristine, beautiful hopelessness. As I got deeper into his music, I found certain elements coexisting: passion, impeccable craftsmanship, enthusiasm which could be almost giddy, darkness bumping into humour and pure soulfulness that enriches the world of the listener.
- The best recordings of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 ‘Leningrad’
- The best recordings of Shostakkovich’s Symphony No. 5
Hungarian folk music clashes thrillingly with angular modernism
Michael Berkeley says:
Bartók is for me an unsung hero. His six string quartets are the finest cycle since Beethoven’s and in them he revolutionised writing for string instruments. But the extraordinary sounds he achieves are utterly organic and crucial to the sensibility of the music. On a larger scale, I would love to see two masterpieces coupled in a double bill at the Royal Opera House, with the opera doing Bluebeard’s Castle and the ballet doing Miraculous Mandarin – both scores of terrifying power and vision.
In his music, the French composer looks to serialism, gamelan and birdsong
Roxanna Panufnik says:
Over the years, my admiration for Messiaen has grown and grown – from my first exposure to his kaleidoscopic harmony during my music college days to electrifying live performances of his timeless Turangalîla Symphony in later years. His spirituality seers through my soul as his majestic and ethereal chords blend and morph in reverent church acoustics.
Then I discovered he, like me, had synaesthesia (which, for him, meant he saw colours when he heard sounds) and my attraction to his music made even more sense. Luckily, he has left us such an epic body of work, I have so much more discovering to look forward to.
Brooding Finnish landscapes and ancient folklore captured in vivid colour
Anthony Payne says:
My school’s gramophone society once put on the Koussevitzky recording of Sibelius’s Second Symphony and it blew me away. At the time, I couldn’t say why, but the musical language spoke to me in my then state of partial ignorance. There’s something northern and powerful about Sibelius. But it’s the idea of narrative growth in his music that really grabs me – the way he starts with an idea or a motif and allows it to develop.
In the Seventh Symphony, the trombone solo returns three times, each time altered; you can recognise the material throughout and hear it growing. Sibelius also makes references to classical forms, but they’re completely newly aligned, as in the first movement of the Second Symphony or the tone poems such as Tapiola, which I think is one of the great works of all time.
English composer of choral works, opera and song; Aldeburgh festival founder
Cheryl Frances-Hoad says:
The first ‘modern’ music that I remember discovering was by Britten – as an eight year-old attempting to play his Tema ‘Sacher’ on my cello. Ever since, his music has enthralled me, and it is often to his scores that I will turn to for compositional ‘advice’. To me, his music is the perfect marriage of emotion and craft, with every compositional element working together to contribute to the music’s expressive power. If I were only allowed to listen to one piece for the rest of my life, I would choose his Les Illuminations.
The Italian whose musical fertility transformed every musical genre
Eric Whitacre says:
Monteverdi was a maverick and visionary, single-handedly changing musical paradigms. His contribution to the development of a whole new genre, opera, was incalculable. Human emotion became a source of inspiration and music a means to express human passions. Abandoning academic rules and musical preconceptions, he created ground-breaking works for decades, bridging Renaissance and Baroque – apparently effortlessly. Above all else, Monteverdi wrote supremely well-crafted and deeply beautiful music that is a joy to hear.
French impressionist notable for his colourful pianism and use of repetition
Judith Bingham says:
Both musically and as a person, Ravel has always seemed extremely mysterious to me. He reminds me of the French Baroque painter, Watteau (whose paintings inspired him) – intensely beautiful, but the picture’s meaning is always slightly out of reach. Le Tombeau de Couperin, written during World War I to memorialise friends who had been killed and in the period of his mother’s decline and death, is very light-hearted, as though he wanted to wind back time.
Of course, all his music is incredibly original: the timbres are used to enchant. He has the unusual skill, maybe not deliberately, of writing music that can be listened to with equal satisfaction by adults and children.
Composer of epic, large-scale operas; inventor of Gesamtkunstwerk
Jonathan Dove says:
The scale of Wagner’s imagination is overwhelming. The Ring in particular is an immense vision of a work that lasts more than 15 hours (plus intervals), and he had the tenacity and self-belief to spend 26 years writing it. He created spectacular musical imagery of unsurpassed vividness, and had a revolutionary approach to memory and time. Whether you find his music toxic or intoxicating, you can’t ignore it.
- The best recordings of Wagner
- Six of the best productions of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde
- Wagner’s Leitmotifs
His mighty Romantic symphonies embrace the whole of humanity
David Matthews says:
Mahler composed some of the greatest symphonies since Beethoven, written with an astonishing command of all aspects of compositional technique. Mahler was a Romantic, but he could not share Beethoven’s early Romantic optimism; his is a modern approach, full of doubts and uncertainties yet hardly ever falling into despair. The search for meaning is never absent, and as well as its passionate striving, Mahler’s music is often full of uninhibited joy. This is why I think it has such appeal in our own dark time.
- Which is the best Mahler Symphony?
- A guide to Mahler’s Furst Symphony
- The best recordings of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5
The Hungarian-Austrian avant-gardist and polyrhythmic pioneer
John Casken says:
Ligeti is a most intriguing composer, and one whose imagination is almost limitless. Along with Lutosławski in the 1960s, he showed us how to listen afresh to harmony and beguiled us with magical textures. He teases and plays with our expectations in a bizarre world of strange juxtapositions, tragi-comic extremes and deliberately faltering mechanisms.
At one moment the music is within our grasp and the next it’s out of reach. I love the joy and exuberance but, at the same time, the pathos and profundity of the Horn Trio, and the lamenting and ghostly ocarinas in the Piano Concerto are almost unbearable. His Études for Piano, meanwhile, seem to reflect something beyond human perception. Here, and in so many other ways, he touches on the very human question of ‘what is real and what is not?’.
Creator of lyrical melodies, poetic piano works and chamber music
Jennifer Higdon says:
Light and air imbue the spaces between the notes of Claude Debussy’s music. Even as a young child – long before I started down the path of music – his works would always bring me to a standstill. I was utterly fascinated by what felt like some sort of magic, descending on the air. Now, as someone who works in the same field, I am able to say that Debussy’s music sounds like a light breeze, leaving a gentle impression but with enough presence to still inspire me to stop and listen – the artistry of this ‘rebel’ composer still sounds fresh.
- A guide to Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
- Five essential works by Debussy
- The story of Debussy’s Préludes (1909-13)
- The best recordings of Debussy’s Images
Prodigious and prolific, the Austrian composer defined the Classical era
Augusta Read Thomas says:
To me, Mozart’s works have an inevitability that is pure and honest, humane, human, infinitely compelling, rich, sonorous and technically fabulous; his music is at times humorous, at times gut-wrenchingly moving. In many ways, the body of work that poured out of him in his brief 35 years of life feels like pure magic, and it’s unbelievable how such a young man was able to assimilate the deepest riches of music and its possibilities.
Yet his works are so fresh: he’s not just understanding music history and regurgitating it – his works sound like him, even as his style developed and blossomed. And his influence on the subsequent history of music is utterly profound.
- 5 essential works by WA Mozart
- 10 Mozart works you might not know
- The best recordings of Mozart’s Piano Concertos
Straddling Classical and Romanticism, his wide-ranging music dominated his era
John Corigliano says:
As a composer, my goal is to achieve the perfect balance between the visceral and the cerebral elements in my music. It is extremely important to me that the listener is drawn into the drama of my work, but equally important that there are many layers of material that can be discovered with repeated listening. There are many great composers that try to achieve this goal, and some come very close to it.
There are also many great composers that have no interest in this delicate balance. But for me, Ludwig van Beethoven is the one composer that makes music so urgent that one is immediately drawn to it, so powerful that one can hardly resist it and yet so richly layered that one will never entirely plumb the depths of its wondrous constructions. There is no one like him.
Thea Musgrave says:
For an example of what excites me about Beethoven, take the last movement of his Eighth Symphony. It starts in F major then suddenly the music is interrupted with a startling and unexplained C sharp played forte. The music then resumes almost as if nothing has happened! The ‘explanation’ only comes in the coda several minutes later – a wonderful example of ‘long-range’ harmonic planning. This led me as a composer to think of even my non-programmatic music in dramatic narratives and gestures.
- Six of the best overlooked Beethoven works
- The best recordings of Beethoven’s Symphonies
- 10 great Beethoven performers
You can read our reviews of the latest Beethoven recordings here
Russian iconoclast whose integrated approach to art has stood the test of time
Mark-Anthony Turnage says:
I suppose in many ways I’m obsessed with Iggy (as Hans Werner Henze used to call him). Every note is so beautifully placed; nothing jars or is superfluous. It moves me, because like Bach it’s so precise. I love the harmony, the Russian inflected melodies, the energy and brilliance.
Whether it’s the serene chords that move with the bass line at the end of Symphony of Psalms, the keening at the opening of Symphonies of Wind Instruments and everything in between, including the much maligned neo-classical works, it’s all wonderful. As a composer he’s there in my life, looming over me but never an overwhelming presence; always cheeky and encouraging. His music makes me so happy, especially on dark days. I love Igor Stravinsky.
Edward Gregson says:
The Rite of Spring has proved to be the true birth of modernism, more than Schoenberg’s music ever was. And, rather like Picasso, Stravinsky constantly reinvented himself and his musical language, though his style remained constant – his 12-tone music sounds as Stravinskian as any of his earlier work. There are not many composers since who have not been influenced by his creative imagination. He is the godfather of 20th-century music.
And the winner is…
Could it be anyone else? Johann Sebastian Bach tops the list with music of breathtaking brilliance.
All hail JS Bach, whose spirit dwells in practically every note written since his death. With supreme contrapuntal skill, Bach sculpts music of perfect form and balance, bestowing it with an emotional power that has echoed through the centuries. From the aching beauty of the cello suites and the bewildering ambition of the keyboard works to the dramatic force of the cantatas, no one has, and could possibly, come close to Bach‘s genius
Steve Reich says:
Bach to me is the greatest composer who ever lived, the genius who created the most beautiful counterpoint I have ever heard, plus the basic aria of the Goldberg Variations where I am reduced to tears. I first heard Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto as a teenager in 1950, shortly after first hearing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The two pieces set me on my way. As a student, along with everyone else, Bach’s four-part chorales were essential to my study of harmony.
Much later, I studied his Cantata No. 4 while composing Tehillim. You can hear my indebtedness to Bach’s second movement when listening to my third. They both have call-and-response structure as well as different instrumental doubling of the voices to clarify the call from the response. More recently for me, the Fifth Brandenburg served as a model for the Concerto grosso, where several instruments are soloists – it prompted my Music for Ensemble and Orchestra where there are 22 soloists, all regular members of the orchestra.
Erkki-Sven Tüür says:
It may be seen as almost a cliché among music lovers to consider Bach a king of music, but for me it was an obvious choice. What strikes me most in Bach’s work is how thoroughly his music is structured in terms of mathematic precision. The beauty of its inner architecture reveals a kind of cosmologic order, a touch of the divine.
I am amazed by the unbelievable synergy of the counterpoint and harmony and the way that the horizontal and vertical are linked into a coherent whole. On the other hand, without any specific knowledge of these technical aspects, the purely sonic result of his music touches the listener deeply in the most mysterious way.
Unsuk Chin says:
Bach’s music displays great emotions and fiery temperament, while being the highest conceivable summit of composition as an intellectual art. It is a synthesis of past music and the creations of his own time as well as a bold vision of the future. Up to Bach, musical works disappeared after a premiere or, at least, after a composer’s death.
Bach was too grand to be ignored. Great musical minds as diverse as Beethoven, Chopin, the masters of jazz, Boulez – and countless others – are unthinkable without Bach’s legacy. The avant-garde composer Mauricio Kagel famously quipped that ‘not all musicians believe in God, but they all believe in Johann Sebastian Bach’.