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10 eminent English composers

The British Isles have produced many a notable composer and perhaps England more than its fair share. Here, in alphabetical order, are ten composers who have done a huge amount for English music...

Best English composers

Thomas Adès (b1971)

Born in London, Thomas Adès has risen to the very top of the country’s composing elite thanks to high profile commissions and adulation from both critics and audiences. Also a conductor and pianist, Adès’s music comes in all shapes and sizes – notable works include the opera The Exterminating Angel and the orchestral work Asyla. Adès studied at London’s Guildhall School and King’s College, Cambridge.


Recommended recording: The Twenty-Fifth Hour – The Chamber Music of Thomas Adès (Signum Classics)

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Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006)

Born in Northampton, Arnold was a prolific composer across a variety of musical forms – from symphonies and opera to chamber works, ballet and film scores. Originally a trumpeter, he left performing behind to focus on composing and became one of the country’s most in-demand composers. He worked regularly with film director David Lean, and won an Oscar for his music for Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai.

Recommended recording: Malcolm Arnold – Overtures (Chandos)

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Find out more about Malcolm Arnold and his works here

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)

Born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, Britten was at the very heart of 20th-century British music. His massive legacy includes the founding of the Aldeburgh Festival and Snape Maltings concert hall, both near to his home. His most famous works, and there are many, include the operas Billy Budd and Peter Grimes, the War Requiem and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

Recommended recording: Britten – The Complete Operas (Decca)

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Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Born in Broadheath, Worcestershire, Elgar is probably the most high profile of English composers. That said, his star didn’t rise until he was in his early 40s, following the premiere of his now iconic Enigma Variations. From then on, he became the country’s leading composer; knighted in 1904, he was made Master of the King’s Music in 1924. Aside from the Enigma Variations, his most famous works include Pomp and Circumstance, The Dream of Gerontius and the Cockaigne Overture, among many others.

Recommended recording: Elgar – The Dream of Gerontius (Hallé)

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Henry Purcell (1659-95)

Born in a Westminster slum, Purcell found himself at the heart of London’s music-making scene. He served as organist at Westminster Abbey and wrote countless items of sacred music, psalm settings and anthems, as well as works for the stage. He is England’s most famous Baroque composer – after all, Handel was German-born – and penned a number of pieces for royal occasions. His most famous operas are Dido and Aeneas, King Arthur and The Fairy Queen.

Recommended recording: Purcell – Royal Welcome Songs for King James II (CORO)

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Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

Born in Sidcup, south east of London, Ethel Smyth composed across all musical forms. She was a proud member of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, even spending a short time in prison for breaking the windows of a politician’s house. She composed the official anthem of the Womens Social and Political Union, The March of the Women, in 1910. Other notable works include her opera The Wreckers and the Mass in D.

Recommended recording:  Smyth – The Prison (Chandos)

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John Tavener (1944-2013)

Born in Wembley, just outside of London, Tavener’s music went through a number of stylistic shifts over the years as he courted influences both sacred and secular, mystical and mythical. His most famous works are perhaps The Lamb, The Protecting Veil and Song for Athene. We perhaps have The Beatles to thank for Tavener’s early exposure, as his first recordings were on the Fab Four’s Apple Records label.

Recommended recording: The Essential John Tavener (Naxos)

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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, Vaughan Williams needs little introduction. One of the country’s most famous composers, his works include nine symphonies, opera and ballet scores, chamber works and even film scores. He is perhaps most famous for his piece The Lark Ascending, which we named one of the best pieces of violin music ever.

Recommended recording: Vaughan Williams – The Complete Symphonies (Warner Classics)

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William Walton (1902-83)

Born in Oldham, Lancashire, Walton’s long career saw him compose music for the concert hall, stage and screen – not to mention Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. His Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre are among his most familiar works, alongside Belshazzar’s Feast and his film score for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V.

Recommended recording: Walton Conducts Walton… (EMI Classics)

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Judith Weir (b1954)

Born in Cambridge, to Scottish parents, Judith Weir was the first woman composer to be named Master of the Queen’s Music in 2014. She studied with Robin Holloway at King’s College, Cambridge and the late John Tavener while still at school. She was made a CBE in 2005 and awarded The Queen’s Medal for Music in 2007. Notable works include CONCRETE, the opera King Harald’s Saga, plus concertos and chamber works.

Recommended recording: Judith Weir – Choral Music (Delphian)


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