The best English composers
The British Isles have produced many a notable composer and perhaps England more than its fair share. Here, in alphabetical order, are the best English composers who have done a huge amount for English music...
From Elgar to Vaughan Williams, Britten to Tallis, England has been home to some of the world’s best classical composers, who have forever enriched the country’s musical heritage. From the famous to the less well known, we list the very best composers England has produced and to whom we owe so much.
Who are the best English composers of all time?
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 (Thomas Adès, Calder Quartet)
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 - which we named one of the best 20th-century British film scores
Recommended recording: Malcolm Arnold – Overtures (BBC Philharmonic/Rumon Gamba)
Find out more about Malcolm Arnold and his works here
Harrison Birtwistle (b1934)
Born in Lancashire, Harrison Birtwistle started out as a clarinettist before switching to composition in his twenties, studying at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now Royal Northern College of Music). In 1965, he sold his clarinets to devote his time towards composition and subsequently travelled to Princeton where he wrote his opera, Punch and Judy. His most important works include The Mask of Orpheus, Silbury Air, The Shadow of Night for orchestra and The Minotaur which was premiered at The Royal Opera in 2008. His music does not follow conventional principles assigned to classical music and can be interpreted more like a drama rather than a particular musical structure.
Recommended Recording: Birtwistle Complete String Quartets (Arditti Quartet)
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)
Find out more about Britten and his works
William Byrd (c1539-1623)
Byrd was famed for developing the English madrigal, working in London at the same time as Shakespeare was making his name in the theatre scene. Byrd studied as a protégé under Thomas Tallis and later became an organist at Lincoln Cathedral in 1563. He returned to London and stood as a gentleman of the Chapel Royal sharing responsibilities with Tallis. His most famous works include The Great Service, Ave verum and My Lady Nevell’s Virginal Book. His creation of the English Madrigal featured a solo voice accompanied by stringed instruments, instead of multiple voices.
Recommended Recording: Byrd – The Three Masses (Westminster Cathedral Choir/Martin Baker)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was much more than a one trick pony. It might have been Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast that catapulted him to stardom but there was much more to the composer than that. The illegitimate son of Daniel Taylor, a Creole doctor from Sierra Leone who practised in Croydon, and Alice Martin rose from humble beginnings to become admired by Elgar, likened to Mahler in the US, and fêted as one of Britain’s top composers
We named Samuel Coleridge-Taylor one of the most influential and best black composers ever
Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
Born in Bradford, Frederick Delius is thought to be a key figure in reviving English music at the end of the 19th century – despite spending very little time in the country beyond his childhood. In 1884, he moved to Florida to run his father’s orange plantation, taking music lessons in his spare time. Shortly after, he settled in Danville, Virginia, teaching music. Between 1886 and 1888 he attended New York Conservatorium and then relocated to Paris, where he settled for 10 years. His works include Florida Suite, reflecting on his time spent at the plantation and A Village Romeo and Juliet, an opera based upon a short story written by Gottfried Keller named Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe (Romeo and Juliet of the Village).
Recommended Recording: Frederick Delius English Masterworks (Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/Bo Holton)
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.
- The Best Recordings of Elgar's Enigma Variations
- Five theories for the unsolved mystery of Elgar's Enigma Variations
Recommended recording: Elgar – The Dream of Gerontius (Hallé/Mark Elder)
Find out more about Elgar and his works
Ruth Gipps (1921-1999)
Born in Sussex, Gipps was quite the prodigious child – and maintained her diverse musical portfolio throughout her career, as both a composer and conductor, but also a teacher, pianist and oboist. Many see her work as 'following on' from the likes of Vaughan Williams, who was one of her tutors at the Royal College of Music. Her large orchestral works were, she claimed, 'obviously and incurably English', doffing their cap to the picturesque English landscapes. Many of her works are explicitly named after aspects of rural England, such as Flax and Charlock, Cringlemire Garden and Ambarvalia.
She faced gender prejudice when she stepped onto the podium as a conductor, but was known for her stubbornness and didn't openly let it faze her. She became the first woman to conduct at the Royal Festival Hall and the first to conduct her work work for a BBC broadcast. To be able to freely conduct the repertoire she wanted, she set up her own orchestras – the London Repertoire Orchestra and later the Chanticleer Orchestra.
Recommended recording: Ruth Gipps Symphonies Nos 2 & 4 (BBC National Orchestra/Rumon Gamba)
We named Ruth Gipps as one of the best female composers in history.
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
For several years after graduating from the Royal College of London, the Cheltenham-born composer made his living as a trombonist for the Carl Rosa Opera Company. He would later go on to become a prolific composer and music teacher noted for his excellence in orchestration by creating unique textures and understanding the potential of each instrumental family. He is best known for The Planets but also composed other works including the Hymn of Jesus.
Recommended Recording: Holst – The Planets (Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton)
Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016)
Another Lancashire-born composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is most known for his Eight Songs for a Mad King, Taverner and The Hogboon. Having studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, he formed New Music Manchester, a group exploring contemporary music. As well as a composer, Davies conducted orchestras and had a long partnership with the BBC Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic. His inspiration for much of his work came from his surroundings whilst living in a small cottage in Orkney without running water or electricity. It isn’t hard to picture the strong winds and crashing waves which struck his home as they inspire the orchestration.
- Sir Peter Maxwell Davies talks about why life’s tough for young composers
- Obituary: Peter Maxwell Davies
Recommended Recording: Maxwell Davies: The Lighthouse (BBC Philharmonic/Peter Maxwell Davies)
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 (The Sixteen/Harry Christophers)
Find out more about Purcell and his works
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.
We named Ethel Smyth as one of the best female composers in history.
Recommended recording: Smyth – The Prison (Experimental Orchestra and Chorus/James Blachly)
Read our review of the recording
Find out more about Smyth and her works
Thomas Tallis (1505-1585)
During the early 1530s, Tallis was an organist for Dover Priory and by 1575, he was granted the monopoly for printing sheet music in England by Queen Elizabeth, alongside fellow English composer William Byrd. His works included Latin motets such as Lamentations of Jeremiah, and English anthems including If Ye Love Me, a setting of a passage from the Gospel of John and today is a popular choice for church choirs. It can also be found in The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems. Recent performances of If Ye Love Me have taken place at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle as well as The Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral.
Recommended Recording: Spem in alium (ORA Singers/Suzi Digby)
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)
Find out more about Tavener and his works
Michael Tippett (1904-1998)
Tippett grew up in Suffolk, before enrolling at the Royal College of Music. By 1928, he was living in Oxted teaching French and directing a concert and operatic society. Throughout his life, Tippett invested his time in world matters including World War I, the Depression and mass unemployment, which was reflected in his musical career. He did not associate himself with any political party and in 1943, was imprisoned for refusing to take up military service during the Second World War. He assembled the South London Orchestra of Unemployed Musicians and wrote an oratorio titled A Child of Our Time (1939-41), which acted as a protest against persecution and tyranny.
- Remembering Sir Michael Tippett: The Archives
- Tippett’s secret involvement with the violent Trotskyist left wing
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 (London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink)
Find out more about Vaughan Williams and his works
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 (Yehudi Menuhin, Donald Bell, LSO, New Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra)
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.
- Judith Weir's first major commission as Master of the Queen's Music
- An interview with composer Judith Weir
Recommended recording: Judith Weir – Choral Music (Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber)
Words by Michael Beek and Tom Fletcher.
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.