The best Italian composers of all time
From Palestrina to Einaudi, Italian composers have given us wonderful music, in opera and beyond. Here is our pick of the top ten best Italian composers
Musically speaking, Italy is perhaps best known as the birthplace of opera. And that makes a lot of sense - from Monteverdi to, er, Verdi, via Vivaldi, Rossini and many others, the country has contributed hugely to the development of the operatic form over the past four centuries.
But there is much more to the story of classical music in Italy than a few leading lights of the opera world. We've already mentioned Monteverdi, who was a crucial bridge between the distinct musical worlds of the Renaissance and the Baroque era. A century later, Vivaldi was one of the leading lights of the Baroque, providing us with music of wonderful variety, melody, drama and sparkle.
A common thread running through many Italian composers is a determination to do things their own way. Whether it's the harmonic adventurousness of Scarlatti, the complex mixture of operatic drama and mysticism that permeates Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, or the downright weirdness of Gesualdo's madrigals, Italian music often has a very distinctive tang of its own.
So who are the best Italian composers? Here is our pick of the ten greatest Italian composers to have put pen to paper.
Best Italian composers
Composing in the Renaissance era at around the same time as Thomas Tallis, Palestrina wrote much beautiful sacred music. Arguably, Renaissance polyphony and counterpoint reached a peak with Palestrina's dynamic, highly melodious compositions. He is now viewed as a key figure in what is termed the Roman School, alongside fellow composers Orlande de Lassus and Tomás Luis de Victoria.
Key work: There are various candidates to choose from, but we'll opt for the Missa Papae Marcelli, a wonderful example of Palestrina's mastery of complex polyphony.
Key recording: We have to opt for the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips here, in part because the disc also contains what may be the finest-ever performance of the famous Miserere by a slightly later Italian composer, Gregorio Allegri. This must be one of the best recordings of Allegri's Miserere. It's largely down to this exquisite performance, in fact, that this disc made our list of the 50 greatest classical music recordings of all time. But the Palestrina is also beautifully sung,
Arguably, Carlo Gesualdo's fame owes more to his troubled life than to his strange and often sublime music. An Italian nobleman, Gesualdo famously set a trap to catch his wife, Maria d’Avalos, and her lover, Fabrizio Carafa, and then (with the aid of several collaborators) brutally murdered the two of them.
Unsurprisingly, the killing caused an uproar in Gesualdo's native Naples (even though, according to the code of Gesualdo's aristocracy, he was within his rights!). Details of the crime were circulated in newspapers and lurid rumours abounded.
All of which should not detract (or should it?) from Gesualdo's strange and captivating music. Given such a turbulent and unhappy life, we should not be surprised that the composer's music is often unsettling, with its discordant harmonies that surprise and unsettle.
Key work: Gesualdo is best known for his six books of madrigals — non-religious sung works, featuring short poems set to music for small groups of singers). The harmonies are unexpected, and there is often an otherworldly, slightly dark beauty to these works.
Key recording: Try the classic recording by Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie. This is a great starter set as it picks some of the most arresting madrigals from across books three to six. Some wonderful singing, too.
Composing in the later Renaissance and early Baroque era, Monteverdi made a great impression in two musical forms of his time – one nascent, the other already centuries old. On the one hand, Monteverdi wrote the first masterpieces in the still-new form of opera. The new style mixing music and speech has originated in Florence in around 1600, but Monteverdi's Orfeo, first performed in 1607, was opera's first true masterpiece.
Monteverdi also made considerable advances in the church music of the time. His 1610 Vespers (see below) is just one of a selection of hugely important sacred and choral works produced by this master composer.
Key work: Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers is a brilliant synthesis of all that was possible in church music at this time. There are opulent psalm settings, showpieces for solo singers, instrumental music designed for interludes during the service. Opera even features, in the style of music used to set the text of the Magnificat.
Key recording: The classic recording by the Taverner Consort & Players under the direction of Andrew Parrott (Virgin 561 6622) benefits from the full liturgical reconstruction, not to mention (says our reviewer Freya Parr) 'phenomenally good choral and consort tuning'.
The Venetian violinist Vivaldi left a profound impact, both on late Baroque music and on the emerging concerto form. Specifically, Vivaldi finessed the form of what we now know as the typical three-movement classical concerto with its fast-slow-fast sequencing.
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Incredibly, almost 500 concerti by Vivaldi survive, written for in an impressive variety of instruments. The majority of these are for a solo instrument with string orchestra and continuo, with violin alone getting around 230 concertos (no surprise, as Vivaldi was himself a violinist). However, bassoon, cello, viola and flute all have several concertos devoted to them. The remaining works in concerto form feature either two soloists, three or more (making them concerti grossi), or are concerti ripieni (works without a soloist).
All that said, we shouldn't forget Vivaldi's contributions to both sacred music and to the emerging opera form.
Vivaldi's music is notable for its dynamism and lyricism. A typical Vivaldi concerto will have a thrilling mix of arresting quick music and plangent slower forms. He also shows great gifts for drama, melody and instrumental texture.
Key work: The Four Seasons, a cycle of four violin concerti where each evokes a season of the year, is a fine place to start. Indeed, the rich strand of classical music about nature begins here.
Key recording: A discussion of the best recording of the Four Seasons is likely to produce different answers depending on who you ask, as there are so many excellent renditions. It's hard, though, to get better than the famous 1989 disc featuring Nigel Kennedy and the English Chamber Orchestra. Incidentally, we nominated the effervescent Kennedy as one of our favourite rule-breaking musicians.
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A native of Naples, Scarlatti played an important role in the development from Baroque to Classical styles. Scarlatti was a versatile composer, creating music for a variety of instruments and ensembles. These days, however, his fame leans overwhelmingly on his 555 keyboard sonatas. These are notable for their innovative, sometimes unexpected effects, such as discordant passages and unconventional key modulations. Composers from Chopin to Shostakovich have drawn on these lively, surprising works.
Key work: We could name you a favourite Scarlatti sonata – oh, go on then: K141, as seen below played with typical aplomb by Martha Argerich. However, with each sonata so short - typically between three and five minutes - it's probably more helpful to recommend you a disc...
Key recording: ... and that would be Jean Rondeau's handpicked selection of 16 sonatas, played on a harpsichord as they were originally intended. To be honest, it's worth hearing them on both harpsichord and piano: the two instruments deliver very different effects.
Sitting rather more squarely in the Baroque era than Scarlatti, despite being born some 25 years later, Pergolesi composed across various different genres. For example, he was a noted composer of an emerging substrand within opera: opera buffa, or comic opera. His best-known work in this form is La serva padrona (The Maid Turned Mistress), about a wily maid and her ageing, credulous master.
However, Pergolesi also wrote operas of a more serious bent, such as Il Prigionier Superbo (The Proud Prisoner), for which La serva padrona was originally a mere intermezzo before becoming popular in its own right.
The composer is probably best known, though, for his sacred music.
Key work: Pergolesi's Stabat Mater draws on the 13th-century Latin poem that narrates the Virgin Mary’s sufferings at the foot of the Cross. You can find the Stabat Mater lyrics here. The composer scored the poem for soprano and alto soloists, plus violins, viola and basso continuo (cello and organ). The result is a dramatic, compelling piece of sacred music, full of emotional twists and turns.
Key recording: You can read our guide to the best recordings of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater to get a few choices here. We'll pick one for you here, and (for its wonderful singing alone) that would be the version from I Barocchisti, with the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera under Diego Fasolis, with soloists Julia Lezhneva and Philippe Jaroussky.
Rossini is the major Italian composer of the first half of the 19th century – a time when, elsewhere in Europe, the likes of Beethoven and Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann were at their peak. Unlike those composers, who are best known for their orchestral, chamber and solo piano output, Rossini continued the Italian strand of being very good at composing for opera.This composer had music in his genes: his father was a horn player, and his mother an opera singer. For a decade from 1813, Rossini's operas were the toast of Italy. he composed in both the opera seria and opera buffa forms: his more serious operas such as William Tell or The Lady of the Lake are well respected, but it's for comic fare such as The Barber of Seville that he is best known.Key work: Definitely start with The Barber of Seville, which will introduce you to the wonderful sparkle, exoticism and rhythmic punch that characterise Rossini's music. As our writer Freya Parr puts it in her piece on five best operas for beginners, the work is a 'frivolous, fizzy feast of fun, packed full of wit, excitement and vocal fireworks'.Key recording: Joyce DiDonato leads a vintage cast in the supremely sung production from the Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus, under the baton of Antonio Pappano. And yes, we've gone for a DVD, as it's opera, and much of the joy – especially in such a fun work as this – is visual.
When it came to works for large-scale public performance, the Romantic era in Germany, Austria and the rest of central Europe was all about the symphony and concerto, with composers such as Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák all contributing major works to both these large orchestral forms.
Italy, however, continued its love affair with opera right through the Romantic era. At the forefront here was Giuseppe Verdi, one of the century's most important composers in any form. Born the same year as another giant of Romantic opera, Richard Wagner, Verdi made his first steps in opera at a time when a major Italian operatic tradition, the bel canto form popularised by Rossini, Bellini and others, was just starting to decline.
Best Italian opera composers
Italy has a very fine and proud opera tradition: it invented the form back in 1600, and has led the way ever since. In this feature, we’ve pulled out some of the very best Italian opera composers: Monteverdi, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini.
But there are other names you’ll want to get to know on your journey through Italian opera. These include:
Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35). This Sicilian-born composer was known for his long-flowing musical lines, and was indeed known as ‘the swan of Catania’. Best-known works include Norma, I Puritani and La Sonnambula.
Gaetano Donizetti (1794-1848), who composed around 70 operas. Of these, the most popular are L’elisir d’amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, La fille du régiment and Don Pasquale, which all still get regular performances around the world to this day. Donizetti took on the bel canto style popularised by Bellini, but added a broader emotional palette and dynamic range.
Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945), best known for his 1890 work Cavalleria rusticana, which had a profound effect on the opera landscape, ushering in the style known as verismo (realism). Generally speaking, this style focused not on gods, monarchs or mythical figures, but on ordinary men and women and their troubles.
Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919). A little like Mascagni above, Leoncavallo’s reputation rests chiefly on one hugely successful opera – in this case, 1892’s Pagliacci. In fact, the latter is often staged with Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, in a double bill affectionately known as ‘Cav and Pag’. Leoncavallo’s work centres on an actor and leader of a theatre company, who murders his wife and her lover on stage during a performance.
Verdi introduced an opera style that was much more harmonically adventurous – and which often tackled larger, more serious or more exotic themes, such as the Ancient Egypt of Aida or the Shakespearean worlds of the two late, great operas Otello and Falstaff.
Key work: Like other Romantic composers such as Brahms and Dvořák, Verdi also wrote a beautiful and stirring Requiem. Theatrical and at times terrifying, Verdi's is one of the most dramatic and (unsurprisingly?) certainly the most operatic mass for the dead ever composed.
Key recording: Fellow Italian Claudio Abbado conducted and recorded a wonderful version during his tenure at the Berlin Philharmonic, whom we nominated one of the world's best orchestras.
If opera reached a new level of lushness and harmonic adventurousness with Verdi, this trend arguably reached its peak with his follower, Giacomo Puccini. The Tuscan-born composer was, after all, inspired to write music after watching a performance of Verdi’s Aida.
Beautiful melodies, opulent orchestration and a wonderful sense of how to convey drama through music: these are all hallmarks of Puccini's style. His operas can be unashamedly emotional – think of the unmatched tenderness of the famous aria O Mio Babbino Caro from his opera Gianni Schicchi, memorably sung by Rowan Atkinson in the film Mr Bean's Holiday.
Key work: La bohème is a truly heart-wrenching work, telling a tale of love and death in bohemian 1840s Paris. As well as being one of Puccini's best operas, we listed La bohème one of of the greatest operas ever and Puccini himself as one of the best opera composers of all time.
Key recording: When it comes to a best recording of La bohème, there are many options. If we had to pick one, though, it might be the 1987 Decca recording from the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan. As our reviewer Christopher Cook states, 'Karajan knew that the inner drama of the opera is played out in the orchestra in Puccini’s deft manipulation of his themes and the masterly orchestration'. Featuring some scintillating soloists including Pavarotti, this is as deserving as any other of the title of La bohème best recording.
Composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi has dominated the classical music charts for the past 15 years. His music has featured in advertising, films and TV programmes. As BBC Music's Michael Beek explains, Einaudi 'has cornered the market in post-classical ambient music, and while he may be best known for his solo piano musings, some of his most popular works in recent years have been for small ensemble, and often feature electronics.
'It’s a very specific soundworld which Einaudi has crafted, one which is at once immersive, immediate and melodic.'
Key work / recording: Have a read of our piece Ludovico Einaudi's Top 5 Albums, and see what grabs you. But if you want a failsafe place to start, we'd recommend the hugely successful 1996 album Le Onde (The Waves).
Steve has been an avid listener of classical music since childhood, and now contributes a variety of features to BBC Music’s magazine and website. He started writing about music as Arts Editor of an Oxford University student newspaper and has continued ever since, serving as Arts Editor on various magazines.