The best living composers

We asked 174 composers to choose who they thought were the greatest composers of all time – and these five came out on top as the best composers still alive today

A Japanese female clarinet player making a note on musical score.

BBC Music Magazine asked 174 composers to name the five composers they thought to be the greatest of all time. The results were in, and we had our list of 50. JS Bach unsurprisingly came out in pole position, but behind him were a line-up of composers who are still creating music today. 

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The best living composers

Kaija Saariaho (b1952)

Anna Thorvaldsdottir said of Kaija Saariaho: ‘She is one of the monumental composers of our time. 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.’

Read our reviews of Kaija Saariaho’s recordings here.

Steve Reich (b1936)

Stewart Copeland said of Steve Reich: ‘He could be regarded as the saviour of modern classical music. Reich himself started with intellectual high concept, but then landed on something that allowed him to take a different direction: simple beauty.’

Read our reviews of Steve Reich recordings here.

Philip Glass (b1937)

Oliver Davis said of Philip Glass: ‘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.’

Read our reviews of Philip Glass recordings here.

Harrison Birtwistle (b1934)

Eleanor Alberga said of Harrison Birtwistle: ‘His 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.’

Read our reviews of Harrison Birtwistle recordings here.

Stephen Sondheim (b1930)

Paul Mealor says of Stephen Sondheim: ‘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.

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Find out who else was featured in our list of the 50 greatest composers of all time here.