Richard Morrison: Who will join Purcell, Elgar and Britten as British composing greats?

BBC Music Magazine columnist Richard Morrison on the living composers who will be known, remembered and celebrated in the future

Best English composers

Which living British composers will have their music played a century from now? As I type that question, I realise that answering it will bring me only scorn on social media. And to what end? The bumpy career and wildly fluctuating reputation of Malcolm Arnold reminds us that one era’s critical judgements are rarely shared by the next.

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Then you have to factor in all the non-musical things that make some composers prominent in their lifetimes while leaving others out in the cold. Were they nifty at networking? Did they have rich friends? Were they lucky enough to be the right gender, class and ethnicity at the right moment? Were they sober at least some of the time?

Still, it’s always fun to stick your neck out – especially when nobody can prove you wrong until 2121. So here is a fun list of 20 British composers I believe posterity should value and enjoy. And to create even more trouble for myself, I’ve grouped them into four categories: sure winners; likely contenders; personal favourites; rising stars.

Which contemporary composers will definitely be remembered in the years to come?

My sure winners – only two of them – are Harrison Birtwistle and James MacMillan. Some will say ‘obvious’. But it’s amazing how many people I meet who detest the music of one or the other (rarely both together) – Birtwistle’s because it’s complex and crunchy; MacMillan’s because it’s mostly tonal and steeped in fervent Catholicism. Yet both express ideas that are epic, cosmic and universal, in masterpieces that thrill me with their sonic boldness. If my great-grandchildren’s generation rejects such music, more fool them.

Who are the other great contemporary composers?

You can probably predict my ‘likely contenders’ because they all produce well-crafted music that is highly acclaimed. My task, I guess, is to explain why I haven’t made them ‘sure winners’. In the cases of Thomas Adès and George Benjamin, I am always dazzled by their cleverness and the extraordinary soundworlds they concoct, but except for a few stunning works (Adès’s naughtily satirical Powder Her Face, for instance, and Benjamin’s superb psychodrama Written on Skin) I don’t think either composer reaches out enough to a wider public.

By contrast, Mark-Anthony Turnage does draw on popular genres and tabloidesque subject-matter, though I wonder if his remarkable productivity hinders his ability to think afresh.

Neither Judith Weir nor Julian Anderson, I feel, have quite lived up to the ebullient pieces they wrote several decades ago, though their best works surely deserve the respect of posterity.

And also in the ‘likely contenders’ category I would place such steady-eddie composers as Sally Beamish, Colin Matthews and Judith Bingham.

So onto ‘personal favourites’ – composers who strike a powerful chord with me, without absolutely convincing me that they will stand the test of time. Richard Ayres, the composer of crazy operas such as The Cricket Recovers and Peter Pan, strikes me as one of our era’s great mavericks. Jonathan Dove doesn’t have that eccentricity, but nobody writes more accessible and entertaining music theatre pieces. David Sawer is equally eclectic; his The Skating Rink, premiered at Garsington not long ago, struck me as the perfect operatic murder-mystery. And although I found her early pieces insubstantial, I have grown to admire Tansy Davies for tackling big, meaty, modern-day subjects (such as 9/11 in Between Worlds, and climate change in Cave) in quirkily theatrical music.

Which leaves my last category: rising stars – composers in their thirties or early-forties with the potential to pass the test of time. Hannah Kendall draws on social and colonial history in music that, at its best, has explosive energy and a mysterious sense of elegy.

Stuart MacRae uses avant-garde techniques yet writes writes atmospheric, accessible works on gripping subjects, especially in his operas. With one huge, spooky oratorio, The Immortal, Mark Simpson convinced me of his tremendous talent. And although I can barely grasp her subject-matter, Emily Howard’s way of turning concepts drawn from higher maths and physics into music is riveting.

Anna Meredith clearly has one of the sparkiest imaginations in contemporary music, even if she spreads herself thinly over too many projects. And I have huge admiration for the DJ virtuoso Shiva Feshareki, whose pieces combining live electronics and orchestras leave me equally baffled and exhilarated.

Who have I left out? John Rutter at one extreme; Brian Ferneyhough at the other; many other fine composers in between. Lists like this are subjective. Don’t just mock me; send me yours.

Richard Morrison is BBC Music Magazine’s columnist and chief music critic and a columnist of The Times. This column was published in the April 2021 issue of BBC Music Magazine. 

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