What made the 20th century such a compelling time for music?
In a word: chaos.
Unlike the Classical and Romantic Eras of music, where a prevailing, normalized European style can be identified, no two significant composers of the 20th century sound alike.
Ives couldn’t be more different than Britten; Bernstein must be the opposite of Arnold Schoenberg. George Gershwin and Philip Glass – their only similarity is the first letters to their last name.
For some, it is an era of thorny, inaccessible work, which is why many orchestras program primarily Baroque, Classical, and Romantic era work.
However, for most serious listeners of classical music, it is an era of artistic discovery, unique emotional exaltation, and some of the greatest music ever written.
Like any music list, this one is based on opinion. We considered influence, artistic ingenuity (did anyone sound like the composer before him? Is he original or derivative? etc.), popularity, and overall legacy.
Here are the 20th Century’s 15 best composers.
15) Benjamin Britten
Britten may just be England’s most important composer of all time, a title that likely belongs to Britten, Purcell, or Byrd.
Britten found tremendous inspiration in the human voice, which led him to write many of the 20th century’s greatest vocal works, including the seminal opera Peter Grimes, which premiered in the same year as the end of World War II.
One of his most beloved works is the result of an unusual circumstance. Originally written as a companion to a British television documentary called Instruments of the Orchestra, his symphonic variations The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra displays melodies from all parts of the orchestra.
Even the timpani, in the opening few minutes, gets its try at the main d minor arpeggio theme.
While many audiences may know his orchestral work like Simple Symphony, his deepest works may just be in the pages of his song cycles. His Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings is a rare vocal masterpiece of modern classical literature.
14) Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein is a household name in classical music, and one of the most versatile musicians of all time.
The rare “unicorn” who was equally adept at multi-genre composition, performance, and conducting, his most compelling trait may have been his winning charisma and unrelenting drive.
Bernstein is synonymous with West Side Story, the 1957 musical composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who would later go on to become one of musical theatre’s most important composers.
Many of Bernstein’s most beloved compositions were intended for populist mass consumption and were written as incidental music. Some of these pieces include his score for the classic film On the Waterfront as well as the operetta Candide.
That said, as a conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he did champion the avant-garde, programming works by John Cage and Pierre Boulez.
In fact, Bernstein’s greatest legacy may not be as a composer, but rather as an advocate for classical music. On the variety television program Omnibus, Bernstein presented 10 televised lectures on classical music between 1954 – 1961.
13) John Cage
What is more important, John Cage’s compositions or his ideas?
To some, this is the fundamental question of Cage’s legacy; for others, it’s not really all that important.
Cage is perhaps most prominent for his composition of 4’33’’, a piece of music that is scored in complete silence.
And no, this music is not at all a joke – that musical silence is completely protectable by copyright law, and has actually been legally enforced in favor of John Cage’s estate.
Besides the silence of 4’33’’, his work spans other avant-garde concepts – once he wrote a piece for a dozen radios. He also wrote aleatoric music – work inspired by chance and randomness based on variables the composer has indicated.
Many of his unique, futuristic ideas are brilliantly penned in his book Silence: Lectures and Writings.
12) Aaron Copland
In the contest for most iconic American composer, it’s anyone’s call whether the winner is Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein.
In either case, the legacy of Copland is undeniable. He wrote many of America’s favorite classical compositions, including the orchestral suite Appalachian Spring, the bold brass-featured Fanfare for the Common Man, and the joyous ballet Rodeo.
These works are as seminal as they are catchy, with memorable melodies satisfying listeners of all palettes.
But, what many do not know are Copland’s hidden gems. His Piano Sonata, recorded by a number of pianists, may not be as immediately accessible as his ballets, but nonetheless a masterpiece unto itself.
In fact, a number of his late career works were for solo piano – the often overlooked Night Thoughts, written in his last decade, is an elegant homage to American composer Charles Ives.
An influential composer both to the public and in academia, Aaron Copland had an extensive teaching career; every summer, he taught the next generation of composers at the Tanglewood Music Center located in Western Massachusetts.
11) Philip Glass
Rarely does a composer who is an “icon of the avant-garde” find such intense success with a mass audience.
Such is the case with Philip Glass, one of the most influential musicians – in any genre – of the last century.
In his early career – late 1960s and early 1970s – his work famously had no audience and suffered extreme critical invective.
However, by the mid 1980s, all the negative publicity ultimately helped Philip generate a devout audience for his music. Still, even in 1985 – almost 20 years after he premiered his first “minimalist” composition – the Chicago Tribune wrote that “controversy continues to circle Philip Glass.”
What was the source of such controversy? Simply how popular his new classical music was with audiences.
Today, Glass is hardly seen as controversial; rather, his operas, film scores, symphonies, chamber music, and piano scores are everyday listening to many classical music lovers worldwide.
10) Scott Joplin
It’s high time Scott Joplin is recognized as one of the most important, influential classical composers of all time.
His seminal waltzes and rags for solo piano, most famously Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer, laid the foundation for the early 20th century’s preeminent American musical style, jazz.
His work may not carry the burden of Bartok, or the theoretical inventiveness of Schoenberg, but it does encapsulate one emotion better than most any other composer; a pure, fun, unadulterated waltzing bliss.
Joplin was not just a piano composer; his opera Treemonisha, performed and recorded posthumously, has elements of ragtime, blues, spiritual, and folk integrated into one 20th-century masterwork.
9) George Gershwin
Gershwin achieved a rarity in his lifetime; respect and recognition from both mass audiences as well as discriminate classical music fans.
Even Arnold Schoenberg himself, friend and tennis partner to George, whose music could not be more different than Gershwin’s, said this about Gershwin:
“It seems to me beyond doubt that Gershwin was an innovator. What he has done with rhythm, harmony and melody is not merely style. It is fundamentally different from the mannerism of many a serious composer.”
Gershwin’s legacy rests squarely on a few of his masterpieces, including Rhapsody in Blue, a one-movement classical-jazz-big band fusion that is as much a concerto for piano as it is for an entire orchestra. Virtuosity, dazzling rhythms, and an unforgettable melody are the hallmarks of his music.
Many don’t know Gershwin produced another comparable work called Second Rhapsody. While it may lack the first one’s immediate recognizability, it holds up the tradition of classical big band music as well as any other piece in his repertoire.
Gershwin did not only change classical music; his influence is remarkable in its equal effect on musical theatre. His works of “legit” musical theatre, such as American in Paris, are staples in the dramatic repertoire.
8) Bela Bartok
The Hungarian born Bela Bartok certainly can’t be accused of being derivative or like any other composer before him.
Wikipedia perhaps summarizes his style the best in just a few sentences. His work fell into two major musical trends; first, the breaking down of the diatonic musical system (music based on the notes of the major scale).
Secondly, with a profound interest in nationalism as a source of musical material, a trend common with many of the European 20th-century composers.
On the latter point, certainly Hungarian folk melodies pervaded Bartok’s music. One can hear the tunes of his home country in seminal works such as his Concerto for Orchestra, The Miraculous Mandarin, and his chamber music masterpieces, the six String Quartets.
At its core, Bartok’s music is a study in synthesis. His music blends folk and classical, Eastern and Western, dense harmony and simple melody. Many composers became influenced by Bartok’s approach, creating unique styles of synthesized genre.
In addition to his composition legacy, he is considered among the founders of ethnomusicology, the study of non-Western culture music.
7) Sergei Prokofiev
A Soviet-era composer of profound depth, Prokofiev rose to prominence through his first two ferocious & dissonant piano concertos, which he composed while still in college! One critic at the same said “The cats on the roof make better music!”
His later work retained a charging, complicated dissonance that, although controversial with audiences in his early years, has won everlasting popularity and programming with the major symphonic orchestras of our time.
His Symphony No. 1 in D Major, nicknamed Classical Symphony, is a great entrance into his work. Fun, playful, and deriving – sort of – from the tradition of Beethoven and Classical-Era masterworks, Prokofiev invites the listener into a fast-paced world of fervent orchestration.
However, his most enduring symphony is probably the 5th, a 1944 masterpiece composed in just one month. The work has been recorded extensively by the likes of Koussevitsky, Ormandy, and Neeme Järvi, whose 1985 recording is cited by classical.net among the most definitive.
Let us not forget, though, the brilliance of his solo piano works. The Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat major still challenges pianists as much today as it did when it premiered in 1943.
6) Arnold Schoenberg
There will never be a moment in music where some group of people see Schoenberg as controversial. His 12-tone method produced music at once arresting and jarring, transcending musical harmony to a completely new plane.
Like we postulated with Cage, one wonders what is more important, Schoenberg’s compositions or his ideas?
The question is certainly valid, but unlike Cage, whose ideas influenced many composers on a spiritual level, Schoenberg’s music impacted the entire avant-garde of the 20th century.
The influential Second Viennese School, of which Schoenberg is the founder, produced or influenced dozens of composers, including Berg, Webern, Boulez, Nono, Dallapiccola, Berio.
Even Stravinsky, one of the most revered, became a 12-tone composer in his later career. When asked why he changed to 12-tone music, Stravinsky did say he would still be “composing with intervals.” Funny!
Schoenberg’s output before becoming a 12-tone composer include the gorgeous Verklarte Nacht, which translates to Transfigured Night, as well as the classic predecessor to his signature style Pierrot Lunaire.
One of his most noted 12-tone works is the opera Moses Und Aron, with only one A in Aron to make the total number of letters in the title 12 letters. Although he never finished it, the work is his fullest realization of the 12-tone technique and considered his masterpiece.
5) Maurice Ravel
Ravel may just be the greatest orchestrator of all time; his mastery of musical texture turned a totally simple rhythm and melody in Bolero into his signature work that has enjoyed thousands of performances and recordings.
Bolero may be his most popular, but certainly not his deepest. That title could belong to any number of works – maybe his String Quartet, chock full of gloriously written pizzicatos and effortless modulations.
Perhaps it is his Piano Concerto, with a last movement that can sound strictly classical or strictly jazz depending on whose interpretation you listen to.
Our pick goes to his Daphnis et Chloe, a ballet-turned-orchestral suite that showcases Ravel at his most arrestingly imaginative and compositionally skilled. Certainly, its orchestration is as clear and beautiful as any other work you may ever hear.
Ravel did not just arrange his own work; his arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At an Exhibition is now the normally performed arrangement of that work.
4) Steve Reich
Some may call this placement for Steve reich far too high – it sure seems sacrilegious to say a living composer has already transcended to the top 5 of 20th-century composers.
Others who see the influence of his minimalism may call it just right; the composer of Music for 18 Musicians, Different Trains, and the Pulitzer-winning Double Sextet has certainly had an unusually large influence in the world of music. Musicians as varied as pop songwriter Sufjan Stevens, classical music’s own Bang On a Can All Stars, and electronic musicians The Orb have cited Steve Reich as among their biggest influencers.
Heck, he’s even collaborated with Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood.
Whether or not you agree with our placement, acknowledging Reich’s place among the most important composers of all time should seem like a statement of fact rather than of surprise or disagreement.
His earliest works employed his technique of “phasing” – a fancy term for
“unison canons,” which is also a fancy term for music that shifts slightly out of sync – at its most literal. Piano Phase exemplifies his early style well, where two pianists playing exactly the same music find themselves going in and out of sync with each other.
Perhaps his first masterpiece was Music for 18 Musicians, which we recently named the greatest minimalist work of all time. David Bowie was a particularly big fan of this work, as well as Pitchfork Magazine, who awarded a 2016 ECM re-release a rare 9/10.
He later went on to write Different Trains, one of the most important 20th-century compositions, a work dealing with themes of the Holocaust.
His later works, such as the Double Sextet and You Are Variations, sound like the work of a spirited craftsman working on the eternally endless goal; to create a perfect piece of music.
3) Dmitri Shostakovich
What could be the Russian equivalent of Sturm Und Drang, a German phrase that literally means “storm and stress.”
No, Shostakovich was not a part of the literal Sturm und Drang movement, but his music sure embodies the storm and stress of the human conflict like few other composers have achieved.
To understand Shostakovich’s repertoire – which ranges from the harrowing to the joyful to the simply elegant – one must take time to understand the person.
Shostakovich was a product of the USSR when Joseph Stalin was reigning. Shostakovich had to keep many of his works in secret away from the Russian government, as Stalin was an advocate of purging anything that did not support his mission of the USSR.
The BBC notes that when Stalin died, Shostakovich’s music sounds like it took a breath of fresh air, free of the tyranny of a fascist ruler.
Shostakovich’s output is enormous, and few works are not important. His 15 string quartets are best exemplified by the 8th, a harrowing work that is, in no surprise, a dedication to the victims of fascism.
Some of his most popular works are his most accessible, including his Jazz Suite No. 2, Piano Concerto No. 2, and masterpiece Symphony No. 5.
2) Gyorgy Ligeti
The Hungarian born master is something of an anomaly in classical music history. His work, avant-garde to the bone, retains a quality that is entirely likeable and accessible, aweing even the most uneducated of classical music audiences.
Ligeti became widely popular in the late 1960s after Stanley Kubrick included his music in 2001, a Space Odyssey. The work included in the film, Atmospheres, evokes the eerie unrest of outer space.
Other Kubrick films Ligeti is featured in include The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut.
Some of his most compelling late-career work are the piano etudes, the first of which is in the video above.
In the piece Desordres, the right hand plays the notes inherent to a C Major scale, while the left hand plays the notes inherent to a B Major scale.
The result does not really sound like music in two keys, but rather, a supremely masterminded exercise that simply uses polytonality to make some of the instrument’s most intricate music.
1) Igor Stravinsky
On the basis of his early ballets alone, including The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, and the Firebird, Stravinsky is immortalized among all of classical music history’s greatest composers.
However, it is his entire artistic output that makes him worthy of the #1 spot on the list of greatest 20th century classical music composers.
Some may not remember Stravinsky’s other ballets; while they may not have been as revolutionary as Rite, they are still essentials in classical music. These include Pulcinella, a ballet based on the music of classical era composers Pergolesi, and Agon, one of Stravinsky’s last pieces before becoming a 12-tone composer.
Stravinsky was a versatile composer; although his jazz-inspired Ebony Concerto may not be remembered as well as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, it is nonetheless one of the best classical-jazz crossovers in music history.
Stravinsky’s compositional legacy is one of significant invention, with Allmusic.com calling him one of history’s “significant epochal innovators.”