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55 Best Composers Of All Time

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The great musical composers of history have given us much of the music that we love today. From Renaissance choral music to symphonies to movie soundtracks. In this article, we look at 55 of the greatest composers to have ever written music.

1. Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven - Moonlight Sonata (FULL)

There are few composers as famous as the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, with his wild hair and intense stare. During his early childhood, he received intense musical training from his father, publishing his first work at just the age of 13. At the age of 21, he moved to Vienna where he gained a reputation as a piano virtuoso and was, subsequently, hired by royalty to compose.

Just after turning 30, Beethoven began to go deaf and, for a time, he considered taking his life as a result. He returned to composing, beginning the “heroic” stage of his career, including many of his most famous symphonies. While war and illness would lead to several stretches of inactivity, he enjoyed a prolific career as a composer. In his later years, his compositions took on greater musical complexity, pushing boundaries that he had set himself early in his career.

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2. Johann Sebastian Bach

Air on the G String (Suite No. 3, BWV 1068) J. S. Bach, original instruments

Few composers are as celebrated and elevated as the great German Johann Sebastian Bach. Today, most people will recognize the epic sound of the organ playing “Toccata” and “Fugue In D Minor,” but this barely scratches the surface of his prolific catalog. A master of religious and secular music, ranging from choral work to instrumental and organ pieces, he is considered by many to be the greatest composer to ever live.

While Bach’s virtuosity on the organ alone elevated his career to great heights, he is considered to be one of the most innovative composers in the history of Western music. From his work fortifying the tonal system to his penchant for counterpoint melodies in his fugues, he greatly influenced the trajectory of classical music and continues to shape the sound of modern music today. The complexity of his arrangements has not only fascinated musicians and music audiences but also philosophers and mathematicians—best exemplified by Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 work Goedel, Escher, Bach.

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3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

I. Allegro assai

One of the greatest composers of the Classical era, despite a short life, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed over 800 works. He gained acclaim as a child prodigy playing the keyboard and violin, composing works as early as the age of five, and touring Europe several times. He was then hired as a musician for the Salzburg court and began producing many of his famous violin concertos.

At age seventeen, however, he grew restless and began to travel once more. He eventually landed in Vienna, where he gained the favor of the nobility and began performing and composing for them. He began to study Baroque music more deeply in this phase, and the complexity of his works advanced as a result. Throughout the remainder of his life, Mozart grew more prolific, though, sadly, died at the age of thirty-five due to illness.

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4. Hildegard von Bingen

O Virtus Sapientiae - Hildegard Von Bingen - (Thank you for 700K!)

Also known as the Sibyl of the Rhine, Hildegard von Bingen was a Benedictine nun known for her work as a writer, composer, and mystic. Her religious writings on her visions gained interest from the Catholic Church, and she was named Mother Superior of her convent.

Her greatest known musical work is the Ordo Virtutum, a morality play consisting of over 70 musical songs. Composed in the mid-12th century, it is the earliest known example of such a drama and represents the only such medieval musical drama whose text and music have survived into modernity. Her musical arrangements are monophonic, typically a single vocalist performing soaring lines evoking the spiritual energy of her religious writings and life.

5. Antonio Vivaldi

The Four Seasons, Violin Concerto No. 4 in F Minor, RV 297 "L'inverno": I. Allegro non molto

A virtuoso on the violin, Antonio Vivaldi is remembered as one of the greatest Baroque composers. Best known for “The Four Seasons,” a series of violin concertos, he composed concertos, choral works, and over fifty operas. On the merits of his violin virtuosity, he became the “master of violin” at a Venetian orphanage where he performed and taught. It was in this role that he began his prolific career as a composer.

In his later career, Vivaldi was called upon by royalty to compose for them. However, like many musicians, he struggled financially in his later years before passing away in relative obscurity. Rediscovered interest in his work was ignited at the start of the 20th century.

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6. Claude Debussy

Debussy: Clair de lune ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Jean-Christophe Spinosi

Frenchman Claude Debussy is often considered to be the first Impressionist composer (though he detested the title). After showing musical talent as a child, he was admitted to the esteemed Conservatoire de Paris where he studied piano and composition.

Many of his teachers frowned upon his innovative style, and it was not until he was almost 40 years of age that his works gained notoriety with his singular opera, Pelleas Et Melisande. His works remain beloved today, including the iconic “Clair De Lune,” which continues to play a prominent role in modern film and television.

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7. George Frideric Handel

Handel: (Coronation Anthem No. 1, HWV 258) - Zadok the Priest

The great Baroque composer George Frideric Handel is considered one of the greatest composers to have lived, beloved for his operas, concertos, and oratorios. Trained in Germany and Italy, he spent most of his productive life in London. Influenced by German polyphony and Italian Baroque, he is credited with elevating Italian opera to its pinnacle.

He transitioned away from operas in his later career, penning pieces such as “Music For The Royal Fireworks” and “Messiah,” which were performed with great regularity during his lifetime and still today. Unlike many composers who died in poverty and obscurity, Handel’s funeral was attended by thousands, and he was honored by the state.

8. Claudio Monteverdi

Sonya Yoncheva - Claudio Monteverdi - Oblivion soave

Roman Catholic priest and composer Claudio Monteverdi is considered a bridge between the Renaissance and Baroque periods and was an integral figure in the development of opera. While much of his work has been lost to time, his religious works display a mastery of Renaissance polyphony.

His innovative, and often controversial, work included introducing basslines and chord progressions to choir pieces, a sound that came to define the Baroque period and modern music today. He is often considered one of the most important composers in the evolution of classical music during his lifetime.

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9. Joseph Haydn

Haydn : Symphony No. 94, 'Surprise', 2nd movement

The Austrian composer Joseph Haydn is considered one of the greats of the Classical era and was instrumental in developing chamber music, garnering him the nickname “Father of the String Quartet.”

He was employed much of his life by the wealthy Esterhazy family, isolating him from much of the modern music of his time, resulting in an original and novel style and sound. He was a direct influence on both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, indicating not only his skill as a composer but also his enduring legacy in the history of music.

10. Robert Schumann

Lang Lang – Träumerei (Kinderszenen, Op. 15 No. 7), Schumann

The German composer and pianist, Robert Schumann, is often considered one of the greatest Romantic composers. While he initially sought a career as a pianist, his virtuoso career was cut short by a hand injury. He turned to composition, first for piano and then for orchestra as well.

He composed four symphonies, an opera, and many choral and chamber pieces as well. He is remembered for works including “Carnaval” and “Fantasie In C.” Over his later life, mental illness overtook Schumann, and he spent much of his final years haunted by a persistent A-note ringing in his ears, dying alone in a sanatorium.

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11. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky - Piano Concerto 1 (B Flat Minor)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was the first Russian composer to make a lasting mark on the landscape of classical music. Few composers have pieces as universally known and beloved as him, including “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker,” and the “1812 Overture.” While there were few opportunities in Russia to learn Western composition, he enrolled in the new Saint Petersburg Conservatory, teaching Western musical traditions.

His early career was supported by a wealthy patron, but after her passing, Tchaikovsky left Russia, a time when his reputation throughout Europe grew. Upon his return to Russia, Emperor Alexander III embraced him, elevating his celebrity and opening opportunities. He passed away at the age of 53, though the cause remains up for debate.

12. Igor Stravinsky

Stravinsky: The Firebird - Suite (1919) - 5. Finale

The Russian composer and pianist Igor Stravinsky is considered one of the most important composers in the modernist movement of the 20th century. It was, first, his ballets—”The Firebird,” “Petrushka,” and “The Rite Of Spring”—that elevated him to international fame. The third is considered a revolutionary work in the use of rhythmic structure, shaping the sound of 20th-century composition.

After his ballet works, Stravinsky lived in France and the United States, composing neoclassical pieces throughout the middle of his life before transitioning to a focus on serialism in his latter years. While he composed in a multitude of styles throughout his career, he is celebrated for the cohesiveness of his works throughout his lifetime. His innovations in the use of rhythm inspired many modern composers, such as Philip Glass.

13. György Ligeti

Ligeti : Atmosphères (Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France)

Born in Transylvania, Romania, György Ligeti has left a legacy as one of the most innovative composers of contemporary classical music. His adolescence was shaped by the events of the Holocaust, where much of his immediate family died in concentration camps. He initially trained in Budapest, but during that period, the government frowned upon anything but nationalistic composition.

Ligeti fled to Austria, where he was able to explore the musical ideas that he desired. While his catalog is broad and diverse, his music is best-known for helping define the sound of the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

14. Gustav Mahler

Kate Royal, Jaap van Zweden - Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 4

Bridging the gap between Austro-German traditional music and modern composition at the turn of the 20th century, Gustav Mahler is today considered one of the most important composers of all time. He was musically talented from a young age and, after graduating from the Vienna Conservatory, he conducted in opera houses across Europe. Informed by his work as a conductor, he composed symphonic pieces that, in his lifetime, were met with mixed reviews.

After his death and with the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party, Mahler’s music was deemed “degenerate” and banned. After World War II, his music was rediscovered and, without many of the political forces that negatively impacted his influence during his lifetime, received wide acclaim. His works have had an outsized influence on modern composers, and his legacy is heard today in their works.

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15. Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner - Ride of The Valkyries

German composer Richard Wagner is credited with revolutionizing opera through Gesamtkunstwerk, in which he viewed the creation of the music, the visual scenes, and the story all to be one unified art form. For example, characters in his operas would receive their own musical motifs—a style that is used to great effect today in modern movies.

Many of his pieces, such as Ride Of The Valkyries,” remain well-known and beloved by the public. Wagner was a controversial figure in his own lifetime. He was a prolific polemicist who did not shy away from controversy and was just as focused on the medium of writing as he was on musical composition.

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16. Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel - Bolero

Along with Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel is considered a key figure in the French Impressionism of the early 20th century. He attended the Paris Conservatoire but was mistreated by the conservative establishment there. He experimented with many styles of composition, even diving into jazz in his later career. He published his most well-known piece, “Bolero,” in 1928.

Ravel would often compose first on the piano before transcribing the pieces for full orchestra. Both his piano pieces and orchestral ones were known for being complex and requiring great skill to play. He also was one of the first composers to understand the importance of recording technology in reaching broader audiences and, as such, he gave greater focus than most in his era to recording his works.

17. Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten - The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra | WDR Sinfonieorchester

English composer Benjamin Britten is one of the most important figures in 20th-century classical music. With operatic and symphonic works, including his 1945 showpiece “The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra,” he established himself as a premier composer.

His operas popularly featured an outsider or rebel navigating a world hostile to them, messages that spoke to general audiences and expanded opera’s fandom. Near the end of his life, Britten was the first composer to ever receive a life peerage, becoming Baron Britten. He passed shortly after due to congestive heart failure.

18. Jean Sibelius

Sibelius: Finlandia (Prom 75)

Jean Sibelius is considered the greatest composer to come from Finland. His music helped shape the Finnish identity in their struggle to gain independence from Russia. He produced seven symphonies and many “tone poems,” including his most famous work “Finlandia.”

Much of his inspiration was derived from the natural world of his home country, and his music aimed to capture its beauty. His relative isolation in Finland from the world of European composition helped him maintain a unique sound that inspired audiences and peers and frustrated critics. Sibelius is credited with the saying, “Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”

19. Edward Elgar

Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance | BBC Proms 2014 - BBC

Best known for the “Pomp And Circumstance Marches,” Englishman Edward Elgar is one of Britain’s most celebrated composers. Unlike many of his conservatory-trained peers, he was self-taught. In a time when social nobility was almost a necessity to gain notoriety as a classical composer, he did not achieve acclaim until he was in his forties, with wider acclaim coming in the next decade of his life.

His music has often been deemed quintessentially British, and he was named Master of the King’s Music in 1924. Re-recordings of his work throughout the later 20th century have exposed his work to greater audiences, and many of his pieces are in constant rotation for orchestras across the globe.

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20. Olivier Messiaen

Orasion (Version 2)

Frenchman Olivier Messiaen is considered one of the main innovators and major composers of the 20th century. After studying at the Paris Conservatoire, he received posts as an organist and teacher in Parisian institutions. He was interred during World War II by the Nazi Party. During this time, he composed “Quarter For The End Time,” a piece that he performed alongside other inmates.

Messiaen had synesthesia, where he could see colors associated with musical chords, and this informed much of his work as a composer. He would travel and gain inspiration from landscapes such as Utah’s red canyons and arches. He also brought world musical styles such as Japanese and Indonesian folk music into his composition. He was also an esteemed ornithologist and would notate bird songs and incorporate them into his compositions.

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21. Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi - Aida - Marcia Trionfale (Triumphal March)

Known for his operatic compositions, Italian Giuseppe Verdi received musical training from an early age. At the age of 13, he was asked to play the organ for a community event when the main performer did not arrive. To the surprise of many, the young Verdi was an exceptional performer.

For much of his career, he worked hard writing over twenty operas. The persistent composer finally garnered widespread fame for his trifecta of operas: “Rigolette,” “Il Trovatore,” and “La Traviata.” After his success, Verdi stepped back from the public eye for many years. However, this would prove to only be a hiatus. In the latter part of his life, he produced his greatest works including “Aida” and “Falstaff.”

22. Richard Strauss

Strauss: Rosenkavalier-Suite ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Andrés Orozco-Estrada

German composer, pianist, and violinist, Richard Strauss, is considered to be one of the great Romantic composers. His career as a composer began at the age of six, lasting nearly eight decades. His oeuvre included compositions of all styles, but he was best known for his tone poems, such as “Don Juan,” and operas, including “Salome.”

As a composer, Strauss enjoyed celebrity across much of Europe and the United States. Controversy surrounds his later life when he was named the director of Nazi Germany’s department of state music. History has shown that he took the position for good reasons. His works remain popular staples of operatic and orchestral music today.

23. Franz Schubert

Schubert: Symphony No. 8, Unfinished | Iván Fischer & Budapest Festival Orchestra

Austrian composer Franz Schubert was a key figure in the transition from the Classical to the Romantic era. While he barely reached the age of thirty years, he left behind a vast catalog including over 600 secular choral works, seven symphonies, many operas, as well as a great number of piano and chamber compositions. He was exceptionally gifted as a child and he began receiving piano and violin training from family members at an early age. He would study performance in a conservatory, before beginning to study composition with Antonio Salieri.

Throughout his life, Schubert composed pieces at a rapid clip. He gained notoriety around Vienna for his performances, though he only ever performed his own works once in his life. He died shortly after this performance, at the age of thirty-one. In the decades that followed his death, famous composers such as Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms would discover and champion Schubert’s work. The genius of his work was immediately apparent and is regarded as one of Western music’s greatest composers today.

24. Camille Saint-Saëns

Best Halloween Song, Saint-Saëns – Danse Macabre, Dance of Death, Żebrowski Music School Orchestra

French composer, pianist, and conductor, Camille Saint-Saëns, is considered one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. A musical prodigy from a young age, he made his performance debut at the age of ten. He was trained at the Paris Conservatoire and worked for several decades at prominent churches of the French Empire.

Saint-Saëns loved French music history and the modern composers of his time—his own works built on this tradition and elevated him to celebrity. His best-known pieces include “Danse Macabre” and the opera “Samson And Delilah,” and he had a number of concertos and symphonies.

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25. Frédéric Chopin

Chopin - Nocturne op.9 No.2

Polish piano virtuoso Frédéric Chopin is considered one of the Romantic era’s great composers. He was renowned in his lifetime for his technical and poetic skills on the piano. A prodigy from a young age, he trained and composed his first works in Warsaw before leaving for Paris at the age of 20. He rarely performed publicly, preferring to play in smaller, more intimate salon settings.

He was a prolific composer of solo piano works, though he also wrote several concertos and chamber pieces. He drew inspiration from classical greats like Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as well as from the folk traditions of his Polish homeland. Chopin is considered one of music’s first true celebrities, and his compositions live on today and are performed with great regularity.

26. Béla Bartók

Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz. 106 - 3. Adagio

Alongside Franz Liszt, Béla Bartók is Hungary’s greatest composer. The pianist and ethnomusicologist drew inspiration from his in-depth studies of Hungarian and Romanian folk music in his home region. From an early age, he exhibited prodigious musical talent. His mother noted that he could figure out the different syncopations of piano dance songs before he was speaking in full sentences. By four years of age, he had learned over 40 songs on the piano. After training for his adolescence, he discovered a love for the traditional folk music of his homeland.

Throughout his career, Bartók incorporated these folk melodies into his compositions to great effect. However, during the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, his anti-fascist political views got him in trouble with the allied Hungarian government. He was forced to leave the country and go to the United States. While he had garnered respect as an ethnomusicologist within the musical and research communities in the United States, there was less interest from the mainstream audiences in hearing his compositions. He began to suffer from the onset of cancer, but even in those final years, he continued to produce masterful compositions enjoyed today.

27. Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich - Symphony No. 5 - Finale

Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich rose to international fame with the premiere of his “Symphony No. 1” in 1926. Throughout his life, he established himself as one of the 20th century’s great composers. However, this at times got him in trouble with the Soviet government—in 1948, he was censured for his musical activity under the Zhdanov Doctrine.

While he would continue to tip-toe around the Soviet government for much of his career, he was also heavily decorated by the government for his excellence in composition. His body of work includes fifteen symphonies and six concertos, as well as a large body of chamber and solo piano compositions.  

28. Kaija Saariaho

Saariaho: Orion ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Andrés Orozco-Estrada

The Finnish-born composer Kaija Saariaho is considered by many of her peers and critics to be the greatest living composer. She studied at the Sibelius Academy before moving to Germany to continue her studies. She grew frustrated with the rigidness of the strict serialism she was being taught. It was when she discovered the school of spectralism that she found her intellectual home.

Using electronic technology in combination with live performances, Saariaho’s compositions often focus on the slow transformations of “masses of sound.” Her work is often accompanied by visual ideas, and she has discussed having synesthesia, which informs her use of texture in her work. 

29. Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms - Hungarian Dances No. 5 & 6 conducted by Maciej Tomasiewicz

German composer, conductor, and pianist Johannes Brahms was a central figure in the Romantic period. He is frequently lumped together with the other two composers of note with last names beginning in B—Bach and Beethoven. While Brahms’ compositions were grounded in faithfulness to Classical period compositions before him, he was recognized as an innovator by his peers.

He spent much of his life working as a musician and conductor, striving unsuccessfully for prestigious positions that would establish his position as a premier composer. It was his “Symphony No. 1,” in 1876, that made him an international success, and he was lauded for the symphonies that were to follow. From his innovations in classical composition to his work composing folk music, such as the “Hungarian Dances,” he is held as one of the greatest composers to have ever lived.

30. Steve Reich

Electric Counterpoint: I. Fast

American-born Steve Reich is best known for his contributions to the minimalist style of composition. Unlike many on this list, his approach represented a complete rejection of Western musical traditions. His focus was on building music where one can hear the process by which the music was composed, much like how a painter or an architect may make choices that reveal to a witness the process by which the object was made.

To achieve this objective, he focused on phase shifting, a process by which a musical idea is slightly, but clearly, altered so the listener can perceive the change. His 1978 recording of “Music For 18 Musicians” helped to solidify minimalism as a school of compositional practice. Reich’s influence has extended to composers of all ilks, including electronic icons like Brian Eno and songwriters like Sufjan Stevens.

31. Ralph Vaughan Williams

BBC Proms 2013: Watch Vaughan Williams's Toward the Unknown Region

While much of classical composition was rooted in the musical traditions of mainland Europe, Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams found inspiration for his compositions from the folk music traditions of the British Isles. In his early years, he believed deeply in making music accessible to the masses and would write much of his music for amateur and student performances. He bloomed later than most composers, not finding his sound until his late thirties.

Known for his emotionally-resonant symphonies, he is also famous for his choral and vocal arrangements. He was devoted to his country, and during World War I, at over 40 years of age, he volunteered to join the service. During the subsequent World War, too old to serve, he volunteered on the homefront. His elevation of English music and service to his country solidified his legacy as one of Britain’s most noble sons.

32. Amy Beach

Elena Urioste performs Amy Beach - Radio 3 New Generation Artist

Pianist Amy Beach was the first American woman to achieve critical success as a composer. Not only that, but she was one of the first American composers to achieve such success without receiving formal European training. She displayed the knack of a musical prodigy, reportedly able to sing forty songs from memory by the age of one. She composed her first pieces at the age of four. At the age of fourteen, she received her only formal training in composition, though it seems even during this phase, she taught herself much of what she needed to know.

She made her performance debut at the age of sixteen to great fanfare. After her marriage, she agreed to not perform publicly more than twice a year, nor teach or be taught, and as a result, devoted much of her time to composition. Her 1892 piece “Mass In E-Flat Minor” established her as one of America’s best composers, which she quickly followed with her most important piece, “Gaelic Symphony.” While there is much more to be said, few individuals have ever exhibited the great talents of Beach, and her music is still elevated and adored to this day.

33. Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn - A Midsummer Night's Dream - Overture

German pianist, organist, and conductor, Felix Mendelssohn, was one of the most prolific and talented composers of the early Romantic period. He composed symphonies, chamber music, piano and organic pieces, and concertos and is best known for writing music for Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Like many on this list, Mendelssohn was a musical prodigy from a young age, and an aging Johann Goethe compared him to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He gained popularity traveling across Europe as a conductor and solo performer, where he was also able to present his original compositions. The prolific German worked rigorously and traveled constantly, leading to poor health. He died at the young age of thirty-eight after a series of strokes.

34. Antonin Dvořák

Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" / Karajan · Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the first Czech composers to gain international acclaim, Antonin Dvořák incorporated the sounds of his native folk music into his compositions. He displayed prodigious talent on the violin by the age of six. He received training from a young age but did not dedicate himself fully to composition until his early thirties.

He remained unknown until 1875 when he submitted a massive body of work for consideration for the Austrian State Prize. The primary judge, famed composer Johannes Brahms, was overwhelmed by the submission, and Dvořák won the award. After again winning the award in 1877, his international reputation grew quickly. He traveled the world and is recognized as one of Eastern Europe’s greatest composers to have lived.

35. Sergei Rachmaninov

Yuja Wang – Rachmaninov: Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5 (Live at Philharmonie, Berlin / 2018)

Considered one of the greatest piano players to have ever lived, Russian-born Sergei Rachmaninov is also seen as one of the last great Romantic composers. Taking up piano at just four years of age, he quickly displayed a prodigious talent for performance and composition. However, the debut performance of his first symphony was so poor, that he hid away and did not compose for years.

He returned with gusto, and his second symphony quickly elevated his stock in the international music community and, over the next several decades, would compose and tour the globe. After the Russian Revolution, he relocated to New York City, where he primarily made a living as a pianist and conductor. Few composers and performers have captivated audiences with the scale of his vision and talent.

36. Philip Glass

Philip Glass joue Mad Rush

One of the most important composers of the latter 20th century, American Philip Glass is best known for his minimalist style. His work uses repetitive structures to build shifting and phasing layers of sound. His oeuvre includes fifteen operas, fourteen symphonies, as well as concertos and chamber pieces. Additionally, he has thrice been Academy Award-nominated for the film scores he has composed.

Glass has also been a major influence on electronic and popular music artists like Brian Eno and David Bowie and has collaborated with many acts, including Paul Simon and Mick Jagger. He continues to compose and perform as a pianist.

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37. Leonard Bernstein

Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from »West Side Story« ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Andrés Orozco-Estrada

There may be no American name more central to 20th-century classical music than Leonard Bernstein. Considered one of the world’s greatest conductors, he was also a talented pianist. As a composer, he is best known for the Broadway musical “West Side Story,” which remains a staple of the stage and screen to this day. Additionally, he composed three symphonies, a film score, and many theater scores.

He was also an enthusiastic music educator and would put on concerts intended to bring the joy of classical music to the masses. An apt finale to his career, Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9” on Christmas Day 1989 in Berlin to celebrate the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

38. Arnold Schoenberg

Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht / Rattle · Berliner Philharmoniker

The Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg is celebrated as one of the 20th century’s great composers. His early composition career started by interweaving the musical traditions of the German Romantic era, exemplified by Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. He then developed the twelve-tone composition technique and is credited as a forefather of atonal composition. He also greatly expanded the use of motifs that have come to define modern sounds in composition.

His innovations in composition have helped shape modern and contemporary art movements. He was the leader of the famed Second Viennese School, but, as a Jewish composer, he was forced to flee Europe by the Nazi Party, arriving in the United States in 1933. Schoenberg held a deep fear of the number thirteen, and it is mythologized that when he turned 76 he grew deeply anxious when someone pointed out the digits added up to thirteen. He grew depressed over this, and it is thought this may have brought on his passing.

39. Carlo Gesualdo

Carlo Gesualdo - Sesto libro de Madrigali - Moro, lasso, al mio duolo

The Prince of Venosa, Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo is known for his madrigals and sacred choral compositions. From an early age, he was devoted to the musical craft, singing and learning to play the lute, harpsichord, and guitar. Infamously, he walked in on his wife sleeping with another man and killed them both—he was found not guilty after a thorough investigation.

Music historians believe the guilt he bore translated into his innovative and experimental musical compositions. He often composed chromatic pieces, a style of composing that would not re-emerge until the 19th century. He also placed great emphasis on the words being sung, which is where the themes of guilt historians have reflected upon are most apparent.

40. Leoš Janáček

Janáček: Taras Bulba ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Andrés Orozco-Estrada

A Czech contemporary of Antonin Dvořák, Leoš Janáček also brought his love for Eastern European folk music into his compositions. Displaying musical talents from a young age, he was provided training in piano, organ, and composition.

For much of his early career, Janáček was mostly concerned with collecting and studying folk music. At the turn of the 20th century, he turned more to composition, best known for his late works, including orchestral pieces like the “Sinfonietta” or the rhapsody “Taras Bulba.”

41. Sergei Prokofiev

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, No 13 Dance of the Knights (Valery Gergiev, LSO)

Russian-born composer, pianist, and composer, Sergei Prokofiev, is considered one of the 20th century’s most important composers. He was a prolific composer, penning seven operas, seven symphonies, and eight ballets, in addition to many concertos and other pieces.

He rose to prominence on the quality of his iconoclastic piano pieces. After the Nazi government invaded the USSR during World War II, Prokofiev undertook his most ambitious work, a four-hour operatic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “War And Peace.”

42. Charles Ives

Ives: The Unanswered Question ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Andrés Orozco-Estrada

The great American composer Charles Ives went unrecognized for much of his early career, with many of his pieces not being performed until his later life. He was one of the first composers to explicitly engage in the practice of experimental music, making innovations in polytonality, polyrhythm, and aleatory music. 

43. George Gershwin

Lola Astanova - Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with the All-Star Orchestra (2016 Emmy® Award)

American composer and pianist George Gershwin brought together the sounds of classical music and American pop and jazz. His orchestral pieces, like “Rhapsody In Blue” and “An American In Paris,” are known the world over and performed with regularity today. He also composed many jazz standards, the famous opera “Porgy” and “Bess,” and many film scores. His music has influenced the course of modern pop culture.

44. John Cage

Bacchanal: (1940)

Avant-garde composer John Cage pushed the boundaries of musical composition further than anyone before him. He is, perhaps, best known for his 1952 piece, “4’33’,” in which a piano player sits in silence at the piano for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. He would also modify instruments, such as placing objects on the interior of a piano or using found objects, like a blender, to create the soundscapes of his pieces.

He incorporated ideas from Buddhism and Chinese Philosophy to introduce the concept of chance into his music. Further, his partnership with dancer Merce Cunningham helped to shape the development of modern dance.

45. Alban Berg

Berg: Violinkonzert ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Frank Peter Zimmermann ∙ Alain Altinoglu

The Austrian composer Alban Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School, and he built upon the twelve-tone technique. While his oeuvre was rather small compared to others on this list, the expressive nature of his pieces established him as one of history’s best composers. He is best known for his operas, “Wozzeck” and “Lulu,” as well as “Violin Concerto” and several chamber pieces.

46. Edgar Varèse

Edgard Varèse : Arcana (Pascal Rophé / Orchestre national de France)

The French-born composer Edgar Varèse is known for what he called “organized sound.” He would organize sounds into unified masses and would think of their organization as crystal formations of molecules. He would say that all new music sounds like “noise” to the masses, and so, he deeply embraced that language. While his remaining body of work is limited, his innovations in composition came to shape the avant-garde movement of the 20th century, making him one of the century’s most important figures.

47. Morton Feldman

Rohtko Chapel 1

American composer Morton Feldman was one of the central figures in 20th-century classical composition. Along with John Cage, he was a proponent of indeterminate music, in which the music was intended to vary performance-to-performance. His pieces were known for their quiet and slow build-ups and evolution. He also experimented with non-standard practices in musical notation. These practices motivated Cage to write his famous “Music Of Changes,” in which notes played were determined by consulting the I Ching.

48. William Byrd

VOCES8: 'Laudibus in Sanctis' by William Byrd

The late Renaissance composer William Byrd brought English choral music to mainland Europe. His keyboard compositions helped to elevate the style of playing well-known in England at the time. He also composed a great number of secular and sacred choral pieces. His broad range of compositions has made him one of the period’s most influential composers today.

49. Stephen Sondheim

Getting Married Today

The great American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim helped define the sound of American music in the 20th and early 21st centuries. His career began as a lyricist for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” and he then expanded to writing music as well. He has penned countless classic musicals, including “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Into The Woods.” Few modern composers are more universally well-known and beloved than Sondheim.

50. Karlheinz Stockhausen

Stockhausen: Klavierstück XI ∙ Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Considered one of the most important and controversial 20th-century composers, German Karlheinz Stockhausen is best known for his innovations in electronic music, controlled change, and spatialization. He composed many piano pieces, chamber music pieces, electronic numbers, and even a percussion solo piece. Stockhausen was consistently subject to controversy, including having musicians walk out of performances in protest at being asked to play such absurd music. 

51. Erik Satie

Khatia Buniatishvili - Erik Satie: Gymnopédie No.1

French composer and pianist Erik Satie was considered an undistinguished student during his training at the Paris Conservatoire, receiving no diploma. He began a career performing cafe-cabaret, where he introduced many of his most important solo piano pieces in “Gymnopédie” and “Gnossienne.” Satie’s importance was as a transitional figure, pushing French composers away from the influence of Richard Wagner. He motivated many young French composers to follow new directions and would influence the trajectory of French music through the 20th century.

52. Thomas Tallis

Tallis: Spem in alium / Rattle · Rundfunkchor Berlin

The English composer Thomas Tallis is one of the most important figures in the history of English choral music. He was a composer in the courts of Henry VIII. He was able to transition his music as the Church of England split from Roman Catholicism, defining himself as a versatile composer. Many of the musical styles of the Roman Catholic Church were largely forbidden in the reformed English church, though Tallis was able to effectively adapt the style of composition to suit the needs of the English royalty’s new religious institution.

53. Harrison Birtwistle

Harrison Birtwistle: Cortege for 14 Musicians | Ensemble ACJW

Best known for his operas, English composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle is considered one of the most important contemporary composers of classical music. Operas such as “The Minotaur” and “The Mask Of Orpheus” established him as a master of theatrical composition. He additionally composed orchestral and chamber pieces, concertos, ensemble pieces, and even jazz. His pieces, regardless of whether they were for a theatrical production or not, tended to follow a dramatic story arc, taking the listener on a journey.

54. Anton Webern

Anton Webern - Passacaglia | WDR Sinfonieorchester | Jukka-Pekka Saraste

The Austrian composer Anton Webern is known for his radical use of atonal and twelve-tone composition techniques. His stock rose during Red Vienna as a vocal coach, conductor, and teacher. During the 1920s, he produced a prolific oeuvre of chamber and orchestral pieces. Despite being deemed degenerate by Nazi Germany, Webern continued to compose even as it led to his ostracization by the government.

55. John Williams

John Williams & Vienna Philharmonic – Williams: Theme from “Jurassic Park”

Fewer modern composers are as well recognized by the public as John Williams. He has come to define the sound of classical music in film, composing the scores to hit films like “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Jaws.” Few composers have enjoyed such long and celebrated careers and, for many people today, the sounds of Williams’ scores are the backdrop to their fondest childhood memories.