Most important Composers of the 20:th century

September 3, 2008 at 04:51 PM · Here is the most important composers of th 20:th Century as far as I know

1. Leo Ornstein: Very important when it comes to toneclusters and most other things associated with the music of the 20-21:th century. Not wellknown among violinist at all and his importance is truly underrated

2. Schoenberg: no need to explain why he is one of the most important.

3. Debussy: no need to explain why. a true pioneer

4. Henry Cowell: Very important figure for contemporary classical music. His importance i truly underrated

5. Stravinski: no need to explain why

6: Xenakis: a true pioneer when it comes to music composed with the help of the computer, glissandoeffects etc.

7: Bartok: understood oriental rhythms better then any western composer before him and a true pioneer.

8: Konlon Nankarrov: A true pioneer and underrated composer that showed us truly complex music that can´t be performed by human beings

9: Karheinz Stockhausen: Electronic music pioneer

10. Ravel: Just because his orchestrations were more interesting then anyone before him in my opinion (as far as I know at least)

Replies (56)

September 3, 2008 at 05:57 PM · For me Debussy is a 19th Century composer, born in 1862, wrote his string quartet in 1892. That might leave a space for Ligeti perhaps?

September 3, 2008 at 06:25 PM · Miles Davis


Chick Corea


Duke Ellington

George Gershwin

They all have in common that their music is great *and* people like to listen to it.

BTW: Top ten lists are suited for sports and pop, no so much for art and serious music.

September 3, 2008 at 08:55 PM · I'd have to say Penderecki, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bartok, Stravinsky, Schoenberg (plus Webern and Berg), Vaughan Williams, and I guess I'd have to add some of the pioneers of the minimalist school (who, aside from Reich and Glass I don't know much else).

September 3, 2008 at 09:33 PM · I'm so surprised no one has mentioned Rachmanninov or Gershwin! (although there was one reference to him)

September 3, 2008 at 09:53 PM · I'd also like to say William Grant Still, even though he's not very well-known, I think he is deserving of a place, maybe not in the top 10, but at least in the top 25, especially for his influence on other composers.

September 3, 2008 at 10:18 PM · I would like to add Yehudi Wyner and Anton Webern, who have both contributed great works to the violin repertoire.

Wyner-Concert Duo

Webern-Four Pieces

September 4, 2008 at 05:35 AM · "Becker/Fagen"

Skunk Baxter figures in there too. Then one day he thought up a plan for a missle defense system and went to work for the Pentagon. Got to be the most well-rounded guy since Leonardo....

"They all have in common that their music is great *and* people like to listen to it."

No one in the 20th cent.'s written violin music that people (non-musicians) listen to, and's also acceptable to classical people. There's an idea for you composeros. If you can pull that off, you'll get a big obelisk on your grave.

September 4, 2008 at 05:41 AM · Henryk Wieniawski? :( Or is he 19th cen...?

September 4, 2008 at 06:28 AM · One's view of "important" depends on what one thinks is material to the development of music. I'd say this list is pretty good from a certain view. If people were to suggest changes those might be to drop Nancarrow and Cowell. I'm not sure about Ornstein (or Anthiel, if he were on the list) either. I can see reasons for these people and don't think they are far out choices, but suspect that Boulez, Nono, Berg, Barraque, or Webern might go instead. Babbit and Roger Sessions would be possibilities from the America side of things.

If one thought that Minimalism was a significant development, then one would put either Reich, Glass, or Lamont Warren on the list. If one didn't think Minimalism was significant, then they'd be left off.

I suspect Ravel would not be on most people's lists.

Of course, "important" does not necessarily mean "good."


September 4, 2008 at 08:07 AM · How about Ligeti? And let's mention every other 20th century composer, even the really obscure ones!!!!

Seriously I cannot recommend more highly enough of Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century. It's probably one of the best non-fiction published last year, in all genres.

Jim is right on the rift between classical music that connoisseurs listen to and everyday pop. Ross argues that Gershwin and Kurt Weill came the closest in reconciliate both.

September 4, 2008 at 09:10 AM · "For me Debussy is a 19th Century composer, born in 1862, wrote his string quartet in 1892. That might leave a space for Ligeti perhaps? "

I agree but his most important works were propably composed after 1900, I also agree that Webern is almost top 10.

Ligeti was very close to be on the top list I had a hard time deciding if he was gonna be top 10 or not and I also thought about putting jazzcomposers(and maybe someone that worked with rock,pop or blues too on list)

I do think that Nankarrov and Cowell are truly underrated composers. Ligeti for instance stated that Nankarrov was the most underrated composer alive and that he was truly one of the best during the 20:th century.

I dont think that any of the Russian composers mentioned are pioneers actually.

The late Scriabin on the other hand was a lot more original I think.

The minimalist composers are not th

September 4, 2008 at 03:32 PM · Andreas:

I would agree with you about Debussey. The Piano Etudes, for example, are truly 20th century.

I thought about Scriabin. Not really sure that he lead to that much more. There is Roslavets and Mosolov but not a lot of other direct influence.

The influence and importance of Legeti is still to be seen.

I don't think Nancarrow, Cowell, and Ornstein are bad ideas. It will depend on what someone thinks is important.

One other nominee would be Ives, though the degree to which he was an innovator seems to be in dispute.


September 4, 2008 at 05:24 PM · Lee Actor Violin Concerto as played by Pip Clarke

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Violin Concerto as played by Pamela Frank

Ernest Bloch Violin Concerto as played by Roman Totenberg

John Adams Violin Concerto as played by Gidon Kremer

I'll give you more in a sec; I got to go to class.

September 4, 2008 at 05:27 PM · Oh, I am sorry. The above are maybe not the most important, excepting Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, but they are seriously overlooked, excepting John Adams.

September 4, 2008 at 11:26 PM · Um, ok, I'm going out on a limb and say Edgar Meyer is one of my favorite composers of the past 15 years. :-) What can I say?!

September 5, 2008 at 08:48 AM · "Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Violin Concerto as played by Pamela Frank"

Listened to clips on cdnow, loved what I heard

Thanks´s for the tip

Another composer worth mentioning is Gerard Grisey and also his student Atli Ingolfsson

Ingolfssons album Enter features one of the true masterpices of the past fifteen years in my opinion and that is a piece called La Metrique Du Cri

September 5, 2008 at 12:08 PM ·

September 7, 2008 at 05:31 AM · S.C. Eckhardt-Gramatte (Another Woman Composer)


Miklos Rosza

Max Reger

Henri Lazarof

Ernest John Moeran

Some great concertos and solo sonatas out of the folks above.

September 7, 2008 at 05:34 AM · And Mark O' Connor :0)

September 7, 2008 at 10:54 AM · Khachaturian and Shostakovich

September 7, 2008 at 12:59 PM · Has anyone mentioned Dvorzak?

Jimmy Page

Alex Lifeson & Geddy Lee

David Bowie

Eric Clapton

Rogers & Hammerstein

And definitely Copland!!!!

September 7, 2008 at 04:45 PM · And Andrew Lloyd Webber?

And Elvis???

And - maybe Florence Foster Jenkins had been composing as well. Then she should join our list of most important composers of the 20st century.

(Seems we'll have *all* of them in a very short time ;-)

September 9, 2008 at 01:28 AM · Absolutely no one seems to have mentioned Leonard Bernstein...anyone other than KJ want to make a case for Charles Ives? Maybe not in a top ten, but somewhere.


I wonder how many copies of The Red Violin Chaconne have sold to non-musicians. Next to that, I don't know how many listen to the Barber Concerto (1939) but I can see it having enormous popular potential.

September 11, 2008 at 09:50 PM · For an unknown composer, I will nominate Philip Glass. His Concerto for Violin and Orchestra is among my favorites (long list). Elliot Carter deserves a mention here (winning two Pulitzer Prizes). They both have also composed in the 21st Century.

September 11, 2008 at 10:04 PM · "For an unknown composer, I will nominate Philip Glass. His Concerto for Violin and Orchestra is among my favorites (long list). Elliot Carter deserves a mention here (winning two Pulitzer Prizes). They both have also composed in the 21st Century. "

Unknown!? Philip Glass is one of the most wellknown composers alive

September 11, 2008 at 10:20 PM · good heavens yes. They even named a drinking aid after him.



September 12, 2008 at 02:22 AM · You're slipping away.

Nicole, I don't think even I've heard it :) But if it's from the movie, judging from the people I heard talking about it, the movie seems to have had really wide appeal.

I think serious new music is going to be electronic music, increasingly, just because you can do more. There are no built-in limitations, which is an interesting thing itself. There are genres that appeal more to me personally, but I've been listening a lot to a channel that plays it, just because it's so varied and interesting. The performers have names like bands. They're sound collages with structure, like what Glass does. In fact they include Glass in the playlist. I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing replaces rock as we know it as well.

I used to always listen to music mainly to improve my own playing in one way or another. But I don't listen for that reason anymore, and I pay attention to a lot of things that wouldn't have interested me much before.

September 12, 2008 at 12:45 AM · Andreas Lantz wrote: "Unknown!? Philip Glass is one of the most well known composers alive."

My response: On my behalf, "unknown" was a bad word choice, typing quickly. Sorry about that. What I meant to say is that "anytown" person would probably not name him as a composer. Mozart, yes. Bach, probably. Pachabel, probably. Chopin, maybe not. Wagner, no. Glass, no.

A recent discussion asked participants to name the greatest or favorite violin concertos. Many composers were mentioned, including several "lesser known" names, but not Philip Glass... at least not until I mentioned Philip Glass with the third-to-last posting before it was archived.

None-the-less, thanks for your correction. His name recognition is up there with, uh, Verdi.

September 11, 2008 at 11:31 PM · Important, influential say, doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as famous. Although the influenced person needs to at least have heard of him :)

September 22, 2008 at 01:37 PM · Allow me to put in yet another plug for a composer probably known more as a music critic (for his eloquent but scathing review of Jascha Heifetz) - Virgil Thompson.

As a composer, his most well-known composition is probably The Plow that Broke the Plains, but I think if he had written nothing else than his Cello Concerto, he still should be considered a great composer.

The Cello Concerto, in my opinion, is one of the 3 or 4 greatest concertos for that instrument written in the last 100 years. It is, IMHO, at least as great as the Elgar and the Shostakovich's. And I prefer listening to it more than any of the others. It also helps that it is in an American idiom. If you are not familiar with it, please check it out. You'll be surprised how great it is.

There are only 2 recordings of it that I know of - Luigi Silva (to whom it was dedicated) and Emanuel Feldman (the newest recording, and a good one).


September 22, 2008 at 07:14 PM · What about Darius Milhaud? He is definitely one of my favorites. Also Olivier Messiaen - a true genius!

September 22, 2008 at 09:16 PM · Glass, Bartok

September 22, 2008 at 09:29 PM · Britten and Barber were brilliant as well.

'Most important composers' could be because of their innovation or merely the quality of work. Brahms was important but considered to be 'retro' by many during his lifetime.

September 23, 2008 at 06:47 AM · "'Most important composers' could be because of their innovation or merely the quality of work."

Their innovation I think

September 23, 2008 at 01:04 PM · Their innovation I think

Doesn't that present a problem as one could argue that at some point innovation was no longer possible - everything had been done, the avant garde is finished?

September 23, 2008 at 12:25 PM · Hindemith!

The half blood violist cries out...


September 24, 2008 at 03:36 PM · Carol King!!! What a composer! Frome the late 50's too today! She had sooo many one hit wonders!

September 24, 2008 at 10:51 PM · Greetings,


One of the greatest songs of all time,

Would be number one but no references to prunes.



September 25, 2008 at 03:00 PM · You could rewrite a CCR song, "There's Bad Prune A Risen'" Buri?

September 27, 2008 at 03:40 AM · Dwight,

Yes, Hindemith, good call. Some of his stuff is so fun to play.

November 15, 2008 at 03:59 AM ·

How about Bernstein? How would you rank him?

November 15, 2008 at 06:16 AM ·

As far as I am concerned, a list of important composers of the 20th century that doesn't include Shostakovich is worth as much as a 20th century history book that doesn't mention Churchill. Not even worth a review, let alone a discussion.

November 15, 2008 at 08:43 AM ·

Since I didn't see a stipulation about violin composers, I have to say that George Gershwin was absolutely amazing.  He wrote Opera, musicals, and other works.  He not only made great music, but he also had mass appeal, which is lacking in a lot of modern composers. 

November 15, 2008 at 12:23 PM ·

My list would include Barber, Britten and Vaughan Williams as well.

November 15, 2008 at 03:05 PM ·

May I add:

Joachin Rodrigo - the blind composer (died in 1999) of whom I think everyone has heard his Concierto de Aranjuez for the guitar;

Jean Sibelius - whose violin concerto (1905) is as hauntingly beautiful as it is devilish to play;

Franz Waxman (1906-1967) - Carmen Fantasy for the violin??

And please let me underscore Ernest Bloch and Sergej Rachmaninov, two composers who seem to be a little underrated...


November 15, 2008 at 03:26 PM ·

Mahler, Sibelius (just mentioned by Dimitri) and Nielsen have to be considered the most prominent symphonists of the first part of the 20th century. 

Some other worthies who may not have been mentioned above are Janacek, Szymanowsky, Lutoslawski, Dutilleux, Schnittke, and Honegger.

November 15, 2008 at 03:39 PM ·

While I'm at it I think I'll add Richard Addinsell as well, not because of influence of course but more for the fun of it, certainly for one piece worthy of merit. Let's see now, how many people know who/what I'm talking about?

November 15, 2008 at 03:54 PM ·

How about John Williams? His fame (particularly for the Star Wars movie score and many others) will live on in the film score composers hall of fame, I would imagine.  He has a style that is easy to listen to (without seeing the movie) and can be very dramatic as well.  

November 15, 2008 at 07:07 PM ·

My my with all these great names it seems that we have been pretty lucky to have had a plethora of important and influencial composers in the last century.

November 15, 2008 at 09:20 PM ·

I couldn't agree more, Marina.  Also, I don't see how Britten can be kept off any top 10 list of 20th century composers.  If you want to hear something great, get the CD of Britten conducting his violin and piano concertos.    His piano concerto is fabulous and the performance with the composer conducting and Richter at the piano is just unbelievable.

November 16, 2008 at 06:48 AM ·

Maybe we should remember Kurt Weill here too. Not everyone is familiar with his chamber music or symphonic music, but I think everyone has heard Bobby Darrin's jazzed rendition of "Mack the Knife", an aria from Weill's Threepenny Opera.

November 17, 2008 at 01:48 PM ·












November 17, 2008 at 02:50 PM ·

Just a question to all who haven't included Mahler on their lists:  have you left him out because you think his music doesn't justify a place on the list, or because you consider him more of a 19th century composer?

November 17, 2008 at 06:22 PM ·

I confidentially believe and think, that Mahler was not mentioned because most of his music sounds as it belongs to the 19th century.
But what about one of the most important composers of the 20. century - as I think! - BERND ALOIS ZIMMERMANN? (1918-1970 Colone)

January 15, 2009 at 06:52 PM ·


Another vote for Britten.

After spending the last six months absorbed by Peter Grimes, I have at last decided to try some of the other CDs in that box set and moved onto Billy Budd, which it promises to be just as exhilarating. (Note, this statement comes from someone who has never previously had any interest in opera).

In March 2007 the Bank of England replaced Edward Elgar on the back of our twenty pound notes with Adam Smith, and in my most obsessive moments I have even wondered whether our dire economic situation could have been avoided by depicting Britten instead of that sensible Scottish economist.

January 15, 2009 at 09:05 PM ·

Here is my contribution:

Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Glazunov, Sibelius, Barber, Elgar make my list, and since we are violinists or at least love the violin, Ysaye and Kreisler.

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