10 Important 20th Century Composers You Need To Know About

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As the Romantic era reached a climax around the turn of the 20th Century, there was a feeling that there was little more that could be done within the rules and conventions that had largely remained in place within classical music since the 17th Century. Yearning for change and innovation, composers began to break from tradition in a whole host of ways.

As a result, the names on this list have produced a much broader range of music than their predecessors from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods, all of which have their own distinctive and relatively unified sound worlds. As we take a look at ten of the most important composers of the 20th Century music period, we’ll encounter a diverse selection of styles, including modernism, impressionism, music of chance and minimalism. Furthermore, we’ll recommend a key work by each of these fascinating figures. Enjoy!

1. Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)

Impressionism was a movement in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, which focused upon colour and mood.

Its two most prominent exponents were the French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, although both men actually rejected the term.

Ravel studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where his forward-thinking approach shocked the more conservative establishment.

In a break with the “Common Practice” harmonic system that had been in place since the Baroque era, he utilised modes such the whole tone scale, to create a distinctive, more static tonality.

Renowned as a skilled orchestrator, his clever use of instrumentation allowed him to create beautiful shades and timbres.

This mastery can be heard in his orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (which was originally a solo piano piece) and his own ballet Daphnis et Chloé.

Bolero came into the public consciousness when the ice skaters Torvill and Dean used it in their gold medal-winning routine at the 1984 Olympics:

Maurice Ravel – ‘Bolero’

2. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Schoenberg was one of the pioneers of the modernist movement, which rejected tradition and embraced individuality.

In the 1920s he became known for his innovative use of atonalism, an often rather challenging approach which does away with key centres, cadences and traditional harmonic function.

He and his students, fellow Austrians Alban Berg and Anton Webern, are often referred to collectively as the Second Viennese School (with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven being the First Viennese School).

The three experimented with a 12-tone approach to composition, in which a tone row, made up of all twelve tones in the chromatic scale placed in a given order, forms the basis of a piece.

This technique is also known as serialism.

Schoenberg was Jewish and his work was labelled “degenerate” by the Nazi Party.

As a result he emigrated to the United States in 1933, where he would teach John Cage amongst other prominent young composers.

“His music is often accused of being cerebral, cold and wilfully difficult. But I find in it an invincible combination of intellect and passion, discipline and expressivity.” Pina Napolitana

Arnold Schoenberg – ‘Suite for Piano, Op 25’

3. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Stravinksy shot to fame when he was commissioned to write three ballets for the impresario Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes company.

Following The Firebird (1910) and Petruska (1911), The Rite of Spring was premiered in 1913.

Legend has it that, due to the shockingly avant garde nature of the score and choreography, it was met with riots and outrage from the audience in Paris, although it has since been suggested that the extent of this may have been exaggerated somewhat.

Still, The Rite of Spring, which Leonard Bernstein called “the most important piece of music of the 20th Century”, was undoubtedly extremely innovative and important.

Stravinksy’s freewheeling approach to rhythm is particularly evident, with frequently shifting time signatures.

He experimented with a range of styles including Neoclassicism (where he took influence from the Classical period, writing more consonant, ordered music) and serialism.

Igor Stravinsky – ‘The Rite Of Spring’

4. Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Prokofiev was a musical prodigy: he began composing at six years old and wrote his first opera at just nine.

He lived in America for a time as a young man before returning to his native Russia, where his music would later be denounced as “decadent” by Stalin. 

In his charming Peter and the Wolf, “a symphonic fairy tale for children”, a narrator tells the story which is interpreted by the orchestra, with various instruments representing specific characters.

His other famous works include his Lieutenant Kijé suite and the ballet Romeo and Julliet, which is based on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

Its grand “Dance of the Knights” theme is particularly well-known:

‘Dance of the Knights’ by Sergei Prokofiev

5. William Grant Still (1895-1978)

Still is associated with the Harlem Renaissance, a fertile scene of African American artists and writers centred around the Harlem district of New York in the 1920s.

He worked with a number of top jazz and dance bands in New York before focusing upon classical composition, writing five symphonies, nine operas, four ballets, over thirty choral works and more besides, winning a Guggenheim Fellowship along the way.

His Afro-American Symphony, which contains blues elements, was the most widely performed American symphony for around 20 years following its premiere in 1931:

William Grant Still – ‘Afro-American Symphony’

6. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)

Shostakovich’s legacy is defined by his relationship with Soviet rule in his native Russia, where strict tabs were kept upon his artistic output to make sure that it met with the approval of the Communist Party hierarchy.

His grand, patriotic Fifth Symphony was a huge success, but he was later denounced as part of a campaign against modernist and non-Russian influences in music.

He gained more artistic freedom after the death of Stalin in 1953.

His Romantic-influenced symphonies remain highly popular, while his chamber work sometimes displays more modernist tendencies, especially the dark, brooding string quartets:

‘Fifth Symphony’ by Dmitri Shostakovich

7. John Cage (1912-1992)

After formative studies with Schoenberg, Cage went on to become one of the 20th Century’s greatest exponents of experimentalism.

His most famous and controversial piece is 4’33”, in which the performers do nothing except be present for four minutes and 33 seconds, meaning that the piece is actually composed of the sounds and atmosphere in the environment during that time.

This raises fascinating questions regarding the meaning of music.

He also experimented with aleatoricism, in which elements of the piece are left up to chance of the performer’s free choice, whilst his “prepared piano” music creates unusual sounds by placing objects on or between its hammers and strings.

Famously, he used the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text that uses chance to suggest answers to posed questions, as a decision making tool and compositional device.

John Cage – ‘Sonata V’

8. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

England had produced few composers of international renown since the Baroque period, but the 20th Century saw the emergence of Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten, who all wrote seminal works.

Britten was particularly noted for his vocal writing.

The opera Peter Grimes was a critical and popular success, while his War Requiem uses the poetry of WWI soldier Wilfred Owen to pay tribute to the victims of conflict.

The Young Person’s Guide To the Orchestra is a showpiece to introduce the different orchestral sections and instruments.

He was also a conductor, pianist and founder of the Aldeburgh Festival in his native Suffolk.

Benjamin Britten – ‘Peter Grimes’

9. Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

The birth of jazz was one of the most significant artistic developments of the 20th Century.

Bernstein was one of a number of composers – George Gershwin being another notable example – who fused the influence of this new music with the classical orchestral tradition.

The American wrote symphonies, choral works and, in the likes of West Side Story and On The Town, the scores to some of the greatest musicals ever.

As well as being a renowned conductor, Bernstein was also a major public advocate for classical music, presenting a popular series of Young People’s Concerts on television between 1958 and ‘72.

‘Candide Overture’ by Leonard Bernstein

10. Steve Reich (1936-)

The minimalist movement emerged in New York in the late 1950s, with composers like Terry Riley, Phillip Glass and Steve Reich using minimal melodic and harmonic material to create hypnotic tapestries of sound.

Reich’s music has taken influence from Ghanaian drumming, Balinese gamelan as well as his own Jewish heritage.

He frequently utilises electronic instruments and effects, which of course reflects the ways in which developing technology has impacted the way in which classical music is made.

The recipient of numerous prestigious awards, Reich continues to write music and has been described as America’s greatest living composer.

Steve Reich – ‘Variations for Winds, Strings, Keyboards’

Summary

So, that concludes our look at some of the most important composers to emerge during the 20th Century.

Between them, this diverse and often revolutionary bunch have written impressionist, atonal, experimental, minimalist works and more besides, so we hope you’ve enjoyed learning about and listening to the music of this fascinating and varied period.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.