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 20 of the greatest 20th-century composers, we’ll encounter a diverse selection of styles, including modernism, impressionism, and minimalism. Let’s get started.
1. Maurice Ravel
Impressionism was a movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which focused on color 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 utilized modes such as 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.
2. Arnold Schoenberg
Our next composer, Arnold 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 that does away with key centers, 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 labeled degenerate by the Nazi Party. As a result, he emigrated to the United States in 1933, where he would teach John Cage, among other prominent young composers.
3. Igor Stravinsky
Born in 1882, Igo 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 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.
4. Sergei Prokofiev
Russian composer Sergei 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 that 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 Juliet, which is based on Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Its grand “Dance of the Knights” theme is particularly well-known.
5. William Grant Still
Hailing from Woodville, Mississippi, William Grant Still is associated with the Harlem Renaissance, a fertile scene of African-American artists and writers centered around the Harlem district of New York in the 1920s.
He worked with a number of the top jazz and dance bands in New York before focusing on classical composition, writing five symphonies, nine operas, four ballets, over 30 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.
6. Dmitri Shostakovich
Born in 1906, Dmitri Shostakovich’s legacy is defined by his relationship with Soviet rule in his native Russia, where strict tabs were kept on 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. However, after the death of Stalin in 1953, Shostakovich gained more artistic freedom.
His Romantic-influenced symphonies remain highly popular, while his chamber work sometimes displays more modernist tendencies, especially the dark, brooding string quartets.
7. John Cage
After formative studies with Arnold Schoenberg, John 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 the chance of the performer’s free choice, while his “prepared piano” music creates unusual sounds by placing objects on or between its hammers and strings.
Famously, Cage 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.
8. Benjamin Britten
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.
Britten was also a conductor and pianist. His performances in these roles were marked by a profound understanding and sensitivity to the music, earning him widespread acclaim.
9. Leonard Bernstein
The birth of jazz was one of the most significant artistic developments of the 20th century, and our next composer, Leonard 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 Massachusetts-native composer 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 prominent public advocate for classical music, presenting a popular series of Young People’s Concerts on television between 1958 and ‘72.
Related: Click here to read about other important musical theatre composers.
10. Aaron Copland
Born in 1900 in Brooklyn, New York, Aaron Copland was introduced to the piano at a young age and received formal training with Leopold Wolfsohn in 1914.
As a teenager, he continued his studies in Manhattan with Rubin Goldmark, a respected music instructor who imparted him with a solid foundation in music theory and composition. This early tutelage ignited Copland’s passion for music and set the stage for his future achievements.
In 1921, Copland embarked on a transformative journey to France, where he studied at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau. His time here exposed him to a variety of musical styles and philosophies.
With over 100 compositions, Copland’s most significant contributions to the world of music are his ballet scores, which include Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Rodeo.
Copland’s impact on American culture extends beyond his compositions. As an educator, he was instrumental in shaping the next generation of American composers, earning the title Dean of American Composers.
11. Béla Bartók
Along with Franz Liszt, Béla Bartók is one of the most influential Hungarian composers of the 20th century. Born in 1881, Bartók showed a strong affinity for music early in his life, and his mother, who was a piano teacher, served as his first instructor.
Bartók’s formal musical education began at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, where he studied piano and composition. It was during his time at the academy that Bartók first encountered the music of Richard Strauss, which had a profound influence on his early compositional style.
The Hungarian composer was deeply interested in folk music and embarked on extensive ethnomusicological research, collecting and transcribing thousands of folk songs from across Eastern Europe. This significantly shaped his compositional voice, leading to a unique synthesis of folk elements and modernist techniques.
Some of his most notable compositions include the six string quartets, the Concerto for Orchestra, and the suite for piano Out of Doors.
12. Olivier Messiaen
Raised in a literary family, French composer Olivier Messiaen began studying at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 11.
Messiaen’s musical language is marked by its unique blend of diverse influences. Deeply inspired by birdsong, he meticulously transcribed and incorporated this into his compositions.
Another defining aspect of Messiaen’s style is his exploration of rhythm and color. He developed complex rhythmic patterns inspired by Indian classical music and ancient Greek ideas. His interest in color, influenced by his synesthesia, resulted in music of remarkable textural richness.
One of Messiaen’s most significant works is Quartet for the End of Time, which he composed while being held in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. Other notable compositions include Turangalîla-Symphonie, a large-scale orchestral work, and Catalogue d’oiseaux (Catalog of Birds), a series of piano pieces based on birdsong.
13. Philip Glass
Born in 1937, Philip Glass is the youngest composer on this list yet one of the most prominent and influential in the realm of minimalism, a genre that emerged in the late 20th century as a reaction against the complexity of serialism and other modernist movements.
Glass’s early musical education began at the Peabody Institute. He later studied at the Juilliard School in New York and then traveled to Paris to study under the eminent composition teacher Nadia Boulanger.
Among Glass’s extensive body of work, some of the most notable compositions include his operas Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten. These works, often termed portrait operas, blend minimalist techniques with complex theatrical narratives.
In addition to his concert works, Glass has composed numerous scores for films, including Koyaanisqatsi, The Hours, and Notes on a Scandal.
As of 2023, Glass continues to be an active presence in the world of music, constantly exploring new ideas and collaborations, underscoring his position as not only a pioneer of minimalism but also as a living legend of modern composition.
14. Ralph Vaughan Williams
Hailing from Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, born in 1872, is one of the most important British composers of the 20th century. His work is characterized by a distinctly English sound, shaped by his deep engagement with English folk song, hymnody, and early music.
Among his nine symphonies, perhaps the most well-known is the Lark Ascending, a lush, pastoral work for solo violin and orchestra inspired by a poem by George Meredith. His Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis showcases his interest in early music, while his Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ draws on English folk music traditions.
Vaughan Williams also made significant contributions to the field of choral music. His works in this genre include the powerful Dona Nobis Pacem, a plea for peace written in the interwar years, and the Serenade to Music, a setting of text from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
15. George Gershwin
One of the most celebrated composers in American music history is George Gershwin. Born in 1898, his work uniquely bridges the worlds of popular and classical music, blending elements of jazz, traditional song, and concert music into a distinctively American idiom.
One of Gershwin’s most famous compositions is Rhapsody in Blue, a groundbreaking work that fused symphonic music with jazz elements. This was followed by Concerto in F and An American in Paris.
In the realm of opera, Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess in 1935, which he described as a “folk opera.” The work is based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy. It has since been recognized as a masterpiece and includes beloved songs like “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Tragically, Gershwin’s life was cut short by a brain tumor, and he passed away in 1937 at the age of 38. Despite his short career, Gershwin contributed to the breaking down of barriers between “high” and “low” art, and his music continues to be widely performed and admired.
16. György Ligeti
The year 1923 saw the birth of Hungarian-Austrian composer György Ligeti. He was one of the most innovative and influential composers of the latter half of the 20th century.
Ligeti’s early life was marked by the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, during which he was forced into a labor camp. After the war, he studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, but his creative growth was stifled by the restrictive cultural policies of the Stalinist regime.
In 1956, following the Hungarian Uprising, Ligeti fled to the West. There, he encountered the music of the post-war avant-garde, including composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, which had a profound impact on his own compositional style.
Perhaps one of Ligeti’s most well-known works is his Lux Aeterna, largely due to its inclusion in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ligeti’s music has been featured in several other films by Kubrick, bringing it to a wider audience.
17. Carl Orff
Born in Germany in 1895, Carl Orff began his musical education at a young age and later studied at the Munich Academy of Music. After serving in World War I, he took a position as the head of the composition department at the Munich Staatliche Akademie der Tonkunst.
His most famous work, Carmina Burana, is a large-scale cantata for choir, soloists, and orchestra based on medieval Latin and German poems. The opening and closing movement, “O Fortuna,” has been widely used in popular culture and is one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music.
Beyond Carmina Burana, Orff composed other works in a similar vein, including Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite, which, together with Carmina Burana, form his trilogy “Trionfi.”
In addition to composing, Orff made significant contributions to music education. Together with his colleague Gunild Keetman, he developed the Orff Schulwerk (School Work) approach. This method has been widely adopted in music education programs around the world.
18. Samuel Barber
With music that straddled the divide between Romanticism and modernism, American composer Samuel Barber became one of the most important composers of the 20th century.
Barber began studying piano at age six and wrote his first piece at age 7. At 14, he entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied voice, piano, and composition.
Barber’s career took off in the 1930s. His Overture to the School for Scandal and Music for a Scene from Shelley were well received, but it was his Adagio for Strings that solidified his reputation.
Originally the second movement of his String Quartet, the Adagio was arranged for string orchestra. This profoundly moving work has since become one of the most popular pieces of classical music and is often performed on solemn occasions.
Despite his success, Barber struggled with depression and alcoholism, particularly after the reaction to his opera Antony and Cleopatra in 1966 was mixed. He composed little in his later years and died of cancer in 1981.
19. Pierre Boulez
The penultimate composer on our list is French composer Pierre Boulez. Born in 1925, he is recognized both as a pioneering composer and a charismatic conductor who championed contemporary music.
Boulez began his musical education at the Conservatoire de Lyon before moving to Paris to study at the Conservatoire de Paris. There, he studied composition with Olivier Messiaen and the 12-tone technique with René Leibowitz.
As a composer, Boulez was a leading figure in post-war avant-garde music. His early works, such as his Second Piano Sonata in 1948, are known for their complexity and rigor.
However, it was with Le Marteau sans maître, in 1955, that Boulez truly made his mark. This composition, set to surrealist poetry by René Char, is notable for its innovative scoring and exploration of serialism.
Beyond composing, Boulez was a highly sought-after conductor. He led several major orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and founded the Ensemble Intercontemporain, a group dedicated to performing contemporary chamber music.
20. Steve Reich
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 and Balinese gamelan, as well as his own Jewish heritage.
He frequently utilizes 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, including a Pulitzer Prize for Music for Double Sextet, Reich continues to write music and has been described as America’s greatest living composer.
Summing Up Our List Of Great Composers Of The 20th Century
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 has written impressionist, atonal, experimental, minimalist works, and more, so we hope you’ve enjoyed learning about and listening to the music of this fascinating and varied period.
Have we missed a composer that should be on this list? Let us know, and we’ll add them for you!