6 of the Greatest American Composers of All Time

Great composers are composed of a mix of raw talent and dedicated hard work. They create music that touches listeners because they themselves have been touched by music in some way. Here are the 6 composers who have contributed the most to the American music scene, from its very beginning until today.

1. Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein was a conductor and composer, and he was also a pianist, music teacher, author, and humanitarian.

A first generation American, Bernstein was born in 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

On the insistence of his grandmother, he was born as Louis Bernstein, legally changing his name to Leonard as his parents called him shortly after his grandmother passed.

He was the first American conductor to lead an American orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and he was the first American conductor to gain international notoriety.

His compositional style ranged from symphonic and orchestral to chamber to choral.

He taught himself piano at the age of 10 and then began taking lessons as soon as possible.

One of his early piano teachers later became his secretary.

He studied at Harvard University, the Curtis Institute of Music, and with the Boston Symphony orchestra.

Bernstein wrote for many ballets, film, and theater.

He is best known for the musical West Side Story, a modern take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the music from which originated from his earlier ballet, Fancy Free.

Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story – Prologue

He is also well known for his opera Candide and his 1950 production of Peter Pan.

Bernstein has won countless Grammys and other awards.

He passed away in 1990 of a heart attack.

2. Danny Elfman (1953-)

Danny Elfman by The Kuhnster / CC BY-SA 2.0

Danny Elfman is a current composer, singer, and songwriter who focuses on pop, new age genres and quirky film scores.

He was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, where he still resides and works in television and movies as well as stage theater and concerts.

He is best known for his collaborations with film directors Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, and Gus Van Sant.

Elfman grew up obsessed with sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies.

He had no interest in music until he started hanging out with a group of peers in high school who were very into jazz and Stravinsky.

Elfman left high school before graduation and joined his musical brother Richard on a tour of France playing the violin.

When the tour ended, he took his own musical journey through Africa.

Upon returning to L.A., Elfman became the musical director for Richard’s theater group called Oingo Boingo.

Fans of this group, Tim Burton and Paul Reubens approached Elfman about beginning to compose movie scores, and the rest is history.

Some of his most notable films include Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, and The Nightmare Before Christmas – for which he also voiced the songs sung by the main character, Jack Skellington.

3. George Gershwin (1898-1937)

George Gershwin

George Gershwin was one of the earlier American composers, and is also one of the best remembered.

His work transitioned from classical to jazz along with the rise of jazz in America.

He is often considered part of a duo alongside his lyricist brother, Ira, with whom he collaborated on many of his best known projects.

Gershwin was born in 1898 and raised in the Yiddish Theater District of Brooklyn, New York.

At the age of ten, he started playing a piano originally meant for Ira. He left school at 15 to pursue a professional music career.

He connected with director and songwriter William Daly in his early 20s and started working with him on Broadway.

In 1924, he composed what many would consider to be his most popular piece – Rhapsody in Blue.

George Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue

Gershwin eventually moved to Hollywood, California.

He went on to compose many famous pieces for famous productions, including An American in Paris, Strike Up the Band, I Got Rhythm, and Porgy and Bess.

In the mid 1930s, Gershwin began exhibiting headaches, coordination problems, mood swings, and hallucinations.

Believing he was suffering from mental illness, his wife sent him out of their home.

It was quickly determined that he had a brain tumor, and he passed away shortly after.

4. Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Aaron Copland

Anyone who watched American television in the ‘90s probably remembers the “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” commercial.

The dramatic instrumental build-up to that iconic line is the climax of the Rodeo suite, one of Aaron Copland’s most famous compositions.

Copland was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1900.

He was the youngest of five first generation children.

Copland inherited his musicality from his mother, who made sure all five children had music lessons.

Copland took the most interest in composition, writing his first songs at only 8 years old.

Copland studied at the Fontainebleau School of Music in Paris rather than attending college – to his mother’s delight and father’s chagrin.

In 1925, he returned to New York City to compose full time.

Supporting himself with Guggenheim Fellowships, he worked hard with mentors, including Boston Symphony Orchestra director Segre Koussevitzky.

One by one, orchestra directors started featuring his music.

Copland went on to compose many famous pieces, including ballets and movie scores.

One of my favorite pieces of his is Appalachian Spring which you can listen to below.

Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring

He started classical and added jazz elements as this movement gained momentum in the USA.

Along with Rodeo, he described Billy the Kid as one of the most esteemed pieces of his career.

He passed away from Alzheimer’s and respiratory failure in 1990.

5. James Horner (1953-2015)

James Roy Horner was a composer and conductor of film scores.

He was best known for combining electronic, choral, and Celtic sounds.

This unique blend stars in the scores of Titanic, Braveheart, Apollo 13, Avatar, The Land Before Time, The Legend of Zorro, and so many others.

Even though he passed in 2015, some of his music will be used in future Avatar films.

Horner was born and raised in Los Angeles, California in 1953.

He played the piano and violin from an early age and earned a degree in Music Theory from UCLA while composing through the American Film Institute.

He composed his first score in 1979, The Lady in Red.

He rose to notoriety for his 1982 score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Titanic is his all-time best selling soundtrack.

Many renowned directors and producers sought out Horner’s talent, including James Cameron, Ron Howard, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg.

In his lifetime, Horner won two Academy Awards, six Grammy Awards, two Golden Globes, and several others.

Horner passed away tragically in 2015.

He was an avid recreational pilot, and crashed in a solo flight over the Los Padres National Forest in California.

His death was determined to be an accident.

6. John Adams

John Adams by Deborah O’Grady / CC BY-SA 3.0

John Coolidge Adams, not to be confused with the late American President, is a composer and conductor credited as the leader in contemporary classical music.

He is famous for writing operas such as The Death of Klinghoffer, film scores such as Call Me by Your Name, and many other single pieces.

Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1947.

He began learning clarinet from his father and composed his first piece at age 10.

He earned a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard University, where he was the first student permitted to submit a musical composition as his senior thesis.

His son Samuel is also a well known American composer.

There has been a history of controversy surrounding the Death of Klinghoffer.

Many, including the Klinghoffer family, find the piece to be anti-Semitic.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra pulled sections of the piece from its lineup after the September 11 attacks in 2011.

Despite the controversy, Adams continues to produce work and earned both a Pulitzer Prize for Music and an Erasmus Prize.

Summing up the Best American Composers

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