10 of the Greatest Jewish Composers of All Time

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Jewish people throughout the centuries have faced a tremendous amount of adversity and hardship. Many of them turned to the arts to cope and overcome, contributing greatly to the world’s culture.

In this post we’re going to look at 10 of the greatest Jewish composers of all time and explore their lives and work.

1. Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Leonard Bernstein was an American composer who also played piano, conducted and taught music, wrote books, and was well known for his humanitarian work.

A first-generation American, he was born to Ukrainian-Jewish parents in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

His grandmother insisted on them naming him Louis, but his parents always called him Leonard, and he legally changed it when his grandmother passed away shortly after his 18th birthday.

Bernstein has absolutely no musical exposure within his family, but he was drawn to it listening to the radio and the Friday night music at church.

His aunt left an upright piano at the Bernstein’s house when he was 10 years old, and he immediately started teaching himself to play.

He grew up idolizing fellow Jewish composer George Gershwin and putting on classical operas with the neighborhood children.

Bernstein finally got to study music properly at Harvard University in the 1930s.

After Harvard, he studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

He also studied with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

He moved to New York in the 1940s, where his career really took off.

He conducted for well-known orchestras across the globe, taught at prestigious schools, and began composing for film, television, and stage.

His most famous composition of all time is the musical West Side Story.

Bernstein enjoyed a rich career up until his retirement months before his death in 1990 from a mesothelioma-induced heart attack.

2. George Gershwin (1898-1937)

George Gershwin was an American composer and pianist who also dabbled in painting.

He was born in 1898, like Leonard Bernstein, to Jewish parents who immigrated from Ukraine.

Also like Bernstein, he was born with a different first name – Jacob.

Although he grew up participating in the Yiddish Theater District of New York City, Gershwin did not show any interest in music until he attended a friend’s violin recital.

He began playing the piano that was meant for his brother Ira, who ultimately became a lyricist and frequent collaborator.

Gershwin began studying formally in 1913, under Beethoven Symphony Orchestra pianist Charles Hambitzer.

He left school at age 15 and began taking any music writing jobs he could find.

In 1924, Gershwin composed his first and most famous piece, Rhapsody in Blue.

Other notable pieces from his career include Strike Up the Band, which he allowed the University of California, Los Angeles to use as their fight song, and I Got Rhythm.

In 1937, Gershwin started suffering from terrible headaches and olfactory hallucinations.

It started affecting his musical performance and personality.

His wife thought he was mentally ill, but after he collapsed and fell into a coma, doctors diagnosed and removed a brain tumor.

Unfortunately, he died days later at only 38 years old.

3. Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Aaron Copland was an American composer, teacher, writer, and conductor.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1990, to Lithuanian Jewish parents.

Unlike Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin, Copland did have a musical mother.

He began writing songs at just 8 years old. He decided at age 15 that composition was his life path, and began studying under Rbn Goldmark, who also gave lessons to George Gershwin

The majority of his following musical education was self-directed with musical friends.

His father wanted him to attend college, but his love of European music and his mother’s encouragement led him to study at the Fountainbleau School of Music in Paris.

Copland returned to New York and started composing as much as he could.

He began transitioning from classical to jazz and also composed for popular ballets and theater, including Of Mice and Men and Our Town.

He earned a Fullbright Scholarship to work in Italy for a time.

Meanwhile, in his personal life, he was investigated by the FBI for his involvement in leftist political activity.

He began composing for television later in his career and continued working until shortly before his death in 1990, the same year as Leonard Bernstein, from Alzheimer’s and respiratory failure.

4. Irving Berlin (1888-1989)

Irving Berlin was an American composer and lyricist who many consider to be the greatest songwriter in the history of America.

He was born in Russia and immigrated to New York with his family when he was 5 years old.

It is said that his only memory from Russia was watching his house burn down.

Bernstein attempted to help his family earn money with a paper route starting at age 8, but he felt inadequate compared to his siblings.

He moved into a housing community of other homeless immigrant boys when he was 14.

He had dropped out of school at age 13, and relied on his musical talents inherited from his singer father for odd jobs.

He began composing songs on his own and became noticed when collaborating with other songwriters in his 20s.

Berlin’s career took off when he earned the position of staff lyricist with the Ted Snyder Company.

This led him to Tin Pan Alley and eventually Broadway.

He wrote patriotic numbers for troops when America entered WWI, founded the Music Box Theater, and wrote several hit songs, including Blue Skies, Puttin’ On the Ritz, and God Bless America.

Ironically, this Jewish composer is who to thank for the seasonal favorite White Christmas.

Berlin passed away peacefully in his sleep at the impressive age of 101.

5. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler was a Romantic era composer born in Bohemia (now Austria) in 1860.

He did not perform well in academics but loved music.

Mahler lost 6 of his siblings in childhood; he was particularly close to one of them and turned to music as a coping mechanism.

His father supported his interest in music and helped him study at the Vienna Conservatory when he was 15.

Mahler then graduated from the University of Vienna and began teaching piano for money along with studying his new found passion for German philosophy.

He also started conducting local theater and then progressed to larger regional theaters.

He began composing as an apprentice and then grew to compose operas of his own throughout Eastern Europe.

In 1908, he moved to New York to compose for the Metropolitan Opera, his most famous performance being Fidelio.

He came down with a fever in 1910, but insisted on conducting that night’s show at Carnegie Hall he fell ill with a fatal infection that eventually killed him after it travelled to his heart and lungs.

6. Steve Reich (1936-)

Stephen Michael Reich is an American minimal music composer.

Minimal music is characterised by repetition, slow harmonic rhythms, and canons.

He has said that his musical style represents his distaste for Western cultural indeterminacy.

He wants people to be able to identify the difference between each of his musical phrases.

Reich was born in New York City in 1936. His mother was a Broadway lyricist.

When he was only one, his parents got divorced, and he grew up between New York and California.

He began piano lessons early, and even as a child noted a distaste for traditional Western and classical music.

Reich was simultaneously drawn to music from the Baroque period and the emerging jazz genre.

He studied at Cornell University and then Julliard.

Reich began composing in the 1960s.

He was experimental and minimalist in his compositions from the very beginning.

He spent some time in Ghana in the 1970s and connecting with his Jewish culture in the 1980s, both of which influenced his composition.

In the 1990s he and his wife collaborated on a contemporary religious opera titled The Cave.

He is still composing to this day and has won many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in Music.

7. Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was a German composer, pianist, organist, and conductor.

Like Gustav Mahler, he was a Romantic era composer who wrote symphonies, concertos, and chamber music.

He was born in 1809 to a prominent Jewish family.

It was important to his parents that their children receive a well-rounded education, which included music.

Mendelssohn studied under musical family members and mentors.

He was particularly influenced by the work of Johann Sebastian Bach.

He was only 9 years old when he performed in his first concert and began composing shortly after that.

His first major pieces were String Octet in E-flat major and the Overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Mendelssohn continued studying under great mentors, while also pursuing art, literature, world languages, and philosophy.

His dream came true of conducting Bach, which he did throughout Germany during the 1840s.

He traveled to Britain in the late 1940s and conducted Beethoven for the Queen and Prince.

Mendelssohn frequently suffered poor health and overwork.

After a tryin tour in England and anguish over his sister’s death, he succumbed to strokes in 1847 at only 38 years old.

8. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Arnold Schoenberg was an Austrian composer, musical theorist, teacher, writer, and painter.

He was born in Austria in 1874 and emigrated to the United States in 1933 after being persecuted for his music by the Nazi Party.

He began learning music from his mother, who was a piano teacher, but was also largely self-taught.

Gustav Maher was one of the people to discover his composition talents.

Schoenberg briefly converted to Christianity as a rebellion during anti-Semitism, but returned to Judaism after moving to America.

As a response to personal and cultural turmoil, he began experimenting with atonality in his music, using nontraditional chord progressions.

Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 in 1912 was one of his most famous atonal pieces.

He paused his career to serve in the Army in WWI when he was 42.

His return to composition included a shifting to other experimental styles and also sparked his work as a writer.

Schoenberg was highly suspicious, always following horoscopes and fearing death.

On Friday the 13th, 1951, he laid in bed all day sick, anxious and depressed, ultimately dying just before midnight.

9. Philip Glass (1937-)

Philip Glass is an American composer and pianist, who, like Steve Reich, is predominantly a minimalist composer who fancies repetitive structures.

He was born in 1937 in Baltimore, Maryland to Lithuanian Jewish emigrants parents.

Glass studied at Julliard and then moved to Pittsburgh in 1962 to begin his career.

From 1964 to 1966, Glass completed a Fulbright Scholarship in Paris.

While there, he worked as a music director and composer on the score for a film called Cappaqua.

He spent some time in India in late 1966, then returned to New York City in 1967.

This is when he attended a performance of Steve Reich and became enthralled with the minimalist style.

In addition to composing nine pieces between 1967 and 1968, Glass opened a moving company with his cousin, and worked as a plumber and cab driver.

His greatest work from this period was the four-hour long piece Music in Twelve Parts.

In the late 1970s, he began experimenting with harmonies, resulting in his portrait opera trilogy titled Einstein on the Beach.

After a long career in portrait trilogies and operas, he began composing songs and poems in the 2000s, many with political undertones.

Glass continues composing to this day.

10. György Ligeti (1923-2006)

György Ligeti by Marcel Antonisse (CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

György Sándor Ligeti was a Hungarian-Austrian contemporary classical composer.

He was born in 1923 in Transylvania, Romania, which became part of Hungary in 1940.

In 1941, he began studying music at the conservatory in Kolozsvar.

He paused for mandatory participation in a labor brigade, but after WWII he studied and graduated from the Franz Liszt Academy of Music.

In the 1950s, he fled Hungary for Austria during the Hungarian revolution.

Upon his arrival, he began composing avant-garde and dabbling in many types of contemporary music.

He became quite successful despite a falling out with the Cologne School of Electronic Music.

In his later career, he became ill very quickly and passed away at the age of 83 from an unknown illness that had rendered him to a wheelchair.

Summing Up

Each of these 10 Jewish composers faced and overcame some element of hardship throughout their lives.

Perhaps this is part of the reason their music has made such an enormous impact on the worlds of orchestra, theater, and film throughout the decades.

Their music reflects the human condition and the changes in world culture over time.

Photo of author
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.