10 of the Greatest Romanian Composers you Should Know

The Romanian people have a rich and deep musical culture that is still widely practiced today. The music of Romania is just as complex with many different styles, rhythms, instruments, and traditions!

This blog post will explore the 10 greatest Romanian composers you should know about if you’re looking to learn more about their musical history.

1. George Enescu (1881-1955)

George Enescu was born in 1881 in a village called Liveni, which was eventually renamed George Enescu to honor the composer.

The eighth child of his parents, but the only one to survive, Enescu was a musical genius, beginning to compose at just 5 years old.

When he was 7 years old, he was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory and after graduating at age 12, he traveled to Paris to continue studying violin and composition at the Conservatoire de Paris.

By the time he was 16, the Colonne Orchestra debuted his first full piece titled Poema Romana which began his career full of Romanian folk influence.

In his later career, he spent much of the 1920s and 1930s with the New York Philharmonic and teaching violin.

Enescu was highly esteemed by people around the world, including Romanian royalty with his work being continuely played well beyond his death in 1955.

His one and only opera, Oedipe, was actually not staged until 2016 at the Royal Opera House in London.

2. Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996)

Sergiu Celibidache was a Romanian composer, conductor, musical theorist, and educator.

Born in 1912, he was teaching himself to play the piano by the age of 4 but his father wanted him to follow in his political footsteps, but instead, he permitted him to attend the Academy of Music in Berlin, Germany in 1936.

This is actually where his last name became Celibidache as opposed to the original Celebidachi, due to a clerical error.

He went on to earn a Doctorate at the Friedrich Wilhelm University and throughout his studies, he began to study Zen Buddhism, which influenced his work from thereon.

Celibidache enjoyed a robust career from the 1950s through to his death in 1996 teaching conducting and music for many years.

He served as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1945 to 1952, and the Munich Philharmonic from 1979 until the day he died.

Sadly though, during the later years of his career, he was as infamous for sexist and discriminatory behaviors as he was famous for his musical accomplishments.

3. Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

Béla Bartók was born in 1881 in a portion of Hungary that is now part of Romania.

His father was of lower nobility, and both sides of his family were of diverse Eastern European origin.

Bartók displayed excellent rhythm from a young age, and was playing the piano before he even really started talking and his mother started formal piano lessons with him at age 5

.Despite his early musical talent, Bartók struggled in childhood due to a bad smallpox vaccine, he suffered facial disfigurement and eczema and then his father passed away suddenly when he was 7 years old.

Nevertheless, he continued playing piano and composed and performed his first piece, “The Course of the Danube,” by the age of 12 and in 1903, he wrote his first piece of orchestral music, “Kossuth.”

Later in his career, Bartók became heavily influenced by folk and Gypsy music, which was revolutionary at the time.

In 1911, he wrote his first and last opera piece, Bluebeard’s Castle, dedicated to his wife.

He moved to the United States, and while he officially became a citizen in 1945 and passed away there shortly after, he said he never truly felt it was home.

He left behind a huge legacy with many statues being placed in his honor throughout Europe, and there is a Bartók Music School in Budapest.

4. György Ligeti (1923-2006)

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

One of many great Jewish composers, György Ligeti was born in Transylvania, Romania in 1923.

He studied music at the conservatory in Kolozsvar (then Cluj) between 1941 and 1949, with a short hiatus due to a forced labor brigade.

He did a lot of music theory research in the area of Hungarian folk music, and then became a teacher at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest.

Due to political unrest, Ligeti relocated to Austria and became an official citizen in 1968.

His career took a turn toward the avant-garde and contemporary styles during this period, further influenced by his time at the Cologne Electronic Music Studio.

He left the studio due to internal conflicts, going on to become the composer-in-residence at Stanford University in 1972.

Some of his famous compositions include the “Hamburg Concerto,” “Ramifications,” “and “Atmospheres.”

He passed away in 2006 back in Austria after suffering a long and debilitating illness.

5. Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001)

Iannis Xenakis by Les Amis de Xenakis (CC BY 2.5)

Iannis Xenakis was born in Romania in 1922, he was of Greek and French descent, with two parents who were both big music fans.

His mother was of particular influence to him, so he was hit hard when she passed away shortly after his 5th birthday.

He sang in the boy’s choir of the boarding school he was sent to in Greece and during his education there, he became deeply touched by Greek traditional and religious music.

In 1938, Xenakis went to the National Technical University of Athens with the intention of studying architecture and engineering, but he was more interested in his harmony and counterpoint lessons.

He became involved in political movements during WWII and suffered a near-fatal injury while attending a street fight.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Xenakis worked illegally in Paris as an architect and engineer, but continued composing and one of the resulting pieces was his famous “Metastaseis.”

His work was influenced by architecture and mathematics and he continued composing, teaching, and writing until his death from a long illness in 2001.

6. Ion Ivanovici (1845-1902)

Ion Ivanovici was born in Austria in 1845 and began playing the flute after being gifted one as a young child.

He moved to Romania early and entered the Romanian army where he continued to gain interest and ability in music, eventually becoming a military bandleader.

He also composed music during this time, his most well-remembered piece being “Waves of the Danube.”

Although he died rather young in 1902, his musical legacy lived on through his great-grandson, classical pianist Andrei Ivanovitch.

7. György Kurtág (1926-)

György Kurtág was born in Romania in 1926 to Hungarian parents.

At age 20, he moved to Hungary and began studying at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music where he received a degree in composition in 1955 after studying composition, theory, chamber music, and piano.

It was there that he became close friends with fellow composer György Ligeti.

Kurtág continued studying in Paris between 1957 and 1958, all the while suffering from depression.

He learned to use music as a coping mechanism, with his work “Opus 1” marking a self-described turning point for him and he dedicated it to his therapist.

Kurtág went on to teach at the Bartok Music School from 1958 to 1963 and play in the National Philharmonia in Budapest from 1960 to 1968.

He also returned to the Franz Liszt Academy as a teacher of chamber music and piano until 1993.

His most famous work came from this period of time, titled “The Sayings of Peter Bornemisza.” At the time of writing Kurtág is still alive and living in Budapest.

8. Vladimir Cosma (1940-)

Vladimir Cosma by Fbernaud (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Vladimir Cosma was born in Bucharest in 1940 to a long line of musicians on both sides which meant he was tapping into his musical talent very early.

By 1963, he had already accomplished much in violin and composition during his studies at the Bucharest Conservatoire of Music.

Shortly after, he moved to Paris to study at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris.

Cosma began his career in classical music, but during his studies became interested in jazz, film scores, and other contemporary styles.

His first film score was for Yves Robert’s “Alexadre le Bienheureux” and since then has written music for over 300 music and television scores.

His compositions for “Diva” and “Le Bal” earned him Cesar awards, among many other awards that he has so far received throughout his career.

9. Bálint Bakfark (1507-1576)

Bálint Bakfark was born around 1506 or 1507 in Romania. Beginning with the lute, he went on to become who many people believe was the first well-known European musician.

His first lute compositions were written in 1553 and titled “Intabulatura, Liber Primus,” or “Record of Works, Book One.”

Throughout his earlier career, Bakfark served the Transylvanian Prince and then the adviser to the King Francis I of France.

He served in several European courts after that, most notably with Sigismund II Agustus in Poland, where he was head court musician.

Bakfark was a unique musician for his time and was one of the first to compose solely in a polyphonic technique, he set the style for the next era of music in the 1600s.

Sadly, in 1576, he caught the plague and once he knew that the illness would claim his life, he burned every piece that he had not yet published and passed away shortly after.

10. Péter Eötvös (1944-)

Péter Eötvös by Gáspár Stekovics (CC BY 4.0)

Born in Romania in 1944, Péter Eötvös is a contemporary composer, conductor, and teacher.

His mother was a pianist and encouraged him to begin his musical education early going on to study at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music and was particularly inspired by the work of Béla Bartók.

At just 16 years old, Eötvös was invited to work on piano and organ parts for film scores and theater compositions.

He also became interested in American jazz and electronic music, which prompted him to leave the more traditional Academy and head to Cologne, Germany like composers such as Kurtág and Ligeti did before him.

Eötvös has since conducted in Paris and on the BBC and has written many successful operas, including “Lady Sarashina” and “Love and Other Demons.”

He continues composing, conducting, and teaching to this day.

Summing up Famous Romanian Composers

That’s it for our articles on famous Romanian composers, we hope it helped you to find out about some new ones.

While Romania may not be the first country when you think of classical composers, it’s rich traditions of folk music mean that they have a lot to other and we love exploring the music coming out of Romania.

Let us know if we should add any other composers to our list.

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.