Top 15 Most Influential Classical Composers
Classical music is one of the great loves of my life and I have spent many years studying it. Someone on another list suggested that I do an influential classical composers list and, while I was not sure I could pull it off, I think I have. One thing is for sure – this list is going to upset some people – but I believe my selections are all correct. I have not been able to order these composers by importance, as there is no objective way to do this, instead I have ordered them chronologically.
15. Saint Hildegard Von Bingen 1098 – 1179
Not only was Hildegard Von Bingen considered the mother of opera (because of her Ordo Virtutum) and music, she was a polymath (a person with advanced and broad knowledge – this is like a genius, except a genius usually has mastery of one, not many, subjects). Hildegard was a German abbess, artist, author, counselor, linguist, naturalist, scientist, philosopher, physician, herbalist, poet, activist, visionary and composer. She wrote theological, botanical and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs, poems and the first surviving morality play, while supervising brilliant miniature illuminations. Her music, of course, influenced the vocal music of the renascence and opera from that period forward. If I were forced to pick a single greatest influence on classical music, I would be very tempted to choose this genius Nun. Though not officially canonized, she is generally regarded to be a saint, and her feast day is on September 17.
14. Guillaume Dufay 1397 – 1474
Dufay was a Franco-Flemish composer and music theorist of the early Renaissance. As the central figure in the Burgundian School, he was the most famous and influential composer in Europe, in the mid-15th century. He was one of the last composers to make use of medieval techniques such as isorhythm, but one of the first to use the harmonies, phrasing and expressive melodies characteristic of the early Renaissance. During the 15th century, Dufay was universally regarded as the greatest composer of the time, and that belief has largely persisted to the present day.
13. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina 1525? – 1594
The above piece, the Kyrie from Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, is believed to have been composed for the Council of Trent (which opened today – December 13 – in 1545) in order to convince the Cardinals, Bishops and Pope not to reject polyphonic music for use in Church. The council not only did not reject it, it embraced it so fully that, alongside Gregorian Chant, sacred polyphony is the official music for the Roman Catholic Mass. This was further confirmed again, as recently as the 1960s in the Second Vatican Council. Palestrina is regarded as the master of Polyphony, and his music was regarded as the greatest written, even for many years after his death. His music was never surpassed in this style.
12. Antonio Vivaldi 1678 – 1741
Unfortunately, the only good quality clip I could find is Nigel Kennedy, whom I dislike immensely. In this clip Kennedy plays a part of The Four Seasons, a series of four violin concertos, Vivaldi’s best known work and a highly popular Baroque music piece. Vivaldi is considered one of the composers who brought Baroque music (with its typical contrast among heavy sonorities) to evolve into a classical style. Johann Sebastian Bach was deeply influenced by Vivaldi’s concertos and arias
11. George Frideric Handel 1685 – 1759
I have selected Handel’s Largo (Ombra mai fu) from his opera Xerxes, rather than the Messiah, because I think fewer people will have heard it and it is an incredibly beautiful aria. Drawing on the techniques of the great composers of the Italian Baroque, as well as the music of Henry Purcell, Handel deeply influenced, in his turn, many composers who came after him, including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and his works helped lead the transition from the Baroque to the Classical era.
10. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach 1714 – 1788
Through the latter half of the 18th century, the reputation of CPE Bach was outstanding. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart said of him, “He is the father, we are the children.” The best part of Joseph Haydn’s training was derived from a study of his work. Ludwig van Beethoven expressed, for his genius, the most cordial admiration and regard. This position he owes mainly to his keyboard sonatas, which mark an important epoch in the history of musical form.
Haydn is often referred to as the father of the symphony, and the father of the string quartet. In the clip above, we hear the 4th movement of the Kaiser String Quarter (Op.76 No.3). A life-long resident of Austria, Haydn spent most of his career as a court musician for the wealthy Esterházy family on their remote estate. Isolated from other composers and trends in music until the later part of his long life, he was, as he put it, “forced to become original”.
8. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756 – 1791
Mozart’s output of over 600 compositions includes works widely acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, piano, operatic and choral music. Mozart is among the most enduringly popular of classical composers, and many of his works are part of the standard concert repertoire. In this clip, we see Sumi Jo singing the Queen of the Night aria.
I was fortunate enough to attend the performance of Aida at the Verona Arena for my birthday in 2005, however I have chosen to show you the Dies Irae from the Requiem. Verdi was one of the most influential composers of Italian opera in the 19th century, and went well beyond the work of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. His works are frequently performed in opera houses throughout the world and transcend the boundaries of the genre. Although his work was sometimes criticized as catering to the tastes of the common folk, using a generally diatonic rather than a chromatic musical idiom, and having a tendency towards melodrama, Verdi’s masterworks dominate the standard repertoire a century and a half after their composition.
6. Richard Wagner 1813 – 1883
Wagner’s compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their contrapuntal texture, rich chromaticism, harmonies and orchestration, and elaborate use of leitmotifs: musical themes associated with specific characters, locales or plot elements. Wagner pioneered advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centres, which greatly influenced the development of European classical music.
5. Gustav Mahler 1860 – 1911
While he was a late Romantic period composer (one of the most important, in fact), Mahler had an enormous influence on the burgeoning Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. In addition, he had a later influence on Britten, Copland and Shostakovich. He also influenced other great composers in a different kind of way – by their desire to reject him. Stravinsky called him “malheur” instead of “Mahler” – both words sound similar but “malheur” means “misfortune”, and Vaughan-Williams called him a “tolerable imitation of a composer”. Mahler also exerted his influence over Richard Strauss, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein and Alfred Schnittke.
When it was first performed, the Rite of Spring caused a riot in the opera house. The clip above is the first 10 minutes and, while I can not verify for sure, it may be Stravinsky conducting, himself (Stravinsky always conducted this piece slower than others and this recording is definitely slow in parts). I strongly advise you to watch the whole clip, as it is a faithful reproduction of the original performance of the ballet using Najinsky’s choreography. Remember – before this ballet, people were used to tutus and “pretty” music like Swan Lake.
3. Edgard Varese 1883 – 1965
Varese’s use of new instruments and electronic resources led to his being known as the “Father of Electronic Music”, while Henry Miller described him as “The stratospheric Colossus of Sound”. Composers who have claimed, or can be demonstrated to have been influenced by Varese include Harrison Birtwistle, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Roberto Gerhard, Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Frank Zappa and William Grant Still. The piece I have chosen to show you above is called “Ionisation” and it is the piece of music that inspired Frank Zappa to write.
2. Nadia Boulanger 1887 – 1979
Unfortunately I could not find a clip of her music, so I have selected one by her sister Lili – it is “Clairières dans le ciel”: Nr. 7 “Nous nous aimerons tant”. Lili was Nadia’s first student, and she became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, in 1913. Nadia Boulanger can easily be said to be the most influential composer of the 20th century – not directly through her own writing, but through her influence as a teacher. To name just a few: George Antheil, Burt Bacharach, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, John Eliot Gardiner, George Gershwin, Philip Glass, Gian Carlo Menotti, Virgil Thomson,
1. John Cage 1912 – 1992
The above piece is Sonata V for prepared piano. A prepared piano is when certain objects such as erasers and screws are inserted in to the strings of the piano making it a more percussive sounding instrument. As you can see in the clip, a much richer variety of sounds becomes possible with this technique. Cage is probably most famous for his piece 4’33” in which the instrumentalists perform in total silence – the point being to illustrate that there is beautiful music in the sounds of life around us.
Bonus: Henry Purcell 1659 – 1695
I have included Purcell as a bonus because his influence is not just in the classical field – in which he influenced composers such as Benjamin Britten, but also in the rock genre. Wikipedia has this to say: “Purcell is among the Baroque composers who has had a direct influence on modern rock and roll; according to Pete Townshend of The Who, Purcell was among his influences, particularly evident in the opening bars of The Who’s ‘Pinball Wizard.’ The title song from the soundtrack of the film A Clockwork Orange is from Purcell’s ‘Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary’.” In the clip above we hear Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, sung by Jessye Norman in what I would consider one of the finest renditions ever.
By now you have realized that I did not include J S Bach. There is a good reason for this. In his own lifetime he had great fame as an organist, and while his mastery of the baroque style enabled him to bring the entire period to its ultimate maturity, in his own time he was not considered a great composer – in fact he was considered old fashioned in his style. He is certainly one of the greatest composers in history, but he did not exert a great deal of influence on the generations to follow him.