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Top 10 Composers You Don’t Know

Jamie Frater . . . Comments

It is very possible that you may know one or two of these composers, but unless you are a student of music or a great classical music fanatic, the chances are you don’t, though you have probably heard some of their music in films. These are not film composers normally – they are classical composers in their own right. They are great pioneers in classical music from the 20th century. As you can see, the Americans dominate the field a little (that may just be my personal preference though.) In no particular order:

1. Alfred Schnittke, Russian [Born: 1934; Died: 1998]

Here we have the Schnittke Concerto Gross for 2 Violins – movement 2: Toccata. This piece perfectly sums Schnittke’s music up – we have delicate pretty tunes on the solo instruments which start to explode into a sound world that is totally unique to this composer. Listen for little snippets of other famous pieces – Schnittke loved to quote a famous piece and then rip it to shreds. He was one of the first modern composers to restore the Concerto Grosso form, and he loved to use unusual instruments such as Electric Guitars, jazz drums, honky tonk piano, and he frequently used the harpsichord and celesta. I believe that Schnittke will be remembered as a Mozart of the 20th century.

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2. Charles Ives, American [Born: 1874; Died: 1954]

There is no doubt that Ives is American’s most American composer. In the piece here Putnam’s Camp, Redding Connecticut, from his Three Places in New England, you get to hear the true Ivesian spirit come out. You hear quotes of very famous American tunes that Ives heard as a young man. He would incorporate them in to his music and wreak havoc on them (much the same as Schnittke does – though Ives did it first). It is believed that Charles Ives (who worked as a full time insurance broker in the daytime) used most of the 20th century styles of composition before anyone else making him one of the most important composers of the century. When you listen to this piece don’t think you are hearing a bad performance – the “messy” sound is correct. Ives loved to mix a variety of sounds together in total discord with each other. He was very much a joker and often wrote funny comments in his music scores. If you don’t believe he had talent, watch this video of his most famous piece, the Unanswered Question (and arguably his most moving).

3. Karlheinz Stockhausen, German [Born: 1928]

The video is not his, but the music is. This piece, Kontakte is a piece of classical electronic music. Stockhausen was a pioneer in the field of electronic music. He is probably most famous for his Helicopter String Quartet (you can watch thirty seconds of it here) which is, as it is entitled, a piece for a string quartet and four helicopters. It is part of one of the operas in his “Light” cycle and has already been performed in public. The entire piece is mesmerizing.

4. George Crumb, American [Born: 1929]

Crumb received a lot of exposure when some of his music (Night of the Electric Insects from Black Angels) was featured in the Exorcist. This piano piece is A little Suite for Christmas – Adoration of the Magi. He often asks for instruments to be played in unusual ways and several of his pieces are written for electrically amplified instruments. Crumb’s music often seems to be concerned about the theatre of performance as much as the music itself. In several pieces he asks players to leave and enter the stage during the piece. He has also used unusual layouts of musical notation in a number of his scores. In several pieces, the music is symbolically laid out in a circular or spiral fashion.

5. Sofia Gubaidulina, Tartar [Born: 1931]

Gubaidulina’s music is marked by the use of unusual instrumental combinations. In In Erwartung, she combines percussion and saxophone quartet. She has written pieces for Japanese koto and Western orchestra. In the early 1980s, she began to use the Fibonacci sequence as a way of structuring the form of the work. The sequence was especially appealing because it provides a basis for composition while still allowing the form to “breathe”. It plays a prominent role in such pieces as Perception, Im Anfang war der Rhythmus, Quasi hoketus and the symphony Stimmen… Verstummen… She is the only female composer on this list but she definitely deserves the honor. The piece we hear above is the fourth part of her Viola Concerto (1996/97).

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6. Iannis Xenakis, Greek [Born: 1922; Died: 2001]

This is the Xenakis Synaphai pour piano et 86 musiciens. Romanian born Xennakis was one of the most important modernist composers of the 20th century ; a major figure in the postwar development of musical modernism, and an architect. Xenakis’s primary teachers of composition were Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and Olivier Messiaen. At the time he began composing in earnest, Xenakis had not had much formal study of music and almost nothing of theory, and so he studied harmony and counterpoint with whoever was willing to accept him as a student despite his vast gaps in knowledge and reluctance to defer to established authority. He is particularly remembered for his pioneering electronic and computer music, and for the use of stochastic mathematical techniques in his compositions, including probability.

7. Alban Berg, Austrian [Born: 1885; Died: 1935]

The video footage is not the best but this is the best scene from Alban Berg’s masterpiece opera Lulu. In the scene here we see the circus master introducing the characters of the opera as animals (Lulu is the snake). This is the first opera ever composed entirely by twelve-tone rows – this means that you must use each note of the scale only once until all notes of the scale have been used. Berg mastered the skill of this style (serial composition) and managed to make beauty out of maths. The opera ends with a gruesome scene in which Lulu is murdered by Jack the Ripper. Berg was a student of Schoenberg.

8. Aaron Copland, American [Born: 1900; Died: 1990]

I selected this particular video because it has the best quality sound of all the versions on youtube. It is the Fanfare for the Common Man. Most people will know the piece but not the composer as it has been played more than once at Olympic games. It is an incredibly stirring piece of music. Copeland wrote a lot of film music but was eventually banned because of the belief that he had communist leanings. He has also written a magnificent opera called the Tender Land which features some of the most beautiful writing by an American composer. This is a particularly moving piece of music. Unfortunately it does not include the whole piece so you will need to buy it.

9. John Cage, American [Born: 1912; Died: 1992]

Cage is one composer you may have heard of – simply because of his infamy. Cage is the composer of the very famous 4’33” – four and a half minutes of silence. While Cage did write a great deal of fairly normal sounding music, his experimentation with sound makes him the leader avant garde composer of the 20th century. He frequently uses tape recordings, natural sounds, electronic sounds, and everyday objects to produce his unique style of music. He was also a firm proponent of the prepared piano. He wrote a great deal of chance music – in which the music is created by rolling a dice, flipping a coin, or any other random method. Above we hear his Imaginary Landscape No. 1 set to various images and video clips.

10. Anton Webern, Austrian [Born: 1883; Died: 1945]

Like Alban Berg, Webern was a student of Arnold Schoenberg – the three composers are now regarded as forming the Second Viennese School – the first of which was Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert. Webern was not a prolific composer; just thirty-one of his compositions were published in his lifetime, and when Pierre Boulez oversaw a project to record all of his compositions, including those without opus numbers, the results fit on just six CDs. Webern’s style is typified by very spartan textures, in which every note can be clearly heard; carefully chosen timbres, often resulting in very detailed instructions to the performers and use of extended instrumental techniques (flutter tonguing, col legno, and so on); wide-ranging melodic lines, often with leaps greater than an octave; and brevity: the Six Bagatelles for string quartet (1913), for instance, last about three minutes in total. The piece above – number two of the Funf Satze clearly shows Weberns style.

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Jamie Frater

Jamie is the owner and chief-editor of Listverse. He spends his time working on the site, doing research for new lists, and collecting oddities. He is fascinated with all things historic, creepy, and bizarre.

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  • ianrey

    I’m a musician, so I have a little more inside info on the topic, and I’d heard of all of them. I’m not posting to brag, though, my question is, do people really not know Copland? I would put him in the top 5 20th century American composers. Surely everyone has heard not only “Common Man”, but “Rodeo” (although they think of it as “Beef – It’s What’s for Dinner”), and probably “Lincoln Portrait” and “Appalachian Spring” (“Simple Gifts”). “El Salon Mexico” also has appeared in a lot of movies, as well as the score from “Our Town”. To think that he’s not in the vernacular along with Bernstein and Barber is dismaying. (Do people know Barber? No? Now I’m depressed.)

    • I definitely agree. I honestly only knew Copland and Ives, but Copland is pretty darn famous.

  • ianrey: I think that a lot of people will have heard his music but few will know his name. American’s may be more likely to but I would imagine that most outside of the US won’t. I love Simple Gifts – I am glad you mentioned it. You are probably right about Barber too – I would imagine few outside of American would have heard of him.

  • I know a few, this list is great!
    For me, a more popular one, Paul Mauriat
    Classic stuff!

  • Daniel: I am not sure if you could consider Mauriat to be a classical composer could you? He seems to be more of a commercial composer.

  • Craig Peterson

    “Do people know Barber? No? Now I’m depressed”

    I saw a version of Barber’s “The Overture to The School for Scandal” live by a local symphony…great stuff. Yes Barber is great and should have been included on this list rather than Copland…I think more people know about Copland than someone like Shostakovich even.

    I also saw Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto performed live. There was a pre-concert talk before and one of the audience members said that that piece was ‘piece of garbage’ and the conductor said, ‘If no-one performed things that others thought were a piece of garbage we wouldn’t have The Rite of Spring or Beethoven 9’. Brilliant.

  • Craig: so true! It has been said of so many composers in the past that it is best to ignore those complaints :)

  • Obviously, I said a popular one…
    In deed, that song is classic, not compared to the all time-classic’s like Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, etc.

  • Daniel: that was the point of the list though – the composers on this list are the 20th century equivalents of Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, and Mozart. They are not writing commercial music – they are creating musical art.

  • RobS

    Love Copland. I can listen to him, over and over. And Barber? You mean Samuel Barber, right? Adagio for Strings? Heartbreaking music.
    I’ll bet more people have heard of both of these composers than say… Respighi (Another of my faves).

  • RobS: I love Respighi as well! In fact he could very well have been on this list.

  • Alex

    How about Gustav Mahler? I am a musician, but I had never heard of him until my senior year of high school. His music is nowhere near as popular as say Beethoven, Mozart, or Strauss.

  • ian

    for some reason when i listen to number 8
    in my head i imagine the civil war and the emotions on the faces of the soldiers right before a very crucial battle

    no idea why

  • ian: It was used in a film like Saving Private Ryan I think – that is probably what the connection is.

    Alex: I think Mahler is probably better known than all the others on this list – his symphonies are famous and he was hailed as a genius in his own lifetime. Schoenberg was very heavily influenced by in him the early days (before he moved in to atonality and serialism) and Berg and Webern also admired him a great deal.

  • DSchoening

    A good list. If it were extended it might include a few of these names:

    Edgard Varese
    Morton Feldman
    Gyorgy Ligeti
    Henry Cowell
    Elliott Carter
    Milton Babbitt
    Paul Hindemith
    Pierre Boulez

    There are many many more that could/should be named as well. I mention 20th century composers simply because they seem to be the least known.

  • DSchoening: excellent additions – thanks. I have a great recording of a piece by Feldman and I have performed Ligeti and Hindemith. Varese may have been a better one to include in place of Stockhausen.

  • RobS

    Ralph Vaugh Williams is another one who many people haven’t heard of before. I enjoy a lot of his music.

  • RobS: I love Vaughn Williams vocal music. I think he is pretty well known in the UK and Commonwealth though.

  • Rodo
  • Rodo: Thanks for mentioning him – I hadn’t heard of him. You can listen to some of his “impossible” music on youtube – very interesting.

  • Bill Wigmore

    Not a word of Toru Takemitsu?

  • Bill: true! I love Takemitsu – thanks for mentioning him.

  • Sean

    Why do you have Russian next to Copland’s name?
    By the way, his book “What to Listen For in Music” is quite good.

    I like alot of 20th century music but I still find more Chopin and Boridin coming out of my mp3 player.

  • Sean: oops- by mistake. I have corrected it – thanks. I definitely listen to much more 20th century stuff that older stuff – I just love it.

  • Sean

    I didn’t used to listen to any 20th century classical other then Copland but I have been slowly getting into it, especially Ives. I needed a list like this to give me some more composers to check out. Now if I can just finish getting through Schoenberg’s book on harmony I will be ok.

  • Zadernet

    Hi. I am the owner of the example video for Ives. Don’t worry, I’m not here to tell you to remove it, I am in fact Honored that you used my video as an example. Thank You!

    P.S. The song title is actually ‘Country Band’ March. Putnam’s camp was derived slightly from the ‘country band’ march. But its not that big of a deal.

  • SecondSonata

    These top 10 composers people don’t know are 20th century composers. I don’t think people know them because they seem to challenge our perception of classical music and how it should sound—and because most people aren’t familiar with composers until they’re dead for quite a long time.
    I like DSchoening’s suggestion as an addition. Varese is one of the pioneers of electronic music for the 20th century.
    Keep making lists like this! These composers need more exposure.

  • Rose

    No Jon Leifs?

    Incredible Icelandic composer. One of the most intriguing and amazing compositions of all time is Liefs’ Hekla which imitates volcanic eruptions.

    Like the inclusion of Xenakis though!!

  • JC

    Muzio Clementi? He was cruelly overshadowed and slandered by his jealous contemporary Mozart. His music is extremelly beautiful and was even admired by Beethoven. he was quite a musician.

  • Cheryl

    I am only twelve but my school won first in contests after we played Fanfare For The Common Man.

    i played trombone. a fantastic piece

  • keanu grewal


  • K. Alex Cronin

    This list is sketchy. Ives and Copland are hardly composers who lack advocates when compared to, say, Eduard Tubin, Michael Tippett, or Einojuhani Rautavaara, all of whom are far more obscure, and just as talented to boot. Not that there aren’t many others that history’s been further unfairly unkind to.

    And John Cage? Can we be serious, please? The man’s famous for his performance art, not his music. Same with Xenakis and Stockhausen. If you’re looking for great unchampioned composers in their primes today, Google Michael Gandolfi or Mohammed Fairouz.

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  • Thelonious

    K. Alex Cronin, I agree, this list is sketchy. Most of the composers mentioned in the list are well known twentieth century composers. And I also agree that this list should’ve focused on some of the talents of today that go unrecognized (and not Muhly, or even Golijov since they get credit where it’s due.)

    But you’re rather ignorant on the topic of Xenakis, and Stockhausen. They are famous for being pioneers in electronic music, and for looking at new ways in which to explore sound and music form. And the same for John Cage – if you can’t enjoy any of his pieces you would still have to respect him as a sort of music philosopher. Music isn’t always “soft…with a skirt on,” to quote Ives.

    Ahh, post-war classical…it’s all obscure and not actually music. Or so they say.

  • max

    This is a good list – but certainly not a list of “Composers You Don’t Know”: Everybody with only the slightest interest in 20th century “classical” music will know these people! (Reading the title I’ve expected some obscure baroque composers…)

  • hegelec

    where is gesualdo? where is josquin?

  • Spanner in the works

    Carl von Weber once famously said Beethoven was stark raving mad after listening to, I think I’m right, the ‘Eroica’?

    My only main slight quibble with the initial thrust of this excellent initiative, Jamie Frater, is: you perhaps ought to have qualified it with ‘Modern’ or ‘Recent’ composers.

    ‘Unknown composers’ for me essentially signifies forgotten names from the long past, the 19th C. in particular. I go out of my way to look for works which can provide quiet pleasure and fresh contrast to old warhorses. As a big string quartet nut, I’ve had joy discovering the likes of Volkmann, Berwald, Spohr, Arriaga, Fuchs, Onslow, Hummel and Scharwenka. These and others like them have been one of the great joys of the CD era for me. Of course it’s no good looking for artistic quality in them to rival late Beethoven quartets, or Mozart string quintets, but a sprinkling in the collection is like adding different, interesting food flavours to your menu. Who wants to eat caviar, lobster and peach melba every day of the week and drink champagne morning, noon and night, anyway? Variety is the spice of life.

    Who, either, keeps on filling their bookshelves with more and more Shakespeare, Dickens, Goethe, Keats, Shelley, Virgil and Homer and ignoring all the rest, simply because those names are the greatest? That’s what people tend to do with music though. Who’d be a poor, bloody composer? Unless you were alive before about 1910 and you are one of a select few whose name begins with any of a very small a handful initials such as B, M or S, you’ll probably soon get neglected and forgotten, if you even get off the launch pad in the first place.

    Reiche and Krommer (aka Kramar), two more I wouldn’t be without, wrote some of the most delicious wind (harmonie)music you’d ever want to hear after Mozart.

    I’ll go thru my collection randomly now, picking out a few more modern plums here and there as well, who are not yet mentioned by you others, but who have rung my bell. They get fairly well scattered through playings of The Good Old Regulars, but they get their turns alright. Music is an international language, so there’s no excuse to not have a big international selection. I’m leaving out names like Britten and Profoviev as too well known. I guess some of the following truly are Wot U Don’t Know though:

    You’ve all left out Olivier Messian (France). How could you? The lovely cyclopic Turanga Lila of ‘Futurama’ owes her name to him!!!
    and Bohuslav Martinu (Czech Republic, later U.S.A.). Oh wow, man. Come on.
    and on a par with him, Carl Nielsen (Denmark)
    Heitor Villa Lobos (Brazil)
    Robert Simpson (Britain)
    Peter Sculthorpe (Australia)
    Grazyna Bacewicz (SHE’S from Poland)
    Franz Schmidt (Austria)
    Wilhelm Stenhammer (Sweden)
    Ernst Krenek (Austria, later U.S.A.)
    Nikos Skalkottas (another Greek)
    György Kurtag (also Hungary)
    Ernst Toch (Germany, later U.S.A.)
    Steve Reich (U.S.A.) Suprised he’s not above, as also
    Phillip Glass (U.S.A.)
    Gian Malipiero (Italy)
    Michael Tippett (Britain)
    Darius Milhaud (France)
    Arthur Bliss (Britain)
    Vagn Holmboe (Denmark)
    Witold Lutoslawski (Poland)
    Nicolai Myaskovsky (Russia)
    Havergal Brian (Britain)
    Hilding Rosenberg (Sweden)
    Arthur Honegger (Switzerland)
    Othmar Schoeck (Switzerland)
    Hans Pfitzner (Germany)
    Hans Werner Henze (Germany)
    Edmund Rubbra (Britain)
    Alberto Ginastera (Argentina)
    And there’s more where those came from.

    Oh and a big underline from me too for Jon Leifs and Rautavaara. Any of the three versions of Barber’s Adagio will do, plus Dover Beach. And Clementi belongs with my earlier “rescued from the scrapheap” brigade.

    Max Reger is really more “romantic”, but he’s hugely underestimated internationally. As a fugue-freak I adore Maxie’s music. I also love his famous letter to a music critic,
    “I’m sitting in the smallest room in the house reading your criticism, which is in front of me. Soon it will be behind me.”

    Bloody hell. There’s 16 billion of us on the planet and we can’t even give most we’ve all named here a decent hearing.
    Anyone also noticed how few serious living composers of real stature there are around right now? I think I’m only doing this in case any of you few visiting the site (if any still are) don’t know any of my names and might consider them worth a shot.

    Somebody else care to do the early stuff now: baroque and before. I’m knackered. Hegelec?

    • nawcri

      Adams. John Adams is the most famous living American composer, by far. His music is quite remarkable, especially his operas.

  • Spanner in the works

    And Daniel Jones (Wales) who wrote the music for Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood’.

    I keep thinking of more, but that’s it. I promise.

  • Spanner in the works

    See my 35

    Sorry, it’s Turanga Leela for the ‘Futurama’ lovely. I should have checked first. Where we live, ‘Futurama’ is broadcast in Spanish and Leela is written as Lila but still pronounced as Leela. You get straight to the pun that way too, because ‘lila’ in Spanish is lilac, the colour of her hair.

    One get’s so used to the Spanish dubbed voices that the American originals seem quite strange and distracting at first.

    Bender for President of the Planet!

  • Spanner in the works

    gets, not get’s

  • neil stillness

    Eloquent!i always wanted to say that.Asked myself how great can this be great?My daughter said;were their prospects good? lol.Like an infant I can hear this wonderful force of space and time.Almost a list of how to feel true passion .And I loved it!

  • Aaron

    John Mackey or David Gillingham should be on this list or maybe expand it?

  • linda

    people don’t know Aaron Copland???

  • Angeleno

    nice list… you should add jdilla and madlib :)

  • Stacey

    I agree with Ianray, I think Copland is pretty well known. I think he’s reached American Classic status.
    Also, I’m very happy to see Schnittke and George Crumb on this list! Two of my favorites and, it’s true, no one ever knows them!
    I was half surprised not to see Philip Glass on this list, but maybe he has too much of a cult following to be considered unheard of.

  • tony

    I knew 5 of them, but thats because I am a metal-fan.

  • Lee C

    There was only one I did not know, Sofia Gubaidulina. Thank you for the lead on some music I haven’t heard yet! As for the rest, not only do I know them, they are ALL among my favorite composers.

  • kokopelli1000

    How can you not know Copland? O_O

  • mejjas43

    It's a travesty that the author of this list said that John Cage's 4'33" was 4 and a half minutes of silence. It's not silence, it's the sound of everything. It's the sound of the audience coughing, shifting in their seats, it's the sound of the a/c kicking on. It's not silence, and if you think it is, you don't understand Cage and you don't understand his philosophy on music.

    • GVR

      Nice, mejjas43

  • die meistersinger

    Lulu is not "composed entirely by twelve-tone rows" – rows are associated with characters, but the opera is essentially through composed. If you want a truly twelve-tone opera, try Schoenberg's Moses und Aron or even his earlier opera Von heute auf morgen (which was composed before Lulu, making it the first twelve-tone opera).

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  • GVR

    I got 7 of the 10 at first glance, 2 more after thinking for a moment, missed one.

  • quasuararia


  • MK Smith

    I just know John Cage, and my favorite composition of his is Shadow Kick.

  • Frank Thompson

    Patting myself on the back for being familiar with the music of seven – glad for the opportunity to learn of the other three. Will mark this page and come back to it. I too am a fan of Mahler and Respighi, but seldom think of them as 20th century composers, even though they lived and wrote during that time. Stylistically they still relied a lot on the traditions of the previous century, and let’s face it, there music is performed often enough it would be hard to classify them as unheard of composers. Same with Copland – unheard of? Don’t think so.

  • I am surprised that Kurt Weill is not on this list as he is the composer of “A Three Penny Opera” which contains the very famous song “Mack The Knife.

  • Well, I have a few that I would like to add : 1). Francois Couperin (French composer for the Harpsichord early to mid 17th century, 2). Carl Philip Emanuel (or C.P.E.) Bach, 3). Fanny Mendelssohn (Felix’s sister) as she composed over 500 lieders herself, 4). The great American woman composer of the 19th century, Amy Beach (Ironically was born and raised in a small village called Henniker in New Hampshire the state which I was from), 5). You could have an argument for Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake & Palmer fame) as he composed a Piano Concerto which is on their album called “Works, Vol. 1 with the London Symphony Orchestra (and it does reek with overtones of George Gershwin), 6). Claudio Monterverdi (the first man to ever compose an opera), 7). Carl Vine of Australia, 8). Thomas Paine, 19th century composer from the state of Maine, 9). Jean Sibelius from Finland, 10). John Field late 18th century to early 19th century Irish composer (and Frederic Chopin was inspired by his piano work).

  • peter8172

    If anyone in the USA has a good knowledge of Classical Music. I would think up to 90-95% of them would be familiar with or know at least Numbers 2, 7, 8, 9, 10 on this list. You might as well throw in Leonard Bernstein as well. But I have 7 more that I would like to share with you, and they are all American. 1). John Knowles Paine (The first American to compose a full length symphony). 2). Amy Beach, 3). Ferd Grofe (“Grand Canyon Suite”), 4).Edward MacDowell, 5). George Chadwick, 6). Horatio Parker, and 7). Arthur Foote. I do have a question if anybody can give me a bonafide answer to this one. Is the “Ragtime” music of Scott Joplin regarded as a form of Classical Music ?”

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