Famous Composers of the 20th Century
Composers of the 1900s Who Revolutionalized Music
During the early 20th century, many composers experimented with rhythm, gained inspiration from folk music and assessed their views on tonality. Composers of this time period were more willing to experiment with new music forms and used technology to enhance their compositions.
These experimentations baffled listeners, and composers either received support or were rejected by their audience. This resulted in a shift in how music was composed, performed and appreciated.
To learn more about the music of this period, check out the profiles of the following 54 famous 20th-century composers.
Milton Byron Babbitt
He was a mathematician, music theorist, educator, and composer who was a prominent supporter of serialism and electronic music. Born in Philadelphia, Babbitt first studied music in New York City, where he was exposed to and inspired by the Second Viennese School and Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique. He started composing music in the 1930s and continued to produce music until 2006.
An American composer and songwriter of the 20th-century, Samuel Barber’s works reflected European Romantic tradition. An early bloomer, he composed his first piece at 7-years old and his first opera at 10-years old.
Widely celebrated, Barber was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music twice during his lifetime. Some of his famous compositions are “Adagio for Strings” and “Dover Beach”.
Bela Bartok was a Hungarian teacher, composer, pianist, and ethnomusicologist. His mother was his first piano teacher. Later on, he studied at the Hungarian Academy of Music in Budapest. Among his famous works are “Kossuth,” “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” “The Wooden Prince” and “Cantata Profana.”
An Austrian composer and teacher who adapted the atonal style, it is no surprise that Alban Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg. While Berg’s early works reflected Schoenberg’s influence, his originality and creativity became more evident in his later works, especially in his two operas “Lulu” and “Wozzeck”.
Luciano Berio was an Italian composer, conductor, theorist and educator known for his innovative style. He was also instrumental in the growth of electronic music. Berio wrote instrumental and vocal pieces, operas, orchestral works and other compositions using traditional and modern techniques.
His major works include “Epifanie,” “Sinfonia” and the “Sequenza series.” “Sequenza III” was written by Berio for his wife, the actress/singer Cathy Berberian.
An American composer of classical and popular music, Leonard Bernstein was a music educator, conductor, songwriter and pianist. He studied at two of the finest educational institutions in the U.S., namely Harvard University and Curtis Institute of Music.
Bernstein became the musical director and conductor of the New York Philharmonic and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972. One of his most famous work is the musical “West Side Story.”
Ernest Bloch was an American composer and professor during the early part of the 20th-century. He was the music director of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory; he also taught at the Geneva Conservatory as well as the University of California at Berkeley.
Benjamin Britten was a conductor, pianist and a major English composer of the 20th-century who was instrumental in establishing the Aldeburgh Festival in England. The Aldeburgh Festival is devoted to classical music and its original venue was at Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall. Eventually, the venue was moved to a building that once was a malthouse at Snape, but through the efforts of Britten, was renovated into a concert hall. Among his major works are “Peter Grimes,” “Death in Venice” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
Ferruccio Busoni was a composer and concert pianist from Italian and German heritage. Aside from his operas and compositions for the piano, Busoni edited the works of other composers including Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. His last opera, “Doktor Faust,” was left unfinished but was later completed by one of his students.
An American composer, John Cage’s innovative theories made him a leading figure in the avant-garde movement after the World Wars. His non-traditional ways of instruments inspired new ideas of creating and appreciating music.
Many consider him a genius, though there are those who think otherwise. One of his most famous work is 4’33”; a piece where the performer is expected to remain silent for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.
Teresa Carreño was a celebrated concert pianist who influenced a crop of young pianists and composers during her time. Aside from being a pianist, she was also a composer, conductor and a mezzo-soprano. In 1876, Carreño made her debut as an opera singer in New York City.
Elliot Cook Carter, Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer. He became the music director of Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan in 1935. He also taught at prestigious educational institutions such as the Peabody Conservatory, Juilliard School and Yale University. Innovative and prolific, he is known for his use of metric modulation or tempo modulation.
Carlos Antonio de Padua Chavez y Ramirez was a teacher, lecturer, author, composer, conductor and music director of several music organizations in Mexico. He is known for his use of traditional folk songs, indigenous themes and instruments combined with modern techniques.
Rebecca Clarke was a composer and violist of the early 20th-century. Among her creative outputs are chamber music, choral works, songs and solo pieces. One of her known works is her “Viola Sonata” which she entered in the Berkshire Chamber Music Festival. The said composition tied with Bloch’s suite for first place.
Influential American composer, conductor, writer and teacher, Aaron Copland helped bring American music to the forefront. Copland wrote the ballets “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo” which were both based on American folk stories. He also wrote film scores based on John Steinbeck’s novels, namely “Of Mice and Men” and “The Red Pony”.
Manuel de Falla
Manuel María de los Dolores Falla y Matheu was a leading Spanish composer of the 20th-century. During his early years, he went on tour as the pianist of a theater company and, later, as a member of a trio. He was a member of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de Granada, and he became a member of the Hispanic Society of America in 1925.
Frederick Delius was a prolific English composer of choral and orchestral music who helped revive English music from the late 1800s to the 1930s. Although he was born in Yorkshire, he spent most of his life in France. Some of his notable works include “Brigg Fair,” “Sea Drift,” “Appalachia” and “A Village Romeo and Juliet.”
There is a film titled “Song of Summer” which was based on a memoir (“Delius as I knew him”) written by Eric Fenby, who was Delius’ assistant. The said film was directed by Ken Russell and aired in 1968.
One of the leading jazz figures during his time, Duke Ellington was a composer, bandleader and jazz pianist who was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation in 1999. He made a name for himself with his big band jazz performances at Harlem’s Cotton Club in the 1930s. He was creatively active from 1914 to 1974.
A prominent composer and songwriter, Geroge Gershwin composed scores for Broadway musicals and wrote some of the most memorable songs of our time, including “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” “I Got Rhythm” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
A celebrated American jazz trumpeter, he earned the nickname “Dizzy” due to his energetic and amusing antics onstage as well as the dizzyingly fast-pace with which he played melodies.
He was a leading figure in the bebop movement and later the Afro-Cuban music scene. Dizzy Gillespie was also a bandleader, composer and singer, specifically scat singing.
Percy Grainger was an Australian composer, conductor, pianist and avid collector of folk music. He moved to the U.S.A. in 1914 and eventually became a U.S. citizen. Much of his compositions were influenced by English folk music. His major works include “Country Gardens,” “Molly on the Shore” and “Handel in the Strand.”
Music theorist, teacher and prolific composer, Paul Hindemith was also a leading advocate of Gebrauchsmusik, or utility music. Utility music is meant to be performed by amateur or non-professional musicians.
British composer and influential music educator, Gustav Holst is particularly known for his orchestral pieces and stage works. His most famous work is “The Planets,” an orchestral suite consisting of seven movements, each named after a planet and their respective character in Roman mythology. It starts off with the spine-tingling “Mars, the Bringer of War” and ends with “Neptune, the Mystic.”
Charles Ives was a modernist composer and is considered the first major composer from America to reach international fame. His works, which includes piano music and orchestral pieces, were often based on American themes. Aside from composing, Ives also ran a successful insurance agency.
Leoš Janácek was a Czech composer who supported nationalist tradition in music. He is primarily known for his operas, particularly “Jenùfa,” which is a tragic story of a peasant girl. The said opera was completed in 1903 and performed the following year in Brno; Moravia’s capital.
Referred to as the “father of ragtime,” Joplin is known for his classic rags for the piano such as “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer”.
Zoltan Kodaly was born in Hungary and learned how to play the violin, piano, and cello without formal schooling. He went on to write music and became close friends with Bartók.
He received his Ph.D. and gained critical praise for his works, especially music that was meant for children. He composed a lot of music, put on concerts with young musicians, wrote many articles and conducted lectures.
One of the prominent Hungarian composers of the post-war period, Gyorgy Ligeti developed a music style called “micropolyphony.” One of his major compositions wherein he used this technique is in “Atmosphères.” The said composition was featured in the 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” directed by Stanley Kubrick.
A major Polish composer, Witold Lutoslawski was particularly notable for his orchestral works. He attended the Warsaw Conservatory where he studied composition and music theory. Among his famous works are “The Symphonic Variations,” “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” and “Funeral Music,” which he dedicated to the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.
Henry Macini was an American composer, arranger and conductor especially noted for his television and film scores. In all, he won 20 Grammys, 4 Academy Awards and 2 Emmys. He wrote scores for over 80 films including “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. The Henry Mancini Award, named after him by ASCAP, is given each year for outstanding achievements in film and television music.
Gian Carlo Menotti
Gian Carlo Menotti was an Italian composer, librettist and stage director who established the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. The said festival honors musical works from Europe and America.
At the young age of 11, Menotti already wrote two operas, namely “The Death of Pierrot” and “The Little Mermaid”. His “Le Dernier Sauvage” was the first opera by a non-Frenchman commissioned by the Paris Opera.
Olivier Messiaen was a French composer, educator and organist whose works influenced other notable names in music like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Among his major compositions are “Quatuor Pour La Fin du Temps,” “Saint Francois d’ Assise” and “Turangalîla-Symphonie.”
Darius Milhaud was a prolific French composer and violinist who further developed polytonality. He was part of Les Six, a term coined by the critic Henri Collet pertaining to a group of young French composers of the1920s whose works were influenced by Erik Satie.
One of Denmark’s pride, Carl Nielsen was a composer, conductor and violinist primarily known for his symphonies, among them are “Symphony No. 2” (The Four Temperaments), “Symphony No. 3” (Sinfonia Espansiva) and “Symphony No. 4” (The Inextinguishable).
Carl Orff was a German composer who developed a method of teaching children about the elements of music. The Orff Method or Orff Approach is still widely used in many schools to this day.
Francis Poulenc was one of the important French composers after World War 1 and member of Les Six. He wrote concertos, sacred music, piano music and other stage works. His notable compositions include “Mass in G Major” and “Les Biches”, which was commissioned by Diaghilev.
A Russian composer, one of Sergey Prokofiev’s well-known works is “Peter and the Wolf”, which he wrote in 1936 and was meant for a children’s theater in Moscow. Both the story and the music was written by Prokofiev; it is a great children’s introduction to music and the instruments of the orchestra. In the story, each character is represented by a particular musical instrument.
Maurice Ravel was a French composer known for his craftsmanship in music. He was very reclusive and never married. His notable works include “Boléro,” “Daphnis et Chloé” and “Pavane Pour une Infante Défunte”.
Silvestre Revueltas was a teacher, violinist, conductor, and composer who, along with Carlos Chavez, helped promote Mexican music. He taught at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City and was the assistant conductor of the Mexico Symphony Orchestra.
His collaborations with brilliant lyricists like Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II remains a favorite by many. During the 1930s, Richard Rodgers composed several hit songs such as “Isn’t It Romantic,” from the 1932 film “Love Me Tonight”, “My Funny Valentine,” which was written in 1937 and “Where or When,” which was performed by Ray Heatherton in the 1937 musical “Babes In Arms”.
French pianist and composer of the 20th-century, Erik Satie was particularly known for his piano music. His works, such as the soothing “Gymnopedie No. 1,” remains very popular to this day. Satie has been described as eccentric and is said to have become a recluse later in his life.
The 12-tone System is a term mainly attributed to Arnold Schoenberg. He wanted to eliminate the tonal center and developed a technique wherein all the 12 notes of the octave are of equal importance.
Aleksandr Scriabin was a Russian composer and pianist most known for his symphonies and piano music that were influenced by mysticism and philosophical ideas. His works include the “Piano Concerto,” “Symphony No. 1,” “Symphony No. 3,” “Poem of Ecstasy” and “Prometheus”.
Dmitry Shostakovich was a Russian composer especially noted for his symphonies and string quartets. Sadly, he was one of the great composers from Russia who was artistically stifled during the reign of Stalin. His “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” initially received acceptance but was later denounced due to Stalin’s disapproval of the said opera.
Karlheinz Stockhausen was an influential and innovative German composer and educator of the 20th and early 21st century. He was the first to compose music from sine-wave sounds. Stockhausen experimented with tape recorders and electronic instruments.
Igor Stravinsky was a Russian composer who introduced the concept of modernism in music. His father, who was one of the foremost Russian operatic basses, was one of Stravinsky’s main influences.
Stravinsky was discovered by Sergei Diaghilev, the producer of the Ballet Rouse. Some of his famous works are “The Firebird,” “The Rite of Spring” and “Oedipus Rex.”
Germaine Tailleferre was one of the foremost French composers of the 20th-century and the only female member of Les Six. While her birth name was Marcelle Taillefesse, she changed her name to symbolize her break with her father who did not support her dreams of music. She studied at the Paris Conservatory.
Conductor, music director and one of the leading British composers of his time, Michael Tippett wrote string quartets, symphonies and operas, including “The Midsummer Marriage” which was produced in 1952. Tippett was knighted in 1966.
Edgard Varèse was a composer who experimented with music and technology. Among his compositions is “Ionisation,” a piece for orchestra composed of solely percussion instruments. Varese also experimented with taped music and electronic instruments.
Heitor Villa-Lobos was a prolific Brazilian composer, conductor, music educator, and advocate of Brazilian music. He wrote choral and chamber music, instrumental and orchestral pieces, vocal works and piano music.
In total, Villa-Lobos wrote more than 2,000 compositions, including “Bachianas Brasilieras” which was inspired by Bach, and “Concerto for Guitar.” His etudes and preludes for the guitar remain popular to this day.
Wiliam Walton was an English composer who wrote orchestral music, film scores, vocal music, operas and other stage works. His notable works include “Façade,” “Belshazzar’s Feast” and the impressive coronation march, “Crown Imperial.” Walton was knighted in 1951.
Anton Weber was an Austrian composer, conductor and arranger who belonged to the 12-tone Viennese school. Some of his notable works are “Passacaglia, op. 1,” “Im Sommerwind” and “Entflieht auf leichten Kähnen, Opus 2”.
Kurt Weill was a German composer known for his collaborations with writer Bertolt Brecht. He wrote operas, cantata, music for plays, concert music, film and radio scores. His major works include “Mahagonny,” “Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny” and “Die Dreigroschenoper.” The song “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” from “Die Dreigroschenoper” became a huge hit and remains popular to this day.
Ralph Vaughan Williams
A British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams championed nationalism in English music. He wrote various stage works, symphonies, songs, vocal and chamber music. He collected English folk songs and these greatly influenced his compositions.