European Composers

“Like a good orchestra, the work of the European Union can be marked by tension and resolution; being in harmony does not always mean being in unison.”

Jean-Claude Juncker, former President of the European Commission, 2015

From the earliest church chants to the most modern atonality, Europe is the cradle of classical music. And it’s never stuck in one country, either. From the Austrians who preferred to write operas in Italian, to those who crossed borders to gather in the musical hubs of Paris and Vienna, to those borrowing musical or literary ideas from faraway places: the talent that composed the classical canon scarcely fits into the tight constraints of Europe’s many national borders. After all, wherever they were from, they all spoke a common language of music. So even if you don’t know your Larghetto from your Leitmotiv, dig in and find just how much melody oozes from Europe’s every pore.


Portuguese composer José Vianna da Motta

José Vianna da Motta
Pianist and pupil of Liszt

José Vianna da Motta, a one time pupil of Franz Lizst in Weimar, Germany, spent his childhood and the last thirty years of his life in Portugal, where he was Director at the Lisbon Conservatoire. His Chula, a folk dance for piano, was repeatedly played during the 1974 revolution – becoming a symbol of rising national pride at the restoration of democracy.


Spanish Composer Joaquín Rodrigo

Joaquín Rodrigo
20th century Valencian

Sadly, that most famous of operas about the most famous of Spanish pastimes – bullfighting – is disqualified, because Carmen is by no Spaniard, but by France’s Georges Bizet. So let’s turn to Joaquín Rodrigo, whose most famous work, the Concierto de Aranjuez, dates from 1939. The piece is named after the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, which the then poverty-stricken composer visited on his honeymoon. Its slow movement features a ruminative fantasia first played by the cor anglais, before being taken over by the guest soloist – a Spanish guitar, of course The work has also been arranged for trumpet, most famously played by jazz musician Miles Davis. Let’s hope the profits from that world-famous work allowed him to treat his poor wife to a trip somewhere a bit more glamorous…


French Composer Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy
The Monet of music

Impressionism is mainly famous as an artistic movement, in which the likes of Monet and Degas poured their emotions onto canvas. Naturally, France’s musicians wanted a go too. While paintings have always sought to represent an image, pure representation had until the twentieth century been something of a novelty in music. Step forward the school of Claude Debussy: whose work La Mer (The Sea) seeks to recreate, not just the sounds, but the feeling, of the sun rising over the ocean, and the play of waves against the rocks. Legend has it that he finished it while gazing at the sea in, of all places, Eastbourne, UK.


Icelandic Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson

Jóhann Jóhannsson
21st-century film scores

Best known for his film scores, Jóhann Jóhannsson died in 2018 aged just 48. His soundtrack for thriller Sicario received an Oscar nomination. His soundtrack to Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, a series of lightly orchestrated acoustic pieces characterized by complex and repeated rhythmic ideas, including strings, harps and celeste, gained a Golden Globe.


Irish composer John Field

John Field
Nocturnal inventor

John Field lived at the turn of the nineteenth century – and did not stay long in his motherland before travelling to London, Paris, Vienna and Russia. A virtuoso on the piano, he became well-known for his Nocturnes – a short, tuneful and musically uncomplicated piano piece. He was the first to use the term, which later became a major part of the repertoire of composers like Chopin.

United Kingdom

British composer Edward Elgar

Edward Elgar
Enigmatic orchestrator

The sceptred isle was at one stage so bereft of talent that it was dubbed by its Teutonic friends as “Das Land ohne Musik”: the country without music. However cruel, such taunts were at one stage deserved: after the heyday of Purcell and Handel came a centuries-long lull, just at the moment when the continent was a hotbed of classical creativity. That came to an end with works like the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, the operas of Benjamin Britten and the works of Edward Elgar. Elgar is now most famous for Pomp and Circumstance, a dirge bellowed nationalistically to the lyrics “Land of Hope and Glory” at the end of the world’s biggest classical music festival, the London Proms. But he also wrote some pretty solid works for string ensemble and full orchestra. Here’s Nimrod, from orchestral suite the Enigma Variations, which was among other things recently remixed as the soundtrack to the film Dunkirk. (And, in case you’re wondering, no, nobody knows what the Enigma is).


Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg

Edvard Grieg
The Troll-y Song

No composer beats the nineteenth century’s Edvard Grieg in Norway’s musical hall of fame; and few of his works are as well-known as Peer Gynt, a suite of incidental music designed to accompany the stage work by compatriot Henrik Ibsen. In the five-act play, feckless Peer, banished after attempting to abduct a woman from a wedding, wanders through Dovre, the high plateau in central Norway. He is wooed by a young girl – but she turns out to be the daughter of the troll king! Poor Peer. As he nervously enters her father’s home, first bumptious bassoons, then strings, then oboes imitate the goblins and ghouls dancing around the hall.


Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar

Wilhelm Stenhammar
Symphonic Scandinavian

A country that dominates the continent’s more popular musical styles at Eurovision, somehow Sweden never fared as well in the classical tradition. A rare, although still fairly obscure, exception is Wilhelm Stenhammar, a pianist and conductor who composed early in the twentieth century, writing symphonies, piano concertos and string quartets. The orchestral interlude from his cantata Sången (“Song”) is one of his few works still (occasionally) played in the concert repertoire.


Finish composer Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius
Nationalism and tone poems

Little doubt about the Land of a Thousand Lakes’ national composer: Jean Sibelius. Sibelius is best known as a symphonist and author of “tone poems,” a piece meant to evoke the emotional twists and turns of another artistic work, such as a poem or painting. But he also ventured into displays of nationalist pride, with the angry brass of Finlandia representing his country’s militaristic might. Listen to the spare strings floating at the opening of his Violin Concerto, and imagine yourself staring out into the barren snowy uplands.


Danish composer Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen
Humorous harmonies

Few would challenge the crown of Carl Nielsen as Denmark’s leading composer. His second symphony, The Four Temperaments, comprises a choleric, furious first movement, a phlegmatic waltz, and a melancholic slow movement, before concluding with an irrepressible cheerful and sanguine Allegro – marrying the four traditional movements of the classical symphony with the four “humours” which the ancient Greeks believed defined all personality types.


Dutch composer Louis Andriessen

Louis Andriessen
Amsterdam abstraction

Maybe it’s the Calvinist ethic – but Dutch classical composers can be as hard to find as fine Netherlands cuisine. Contemporary composer Louis Andriessen is a rare exception to that rule. His works show a high-minded affection for abstract nouns – De Tijd (Time), De Snelheid (Speed) and De Materie (Matter). Like Nielsen, he was inspired by Ancient Greece: his work De Staat takes texts, in Greek, from Plato’s Republic. It seeks to examine Plato’s ideas of dogma and control, and how music relates to culture, social conditioning, and thereby politics.


Belgian composer César Franck

César Franck
Liege’s late bloomer

A country whose biggest contribution to music was not a writer, but an inventor – Adolphe Sax, Dinant-born creator of the saxophone – can nonetheless still claim its place in the compositional hall of fame. Born in Liege before heading for the metropolitan delights of Paris, César Franck was a composer and church organist whose most famous works date from late in his life, near the end of the 19th century. The last movement of his only Violin sonata, premiered at the Brussels’ Museum of Modern Painting, features a charming dialogue between piano and soloist.


German composer Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach
Canonical cantatas

Ah, where to start with the Germans… From 12th century nun Hildegard of Bingen – one of the few people to manage to combine being a woman, a composer and a literal saint – to Beethoven, composer of the EU’s own national anthem, to the atonal crankings of Schoenberg. Where to begin? How about with the best: a man who couldn’t decide which key signature was his favourite so wrote a work in every single one of them – twice. As court composer in Weimar and Leipzig, charged with entertaining the local dignataries at their service every Sunday, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote one cantata per week, leaving hundreds of religiously themed choral works – an Oratorio for Christmas, several Passions for Easter, and something exquisite for pretty much every day in between. Bach published his 24 Preludes and Fugues for keyboard – two for each note of the chromatic scale, showing off the recent tuning innovation that allowed keyboards to play in any harmony – in 1722. He enjoyed it so much he produced a second volume of 24 more 20 years later – producing a work so canonical it is known as the Old Testament of piano works, with Beethoven’s sonatas forming the newer Gospel. Even for instruments like the cello and violin, not traditionally instruments to be played alone, he created solo works that contain complex interactions of multiple lines: and soulful beauties like this prayer-like Sarabande.


Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The surprise of the expected

No contest here: we’ll pick the guy who tapped music at its source, and whose music continues to provoke the surprise of the expected. Famously delighting the nobility with his performances while young, and composing (relatively) decent symphonies from the age of eight, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s more notable works were written in the later years of his short but well-travelled life – including a trio of operas with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, the German-language Magic Flute, 27 concertos for the piano, numerous stunning chamber works, and a choral Requiem designed to accompany a funeral ceremony; in this case, his own, since it was left unfinished at his death at the age of 35. More familiar to some as a catchy ringtone, his penultimate orchestral symphony displays his trademark: musical ideas that develop assuredly and inevitably, but never predictably.


Swiss composer Arthur Honegger

Arthur Honegger
Composer in training

Switzerland’s most famous musical son is hardly Swiss at all. Though born to Swiss parents, and partly educated at the Zurich Conservatoire, Arthur Honegger was born in Le Havre, and fled the land of yodelling and alphorns as soon as he could for Paris, where he hung out with the likes of Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud as part of the compositional school known as Les Six. No matter: the Swiss regard him so much as one of their own that they slapped him on the 20-franc note; his “strict formalism and clarity of his musical idiom… is an important bridge between German and French-speaking culture,” comment those noted music critics at the Swiss central bank. One of his most famous works, Pacific 231, is an unconventional love song: a symphonic work supposed to represent the trains which Honegger said he loved “as others love women or horses.” Clanking horns and screeching violins break out into a rhythmical crescendo as the locomotive speeds across the landscape.


Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi
Operatic master

Italian is the language of music. The country’s early dominance thanks to the likes of Vivaldi and Scarlatti meant technical terms like piano, allegro and sonata became used all over the world. Add in all those musical open vowels at the ends of words, and a style of communicating that renders even the most humble of pleasantries into an act of fiery passion, and no wonder Italian is the idea language for opera, even for foreigners like Mozart. Italy’s dominance continued into the twentieth century; Ennio Morricone racked up 500 film and TV scores over half a century, from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to Tarantino’s Hateful Eight. But it is the mid-nineteenth century that is the country’s heyday, and the operas of Verdi, Rossini, and Donizetti most likely to bring a proud tear to an Italian’s eye. Here’s the fearful Dies Irae, the day of anger, from Verdi’s Requiem Mass.


Czech composer Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Dvořák
American inspiration

Antonín Dvořák was most famous for the work he wrote not in his home country Czechia, or even on the continent of Europe. Dvořák had composed a number of largescale orchestral works, an opera and numerous pieces for smaller-scale chamber group before hitting the big time with his Sixth Symphony. Straightforward and listenable, his uncomplex but beautiful works remain popular to this day, as evocative and dramatic as a contemporary film soundtrack music – a style that, of course, did not exist back in the 1890s. His Ninth New World Symphony, inspired by a stay in America where he directed the New York Conservatoire, evokes the wilderness of the newly-colonised continent, at times bucolic, at times ferocious. The slow, melancholic second movement is one of the most famous melodies in classical music.


Slovakian composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel

Johann Nepomuk Hummel
Beethoven’s buddy

Even if more associated with the city of Vienna, Johann Nepomuk Hummel was born in 1778 in Pressburg – the town which, renamed Bratislava, later became capital of Slovakia. A student of Mozart, and later pallbearer to Beethoven, he was rather eclipsed by his contemporaries, even though many of his works, such as his Clarinet Quartet, are perfectly charming examples of the late classical style. Its second movement, though musically straightforward for the listener, is written in incompatible and frequently changing time signatures for the players, leading to its nickname – La Seccatura, “the annoyance.”


Polish composer Frederic Chopin

Frederic Chopin
A pianist’s treasury

Though he lived in France for most of his adult life, Frederic Chopin was born and schooled in Warsaw, Poland. His works are almost solely focused on the piano; though he composed a small handful of multi-movement sonatas, one of which includes the famous Funeral March. Most of his works focus on simpler and shorter musical forms: Bagatelles, Nocturnes, and Etudes. At times light and tuneful, others fiery and histrionic, in keeping with the passionate spirit of the romantic era, his works are often feats of virtuosity for the pianist.


Lithuanian composer César Cui

César Cui
French literature heads east

César Cui was born in Vilnius, then a province of the Russian empire. In 1851 he left to study in St Petersburg, where he became a music critic, and a composer of the same school as (now better-known) writers such as Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky. His operas based on Russians such as Pushkin – but drew even more inspiration from French writers such as Hugo, Maupassant and Dumas. Like Chopin, he also composed many piano miniatures.


Latvian composer Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner
A master in residence

There are plenty of more recent contenders to be Latvia’s most famous composer. But certainly the most famous person who composed in (what is now) Latvia was Richard Wagner. Casting off the structures and forms that had characterised classical music for centuries, Wagner favoured a more programmatic style in which individual musical ideas, known as Leitmotivs, correspond to particular plot developments, themes or characters. Best known for his cycle of operas The Ring of the Nibelung, a 14 hour epic featuring gremlins, gods and giants, Wagner was in his late twenties chief conductor at the city theatre in Riga. Here he began work on his opera Rienzi, which premiered in Dresden a few years later in 1842. An all together more down-to-earth work (and, at just over 2 hours, easier on the sitting-bones), Rienzi is based on a political allegory written by a British member of Parliament.


Estonian composer Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt
Minimalist melodies

Persecuted by Soviet authorities for his Christian beliefs, Arvo Pärt fled from Tallinn to Vienna and Berlin, before returning in 2010. Unsurprisingly for a country where the people are hardly chatty, he pioneered the musical style of minimalism; the musical ideas reverently focus only on the most important essence. His short piano piece Für Alina showcases the “tintinnabuli”, or bell-like, musical language he pioneered: an incredibly simple meditation in which just two lines of music interact.


Ukrainian composer Sergei Prokofieff

Sergei Prokofieff
Soviet symphonist

Though famous for his work under Russia’s Soviet regime, Sergei Prokofieff was born in Sontzovka, now in eastern Ukraine, before heading to the St Petersburg Conservatoire in 1904. Known for dramatic works such as his piano concertos and the ballet Romeo and Juliet, he also composed the child-friendly Peter and the Wolf. The work, a kids’ morality tale, was composed in a few short weeks, and introduces the young to the instruments of the orchestra by associating each one with a character – a jaunty string theme for boy-scout hero Peter, a lumbering bassoon for his fuddy-duddy grandpa, a low clarinet for the cunning cat, and a growling menace of brass for the villainous and hungry wolf.

Romania – Moldova

Romanian composer Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók
An encyclopaedia of folk

Hoping to give more credibility to songs that had thus far been mere popular peasant tunes, Béla Bartók made a comprehensive categorization of local folk music: the tunes that might be sung by lovers, jailbirds, soldiers, shepherds, or just merrimakers hoping to ease down a glass or three of Țuică. Some of those songs he also arranged into various formats – for clarinet, violin, piano, or string orchestra – such as this Buciumeana (Dance from Bucsum) which combines a mournful tune with distinctly modern harmonies.


Hungarian composer Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt
Virtuoso transcriptions

Pianist and composer Franz Liszt was born in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, returning to Budapest after spells in Paris, Rome and elsewhere, becoming known for complex piano works in which the player has to spill keys like water. His prodigious talents on the piano led to him transcribing many famous works for the instrument, including, remarkably, taking Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, intended for the 60-odd players in a symphony orchestra, and adapting it to be played by just one pianist. In his transcription of the works of Niccolo Pagannini, he took a work impossible to play on the violin, and made it impossible to play on the piano.


Slovenian composer Giuseppe Tartini

Giuseppe Tartini
The Devil’s violinist

Giuseppe Tartini was an eighteenth century violin virtuoso who made significant discoveries in the fields of acoustics and harmony, and developed an influential new way of bowing the violin. A Stradivarius he had once owned was (several owners later) stolen in a 2014 armed robbery. His home town of Piran, on the narrow strait that gives Slovenia access to the Adriatic, commemorates him with Tartinijev trg, the seaside resort’s central square. His Devil’s Trill Sonata, written around 1735, is a fiendish play even by modern standards, requiring the poor soloist to quickly trill between consecutive notes while also sustaining the harmony on another string, a technical challenge that produces a not entirely pleasant sound.


Croatian composer Franz von Suppé

Franz von Suppé
Light accompaniment for Disney

Though spending most of his life in Imperial Vienna, and with a name recalling his Belgian ancestry, Franz von Suppé was born in Spalato, in the then Dalmatian province of the Austro-Hungarian empire; a city now known as Split. The Coldplay of his era, Suppé’s undemanding output focused on the light-but-popular operetta style, and is today largely remembered as something of a one-hit wonder for his Light Cavalry Overture, a jolly but inconsequential Sousa-style march. The piece, the opener to a light opera in which soldiers plot a coup against a local ruler who has blown the defence budget on his girlfriend, was used as the accompaniment to a 1942 Disney short, Symphony Hour. Mickey Mouse attempts to conduct a disastrous concert in which all of the instruments are broken, before eventually exasperatedly pulling a gun on hapless percussionist Donald Duck.

Serbia – Bosnia and Herzegovina – Montenegro – Kosovo

Serbian composer Stevan Mokranjac

Stevan Mokranjac
Church chants

Negotin-born Stevan Mokranjac will be known to anyone who has held the princely sum of 50 Serbian dinars and seen his bearded, bespectacled mug gazing out. (It’s only worth about 40 euro cents; don’t spend it all at once!) He is mainly known for choral works – including traditional folk music and, in particular, Orthodox church chants which he arranged for choir.


Bulgarian composer Lubomir Pipkov

Lubomir Pipkov (Любомир Пипков)
Polytonal operas

Lubomir Pipkov, born in Lovec in 1904, liked to mingle traditional local music with complex polytonal harmonies. In his 1929 opera Yana’s Nine Brothers, Pipkov uses Bulgarian folk songs to tell the tale of a jealous woodworker who cuts off his own brother’s hands.


Greek composer Yannis Xenakis

Yannis Xenakis (Γιάννης Ξενάκης)
The mathematics of music

Centuries before Christianity, Pythagoras, more famous for meddling with triangles, came up with the first mathematical theory of harmony, linking the length of two strings to whether they would sound nice plucked together. Fast-forward a few millennia and Yannis Xenakis has a few extra ideas to add. In his spare time, Xenakis was an architect – he designed the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair – and his obsessions with structure, proportion and mathematics also informed his musical creations. Metastasis, a work for 61 musicians playing largely independent parts, is inspired by the physical theories of Albert Einstein and the sounds of the Second World War, in which he fought for the Communist resistance.

With many thanks to Jack Schickler for orchestrating this article! 

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