5 Composers to Discover If You're a Fan of Classical Music
[Originally published May 2, 2020 on my former website.]
No matter how much you love or hate classical music, most of us have heard of composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach. But I'm guessing if you clicked on this post, you probably want to know about more composers than just those three. (Though they are very respectable composers.)
Of course, there are thousands of composers to discover, thanks to the long legacy of classical music. Today, I want to share some composers that are not household names to all classical music fans. They may have composed a long time ago, or as recently as last decade. What unites them all is their enormous skill in creating innovative and unique music.
(Disclaimer: if you're a long-time/professional classical musician, these composers may be well-known to you already.)
Composer #1: Lili Boulanger
Favourite piece: Pie Jesu
Lili Boulanger was a French composer prominent at the beginning of the 20th century. Despite her short life of 24 years, she accomplished a great deal as a composer. She was the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome composition prize, among many other notable successes. She composed mostly for chamber ensembles, usually including voice or choir.
When I learned about her in a music history class at McGill University, we talked a lot about her chronic and painful illnesses that affected her throughout her life. She faced a lot of adversity due to them, as well as to the fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated field. I am grateful for the compositions she had the time to write before passing away.
Lili Boulanger's style of music may be quite peculiar if you're only used to Mozart or Beethoven. She wrote a lot of pieces that were religious or spiritual in nature, but unlike Bach, they don't sound as harmonious or stereotypically "classical" to the ear. When I hear her music, the words "haunting" and "melancholy" surface to mind. You can imagine that being so sick all her life, and dying so young, infused itself into her music. Despite that, there are always pockets of hopefulness in her work.
Apart from Pie Jesu, I recommend listening to Vieille prière bouddhique, Faust et Hélène, and Clairières dans le ciel. Make sure to look up her sister Nadia Boulanger, another important person in classical music history.
Composer #2: William Grant Still
Favourite piece: Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American"
William Grant Still was an American composer in the 20th century. He was a prolific composer whose works were influenced by African-American culture and history. He was the first African-American in many classical music instances, such as conducting a symphony orchestra. He composed mostly for orchestra and opera.
I learned about him in my first semester of university and fell in love with his writing. He skillfully combined European (and white-centric) classical music traditions with African-American music traditions. I remember writing a paper on his Afro-American Symphony and discovering many musical signifyers from Black culture.
William Grant Still's music is so powerful because he carved a unique style for himself that confronted Americans and the classical music world at large with their white-centric standards and history. He composed music that reflected his personal identity and knowledge.
Composer #3: George Crumb
Favourite piece: Vox Balaenae
George Crumb is an American composer of the 20th and 21st centuries. He is one of my favourite composers of contemporary music! He is known for his interesting use of extended techniques and sound exploration for diverse instruments. He writes mostly for chamber ensembles and voice.
I first learned about him at Vanier College in a music history class, and ever since then I have been obsessed with his piece Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale). I even did a lengthy oral presentation on this piece in my last semester at Vanier. His style of writing is contemporary and experimental, meaning it sounds nothing like Mozart. In Vox Balaenae, for example, the flutist must sing and play into the flute, the pianist must "prepare" the piano (meaning doing fun/weird things to the strings), and the cellist must make seagull sounds! (This piece is on my bucket list to perform one day.)
George Crumb was a really influential figure in the changing classical music world of the mid to late 20th century. Classical music had already strayed from being tonal (meaning harmonious and sing-able, basically) by then, but he pushed the boundaries of what musicians could physically do with their instruments. You really have to see his compositions being performed because they are quite an experience!
Composer #4: Katherine Hoover
Favourite piece: To Greet the Sun
Katherine Hoover was an American composer and flutist who passed away recently in 2018. She wrote many pieces for flute but also wrote for many chamber ensembles.
I discovered her music when putting together one of my graduate recitals at the University of Montreal. I wanted to commit to programming a woman's work on each of my recitals in the future. Her music was an easy choice because of how well-written it is for the flute. She often borrows from traditional music of different cultures and creates a unique piece infused with her own personal, American style.
Despite being a renowned figure in both the flute and American music scenes, I feel she has not gotten the recognition she deserves from the classical music world at large. Her music is so enticing and gets you to explore different timbres and emotions. It may not be as wild as George Crumb's extended techniques, but it certainly brings something refreshing to the classical music canon.
Composer #5: Tōru Takemitsu
Favourite Piece: Air
Tōru Takemitsu was a Japanese composer of the 20th century. He is known for his expansive body of work, spanning orchestral ensembles all the way to film music. He skillfully combined European and Japanese musical traditions in his work.
I encountered Takemitsu's work early in my Bachelor's degree, in a music history class. I haven't yet played his music but it's on my bucket list! His music for flute is very difficult because it contains many extended techniques and alternative notation, much like George Crumb. But he composed so many pieces including the flute and they are all so beautiful and mesmerizing!
His style of composition explores timbre and what you can physically do on your instrument. His pieces truly take you on a journey from start to finish. I really love how he never lets go of his Japanese culture and traditions despite having been influenced by European composers such as Messiaen and Debussy. He brought a unique take on classical music, just like William Grant Still did before him.
There you have it, five composers you may have heard about for the first time today! I sincerely hope you enjoy their wonderful music and legacy. While I enjoy Mozart as much as the next flutist, it's really important to perform and share the music of lesser-known composers so their work lives on for as long as possible.
Are there any composers you know that you think should be in the mainstream? Let me know in the comments! I love discovering new or unknown music in the classical music genre. And, if you study flute with me, you get a fun e-mail newsletter with three listening recommendations each week! (As well as handy flute tips.) Check out my Lessons Page for information on my studio.
Happy listening! :)
Did you know that when you study flute with me, you can also add on theory and ear training lessons? They are an indispensable part of the classical music learning process. You'll be able to notice so many more details and interesting facets of all of the pieces mentioned in this blog! Check out my Lessons Page for more details and we can set up a FREE 30-minute trial lesson! :)