Simply the greatest composer of all time, few would dispute that. The breadth of Johann Sebastian Bach’s accomplishments is unlikely to ever be topped. Though he never composed for guitar, his music has been adapted very successfully for the instrument, especially solo guitar transcriptions of his Lute, Violin and Cello works. The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet take it a step further by transcribing his orchestral works like the Brandenburg Concertos. Their virtuosity and musicianship makes it sound like the piece was written for guitars!
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Perhaps the greatest innovator in classical music history, Beethoven’s music is as legendary as his personality. Everyone knows his famous opening to his Fifth Symphony, whether that be in its original version or the 70’s disco version! His Ode to Joy in the 9th Symphony, Für Elise and Moonlight Sonata are equally famous. He never composed for guitar and there are far less arrangements of his music for guitar than there are of Bach’s. Nonetheless, a few interesting arrangements exist, including an astonishing 5th Symphony by a young Japanese guitar orchestra and the Egmont Overture, played beautifully by the Texas Guitar Quartet.
I would have Anton Bruckner next on this list, but I can’t find any good guitar arrangements of his music. So we skip on to French composer Debussy, sometimes described as the father of modern music. His impressionistic tone poems are sensual masterpieces of orchestral sound, quite different to any orchestral music that came before him. His piano works and chamber pieces are equally important. Another composer who didn’t compose for the guitar, but some of his music works beautifully on guitar, such as his famous Claire de Lune, especially when played by Julian Bream and John Williams.
Debussy’s compatriot tends to be less acclaimed, although I prefer more of Ravel’s music. I think he was a lot more innovative than given credit for. When I was a student at the DIT Conservatory of Music in Dublin I was in the college guitar ensemble. We played a great arrangement of Ravel’s suite Ma Mere L’oye which I always enjoyed. A few years ago I arranged Ravel’s famous Bolero for my Irish Memory Orchestra, I included a guitar in it as it lent the piece a more authentic Spanish flavour. Ravel never wrote for guitar, which is odd, given he was Basque and loved flamenco music!
It took me a while to appreciate the music of Finland’s greatest composer Sibelius. Eventually I got to like him so much I named my dog after him! On first listen his music might sound like 19th Century Romantic music, but delve deeper into his music, especially his symphonies, and you’ll hear it is very distinct and visionary. He sometimes makes time and space seem to stand still, yet move at the same time! He is the first composer on this list who actually wrote something for guitar, although it is just one minor work, a Shakespearean song for Baritone and Guitar called Come Away Death‘. His works aren’t often arranged for guitar, but Finnish guitarist Timo Kaakkolammi made a very nice arrangement of the slow movement of the 3rd Symphony. In this arrangement the almost minimalist sound of mature Sibelius really comes through.
One of the great musical revolutionaries, Stravinsky changed the world of classical music with his wild orchestral masterpiece The Rite of Spring. The first time I heard this live was in an incredible 2001 performance by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland under Gerhard Markson. The music blew me away! Stravinsky only once composed for guitar, in his rarely played Four Russian Songs for mezzo, flute, harp & guitar (1954). Several attempts have been made to arrange his orchestral music for guitars. Generally they aren’t hugely successful because Stravinsky’s orchestrations are so colourful and detailed. The Seattle Guitar Trio made a damn good attempt at The Rite of Spring though. Perhaps most impressive though is Japanese guitarist Kazuhito Yamashita’s amazing arrangement of The Firebird Suite.
One of the most tormented composers in music history, Dmitri Shostakovich lived under almost constant fear for his life in Stalin’s Russia after he was denounced publicly. He outlived Stalin and had his reputation redeemed, yet his demons, cynicism and insecurities stayed with him to his grave and are heard in his music. His symphonies and string quartets are among the finest in the classical repertoire. I’ve seen some astonishing performances of them, including a really memorable performance of his 11th Symphony in London’s Barbican under Valery Gergiev. When it comes to composing for guitar he is slightly more prolific than those composers already mentioned. There are small guitar parts in his nostalgic Suite No. 1 for Jazz Orchestra and Suite for Variety Orchestra. Some decent attempts have been made at arranging some of his music onto the guitar. I’ve arranged of one of his piano pieces but never played it in concert.
Now I skip forward in time a bit, although not too much, what I am doing is skipping an entire generation of classical music which generally leaves me cold. Modern classical music in the mid-20th century was dominated by composers of atonal and twelve-tone music. It got really extreme by the 1950’s with the idea oftotal serialism, which is more maths than music. The music really alienated audiences and modern classical music almost died a death. Then in the ’60’s young American composers started rebelling against this essentially European trend and stripped music to its bare, tonal, essentials to create a hypnotic music of repetition often labelled ‘minimalism’. Chief among these ‘minimalists’ was Philip Glass. He is now perhaps the most famous living composer of classical music, though he remains controversial. Some people really can’t stand his music, they find it boring and too repetitious. I disagree though, in his best works he is really inventive and never repeats himself exactly. Indeed a lot of these pieces are quite rhythmically complex. I arranged several of his string quartets for guitar quartet nearly 20 years ago when I was in the Dublin Guitar Quartet. Mr. Glass liked the arrangements so much he signed the DGQ to his label. I wasn’t in the quartet anymore at this time, but I did once get to join them in playing the arrangements in Mr. Glass’ presence. It was great to meet the man and I found him to be very, very nice indeed. He has composed very little for the guitar, but I really enjoy his use of an almost ‘surf guitar’ sound in the piece Osamu’s Theme from his soundtrack to the film Mishima.
It seems unlikely that two of the most influential composers of the 20th Century might have worked together in a furniture-moving company before they became famous, but that is the truth about Glass and his fellow minimalist pioneer Steve Reich. For a time in the 1960’s they played each other’s music in ensembles and toured Europe in 1971. Then, for reasons never explained, they fell out, only to reconcile many years later. Of all the composers in this list, no one has composed more important guitar music than Steve Reich. His 1987 masterpiece Electric Counterpoint was composed for jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and is now considered one of the great works for guitar ensemble. He also uses guitars in his works2×5 and Nagoya Guitars. Reich’s music has influenced me quite a bit and you can hear hints of his pulsing music in a few of my pieces, including my latest work Dun Laoghaire Guitars.
Being named after a famous American president can’t be easy for a young composer with ambition, but that didn’t stop John Adams rising to become America’s most performed living orchestral and opera composer. I first discovered Adams’ music on a compilation of minimalist music. It included his looping orchestral pieces The Chairman Dances and Shaker Loops. There was a time in my mid 20’s when I considered Adams my favourite composer and some of my compositions from that period are strongly influenced by him. I very briefly met him in September 2001 after a concert in London. When I was leaving the concert at one point I looked behind and there he was strolling purposefully behind. I took the opportunity to say a quick hello and to tell him I’d recently sent in a guitar duo arrangement of his piano piece China Gates to his publisher. He nodded and said, ‘Oh yes, they mentioned that to me, is that you? I think that will work very nicely’. That came just before the European premiere of his symphonic piece Naive and Sentimental Music, which features a beautiful extended guitar solo in its second movement. Five days after that uplifting experience the infamous 9/11 attacks changed the world forever. Though Adams has never composed a solo guitar work, he has used electric and acoustic guitars quite a bit in works like Scratchband, El Nino and his recent opera Girls of the Golden West. Scratchband contains a fiendishly difficult guitar part which switches between funky acoustic strumming to wild Zappa-esque electric guitar sounds.
Though there are hundreds of thousands of composers of classical music, only a very small number of these get lifted to the status of ‘great composers’. In the majority of cases the composers are deserving of this status, yet there are also some very overlooked composers. Nonetheless when it comes to my list of favourite classical composers I had to go with those composers who I return to again and again for listening pleasure and artistic inspiration. My list is governed purely on this principle, as a result my top ten composers are all white men. In the context of classical music that is pretty normal though, google any top 10 list of classical composers made by classical music critics and they’ll all be white men! Even a top 100 list like the one at this link https://digitaldreamdoor.com/pages/best-classic-comp.html contains just one composer who isn’t a white man!
Nonetheless most people, including me, could do with expanding their classical music listening habits beyond white male composers. With that in mind I’ve done separate playlists featuring composers I admire who are not white men. I’d be lying if I said any of these composers were in my top ten, nonetheless they are brilliant classical music composers and, frankly, it’d be much better for the health of classical music if they and others like them featured more often in concerts, rather than just hearing Mozart, Brahms and Mahler all the time! Yes, play Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but why not pair them with Boulanger, Buckley and Björk?!
The medieval Saint Hildegard Von Bingen has an unusual place in music history as she is considered the greatest composer of her era. No other female composer has come close to being elevated to this status by the musical literati in subsequent eras. Her choral music is performed as much as any male composer of the medieval era. Her music is monodic and religious, if that’s your kind of thing you will love her music. Being honest, medieval choral music is not my favourite kind of music, so I don’t listen to her music very often. In the right context though it can be really beautiful to hear.
Had Lili Boulanger not passed away tragically aged 24 she may have developed into one of France’s most important composers. She was the first female composer to win the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1913, when she was only 19 and she then landed a publishing contract with Ricordi. The small amount of music she left behind is exquisitely composed and hints at a composer who could have matched Debussy and Ravel had fate allowed her to. Her music is as distinctively different to Debussy and Ravel as those leading men of French impressionist music are to each other. Her last work, the symphonic poemD’un matin de printemps is a perfect concert opener, joyous and sumptuously scored. A darker orchestral poem D’un soir triste is a lushly and virtuosically orchestrated masterpiece. Magnifique!
Though mainly associated with developing the jazz big band, Duke Ellington was also a composer of classical orchestra works. I saw the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland perform his fantastic piece Harlem under conductor William Eddins in 2003 and wondered why the piece wasn’t played more often. I haven’t seen it programmed since! Generally The Duke’s orchestral works are sadly neglected in the symphonic concert hall. His last work Three Black Kings deserves more hearings as does the ambitious suite Black, Brown and Beige.
Fela Sowande is considered the first major classical composer from Africa. His fine orchestral and melodic composing skills are clearly heard in his most recorded work African Suite. Unfortunately I know little of his music beyond that work as it remains largely unpublished. He did receive an MBE though in his lifetime and held prestigious teaching positions in the USA, so he gained more official recognition than any other African composer. HIs music is due a renaissance.
Japanese 20th Century master Toru Takemitsu was probably the first Asian composer to achieve wide acceptance within Western classical music circles. His music can be a challenging listen as a large part of his output comes from the atonal, modernist mid-20th century aesthetic. In his later years his music became more sensual and almost tonal. He’s often been described as a Japanese Debussy. This is clearly heard in his later works like Dreamtime, although I detect a hint of Debussy’s successor Messiaen in there too. Whilst it’s easy to dismiss him as an imitator of French composers, his originality and place in history lies in the way he fused these modern French influences with Japanese culture. Several of his works, including Eclipse and November Steps, use traditional Japanese instruments. This fusion of Asian instruments within Western classical music was very unusual and ground-breaking then. He also composed some of the most significant classical guitar music of the 20th century, some of which is strangely beautiful.
Like Duke Ellington, Ravi Shankar is more associated with his non-classical music, nonetheless the Indian sitar master left behind a legacy of important compositions that fit within the western classical tradition. His collaboration with Philip Glass Passages, is a wonderful fusion of Carnatic music and New York minimalism. His sitar concertos are exhilarating and ground-breaking. I’ve also enjoyed performing his flute and guitar work L’Aube Enchantee with Aisling Agnew. It is one of the most significant works ever composed for classical flute and guitar.
From the 1960’s to the present day, New York has developed into the world’s centre for progressive, new classical music. One of the most important composers from this scene is the extraordinary Meredith Monk. She has created a repertoire of music unlike any other composer before her, based primarily on experimental vocal textures. In the wrong hands such techniques can either come across as pretentious or unintentionally funny, but Monk is different. Listen to Dolmen Music and enter a hypnotic world of vocalisations that sounds at once utterly modern and like a forgotten ancient music.
In Linda Buckley I feel like I have a kindred spirit in the Irish composition scene. Her music is nothing like mine, yet we share a liking for tonal/modal music and Irish traditional music. We both also occasionally compose dissonant music, so our music tends to work well together in concert. Her beautiful song-cycle O Iochtar Mara was written for the sean nós singer Iarla O’Lionaird to sing with the Vanbrugh String Quartet and I think this is the best work that has been composed for Iarla. Linda works often with electronics and you can hear her masterfully merge electronics with bowed Double Bass on the haunting Sheancheann. Her masterpiece though, in my opinion, is the orchestral work Chiyo, an ethereal study of orchestral textures. One of the best new orchestral works I’ve heard in the past 20 years. More orchestras need to play it!
Jane O’Leary was born in the USA, yet moved to Ireland in the 1970’s where she established herself as one of Ireland’s foremost modern composers. She founded Ireland’s first contemporary classical ensemble, Concorde in the 1970’s and they are still going strong today. I first came to know Jane’s music through her Four Pieces for Guitar. Subsequently Concorde performed my music and Jane was my PhD Supervisor. I’ve heard her music many times over the years and I’ve always admired her commitment to discovering new sounds and instrumental techniques. Though she composes in a very different style to me, we have a mutual respect and friendship that I value a lot. For her 70th birthday I composed a short string quartet piece called 70 Bars for Jane, which is based on her Four Pieces for Guitar.
A choice that might surprise some, but I think Björk deserves consideration as an essentially ‘classical’ composer. No less than the renowned soprano Renée Fleming agrees with me, as she has recently taken to performing Björk’s music as ‘art songs’ with orchestras. All over Björk’s output there are references to modern classical music and her work is as original and innovative as any modern ‘classical’ composer. She even famously interviewed the avant-garde composer Stockhausen. Her biggest claim to being a modern classical genius is her 2004 album Medúlla, which is essentially a large experimental composition for voices in several movements, not too far removed from Meredith Monk. Medúlla was later turned into an opera. In years to come Björk’s music will be part of the classical canon. I’m sure of that!