Beginners Guide to 20th Century Composers

The 20th century produced some of the most famous opera composers in history. Here are just a few of the most successful composers and their popular works which have helped secure their place in the history books. 

Philip Glass (born January 31, 1937) is an American composer. He is considered one of the most influential composers of the late 20th century. This is largely due to his unique musical style which is often minimalist and repetitive. Read our guide to Philip Glass music to learn more about some of his most famous works.

Glass had a number of influences across the years which helped to shape his style of composing. He studied at the University of Chicago and the Juilliard School, where he worked as an assistant to Ravi Shankar. This led to an interest in Indian music. He was among the first western composers to incorporate Asian influences into his compositions, which have generally been in the classical style.

Following his studies was an expansive career that included a number of operas, theatre collaborations, film scores and contemporary classical concert music. He has written numerous symphonies that include two with a full orchestra: Symphony No. 1 (1977) and Symphony No. 2 (1992). However, amongst some of Glass’s most famous works were his elaborate operas: Einstein on the Beach, Akhnaten, Satyagraha and Orphée to name but a few. Therefore, Glass is not only a famous 20th century composer, but still very much beloved in the 21st century.

Book tickets now to see Philip Glass, Akhnaten at the London Coliseum, 11th March – 5th April 2023.

Benjamin Britten was a 20th century English composer (born on November 22, 1913). His parents were both pianists, leading him to begin piano lessons at the age of 7. His talent was undeniable at an early age, with his first complete work being published at just 14 years old. In 1933 he went to London to study composition with Frank Bridge at the Royal College of Music.

Since graduating, Britten has had an illustrious career. His first opera, Peter Grimes, was written in 1945 and has become one of his most popular works to date. But, that was only the beginning, with a string of other successful operas to follow, including, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, The Rape of Lucretia and Gloriana

Outside of opera, Britten’s other famous works include orchestral music, chamber music, choral works and songs. He also wrote music for films such as the score for Franco Zeffirelli’s, Romeo and Juliet. His versatile music style meant that Britten’s output was enormous, producing over 170 works in all genres across the span of his career.

Book tickets now to see Britten’s, Gloriana, 8th December 2022, in celebration of the Platinum Jubilee.

Leonard Bernstein was an American composer, conductor and pianist. He was one of the most well-known composers of the 20th century, as well as a conductor at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra from 1958 to 1969. His most famous work by far was West Side Story – an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in New York City during the 1950s gang wars, which is still beloved by audiences today.

Across his 50 year career, Bernstein broke into many different genres. Although musical theatre and films were his main output, (receiving a number of Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards), he did foray into the world of opera. Some of his most notable works include Candide, A Quiet Place and the one act opera, Trouble in Tahiti. 

However, it was undeniably his shows on Broadway and Hollywood scores that made Bernstein a household name. Thanks to musicals like Wonderful Town and film scores like On the Waterfront, Bernstein was one of the first American composers to achieve international critical acclaim. With new productions of his works like the 2021 film West Side Story, keeping his legacy alive, he is sure to be one of the world’s most famous composers for a very long time.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was one of the most highly acclaimed composers of the 20th century. He was a leading representative of the German school of Romantic composers who set new standards for orchestration and tone colour in opera. But, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, with his father Johann Strauss being a prominent composer in Vienna. It was his father’s orchestra that gave him his first big break, composing two waltzes for them to play at the age of just six.

Today, Strauss is best known for his operas, which include Der Rosenkavalier and Salome, as well as a number of songs, instrumental works, and piano pieces. His work was largely influenced by Wagner, with Wagnerian leitmotifs scattered throughout his pieces, even being considered by some as Wagner’s successor. 

However, it was his series of groundbreaking tone poems at the latter part of the 19th century that helped Strauss gain fame. These were orchestral pieces of music often based on poems which led to Strauss being regarded as one of the finest orchestral composers of all time. Some of his most famous examples of orchestral tone poems include Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung  (Death and Transfiguration) and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks).