Who Are The Most Underrated Composers?

Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1957
Karlheinz Stockhausen lectures in 1957. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

A relatively small number of composers have a prominent place in the history of classical music. Figures like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Mahler created brilliant music, but focusing on them alone results in other talented composers being neglected.

There’s been no shortage of debate about the most underrated and overrated composers over the past few centuries of music history, so here we take a look at some of those who are too often overlooked or undervalued.

Jan Dismas Zelenka

The Czech-born composer was a contemporary of Bach, and some have even placed his talents alongside those of the baroque’s best-known composer. But Zelenka never seems to have received the recognition he deserved. No portrait was ever made of Zelenka, and he never married or had children. He was overlooked for an important position in Dresden as kapellmeister in the early 1730s. Many of his works vanished from performances after his death and have only recently been rediscovered. Here is his Trio Sonata No. 6.

Antonio Salieri

Because of the film Amadeus, the most common response received when Salieri is mentioned is that he is the man who killed Mozart. This has tended to divert attention from the fact that he was a major rival in Vienna’s opera scene at the time. Recent research has shown the relationship between the two composers was not as hostile as traditionally thought, with the pair even collaborating on a piece of music. Maybe such discoveries will help restore him to a more prominent place. His Concerto for Violin, oboe, violoncello, and Orchestra is a good place to start.

Joseph Haydn

Of course, I wouldn’t try to claim that Haydn is not well known. However, when you consider the range of music he wrote and the quality of his works, he is too often left in the second rank. One reason for this is that Mozart emerged in the latter part of his life and assumed such a dominant position in music history in the subsequent period, followed shortly afterward by Beethoven. I especially enjoy his chamber music and later symphonies, such as Symphony No. 104.

Jean Philippe Rameau

The 18-century French composer is best known as a music theoretician who played a significant role in developing some crucial modern concepts, and as a composer at the court of Louis XV. Although he wrote few works prior to the age of 50, his career took a successful turn from around 1733. He continued to write up until his death in 1764. However, many of his works were only rediscovered during the 20th century.

Fanny Mendelssohn

The next two figures not only found it difficult to get recognized because they were closely linked to very famous composers of the 19th century but confronted the additional challenge of being women. Fanny Mendelssohn received limited recognition for the works she wrote, and some were even said to have been composed by Felix. Here is her Piano Sonata in G minor.

Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann was well respected as a great pianist of her day, admired by no less a figure than Brahms. She first came to prominence as a child prodigy before meeting and falling in love with the composer Robert Schumann. They had close contact with several leading composers of the time, including Franz Liszt and Felix Mendelssohn. She had fewer opportunities to pursue her composing career but nonetheless produced some excellent works. Below is one of her piano concertos, of which she wrote two. She also composed a number of piano pieces, three romances for violin and piano, and a trio. She received little recognition during her lifetime as a composer.

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Depending on one’s opinion of recent developments in music, Stockhausen can be a divisive figure. The first performance of his Gesang der Jünglinge in 1956 marked the first time loudspeakers were in a classical music concert hall. He produced sounds purely electronically and also spent time studying the impact of space on sound production. His willingness to be experimental and try new approaches has brought him admirers and critics alike. One of the former group described him as “one of the few, true musical pioneers.”


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