The 11 most underrated composers in classical music
17 July 2014, 16:49 | Updated: 6 January 2017, 14:45
The great composers get all the glory. But what about the composers who lived in their shadows and are today largely forgotten? It's time to reevaluate: here are the 11 most underrated composers.
This list started life as 'The 10 most underrated composers in classical music', but then John Suchet played some Moritz Moszkowski in his weekday mornings show and said he hadn't heard of the composer. Shocked Classic FM listeners contacted John to say they couldn't believe he didn't know Moszkowski's work - and so we've added him to this list. The great Polish pianist Paderewski once said: “After Chopin, Moszkowski best understands how to write for the piano, and his writing embraces the whole gamut of piano technique." The brilliant young German pianist Joseph Moog has recently recorded his Piano Concerto.
Far more than just the composer of that eternal clarinet exam stalwart the Five Bagatelles, Gerald Finzi was a spectacular vocal writer. His epic Dies Natalis for soprano or tenor and string orchestra is a superb example of what he was truly capable of. Weirdly, he was also responsible for saving several British varieties of apple from extinction.
There are only a handful of Malcolm Arnold works left in regular performance repertoire, despite the fact that this grumpy genius wrote literally hundreds of works in different genres (including over 100 film scores). His work is definitely eccentric and idiosyncratic, but then so was he - suicide attempts, alcoholism and failed marriages all informed his deeply eclectic style, for better or worse.
Why has the music of Erich Korngold been forgotten? Well, the situation is improving, but for many one of the pioneers of movie music will simply be a footnote with a funny name (a name which inspired one critic to label his violin concerto as "more corn than gold"). Thankfully, the likes of Nicola Benedetti and André Previn have been champions of this neglected trailblazer.
The trouble with having a famous brother is that your own achievements, no matter how worthy, tend to be overlooked. That's definitely true of Fanny Mendelssohn. Fanny composed hundreds of works to little acclaim during her life and, perhaps the ultimate indignity, some of them were even passed off as being composed by Felix. The cheek.
Very much languishing in the shadows of more popular Russians like Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, it could be argued that Scriabin was in fact far more experimental and adventurous with his compositions. Among his more revolutionary ideas was his Mysterium, a choral and orchestral epic with incense, processions and no spectators, all to be performed over the course of a week in the foothills of the Himalayas (though sadly it was never performed). How can that not have been a hit?!
Jan Dismas Zelenka
This under-appreciated Baroque gem of a Czech was almost lost to the modern audience after a whole stack of his work was lost when Dresden was bombed during the Second World War. Thankfully there were plenty more works left to unearth and, when they were, it was clear that Zelenka was a remarkably adventurous composer for his day, experimenting with progressive harmonies and earning plaudits from the likes of J.S. Bach. No portraits were ever made of him, he never married and had no children - so perhaps it is not surprising he was unjustly forgotten.
So many have dismissed Respighi as 'that composer who put bird sounds in his pieces', thanks to his inventive use of then-new gramophone technology in his orchestral piece The Pines Of Rome. But a look beyond this one 'hit' reveals a composer who was adventurous in his many different works: travels in Brazil and a passion for early Italian music gave him a completely individual sound.
Think of 19th-century opera and you think of the giants: Puccini, Verdi and Wagner. Curiously, it was because of Wagner that Italian composer Meyerbeer has remained in obscurity until recently. In his day, Meyerbeer was one of the most popular opera composers in the world. Wagner, in an effort to steamroller his beliefs into popular culture, wrote scathing accounts of Meyerbeer's work in his anti-Semitic essay 'Jewishness in Opera'. Prior to this, Meyerbeer had been a great supporter of Wagner's, even lending him money when he was at his lowest.
Oh that guy, the one who killed Mozart. Or that's how most people think of the Italian master, thanks to the way he was depicted in Milos Forman's Amadeus: a jealous, conniving man who may or may not have been responsible for Mozart's ultimate downfall. Though their rivalry is common knowledge, it's very easy to forget that Salieri was an absolute giant of opera, composing some of the most popular works of the day - most of which have fallen out of circulation.
Gilbert & Sullivan were, as a partnership, wildly successful and delighted audiences, but Arthur Sullivan on his own has barely made a dent on musical life today, save for his hymn tunes. After a rigorous schooling in the 19th century by John Goss (who himself was taught by Thomas Attwood, a pupil of Mozart), Sullivan enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame as a composer in his own right. Then, after collaborating with W.S. Gilbert, he became notable for something rather lighter than he might have liked, meaning his more serious music has become largely forgotten.