The 10 greatest composers of the 21st century (so far)
18 November 2022, 16:11 | Updated: 23 November 2022, 11:53
10 composers with the potential to shape classical music for the 21st century...
From the concert hall to the games console, the last century has seen the number of platforms for brilliant music increase exponentially.
Now, some way into the 21st century, we take a look at the composers whose works could have the greatest impact on the next 80 years of classical music-making.
Across film scores, jazz clubs, concert halls and video game soundtracks, the classical music of the 21st century incorporates styles and influences from all that came before it, including minimalism, Romantic music, choral and religious masses, electronics, and much more.
Here are 10 of the most stand-out composers of the last 22 years, and hopefully more to come...
Composer, pianist, and producer, Max Richter is one of the best-known classical composers at work this century, with over one billion streams of his music online, and a further one million album sales. Having trained at the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Academy of Music, Richter then studied in Florence under the great 20th century pioneer, Luciano Berio, one of the main proponents of experimental electronic music.
Berio’s influence can be heard in Richter’s music, especially with his use of looping and phasing techniques, heard in his famous work Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, which was premiered in 2012. A decade on, in 2022, Richter released a new version with Chineke! Orchestra and Elena Urioste, which was featured in series 4 of hit Netflix period drama Bridgerton.
Since the release of his debut album for solo piano, Le Onde, in 1996, Ludovico Einaudi’s name has become synonymous with hypnotically minimalist piano music.
His simple, yet hauntingly beautiful melodies have become a hallmark for his work, which has also included scores and soundtracks for ballet, stage and screen. His music has featured in notable film and television productions in the 21st century, including Doctor Zhivago and Nomadland, as well as commercials for leading household brand names.
In more recent years, Einaudi has turned his hand to environmental activism. In 2016, he performed his Elegy for the Arctic on a floating platform amidst icebergs in Norway, raising awareness of melting ice caps and rising sea levels in a collaboration with the environment charity Greenpeace.
Born to a family of musicians, the Icelandic composer, cellist, and vocalist Hildur Guðnadóttir is best known for her award-winning film and TV scores. In 2019, her score for the film Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Robert de Niro, won both the Golden Globe Award and Oscar for Best Original Score, as well as a BAFTA for Best Original Music. These historic achievements made Guðnadóttir the first woman to win each of the three categories, as well as the first Icelander to win an Oscar.
The same year, her score to the HBO mini-series Chernobyl won yet another BAFTA Award, as well as a Grammy Award, and a Primetime Emmy Award. Her most recent project, TÁR, which stars Cate Blanchett as the tyrannical conductor of a major German orchestra, has already been submitted for consideration to the Academy Awards for 2023.
Award-winning composer and conductor Eric Whitacre is responsible for some of the most glorious choral music of the 21st century. Known for his close, crunchy, complex harmonies, which form what he calls ‘the golden brick’, his most famous works include Sleep, Cloudburst, and Lux Aurumque.
Whitacre is also known for his Virtual Choir, which he founded in 2009 – a coming-together of video recordings from across the world, all synchronised to form a mass choir. Its first iteration included 185 singers, growing incrementally up to the most recent Virtual Choir 6.0 in May 2020, which featured 17,572 performers, including 16 that performed using Sign Language.
The composer behind many of the 21st century’s finest film scores, from Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lion King to Gladiator and Inception, Hans Zimmer holds 23 industry awards for his soundtracks, including an Oscar, two Golden Globes, four Grammys and three Classical Brits.
His work hasn’t stopped at film scores, either. His majestic theme opens each episode of the Netflix drama The Crown, and he has even composed bespoke ringtones and a new audio identity for the iconic Netflix ‘Ta-Dum’.
Read more: The 10 best Hans Zimmer soundtracks
Japanese composer and pianist Yoko Shimomura is best known for her emotive and highly beloved music for video games. She began piano lessons aged between four and five, and soon began noodling in her practice sessions, coming up with her own original compositions.
After graduating from Osaka College of Music, she decided to send some excerpts of her compositions to video game companies. She was hired by Capcom, where she wrote soundtracks to Street Fighter II amongst others, before leaving to join Square Enix.
In 2002, she wrote the soundtrack to Kingdom Hearts, which she said was the most “special” soundtrack to her. Shimomura also wrote an epic, Wagnerian soundtrack for Final Fantasy XV, taking the lead from Nobuo Uematsu’s music to previous instalments of the franchise.
Wynton Marsalis is an American trumpeter, composer, and teacher, working in both jazz and classical genres. With nine Grammy Awards under his belt, he is the only musician to have won in both jazz and classical categories in the same year at the awards – a feat he achieved aged just 22, in 1983.
Today, alongside his role as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, Marsalis is an active presence on the jazz performance scene as well as being a prolific composer. In 1997, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his jazz oratorio, Blood on the Fields, and in recent years has written both a violin concerto and ‘Fiddle Dance Suite’ for star Scottish-Italian violinist, Nicola Benedetti.
English composer Rachel Portman began writing music as a teenager, becoming interested specifically in film music at university in Oxford, where she began composing for fellow students’ films and theatrical productions.
Portman has written over 100 soundtracks, including her score for Emma in 1996, which made her the first female composer to win the Academy Award for Best Musical or Comedy Score. Portman has since scored films including Chocolat, The Mona Lisa Smile, and The Duchess, and in 2010 was appointed OBE.
Composer and conductor Sir James MacMillan is one of the most eminent Scottish classical musicians of the 21st century. His first major appearance on the classical scene came in 1990 with the premiere of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie – an emotionally charged and powerful account of a young woman in 17th century Scotland, who was accused and later executed for witchcraft.
Since then, MacMillan has composed a percussion concerto for Dame Evelyn Glennie, a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, and has also written some of the most sublimely beautiful choral music of the last 20 years, including The Strathclyde Motets in 2005, and a new setting of the Stabat Mater in 2015. In 2022, MacMillan also composed ‘Who shall separate us?’ for the funeral service of Queen Elizabeth II.
17-year-old composer, pianist and violinist Alma Deutscher is one of the brightest young stars of her generation. She wrote her first piano sonata at the age of five, with a short opera, The Sweeper of Dreams following just two years later. In 2016, when Deutscher was 11 years old, Zubin Mehta sponsored the European premiere of her first full-length opera, Cinderella.
When Deutscher was 13, she moved to Vienna with her family, describing the Austrian city as her “musical homeland”, having grown up on the music of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Haydn. In 2021, aged 16, she was admitted to the conducting degree at the prestigious University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, where her predecessors include Zubin Mehta, Claudio Abbado, and Kirill Petrenko.