ByNathan Fleischman, writer at
Nathan Fleischman

Howard Goodall's 20th Century Greats is a documentary series about composers that Howard Goodall thinks will be judged as the most influential composers of the 20th century. These are not straight classical composers. They have all worked with popular music. This is my favorite of Howard Goodall's documentaries. Here is the list of composers that he covers in chronological order:

Cole Porter

The composers of Tin Pan Alley during the 1920s and 1930s transformed popular music from trite to sophisticated. The most gifted of them all was Cole Porter. He was trained in classical music, but he chose to incorporate sophisticated classical elements into popular song. He was also one of the greatest lyricists in the English language. He incorporated sophisticated classical elements into popular song in ways that it remained popular. He also composed his songs which received their first appearance in musicals in the most unusual ways even for composers of popular music today. He used a lot of semitones common in Jewish klezmer music which influenced Cole Porter. These popular songs which first appeared in musicals made the most use of minor keys ever. He was also influenced by jazz. Howard Goodall predicts that this composer will be remembered by future musicians as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century.

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein was a composer who fused classical music, jazz, popular song, rock, Jewish and Christian religious music, and European & Latin dance music together. Bernstein was the first American-born conductor in history. Because of this he only wrote three symphonies which contain texts in Hebrew as Bernstein was Jewish. He also wrote Broadway musicals starting with On the Town. He was always trying to combine classical and popular styles. He tried this by incorporating jazz, pop, and dance elements into opera with Candide. Candide wasn't popular at the time of its premiere like it is now. He followed on by incorporating operatic elements in the musical with West Side Story in 1957. This musical is even more important than Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma which was out-of-date. Based on Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story deals with racism, nativism, and xenophobia. This was something no other musical has ever done. It fuses Classical, popular, and Latin music in one. It is for this reason that I consider the musical as well as popular song to be forms of classical music. Howard Goodall predicts that this prefigures the fusion of Western and Asian styles as exemplified by minimalism, Toru Takemitsu, and Bright Sheng. This, says Goodall, make Leonard Bernstein one of the most influential 20th century composers.

Bernard Herrmann

When film music started out in 1933 with King Kong, it started out in the late Romantic style of Mahler and Strauss. Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote in this style. When Citizen Kane was released in 1941, it included a film score that was not of this style. The composer was Bernard Herrmann who did the score of the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds three years earlier which caused panic. The score for Citizen Kane was the first modernist score influenced by Charles Ives and influenced Miklos Rozsa. Herrmann would continue revolutionizing the film score throughout his life. With The Day the Earth Stood Still, he made the first use of electronic instruments in classical music which includes most film music by the way. It was not Karlheinz Stockhausen or Edgard Varese who did the first experiments in electronic music. With The Day the Earth Stood Still, Herrmann would influence film scores from Forbidden Planet to Blade Runner. Herrmann is best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock. Vertigo and Psycho were two films that influenced future composers. Vertigo influenced Jerry Goldsmith when he composed the film score for Poltergeist. Psycho influenced the development of minimalism, according to Howard Goodall. After Hitchcock fired Bernard Herrmann from the movie Torn Curtain, Herrmann worked on the film score for Fahrenheit 451 which director Francois Truffaut considered to be 21st century music. His last film score was for Martin Scorsese's movie Taxi Driver. This film score was influenced by Gunther Schuller, the Third Stream composer, and Nino Rota, who wrote the film score for The Godfather. Herrmann never received respect from the classical elite which he wanted. He did broaden the musical tastes of the public through movies. That is why Goodall say that in the future Bernard Herrmann will be remembered as one the most influential 20th century composers.


Yes, the Beatles. John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote most of the songs for the Beatles. In their songs, Lennon and McCartney combined classical and popular musical styles along with Indian classical music and avant-garde. The recording studio became a musical laboratory. With their songs, they revitalized traditional Western harmony. The Beatles not only influenced other rock musicians and composers but also classical composers who returned to tonality like Philip Glass. The list of what John Lennon and Paul McCartney did in their songs is long. They used Anglo-Celtic folk modes in Eleanor Rigby. They used modulation in Penny Lane. And more. It is too numerous to list. They, of course, revitalized harmony. Howard Goodall says that this is what makes Lennon and McCartney two of, if not, the most influential composers of the 20th century.

You probably do not understand what I am saying. This is just a description and partial review of a documentary. I actually believe what Howard Goodall is saying about these composers. If you want to see the show, just go on YouTube and search for it. I plan to do a few follow-ups to this post very soon. For all those who do understand, I would like you to answer this question.


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