ByNathan Fleischman, writer at
Nathan Fleischman

You might remember my post on Howard Goodall's 20th Century Greats. It is my favorite documentary by Howard Goodall. As I mentioned, Howard Goodall sees Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann, and Lennon-McCartney as the true successors of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. The documentary series left me wondering. Who came before these composers? I have ideas for more episodes of this show featuring these composers. The earliest will be from the 1890s at the end of the Romantic period, no earlier. Here are composers that came before Cole Porter:

Gustav Mahler

I start my list of composers with Gustav Mahler. Without Gustav Mahler, there would not have been 20th-century music as we know it today. Gustav Mahler composed a lot of symphonies and art songs at the end of the Romantic period. He composed most of these after converting to Roman Catholicism from Judaism to get a job as conductor for Vienna's orchestra. His Eighth Symphony is probably his most notable piece of music. It basically marked the end of the Romantic period. It features in its first movement a Latin hymn called Veni creator spiritus. In its second movement, Gustav Mahler incorporated the closing scene of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust. Few of Mahler's works were performed in his lifetime. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that his music was revived. However, he influenced Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern in their atonal music. That is why he is on this list.

Claude Debussy

Almost every major composer of the 20th century was influenced by one man. He was the French composer Claude Debussy. He was influenced by Modest Mussorgsky and the music of Asia. His most famous piece is Suite bergamasque, a piano suite that is at the forefront of Impressionism in music. Clair du Lune is the most famous movement in that suite. Every composer from Maurice Ravel to John Williams was influenced by him. Debussy was at the fore front of Impressionism in music. Debussy did not like the term Impressionism. He preferred the term Symbolism. Debussy can be compared to Wagner in terms of his impact on other composers. That is why he is on this list.

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky had just as much impact on other composers as Debussy. The Russian composer created his own style that was influenced by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, initially. His most notable piece of music is The Rite of Spring, a ballet that you probably know from Fantasia. This ballet depicts human sacrifice in pre-Christian Russia. It depicts a young woman being chosen for a human sacrifice who dances so much that she dies because her heart burst. That is rather disgusting to say the least. In fact, when The Rite of Spring premiered in 1913, a riot broke out at the theater where it was being premiered. Fortunately, Stravinsky managed to get the performance of his ballet finished just in time. After The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky turned to neoclassicism before switching to serialism in 1951 after the premiere of his opera in English, The Rake's Progress. His influence over multiple genres of classical music is the reason why he is on this list.

Arnold Schoenberg

I would be an idiot not to include Arnold Schoenberg on this list. His music was descended from that of Richard Wagner by way of his teacher Gustav Mahler. He dismantled traditional tonality completely. Atonality, initially, was difficult for Schoenberg to handle. This led him to create the 12-tone system. which dictated that each note of the chromatic scale could only be played once. He also created Sprechstimme which is singing that sounds like speech. With all of this, Schoenberg makes this list as he influenced the development of serialism and the avant-garde.

Charles Ives

Charles Ives was the very first American composer to be notable. However, during his lifetime, he was more known for his work in the insurance business. It was not until after his death that his music came to the forefront. Charles Ives was trained in American church music and classical music. He fused these two styles together with American popular music of the time. Ives was also an experimental composer. He experimented with polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatoric elements, and quarter tones. He even did some experiments with atonality. He anticipated trends in classical and popular music that have occurred including the work of John Cage. He was also an influence on film composer Bernard Herrmann. That is why he makes this list.

George Gershwin

George Gershwin was a Tin Pan Alley composer who incorporated jazz into classical music. He was the man who brought jazz to mainstream. His most notable piece of music is Rhapsody in Blue. This piece was a fusion of classical and jazz. Criticism was mixed. Today, however, the piece has become one of the most famous pieces of jazz-influenced classical music ever. This piece also helped bring jazz to the mainstream. Gershwin influenced Cole Porter and Duke Ellington who is the next composer on this list, among others. That is why he makes this list.

Duke Ellington

While George Gershwin brought jazz to the mainstream, Duke Ellington believed jazz could serve as art music. His time at the Cotton Club was when he created some of his most important works. During this time, the classically-trained Ellington wrote longer jazz pieces like Creole Rhapsody and Reminiscing in Tempo. His most important work was Cotton Tail. It was based on George Gershwin's I Got Rhythm. It follows the standard jazz form of a tune followed by choruses before the tune returns at the end. Ellington was the most influential jazz composer ever. That is why he is on this list.

Max Steiner

Max Steiner is the composer who invented the film score. When he came to America, Steiner who studied under Gustav Mahler stared out in Broadway. The first film score was Steiner's film score for King Kong. The producers of the film were skeptical of the idea of a film score, but they let Steiner do it because they hated the special effects for the film. It worked, and Max Steiner became one of the most respected names in Hollywood. This was followed by Gone with the Wind in 1939 which became his most notable film score. This was the highest grossing film, beating out the far more racist Birth of a Nation. The score had been composed against director David Selznick's wishes. It was worth it in the end. These were among the first original film scores. That is why Steiner is on this list.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

If Max Steiner was the inventor of the film score, then Erich Wolfgang Korngold expanded the possibilities. After moving to America just as the Anschluss occurred, Korngold composed the film score for The Adventures of Robin Hood. This film score was more complex than Steiner's film score for King Kong because Korngold was a classical composer who composed operas and concert works, as well as film scores. He had been trained by Richard Strauss and composed a lot of different music pieces. His only symphony from 1947 contains references to his film scores in its final movement. Korngold expanded the possibilities of film music. That is why he makes this list.

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland was a contemporary of Cole Porter who makes this list because he was the one who taught Leonard Bernstein. He started out with a jazz-influenced sound similar to Gershwin's. In the late 1930s into the 1940s, he wrote in a more populist style. El Salón Mexico was influenced by Mexican folk songs. Billy the Kid and Rodeo used cowboy songs. Fanfare for the Common Man was influenced by American march music. Appalachian Spring is influenced by Appalachian folk music. Copland's style has been widely imitated by many other composers, most notably Elmer Bernstein in his film score for The Magnificent Seven. That is why he is the last composer to make the list.

I think that if Howard Goodall's 20th Century Greats is revived, these composers would be covered in their own episodes. But they are not the only ones. I am planning a second follow-up as well for composers after the Beatles. I want to know this. What do you think about my opinions?


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