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The Top Ten Underrated Composers

March 15, 2011

Of course, the question here is, underrated by whom? Some of the composers on this list are liked by the public, but disregarded by professional musicians or by performing organizations or historian/scholars. Others are hits with their peers but generally unknown by the public. In each case, I explain how or why I think these composers are underrated. These are the only ground rules: no early-music composers (they’re all underrated equally); no living composers (who knows what will happen with them?); no “popular music” composers (for whom you would use completely different criteria).

As for women composers, most of them (with the possible exception of Hildegard of Bingen) have been underrated, though the greatest and most promising women composers — Sofia Gubaidulina, Kaija Saariaho, Pauline Oliveros, Joan Tower, Julia Wolfe, and a few others — are all still alive. No apologies necessary for that, I hope.

Carl Stalling

No. 10, Carl Stalling: A few years back, when every intellectual, pseudo- and otherwise, was yakking about postmodernism, it looked like old Carl might finally have his day. The musical genius behind the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons — the man who gave us a bullfight finale scored to the stretto of Wagner’s Rienzi Overture (in Bully for Bugs) and in the same cartoon also found time to throw in La Cucaracha and the Mexican Hat Dance — is the ultimate “Po-mo” hero.

But it never really happened. A few symphony orchestras here and there (mainly here) have played Stalling soundtracks while screening the cartoons, but by and large Stalling’s genius has remained unrecognized. Yet, how many musicians, at least in America, don’t know What’s Opera, Doc? John Zorn has written appreciative liner notes for a CD set called The Carl Stalling Project, John Adams titled one of the movements of his Chamber Symphony “Roadrunner,” and by now probably hundreds of composers have learned from Stalling the art of the abrupt mood-shift, the seamless nontransition.


Isaac Albéniz

No. 9, Isaac Albéniz: Albéniz (1860–1909) is one of the three early 20th-century Spanish greats (along with De Falla and Granados) in composition. Unfortunately for him, most music historians who are not Spanish drop his native country off the map of European classical music sometime around the death of Tomás de la Victoria (in 1611), so Albéniz was born 250 years too late to make it into the general histories of music. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that the foundation named after him promotes Spanish musicians and research into Spanish music.

Albéniz is known mainly for his piano music, particularly his last work, the formidable Iberia. Much of his music has been transcribed for guitar, particularly Asturias, Granada, Cordoba, and several other works. The music has tremendous popular appeal, but the self-appointed guardians of “serious” music think it too undemanding and “light.” It also doesn’t help his reputation that he died (of acute nephritis) at the age of 49 — too late for the romance of the artist dying young, and too early for him to produce more music like Iberia.


Henry Cowell

No. 8, Henry Cowell: The role of this true maverick in promoting and inventing musical modernism is well-known. He advocated for the music of Charles Ives; taught Lou Harrison and John Cage; wrote music with lots of wild, original ideas that spread to other modernist composers (tone clusters, complex rhythm, non-Western instrumentation, including percussion ensemble, and the like); and wrote those ideas down in his book New Musical Resources (1929). His intellectual breadth and achievement in getting composers to think differently about music are acknowledged: He was a giant, with a tremendous influence.

But you probably don’t know about the other Cowell: the composer who wrote plain old “tonal” music in American folk and historic styles — such as jigs or fuguing tunes; who wrote a number of beautiful, lyrical songs; who wrote 20 increasingly unusual symphonies, which incorporate everything from Icelandic to Indian folk music; and who wrote concertos for percussion (1958), accordion (1960), and harmonica (1962), plus two concertos for koto (1962 and 1965). He’s credited with roughly 966 compositions in all. Most of us know two or three of them. Now that’s what I call underrated.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

No. 7, Ralph Vaughan Williams: The English have expended a good deal of energy in trying to get the rest of the world to love Vaughan Williams as they do. If you’re an Episcopalian, of course, you regard him as the guy who compiled your standard hymn book (in 1906: It was revised in the mid-1980s.) He transcribed more than 800 folk songs of the British Isles, including Greensleeves, John Barleycorn, and The Coventry Carol. As a composer, he is responsible for several beloved, often-played masterpieces, beginning with the time-traveling Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.

Yet in a way, he’s the victim of the success of his pastoral, folksy idiom. Beyond his well-known pieces lies a variety of great music, in all genres and ranging through many moods and styles.

The man lived to 86, and was a visionary to the end. Plus, he was, according to those who knew him, a genuinely fine person and humanitarian. Of how many great composers in history may that be said?


Zoltán Kodály

No. 6, Zoltán Kodály: Thanks to Kodály’s interest in education methods, your child may be struggling a little less with learning rhythm concepts or the steps of the scale. Children around the world attend Kodály Institutes, while grown-ups flock to biannual Kodály conferences.

Much of his educational program tied into his interests in folk music, which he collected and transcribed, as did his friend and countryman Béla Bartók.

Kodály also chose one of the best ways to avoid becoming famous as a composer: He wrote most of his pieces as choruses, in the Hungarian language and based on Hungarian folk tunes.

Hungarian, for those of you who haven’t noticed, is not related to the Indo-European languages that dominate Europe. It’s really hard to learn for nonnatives (though there are legions of native speakers). To say that this has hindered the appreciation of his choral music would probably be an understatement on the order of, say, “A trillion dollars is a lot of money.” Still, he’s a great composer, as anyone who has heard the Háry János Suite or the Dances of Marosszék or the Dances of Galanta can confirm. Beyond that are the fabulous Peacock Variations, two oratorios from his later years (which I, personally, would love to hear performed live), and, naturally, his choral works for treble voices. It’s time to pull Kodály out of the Magyar closet.  

Next week:  The Final 5 Underrated Composers.


Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.


... among ourselves, we SFCVers.

If I had to fill out Michael's list, I suppose I'd add Ciconia, Haydn (yes, Haydn), Boccherini, Enescu, and Anonymous.

When it comes to women composers, especially American ones, Jennifer Higdon is on the top of the list in my book. In Carl Stalling's league must be included Jerome Moross, who invented the "Cowboy Chord" progression in The Big Country that was imitated by dozens of subsequent film composers.

This is a bit off-topic, but what the heck is wrong with the word "female"? We don't talk about "men composers," so why "women composers"?

That said, I think Rebecca Clarke is seriously underrated. But, then, I'm a violist.

I vote for Rebecca Clarke but then I'm a violist, too.  But I really don't think Albeniz and Vaughn Williams are "underrated" - I seem to hear and/or play them all the time...

I vote for Rebecca Clarke but then I'm a violist, too.  But I really don't think Albeniz and Vaughn Williams are "underrated" - I seem to hear and/or play them all the time...

Lisa Hirsch, I missed that too. Though I'm not sure who counts as an "early-music composer." Telemann? Zelenka? They're contemporaries of Bach, who I trust is not an "early-music composer."

Or does it mean just "pre-Bach"?

By the way, those two would both be on my list if I were writing one from scratch.


I totally wanted to include Anonymous on this list, only, finally, I thought it was a bit of a copout

About early music -- I had Biber down on an early version of this list, so I guess I was willing to go back at least that far before pulling the early music curtain. I thought seriously about Telemann, but in the end, I can't really make the case for his being underrated -- but of course, with the amount of music he composed, we all know a lot less of his music than is out there.

Thanks for reminding me of Turina. So four great Spaniards,  ... no five, no, wait, I'll come in again.



I have to disagree about Telemann. I mean, OK, I'm kind of a Telemann nut -- I bet you don't know anyone else with three volumes of the TWV in her house -- but there's a lot more recorded now than there used to be. I recommend the Brilliant Classics series of the orchestral suites. They're good modern-instrument-but-stylish performances -- not ideal always, but they do convey the variety Telemann achieved. I defy anyone to be bored.

thanks for this!  a lively discussion.

throwing my two cents in...claude vivier is a 'must' on this list.

Early music underrated?  Again, i'm not sure how you draw that time line.  The most obvious underrated ones I can think of are Baldassarre Galuppi  and Zelenka.  As for women composers, Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre.   And finally, Dvorak.  I think he's more popular in europe than here, but he's incredibly gifted. 

Early music underrated?  Again, i'm not sure how you draw that time line.  The most obvious underrated ones I can think of are Baldassarre Galuppi  and Zelenka.  As for women composers, Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre.   And finally, Dvorak.  I think he's more popular in europe than here, but he's incredibly gifted. 

Well, of course, it's not a quantitatively rigorous exercise.  However, I humbly submit my nominations, though probably predictable for those who know my musical taste:

Charles-Valentin Alkan: a neighbour of Chopin whose immense technique brought fear into Liszt's mind.  Composed almost exclusively for piano, he left immensely rich piano repertoire which left a deep impression his contemporaries. Some representative works: 12 Etudes in minor-keys, Grande Sonate, Esquisses, 25 Préludes

Nikolai Medtner: a contemporary of Skryabin and Rachmaninoff, who left 14 passion-laden piano sonatas. Well known in Russia, but seldom heard in the US.

Nikolai Kapustin: a Moscow Conservatory graduate who entered the underground world of jazz in the Soviet Union. He has so far written at least 17 piano sonatas, with classical structure in jazz idiom. His compositions are perhaps the most successful classical-jazz fusion style since Bernstein, if not Gershwin.

Antonio Soler: a student of Scarlatti who also composed hundreds of sonatas for the harpsichord. His compositions are wild

Guillaume de Machaut: a medieval-era composer who left music that are highly polytonal and complex. Compared to Gregorian Chants, Machaut's music is very avant-garde, full of colours.





And, pretty much all the known woman composers are highly underrated. Here are some extraordinary woman composers:

Louise Farrenc, Cécile Chaminade, Amy Beach... the list goes on.

Does "underrated" mean "underperformed" or something else? Jennifer Higdon gets lots of performances and commissions and landed the Pulitzer for music not long ago.

I have to agree that RVW is underrated and underperformed in the US. A few pieces get many performances, but the symphonies and operas don't, and they are major works. 

My chorus did some Zelenka a couple of years ago and I hear his music often on Cesky Rohzlas's Internet feed. A great composer, for sure. And we're doing some Galuppi shortly....(this is Chora Nova, which i performing Mendelsohn and Rheinberger - now there's an underperformed guy - this Saturday the 19th at First Congregational in Berkeley).

As it is St Patrick's Day here in Australia, I nominate John Field - a composer whose star has risen under the influence of Micael O' Rourke and John O'Conor.Known to many as the inventor of the Nocturne his concertos have strong melodic influence on the Romantic tradition

Handel - for the madness in the solo cantatas, the fecundity of the operas and the creativity of the keyboard music.

I'm liking the suggestions I see on the board here. As Lisa guessed, my primary criterion was composers who are well-liked, even loved, but have major parts of their worklists ignored because they've been pigeonholed (or because, as with Kodaly, the work doesn't translate so easily). There are a lot of underrated composers out there, but the most underrated have to be the composers we think we already know (because they're famous for one reason or another. That's why Vaughan Williams makes the list, as Lisa says.

As a secondary category, or criterion, I added a couple of composers who are academically underrated -- they were highly influential and important, but critics/ academics and sometimes performers don't seem to get it. That's why Carl Stalling and Albeniz are on there (but at the bottom of the list.)

As a result of the comments I've had to think harder about Telemann, who I think would make the list in a redo. I totally agree that Barber is heavily underrated, as is Villa Lobos. I love the Baldassare Galuppi suggestion -- of course, there are a ton of 18th and early 19th century composers who are underrated. They could make up a separate list entirely.

What about a composer who was adored by Wagner, Berlioz and Debussy:

Carl Maria von Weber.

Does he qualify as underrated?

All I know is that I can't live without 'Euryanthe' and 'Der Freischutz' !





You've got two of my all-time personal favorite composers - Cowell and Vaughan WIlliams - among those five, so, good start.  I have pretty much as many recordings of their works as I can get, and run to concerts whenever I can.  Particularly favorite memories: the Cowell festival that OtherMinds put on 3 years ago, and passing through London some years back at the time the Bournemouth Symphony was doing a VW symphony cycle at the Barbican.  I got to the concert featuring the <i>Sea</i> and the <i>Antartica.</i>  What a treat.

For an under-rated composer among the canonical great masters, how about Mendelssohn?  There are still large tracts of his output which have never been recorded, as I discovered to my frustration when I went looking for them.  There may be others of whom that may also be said, but in an era of Complete Mozart-in-a-box, and Bach-in-a-box, and Beethoven, I'd like some thought given to Mendelssohn.

No.1 has got to be Nielsen. The equal of Sibelius in my book, but he's overlooked because, I guess, one Nordic composer is enough for most people.

Can't say I agree about Cowell. The intellect is undeniable, but I find the  music  rather unsatisfying. Not dissatisfying, really: I can't say there's anything wrong with his music, but he never incorporated those little sonic experiments into a major musical or emotional statement, as, say, Crumb has done. There are no masterpieces from Henry Cowell, no breakthroughs on the order of the Concord Sonata or the Rite of Spring - even relative to the rest of his own work.

Oh, I neglected to say: This is a great idea. And thank you for it. Some classical stations run programs like the Top 100 pieces based on listener requests,  and I always thought there should be a bottom 100 list: music that means a lot to someone but gets only one vote.

David Bratman,

What unrecorded Mendelssohn are you thinking of? I can't recall anything. It must be vocal, small-scale choral, or keyboard; I certainly don't know of any unrecorded chamber or orchestral music.

I've amused myself the last few days making up my own lists of the top-10 Underrated. Today's went Zelenka, Hasse, Telemann, Rameau, Haydn, Boccherini, Spohr, Koechlin, Milhaud, Hindemith. No doubt the lineup will be slightly different tomorrow.




Choral, yes.

These are not pieces one is likely to have heard of, offhand.  That is, indeed, the point.

Understood, David. I know the feeling. It's only been within the last few years that all the known Monteverdi was recorded. Before the first CD release of a complete <I>Selva Morale,</I> I'd managed to piece together about 80% of the collection, but it took maybe twenty CDs to do that.

 I think there is still unrecorded Haydn, but not very much. (Thank Brilliant Classics for that: Between their recordings of the baryton music and of the folksong settings -- both excellent -- they've filled in a lot of gaps. BIS has been remastering Koch/Schwann recordings of a lot of other rare stuff, like the Scherzandi.)

I'm not a big 17th (or early 18th) Century fan much anymore.  I started that way, progressed forward, eventually embraced the 20th Century in all its variety, and now find I can't stand the "ancient" stuff anymore with its painfully strict adherance to meter and beat.  Teleman in particular is, if not overrated, at least overplayed, particularly on the radio.  Since his work was "discovered" it has been a boon to classical music stations because it is still new to most listeners, but also "free" (as in, public domain) so public and listener-supported stations can afford to play it.  In offering to maintain a specific (and large) percentage of public domain works, stations can negotiate cheaper licensing fees from ASCAP and BMI, but the 20th Century suffers for it in sheer neglect (even the material that isn't full of "dissonance" like Copland's populist era, Vaughn Williams's works (the 3rd Symphony in particular), or the grandeure of Shostakovich's big works (Symphonies 5, 7, 8) or the friendly neo-classical of Prokofiev are all avoided solely on the basis of cost).

As for who I might put on this list given the criteria (and not already on the list so far)?  Takemitsu, Ruatavaara, William Schuman are the main three.  Perhaps Milhaud as well.  There are many others I admire, but they are all cursed with either being still alive :) or in composing in a more standard neo-romantic vein that while making good music, is not what modern criticism (or academia) has opted to value in music (at least, in this post-Boulez world).  Film scores without the baggage of a crappy Hollywood movie to go with it.  I like it, but I'll accept it isn't everyone's tea.

I think someone forgot to mention that to Boulez.

As for the "painfully strict adherence to meter and beat," I could introduce you to some Haydn -- and, yes, even some Telemann -- that might change your mind. One useful thing about meter and beat is that once you do have them established, you can use them to mess with your listeners' heads. If there aren't any ground rules, you can hardly surprise people by violating them, now can you?

And if you think the 17th century was all keen on strict metric patterns, you've overlooked maybe half of it.


Joe Barron is on to something with his Nielsen suggestion. I've just loved everything of his that I've heard; great music and underplayed, for sure.

David Bratman and I have discussed this some already; I agree that Mendelssohn gets short shrift in many ways. The classical grace and balance of so much of his music can make it sound lightweight, which it is not.

This is a shout-out for Vaughan Williams.  And when I first heard his name it was  Ralph, the American way, and not "Rafe" as I hear it on classical music stations!  I was privileged to be the piano soloist at the premier of a rarely if ever performed work of his with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the spring of 1952:  "Fantasia on the old 104th Psalm Tune" for piano organ, chorus and orchestra.  Also in the summer of that year I met the composer andspspent a delightful tea-time with him.

Sergei Taneyev's Piano Quintet alone should make him a qualifyer. And Lou Harrison's Grand Duo should do the same for him. 

Oh, I know there are exceptions (this is music, there are exceptions to EVERY fast-and-loose rule anybody might generalize).  But I'm not terribly interested, and my specifics on Teleman are around the pieces that I hear on the radio - I just can no longer get past that 17th century "sound" to want to dive into it anymore.  Perhaps 15 years ago, I might have, but I've just moved into a different direction.  Even Bach doesn't get the attention of mind he used to.

Ditto, Haydn.  Berstein often can go on and on about Haydn's "humor", but I just don't really hear it.  I hear mid-18th century music and nothing (on the surface) to distinguish it from any other mid-18th century music.  Nothing about Teleman or Haydn really surprises me.  One can start a piece and I can hum along without ever having heard it, because its adherence to general tonality is so strong - there just aren't many other places it can go once the main theme has started, and I'm like that all the way through Mozart.  Nothing in Mozart, even a piece I've never heard, is surprising.  As such, it is just uninteresting.  I can respect the skill, I can follow the depths of it (particularly, say the 40th Symphony with all its harmonic progressions hitting pretty much every spoke on the circle of 5ths), but it wouldn't surprise me.

Yes, I understand that's more me than the music itself, but I'm just trying to give you a context where I can find Teleman (and pretty much the bulk of the 17th and 18th century) just utterly ungripping.  The fact that the music of that era dominates the radio (for the financial reasons I described) just makes matters worse for me because in addition to being uninteresting to my ears, it also saturates the airwaves like pop music.

My list would include Stefan Wolpe and Rossini. But I also feel that even some "famous" composers, such as Brahms, Ellington and Monteverdi, are sort of under-rated as well.

Now that you define your criteria it is indeed a paradox since in order to nominate a composer, that composer has to have works which s/he is well known for writing, and other works which are generally NOT recorded or played.

The Met just mounted Rossini's very last comic opera - for the first time. "Le Compte Ory" premiered in 1828, and preceded "Guillaume Tell" by one year. It is left to the critics and audiences (and it will be shown to theatres audiences, too) to decide why this opera comique waited close to 200 years to make it to the Met.

Is this the kind of thing you are looking for?

Telemann was the most prolific published composer ever, and his music is generally quite playable and enjoyable in the sense that any piece of music of that era can be, when compared with JS Bach - that is, it is pleasant. But speaking of JS Bach, one could fit him into this category as he was astonishingly prolific, thereby making it impossible that all of his works can be as well-recorded, played and admired as they deserve. Here is a list:

I dare anyone to read through it and decide that all if Bach's works get the attention they deserve. I bought the entire Bach Gasellschaft on 200 CDs and still have at least 1/2 of the Cantatas to absorb. I am no stranger to Bach. As a violist I have played all the big oratoria, the B-minor mass, and many of the more popular and well-known cantatas over the years - even Mozart arrangements of JS Bach for string trio, and all the Gamba and cello sonatas not even written for viola. Even though my religion IS Bach, I am lucky to count many of his works as ones I have yet to hear, absorb, learn, and enjoy.

A strange thing happened as I perused the Cantats not in numerical order on my new CD set - I heard no 61 for the first time, and was intrigued by one soprano solo, "Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze". Check it out on YouTube - utterly fascinating, and it gets more interesting every time you listen to it.. IMHO..

Eclipsed by his compat/ex-pat and one-time friend Igor Stravinsky, Russian composer Arthur Lourie's music remains one of the undiscovered treasures of the 20th century. For a while, Gidon Kremer was playing and recording his music, especially the at-times tragically beautiful "Concerto da Camera." What about his large works, the Sonata Liturgica, the Symphonie Dialectique, the operas "The Blackamoor of Peter the Great" and the opera/ballet "The Festival During the Plague (Le festin pendant la peste)", along with many smaller works for voice, chorus, piano, etc. (If I am not mistaken, Lourie actually did the piano reductions for several of Stravinsky's neo-classic works.)

I would love to see Michael Tilson Thomas lead us in rediscovering the music of this Russian composer.

There are neglected composers, and then there arereally neglected ones. I'll bet that not a single person reading this article knows of the composer Eduard Tubin, who lived roughly around the same time as Sibelius and Sir William Walton. Tubin had the misfortune of being born in Estonia, and was shunned by the Soviets, and not very welcomed by the Scandinavians (where he lived in exile for most of his life.). He wrote 10 Symphonies and I'd say that three of them (the 3rd, 4th and 5th) can easily stand toe-to-toe with Vaughn Williams, Nielsen or Elgar. In fact, if Tubin's Fourth (subtitled the Lyric Symphony) were played, it would get a standing ovation in most concerts. It's that good. His Piano Concertino is also a great piece of work, and shows the mind and taste of a great musician.

As I said, there are some (like all the others I mention here) who are not heard a lot in concert halls. As for Tubin, if it weren't for the Järvis (also from Estonia), we'd never hear a not of his music in North America. That's a pity. Being neglected can come from being in the wrong place at the wrong time.