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The Top Ten Underrated Composers, Part II

March 22, 2011

Last week, SFCV started a list of the Top Ten most underrated composers, the criterion being, mainly, a reputation that derives from a few well-known pieces and ignores a large majority of great works. Like most lists, this one can hardly be compressed to just 10 choices, but at least it's a start. Feel free to add your own choices in comments.

Luigi Boccherini

No. 5, Luigi Boccherini: There are so many underrated 18th-century composers that it’s hard to say who deserves this distinction the most. But the cello virtuoso Boccherini hit the trifecta: He went to Spain (bad idea, if you want to be famous), his autograph manuscripts were burned during the Spanish Civil War, and in his most common portrait he wears a puppy dog bow-tie that makes him look like a Christmas present for some duchess or other. How can you take a guy like that seriously (if you’re not a cellist)?

Yet Boccherini, a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, wrote some of the most original, un-Viennese instrumental music of the time. It lacks the forward momentum and drive of the music of the Viennese greats, but it has a wealth of charm, and Boccherini was freer than anyone else of the time with formal models. If you’re a Mozart/Haydn lover (who isn’t?), Boccherini’s music is a constantly surprising, undiscovered treasure trove.


Mikhail Glinka

No. 4, Mikhail Glinka: In the face-off of underrated Russians, Glinka (1804–1857) wins out over Rimsky-Korsakov by virtue of not having composed Schéhérazade or the Capriccio Espagnole. I’ve loved Glinka ever since my run in with Ruslan und Lyudmila at the San Francisco Opera 16 years ago. I thought then, and I reiterate now, that anyone who can combine Russian folksong, advanced French grand opera musical techniques, and a Donizetti-inspired patter-song (in Russian, yet) in one opera has my vote for the Hall of Fame.

Specialists will tell you that Glinka’s effect on Russian classical composition was catalytic. The influence was total, encompassing both “the Mighty Handful” and Tchaikovsky — they all knew they would be nowhere without Glinka’s Kamarinskaya Overture. But Glinka wrote many scores that general music lovers don’t know or could stand to hear more of, including the Capriccio brillante and Memories of a Summer’s Night in Madrid (Second Spanish Overture), a slew of Chopin-influenced piano music, and some wonderful songs. Oh, and can we please have Ruslan performed again?

Paul Hindemith

No. 3, Paul Hindemith: Hindemith had one of the highest reputations between the world wars, which has now dropped shamefully. There should be a happy medium for this fine composer, as a recent San Francisco Symphony performance of his Concert Music for Brass and Strings confirmed. His precipitous fall came because he opposed the nontonal and serialist techniques that dominated the European new music scene in the postwar years.

That won’t stop you from enjoying the many fine pieces that this extremely prolific composer created, in all kinds of genres. Personally, I’d love to hear the Variations on “A Frog He Went a-Courtin’,” but more serious minds might prefer Nobilissima Visione or the song cycle Das Marienleben, or perhaps the set of piano works, Ludus tonalis. As a champion of all the old classical virtues, including the ability to write a great melody, Hindemith is unsurpassed.

Jean-Philippe Rameau

No. 2, Jean-Philippe Rameau: Rameau is famous for having been the guy who first fully described the theory of “tonal” harmony that we still learn in music lessons. He sometimes spoke of himself as more a theorist than a composer. But don’t take him at his word: He was a tremendous composer, one of the first to really push what the orchestra could do, paving the way for Gluck, Cherubini, Beethoven, and all the rest. His tremendously energetic and physical dance music can literally pull you out of your seat, when it is performed with attention to the myriad complicated details that the French Baroque throws at you. And he was the single great French opera composer of his time — all this, after he turned 50.

Unfortunately, the stylized French opera of his era isn’t a big seller in ours. Outside of France, you have to hope for a tour by William Christie’s ensemble Les Arts Florissants or Mark Minkowski’s Les Musiciens de Louvre. And as for ballet, well, even balletomanes don’t think Zaïs or Les Fêtes d’Hébé when they name famous works. Rameau’s music is kept alive through the orchestral suites drawn from a few of his theater works, and by a few of the many great keyboard pieces he wrote. This is not nearly good enough, for a composer of such imagination. We have to do a little bit better by Rameau.

Gioachino Rossini

No. 1, Gioachino Rossini: “Wait, isn’t he one of the most celebrated composers of Italian opera — the master who wrote Barber of Seville?” I agree he is, which is why it’s so surprising that his last, great comic opera, Le Comte Ory receives its Metropolitan Opera premiere this month. And by the way, when’s the last time we’ve seen his greatest masterpiece, William Tell? Or Tancredi, the epochal opera he wrote at the same time as The Italian Girl in Algiers? (That opera’s carpet of great tunes has been twice recorded, and it used to give my Conservatory students chills, yet no production is in sight.) And what about The Lady of the Lake or Otello, operas that helped define Italian Romanticism? If there were three or four great Mozart or Verdi operas or a couple of late Beethoven symphonies that didn’t regularly get performed and were hardly known to music lovers, you’d be surprised, wouldn’t you?

On the other hand, Rossini made about 10,000 ducats/lire/Italian units of money per opera, at a time when most composers received 800 or less. He retired rich before he was 40, married a second wife half his age, helped Donizetti and Bellini get their feet wet in Paris successfully, wrote two of the great sacred works of the period (the Stabat Mater and Petite Messe Solenelle), had a decadent steak recipe named after him (tournedos Rossini), and lived long enough to say snarky things about Wagner.

So some of his operas don’t get performed now; Rossini still had the best of it.

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.


Rossini!?!?!?! Noooooo!!!!!!

Where's Nielsen???

Retiring to weep quietly in a corner. Sniffle.

Rossini, the composer many so-called cognoscenti like to scoff at, even as their neighbors go down the street whistling "La ran la le ra." Let's hear it for the glories of Semiramide and Armida, and the joys of Cenerentola and Barbiere. Fun and entertainment do not second rate entertainment make!

IMHO Bocherini is overrated - just sayin', as a chamber musician...he gets played more than he deserves.  I am a great appreciator of Hindemith and Rameau, didn't know the rest of the world were not.  There may be some good reason why Rossini's final Opera is just now being premiered...

Fun and entertainment do not of necessity second rate music make!

I offer a hanky to poor Lisa. When you see what they say on Opera-L about some of my most beloved singers, you'll know you are not alone.

In the surprise underrating book, you should put Rachmaninoff, if you're going to include Rossini. The plethora of attacks and short-shrift writeups the poor expatriate took from Modernist critics is shameful, considering his never-waning popularity.

I agree with Hindemith's being on the list; he's one of my all-time faves. But I cannot join you in calling him a great melodist. Many of his piece's best melodies were written by previous composers. But the second movement of his cello concerto is a truly great tune. How wonderful the next SF Symphony season starts out with that super work!

In addition to underrated composers, here's a list of underrated masterpieces, never heard here, that deserve our ears:

Franz Schmidt: Symphony No. 2; Vittorio de Sabata: Jeventus; Geirr Tveitt: Hardanger Suite No. 2; Allan Pettersson: Symphony No. 7;  Nicolas Maw: Odyssey; Julius Röntgen: Symphony No. 3; Wilhelm Stenhammar: Piano Concerto No. 2; Hayden Wayne: Symphony No. 4 ("Funk")

Michael:  I endorse Hindemith's inclusion.  Among many other wonderful things you listed, he wrote sonatas for almost every instrument and I, as a pianist enjoyed, violin, cello, bassoon, French Horn, English Horn, as well as his first piano sonata.  Also, as accompanist of the Harvard Glee Club, I was privileged to play under Hindemith's baton when he was Norton Professor of poetry of Harvard (in the 1950's).

Nice Selection. Hindemith had an enormous influence on the Early Music revival in the US. Rossini has some very fine music that is rarely performed including sacred works.


>>Where's Nielsen???

Lisa, Nielsen's very absence here proves our point. Look at it this way: The more underrated you are, the less likely you are to appear on a list of underrated composers. The truly underrated are the ones who don't get noticed at all.


Jason, I've been no-mail on opera-l since 1998. That tells you something, I think. I actually don't care what 98% of the people there say, and I have fruitful off-list correspondences with the 2% whose opinions I care about.

Rossini is cursed in that four of his comic operas are insanely overexposed, to the point where audiences have no idea of his breadth. I bow to no one in my love of Guillaume Tell, a great work, but I would pay NOT to see "Barber," etc. ever again.

That said, I don't see how he can be considered the most underrated composer.

Rossini, Glinka.


Yes it is a paradox or impossibility to make an underrated composer list.

If it is one person's opinion (as it is here), then it is one person's rating against a consensus and not very meaningful.

If it is many people's consensus opinion, then it becomes the rating that should be critiqued.


But at least something to start conversation.

Jerome Moross is the first name that comes to my mind when I see the phrase "underrated composer". I get enormous pleasure from the recordings of his music that I have, and I wish more of it was recorded. For one thing, when will someone finally get around to a studio recording of The Golden Apple, my nomination for Greatest Damn Musical You've Never Heard Of?

Another possible choice might be Meredith Willson, except that I'm basing this pretty much entirely on a recording of two symphonies by him. They are only two symphonies, but they are really terrific. I have no idea how much other music he wrote but these two pieces are too good to be anybody's only venture into orchestral music.

Claire Callahan Goodman,

Speaking as a chamber musician also, I'd say it's all but impossible to judge Boccherini's chamber music by what you hear in concert, because the sample's too small. You're apt to encounter the same few pieces over and over again, simply because for the vast majority of that music, parts are near-impossible to get ahold of.

Seriously, try finding parts to any but a dozen or so of the string quintets. Ricordi has most of them, but there's no domestic distributor. (Or, rather, Hal Leonard is the domestic distributor, but all but one volume is special order import only, and in my experience -- I spent something like 15 years in sheet music retail -- that means that, with luck, you might see your parts in six months or so, and the markup is going to be scary.) Or you can go to King's Music in England and order a fascicle of six quintets from Janet & Cotelle's early-19th-c. not-quite-complete edition in not-always-legible photocopy.

I have a set of parts to the string sextets, published by Zanibon, and even with the employee discount and the direct connection to the publisher I had at the time, they cost the earth and took (again) months to get here.

Anyone curious about the Boccherini you never hear should pick up a volume of La Magnifica Comunita's ongoing  recordings of the quintets on Brilliant Classics. They are very cheap, and the performances (on period instruments) are excellent.

I'm with Lisa: Nielsen is the most under-rated composer.  Hindemith is up there, too.  I'm not sure if you can call Rossini under-rated as a whole: he has too much highly rated music.  What Rossini has is vast neglected stretches of his output, but that's true of many other top-ranked composers as well, such as Mendelssohn whom I mentioned last week.  Does early Richard Strauss get the respect it deserves, or late Schumann?  What we need to put all of them, including Rossini, on is a list of most undeservedly obscure masterpieces by otherwise famous composers.

My vote is for Alexander "Fin de Siecle" von Zemlinksy.

  You've got to include Spohr!  He's incredibly underrated!  He wrote amazing concerto works, especially his clarinet concertos I and III.  He was a genius way ahead of his time when it came to using every part of the instrument's range and with some styles that we now think of as belonging to modern music.

Thanks. After all this reading I can return to listening to the Complete Songs of Gabriel Faure. Aren't ears funny. I have not listened to much classical music recently, but now that KDFC plays pieces that are longer than 3 minutes I'm beginning to enjoy it again. Thanks, KDFC.