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24 Famous Classical Music Composers of the Contemporary Age

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Famous Classical Music Composers of the Contemporary Age header

The Contemporary Age has blessed us with classical music from highly talented and extraordinary artists. This article lists 24 of the most famous contemporary classical music artists and composers as per our analysis and decision to include further renowned artists for their contributions and accomplishments.

Contemporary classical music composers: who counts as famous?

When discussing famous classical music composers, people usually mention historically renowned artists like Mozart, Bach, or Beethoven. This is because classical music is often associated with the past and traditionalism. Nevertheless, thanks to the work of contemporary artists, the genre remains relevant and continues to thrive in the modern day and age.

But who are the most famous classical music composers of the contemporary age (1945 to today), and how do we decide who counts as renowned? To answer this challenging question, we first analyzed over twenty articles and noted the names of those artists mentioned the most. We then conducted further research to ensure that our lists featured composers from various backgrounds.

As a result, we constructed a non-hierarchical list of various famous classical music composers of the contemporary age. We are aware of the fact that who counts as 'most famous' or influential is somewhat subjective. We also know some names may be missing and are always open to further suggestions from our community.

1. Kaija Saariaho

Kaija Saariaho (1952 - 2023) was an award-winning Finnish composer born in 1952 in Helsinki. Her musical journey began in childhood, during which she learned to play the violin, piano, and guitar. She studied composition in Helsinki, Freiburg, and Paris, where she resided for many years. Saariaho's music is characterized by richness, color, texture, and her use of electronics and computer technology. The latter two were a central aspect of her studies in Paris, during which she developed techniques related to computer-assisted composition and spectral music.

Her work comprises (but is not limited to) operas, chamber works, oratorios, and compositions for the orchestra. Saariaho won several prizes throughout her career, including the University of Louisville's Grawemeyer Award, The New York Times title Composer of the Year, and a Grammy for Best Opera Recording. She received prestigious commissions and was ranked the greatest living composer in 2019. Kaija Saariaho was also the artist most frequently mentioned in our analysis.

2. Errollyn Wallen

Errollyn Wallen (1958) is a Belize-born British composer and musician. She was involved in dancing before turning to music composition and obtaining degrees in music and composition from three universities in the UK. Her works include symphonies, operas, solo works for various instruments, orchestral works, choirs, and chamber music.

According to her website, she was the first Black woman to be featured in the Proms and the first woman to receive an Ivor Novello Award for Classical Music. In 2007, she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). In 2020, she obtained the Order of Chivalry, Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), for her contributions to music. Moreover, she belongs to the world's top 20 most-performed living composers of classical music.

In her book Becoming a Composer, she discusses that her vision for classical music was one "that was fun and joyous." However, she was rejected many times before becoming part of the industry. In her autobiography, she explains: "Nothing about me fitted the picture of a composer. I didn't even fit the image to myself – I wasn't white, male, dead, in a wig or on a wall." Eventually, she achieved massive success – her music was even played in outer space on the NASA STS-115 mission.

3. Steve Reich

Steve Reich (1936) is a US-American composer who significantly contributed to the development of minimal music. The Guardian described him as a highly influential artist, arguing that "there’s just a handful of living composers who legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history, and Steve Reich is one of them.” Reich has a solid academic background in music and composition that goes beyond Western education. His catalog comprises works for ensembles, orchestras, opera, and string quartets. His music is characterized by repetition, canons, slow harmonic rhythm, and “rethinking pulsation and tonal attraction in new ways.” In our analysis, he belonged to the most frequently mentioned contemporary composers.

4. Unsuk Chin

Unsuk Chin (1961) is another frequently mentioned contemporary classical music composer. After studying composition in Seoul and Hamburg, she now resides and works in Berlin, Germany. Her sources of inspiration comprise various cultural influences, including approaches towards music from European and Asian cultures. Her compositions often contain gradual changes in intensity and texture while maintaining clarity. Chin's works have been performed by many international orchestras, bringing her several awards, including the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, the Arnold Schoenberg Prize, the Leonie Sonning Music Prize, and many more.

5. Rachel Portman

In 1996, British composer Rachel Portman (1960) made history by becoming the first woman composer to win an Academy Award for Best Original Score for her work for the film Emma and a Primetime Emmy Award for ‘Bessie.’ Rachel Portman is also known for her various compositions for other movies and shows, including Hollywood productions. She has written over 100 compositions for film, television, and theater. Although her contributions to the music world are significant, she was surprisingly not mentioned as frequently as other artists.

6. György Ligeti

György Ligeti (1923 - 2006) was a Hungarian-Austrian composer born in Romania. He began taking piano lessons at 14 and studied composition with various mentors in Romania and Hungary during his early adulthood. WWII tragically tore apart the Hungarian-Jewish family, with only his mother surviving. After the war, he returned to music and began developing the concept of a micropolyphonic compositional style. In 1956, the Hungarian Revolution forced him to flee to Austria. There, he continued to polish his style, began reaching larger audiences, and ultimately established himself as an internationally known composer. During his career, he won many awards and prizes, taught various courses, and worked with different universities and schools. He has been described as “one of the most innovative and influential among progressive figures of his time.”

7. Eleanor Alberga

Eleanor Alberga (1949) is a Jamaican composer who resides and works in the UK. She studied at the Jamaica School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music in London. After working as a pianist, she decided to transition to composing. Alberga’s work includes compositions for orchestras and operas, piano works, vocal and choral compositions, and chamber music. Her works have been performed by renowned orchestras worldwide, including the London Philharmonic. She has received many commissions and won several awards.

8. Philip Glass

Philip Glass (1937) is a U.S.-American composer and pianist famous for his significant contributions to minimalism. His style is characterized by repetition, development, and immersion. The artist refers to himself as a composer of “music with repetitive structures” - a term he strongly prefers over being associated with minimalism. Glass was born in Baltimore in 1937 and studied at the University of Chicago, the Juilliard School, and Aspen. Throughout his career, he has written various (chamber) operas, symphonies, film scores, and concertos, among other things. His significance in music is discussed in several documentaries and reflected in a long list of awards and titles.

9. Sofia Gubaidulina

Sofia Gubaidulina (1931) is a classical music composer of half Tartar, half Slav origin. She was born in the USSR in 1931 and studied piano and composition in Kazan and at the Moscow Conservatory. After composing children’s music and for films, she began writing for other musicians, (chamber) concertos, and composing for various instruments. Later, she moved to Hamburg, where she continued her career, receiving many prizes and awards. On her website, her style is described as both improvisatory and organized. It is strongly influenced by religion, spirituality, and mysticism and is characterized by her inclusion of various instruments, among other things.

10. Hildur Guðnadóttir

Hildur Guðnadóttir (1982) is an Icelandic musician, composer, and cellist. After learning how to play cello as a child, she studied at the Reykjavík Music Academy, Icelandic Academy of the Arts, and Universität Der Künste in Berlin, where she resides now. Guðnadóttir is famous for her film scores, including her composition for 'Joker,' for which she received the Best Original Score and an Academy Award. Moreover, she has composed for theaters and dance performances, was commissioned by many renowned institutions, collaborated with artists and bands across various genres, and released four albums.

11. Wynton Learson Marsalis

Although not exclusively a classical musician, Wynton Learson Marsalis (1961) deserves a spot on our list for his various contributions to the genre. His career as a composer began with his father’s friend gifting him a trumpet. At the age of 12, he began pursuing a music career facilitated by his father, a pianist and music teacher, who introduced him to jazz education at home. His classical education, however, started at school.

Marsalis performed with the New Orleans Philharmonic at the age of 14 and joined Tanglewood’s Berkshire Music Center as the youngest artist in its history at the age of 17. Moreover, he studied classical music at The Juilliard School in New York City. He has released hundreds of classical and jazz recordings. His works include compositions for string quartets, symphonies, concertos for various instruments, ballet and dance scores, and more. He has won multiple awards, including several Grammys. He is the only musician who has won a Grammy Award in classical and jazz music twice in the same year.

12. Mohammed Fairouz

Mohammed Fairouz (1985) is an Arab-American classical music composer and belongs to today's most frequently performed, commissioned, and recorded composers. He studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music. Fairouz has composed in various areas and formats, including operas and symphonies, solo and chamber works, and vocal and choral works. His works have been performed at venues worldwide, including the Middle East, Europe, the United States, and Australia.

His music has a political and philosophical character and is influenced by his extensive travels and fascination with texts. According to his biography, Fairouz “seeks to promote cultural communication and understanding.” He does so by, for example, incorporating poems and prayers as well as Arabic elements, such as microtonal modes, spiraling dance rhythms, and plaintive melodic writing.

13. John Adams

John Adams (1947) is a composer and conductor whose name was repeatedly mentioned in our analysis. Growing up in a musical family exposed him to various genres and instruments at an early age. As a child, he learned to play the clarinet and began composing soon after. He received two degrees from Harvard University, worked with many renowned orchestras, and was commissioned by many significant institutions. Adams is famous for his operas, orchestral works, vocal, choral, and chamber music, among other areas of composing. His style is often associated with minimalism, although he does not mention the label on his website. He has won several Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize for Music, and many other awards.

14. Yoko Shimomura

Japanese composer and pianist Yoko Shimomura (1967) is primarily known for her musical contributions to video games, including Kingdom Hearts, Super Mario RPG, and Final Fantasy XV. She studied at the Osaka College of Music and began working for the video game company Capcom after graduating. Later, she joined the company Square until she began working as a freelancer in 2003. While Yoko Shimomura was only mentioned in only one of the articles we analyzed, the prominence and value of her contributions to various top-rated video games should not be underestimated.

15. Caroline Shaw

Contemporary classical music composer, violinist, vocalist, and producer Caroline Shaw (1982) has received much praise for her contributions to the genre. Growing up in a musical family allowed her to learn the violin at an early age. She obtained degrees in music from Rice University and Yale University and holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University. Shaw is the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music and won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. She has written over 100 works for other artists, orchestras, symphonies, quartets, films, shows, and podcasts. According to her website, her favorite color is yellow, and her favorite smell is rosemary.

16. Michael Abels

Michael Abels (1962) is a US-American composer known for his contributions to the films ‘Get Out,’ ‘Us,’ and ‘Nope.’ His career began when he was first introduced to the piano during his early years. At the age of 13, he had his first work performed by an orchestra. After high school, he studied at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music in LA and West African drumming techniques at the California Institute for the Arts. In addition to his contributions to films, Abels has composed for the orchestra, opera, piano, and choir. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2023, the World Soundtrack Award, the Jerry Goldsmith Award, and many other prizes. Michael Abels is also the co-founder of the Composers Diversity Collective, which aims to increase the visibility of composers of color in film and other mediums.

17. Nkeiru Okoye

Nkeiru Okoye (1972) is a US-American composer and musician of African American and Nigerian ancestry. She is considered one of the leading African American women composers. She studied music-related subjects at Oberlin Conservatory and Rutgers University and obtained a music-related Ph.D. Nkeiru Okoye’s music is strongly influenced by history and her role as an activist. She has received numerous commissions and awards and published many works, including operas and compositions for (symphony) orchestras. Next to being a musician, she is an educator and has taught music at various universities.

18. Krzysztof Penderecki

Krzysztof Penderecki (1933 - 2020) was a Polish classical music composer, conductor, and music teacher. He studied at Jagiellonian University and the Academy of Music in Kraków. Although his first work was not successful immediately, he received much praise for the works he published later in his career, including a work dedicated to the victims of Hiroshima. Penderecki won several awards, including six Grammy Awards and the Prix Italia. His works include compositions for films, operas, orchestras, chamber and instrumental works, and instrumental concertos. His music can be described as experimental and daring, religiously influenced, and political.

19. Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt (1935) is an Estonian contemporary classical music composer whose style falls into minimalism. He studied at the Tallinn Music Secondary School and the Tallinn Conservatory and worked as a recording engineer while composing music. Living under Soviet occupation, his access to Western music was limited, and some of his works even got banned. Ultimately, he and his family had to emigrate, first to Vienna and then to Berlin.

Pärt’s career as a musician was far from linear, as he decided to commit to prolonged phases of silence and study twice. After the second period, his style transformed tremendously, allowing him to develop a minimalist technique called “tintinnabuli.” He has won many awards and titles, and from 2011 to 2018 and in 2022, he was considered the most frequently performed living composer worldwide.

20. Valerie Coleman

Valerie Coleman is a US-American composer and flutist from Louisville, Kentucky, who was named Classical Woman of the Year in 2020. Her passion for music developed at an early age, allowing her to develop valuable music skills and win several awards before reaching adulthood. Coleman has degrees in music theory/composition and flute performance. Moreover, Valerie Coleman has received many prestigious commissions, performed at various institutions, and published many works for the orchestra, wind quintet, and chamber music compositions.

While still a student, she launched the chamber music ensemble Imami Winds to work with other African American woodwind players. In an interview with NPR, she explains: “I used to be in the youth orchestra, and there were so many African Americans. But somewhere along the line, when I got to college, I was the only one in the orchestra. So I wondered what in the world happened here? It came to my mind that role models are needed.”

21. John Williams

John Williams (1932), formally educated in composition and piano, is a well-known classical musician who contributed to many films and TV shows. Williams grew up in a musical family, holds a degree from Juilliard University, and has composed music during his military service. His style is described as a blend of romanticism, atonal music, and impressionism. In addition to his works for the film industry, he has composed for the concert stage and concertos for various instruments and several culturally significant events. John Williams stands out for the long list of awards and nominations he has received throughout his career, including 26 Grammys. Moreover, he was awarded a National Medal of Arts in 2009, the most prestigious award an artist can receive from the US Government.

22. Jennifer Higdon

Jennifer Higdon (1962) is a contemporary classical music composer and flutist working across various fields, including orchestral, chamber, wind ensemble, vocal, choral, and opera. She holds a degree in music and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She describes her compositional style and process as "intuitive" and "instinctive.” With over 200 performances of her works a year, she is one of the most frequently composed performers in the United States. She has been commissioned by many institutions, artists, and orchestras. Higdon has won three Grammys and several other prestigious awards.

23. Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer (1957) is a composer and music producer born in Frankfurt, Germany who resides in the United States. He is primarily known for his film scores, notably his work for 'Interstellar.' His other film scores include compositions for the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' series, 'The Dark Knight' trilogy, 'The Lion King', and 'Dune', among others. Among his many awards, he has also won two Academy Awards for the latter two films. As a multi-instrumentalist, Zimmer has, in many ways, managed to blur the lines between classical and digitally composed music. The most fascinating and impressive aspect of his career is that he is primarily self-taught. Although many argue classical music careers can only be achieved with formal education, His success proves that such a perception is not necessarily accurate.

24. Max Richter

Max Richter (1966) is another successful German-born composer and pianist who grew up and resides in the United Kingdom. His works primarily fall into the category of post-minimalism and include compositions for the ballet, opera, stage work, films and shows (such as 'Black Mirror'), and solo albums. He works with analog instruments, synthesizers, and computers, blending traditional and modern approaches. Max Richter has received formal composition training at the University of Edinburgh, the Royal Academy of London, and Florence.

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