A Lineage of Great 20th Century Composers?


Robert Craft said that after Stravinsky we can no longer identify a lineage of truly great composers, as we readily can for several centuries past.

There are possible holes immediately evident in this statement, the most obvious of which is that we do not have enough distance from the 20th century to know which works and composers will stand as legendary beyond their time. However, I believe we 1) are able to identify masterworks without significant historical distance and 2) can identify a pale of great composers of the 20th century, given the appropriate criteria. So, I’ve decided to attempt to create my own list of the 20th Century’s greatest composers, as a thought-experiment for myself, and to elicit the outraged opinions of my colleagues.

Here are the criteria I’ve set:

  • iconoclastic: defined or popularized a new aesthetic
  • composed major works that have remained in the collective consciousness
  • compositions are objectively well-crafted
  • compositions stand as good music in hindsight, i.e. they don’t stand only on the trends of the time
  • compositions demonstrate a superior ear for various musical parameters (especially pitch material), and a special gift for narrative and imagination

I’ve allowed myself to identify up to two composers in every generation, and I’ve gone up to the “Baby Boomer” period.

Here is the list of composers, along with two of their most groundbreaking works:

Igor Stravinsky: 1882-1971

  • 1911  Petroushka
  • 1913 Rite of Spring

Edgar Varese: 1883-1965

  • 1921  Amerique
  • 1958  Poeme Electronique

Giancinto Scelsi: 1905-1988

  • 1959  Quattro pezzi su una nota sola
  • 1965  Anahit

Olivier Messiaen: 1908-1992

  • 1941  Quartet for the End of Time
  • 1969  La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ

Iannis Xenakis: 1922-2001

  • 1955  Metastasis
  • 1971  Persépolis

Karlheinz Stockhausen:  1928-2007

  • 1955  Gruppen
  • 1977-2003  Licht Cycle (7 operas)

Gerard Grisey: 1946-1998

  • 1976-1985 Les espaces acoustique (cycle of 6 works)

Salvatore Sciarrino: b. 1947

  • 1981  Introduzione all’Oscuro
  • 1984  Lohengrin

Please feel free to offer your thoughts, as my hope is that this post will generate a healthy discussion of the topic.


8 thoughts on “A Lineage of Great 20th Century Composers?

    • Dear Andrew: Many people have mentioned the omission of Ligeti, and as a result, I’ve acquired a number of scores of his and am getting to know his music better. I hope to write about my impressions soon. Thanks for your comment.

    • Hi Jennifer, Thanks for your comment! I harbor some reservations regarding Cage’s music, which is something I hope to write about in the future. The short of it is that his philosophy is far more potent than the actual content of his music for me. Feldman stands head-and-sholders above the other downtown NY composers of that era, in my opinion.

      Lachenmann was a struggle not to include. I am still wondering if he should edge out Sciarrino.


      • I completely understand your Cage hesitation and have felt really similarly from time to time. I certainly feel like Cage is uneven, and until recently would have agreed that “his philosophy is far more potent than the actual content of his music.” After seeing some seriously excellent performances of his music (ones not based in novelty etc.) I’ve changed my mind a bit.

        I would guess he’s falling short for you on the last three criterion. Just to play devil’s advocate…
        3. With the wide-spread effect and effectiveness indeterminacy and chance have had on music, I hope they can be included as signs of craft.
        4. I can understand Cage’s unevenness being problematic on this point, but don’t mind if composers have so-so works along with their masterpieces (goodness knows Beethoven and Mozart certainly did). Credo in US is pretty damn fantastic.
        5. Here again I guess indeterminacy and chance might work against Cage. I also have to be a little critical of a preference for pitch material and narrative. To me, they seem to be parameters extremely rooted in older traditions, moreso than parameters like timbre or rhythm (including indeterminate durations/event pacing), for example. The first criterion is at odds with this one in ways that are, in this case, problematic.

        So I guess to summarize and be as long winded as possible… I’m not personally the biggest fan of Cage’s music and would probably pull out a Feldman CD over a Cage on most days of the week (god, I love Feldman…), but that’s just my personal aesthetic. I think the last three criterion you’ve chosen, though really thoughtful and helpful for discussion, amount to a fairly subjective exclusion of Cage’s highly influential and effective music (though admittedly not all of it).

        Best of luck deciding between Lachenmann and Sciarrino. I know I couldn’t do it.

        Thanks for writing this post (seriously!) and I hope, even if I’m completely off base, I’ve at least contributed to healthy discussion 🙂

      • Hey Jennifer,

        I greatly appreciate you insightful comments!

        My main response is that while having a focus on pitch material and narrative may be rooted in tradition, it also remains contemporary. Cage’s mature output, as I understand it, is generally meant to be experienced one sound at a time, void of linearity. This is already an out-dated idea; today’s most interesting composers are back to focusing on the trajectory of a piece. It strikes me as necessary.

        That being said, I do honestly hope to have more very high quality listening experiences of Cage’s music that will sway my opinion. I remain open to it.

        You have been a great supporter. Thank you!! I hope I can get to see you soon.


  1. I think you have set out wonderful criteria for assembling this list, Jeff. That said, from the standpoint of a composer as much as a listener, I find myself more and more trying to relinquish all of these criteria when I encounter a new piece. In particular, I feel the iconoclast characterization is a major temptation when we assess composers (there is an allure of the strange and extreme—e.g. Stockhausen, Lucier, etc).

    What troubles me with judgment of music is that I suspect people often rely too heavily on their own pre-established criteria. If you had told me that Abrahamsen’s “Schnee” was an hour-long set of canons and intermezzi based on Bach, I would have likely anticipated a novelty of a piece. Instead, I rank it alongside the “Rite” in sheer power and assertiveness, beauty, and—I anticipate—significance.

    But take Boulez’ “Derive II,” which struck me just as strongly. He meets the iconoclast characterization, and I expect the work is objectively well-crafted (I haven’t seen it, but craft is something Boulez is known for). Still, I cannot see this work entering the canon, for no reason other than its thorny, standoff-ish demeanor and sheer uncompromising length. Boulez wrote this piece is the wrong era, but not by much.

    I almost hate to say this, but when it comes down to judgment, I find myself trying to let go of everything you propose (this isn’t easy—those criteria are what I gravitate toward), in favor of a simpler question: does the composer act with conviction, urgency, purpose, and determination? I feel that all the works you listed meet this criterion, but that it also explains why composers like Ruth Crawford and Alvin Lucier have yet to enter the broader public consciousness; it also accounts for the seeming discrepancy between Arvo Pärt’s redundant craft and the high technique of Xenakis. This can lead to an elusive determination of a work, but I think it is the most honest. Again, not because your criteria are lacking (or because your choices of works/composers are flawed), but because our sense of the march of history is largely at fault for what it excludes, rather than mistakenly includes.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

      There is an allure of the strange and extreme, but for good reason. For me, imagination is the ultimate criterion of a great composer, and a great composer’s finest work must strike us as strange and extreme because it must also be highly imaginative, to me, at least. Schnee is also that way for me, and I must say that I do not automatically place a stigma on the idea of a piece being a set of 10 canons based on Bach, because I know that any composer of interest will cast that relationship in a valuable aesthetic, potentially at a high level of abstraction. However, if I was told that the piece is also tonal before I heard it, I would assume that it’s bad. Even so, I would give the piece reasonable consideration upon hearing it. So perhaps my response to your point of “pre-established criteria” is that there’s nothing wrong with pre-conceived notions as long as we’re willing to listen to music with an open mind.

      I find the comparison of Schnee to Derive II very interesting. I’ve shown Schnee to a number of students at Berklee now, and none of them have been as impressed with the piece as I was expecting. I haven’t shown them Derive II, but it seems like Schnee comes off as drier to non-new music listeners than it does to us. As far as which one will enter the repertoire: Schnee is still obscure to anyone not intensely involved with new music, and Derive II is sometimes played by major orchestras. I am with you, though: I hope that Schnee becomes a very important piece in the rep.

      I like the idea of measuring a piece by “conviction, urgency, purpose, and determination”. But, I think almost all composers are doing this(?). It’s really hard for me to say, because I’m not a composer, and I think it’s my non-composer sensibility that makes me lean toward a stricter – and probably more cliche – set of criteria.

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