The 10 Greatest Composers of the 21st Century (To Date)
From the concert hall to the gaming console, the last century has seen the number of platforms for brilliant music grow exponentially.
Now, somewhere in the 21st century, we take a look at the composers whose works could have the biggest impact on the next 80 years of classical musical creation.
Across film scores, jazz clubs, concert halls and video game soundtracks, 21st century classical music incorporates styles and influences from all that has come before it, including minimalism, romantic music, choral and religious masses, electronics and much more.
Here are 10 of the most notable composers of the past 22 years and hopefully more to come…
Composer, pianist and producer, Max Richter is one of the best-known classical composers at work in this century, with over a billion streams of his music online and another million albums sold. Educated at the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Academy of Music, Richter then studied in Florence under the great pioneer of the 20th century, Luciano Berio, one of the main proponents of experimental electronic music.
Berio’s influence can be heard in Richter’s music, especially with his use of looping and phasing techniques, heard in his famous work Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, which premiered in 2012. A decade later, in 2022, Richter released a new version with Chineke! Orchestra and Elena Urioste, who was featured in series 4 of the hit Netflix period drama Bridgerton.
Since the release of his first solo piano album, The wavein 1996, Ludovico Einaudi’s name became synonymous with hypnotically minimalist piano music.
Her simple yet hauntingly beautiful melodies have become the hallmark of her work, which has also included scores and soundtracks for ballet, stage and screen. His music has featured in notable film and television productions in the 21st century, including Doctor Zhivago and nomadlandas well as advertisements for major brands of household products.
In recent years, Einaudi has turned to environmental activism. In 2016, he performed his Elegy for the Arctic on a floating platform amidst icebergs in Norway, raising awareness of melting ice caps and rising sea levels in conjunction with environmental charity Greenpeace.
Read more: 10 best works by pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi
Born into a family of musicians, Icelandic composer, cellist and singer Hildur Guðnadóttir is best known for her award-winning film and television scores. In 2019, his score for the film Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Robert de Niro, won the Golden Globe Award and Oscar for Best Original Score, as well as a BAFTA for Best Original Score. These historic achievements made Guðnadóttir the first woman to win each of the three categories, as well as the first Icelander to win an Oscar.
The same year, his score for the HBO miniseries Chernobyl won another BAFTA Award, as well as a Grammy Award and a Primetime Emmy Award. His most recent project, TÁR, which stars Cate Blanchett as the tyrannical conductor of a major German orchestra, has already been submitted for Oscar consideration for 2023.
Read more: TÁR: Who is Lydia Tár, what is the music and how did Cate Blanchett learn to conduct?
Award-winning composer and conductor Eric Whitacre is responsible for some of the most celebrated choral music of the 21st century. Known for his close, crisp and complex harmonies, which form what he calls “the golden brick”, his most famous works include Sleep, Waterspoutand Lux Aurumque.
Whitacre is also known for his Virtual Choir, which he founded in 2009 – a gathering of video recordings from around the world, all synced up to form a mass choir. Its first iteration included 185 singers, gradually increasing until the most recent Virtual Choir 6.0 in May 2020, which included 17,572 performers, including 16 who performed in sign language.
The composer behind many of the best film scores of the 21st century, from Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lion King at Gladiator and CreationHans Zimmer holds 23 industry awards for his soundtracks, including an Oscar, two Golden Globes, four Grammys and three Classical Brits.
His work did not stop with film music either. Its majestic theme opens every episode of the Netflix drama The crownand he even composed bespoke ringtones and a new audio identity for Netflix’s iconic “Ta-Dum.”
Read more: Hans Zimmer’s 10 Best Soundtracks
Japanese composer and pianist Yoko Shimomura is best known for her emotive and much-loved music for video games. She began piano lessons between the ages of four and five, and soon began practicing in her practice sessions, inventing her own original compositions.
After graduating from the Osaka College of Music, she decides to send some excerpts of her compositions to video game companies. She was hired by Capcom, where she wrote soundtracks for Street Fighter II among other things, before leaving to join Square Enix.
In 2002, she wrote the soundtrack for Kingdom Hearts, which she said was the most “special” soundtrack for her. Shimomura also wrote an epic Wagnerian soundtrack for Final Fantasy XVtaking the musical lead from Nobuo Uematsu to previous installments in the franchise.
Read more: 7 of Video Game Composer Yoko Shimomura’s Best Songs
Wynton Marsalis is an American trumpet player, composer and teacher, working in both jazz and classical genres. With nine Grammy Awards to his name, he is the only musician to win in the jazz and classical categories in the same year at the awards – a feat he achieved at just 22 years old, in 1983.
Today, alongside his role as Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, Marsalis is an active presence on the jazz scene in addition to being a prolific composer. In 1997, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his jazz oratorio, Blood on the fieldsand in recent years has written both a violin concerto and ‘Fiddle Dance Suite’ for star Scottish-Italian violinist, Nicola Benedetti.
Read more: Trumpet player Wynton Marsalis on music and social upheaval: “Jazz teaches you how to create change”
English composer Rachel Portman began writing music as a teenager, focusing specifically on film music at Oxford University, where she began composing for fellow films and theater productions .
Portman has written over 100 soundtracks, including his score for Emma in 1996, making her the first composer to win the Oscar for Best Musical or Comedy Score. Portman has since scored films including Chocolate, Mona Lisa smileand The Duchessand in 2010 was appointed OBE.
Read more: “We are drilling slowly! – Rachel Portman, Oscar-winning “Emma” composer
Composer and conductor Sir James MacMillan is one of the most eminent Scottish classical musicians of the 21st century. His first major appearance on the classical scene dates back to 1990 with the creation of The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie – an emotionally charged and powerful account of a young woman in 17th century Scotland, who was accused and then executed for witchcraft.
Since then MacMillan has composed a percussion concerto for Dame Evelyn Glennie, a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, and has also written some of the finest choral music of the past 20 years, including The Strathclyde Motets in 2005, and a new setting of the Stabat Mater in 2015. In 2022, MacMillan also composed “Who Will Separate Us?” for the funeral service of Queen Elizabeth II.
Read more: Lost Songs of St Kilda: listen to forgotten folk music from an abandoned island
17-year-old composer, pianist and violinist Alma Deutscher is one of the brightest young stars of her generation. She wrote her first piano sonata at the age of five, with a short opera, The Dream Sweeper after only two years later. In 2016, when Deutscher was 11, Zubin Mehta sponsored the European premiere of his first complete opera, Cinderella.
When Deutscher was 13, she moved to Vienna with her family, describing the Austrian city as her “musical homeland”, having grown up on the music of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Haydn. In 2021, at the age of 16, she was admitted to the degree in orchestral conducting at the prestigious University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, where her predecessors are Zubin Mehta, Claudio Abbado and Kirill Petrenko.