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Top 5 Classical Composers of All Time

Updated on August 2, 2009
Gustavo Dudamel © Dan Porges
Gustavo Dudamel © Dan Porges

Well, this is the Top 5 as I see it, anyway. Granted, I’m not a classical musician and I absolutely hated classical music when I was a child – but I suspect that’s because I hated being forced to play it on the piano, when I wanted to learn something on the opposite end of the spectrum. I actually didn’t start listening to classical music radio until I was in my mid-twenties, but somehow managed to fall completely and utterly in love with several composers. The names on this list are certainly familiar, but you may wonder why certain names – such as Mozart – are not there.

The answer is simple: I find most of his music somewhat annoying and the rest overstated. But the main reason would have to be, Mozart just never moved me. And while there are certainly pieces from other composers that I listen to with great admiration, this list is as much about quantity as it is quality. Yes, I have something from Pachelbel in my collection – but I really only like 1 piece from him. These names belong to composers from whom I could randomly select any recording and be more than happy with the results. Obviously, this is just my opinion and many will feel others belong in the top 5. But I doubt anyone would say anyone on this list isn’t one of the greats.

Buy Beethoven's Works From Amazon

J.S. Bach
J.S. Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

(1685 - 1750)

My favorite composer and totally incomparable, as far as I’m concerned. Born in Germany, Bach came from a musical family and was better known as an organist, than composer. It wasn’t until after his death that people took a serious interest in his compositions, which had previously been disregarded as old-fashioned. Today he’s revered for the incredible talent he was. My favorite classical instrument is the cello, and, in my opinion, none have outdone his Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.

Bach's Cello Suite No. 4 Prelude: Performed by Sifei Wen

Ludwig van Beethoven


Another German composer, most will probably feel he belongs on this list. Beethoven’s talents were recognized at a very young age and he moved to Vienna, Austria to study under famous composer Joseph Haydn. It’s said he also attempted to study under Mozart but it’s unknown whether or not they ever even met. Beethoven was known to have a temper, and you can definitely hear his passion in his work. My favorite piece has always been Piano Sonata 14 in C Sharp Minor – better known as Moonlight Sonata.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky

(1840 – 1893)

Is there anyone on earth who doesn’t know most of The Nutcracker Suite by heart? Is there anyone who hasn’t at least heard of Swan Lake? Probably not, and that’s precisely why Russian composer Tchaikovsky is on this list. That, and nothing says Christmas like the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies. His music was so amazingly original and magical at the same time, it’s almost impossible to imagine the holiday season without it. It's the only ballet I've ever enjoyed watching, and it's all because of the music.

Antonín Dvořák

(1841 – 1904)

Dvořák was a Czech (Czech, not Czechoslovak) composer who created some of the most depressing music you have ever heard. By the way, Dvořák is pronounced Dvor-zhak. Well, not exactly, but that will sound a lot closer than how it looks. It’s the “ř” that has a special sound that only Czech people seem capable of pronouncing, but hearing it in English drives me nuts, because it’s so far off. My favorite works from him are the Slavonic Dances.

Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor: Performed by Jacqueline Du Pre

Sir Edward Elgar

(1857 - 1934)

This one will probably surprise, but I insist he be on this list. Classical music lovers will know him, the rest of the world has probably never heard of him, and that is a great shame. An Englishman who wrote “jovial” music, his works were popular, but fell out of favor when war hit. None of this is why he’s on this list, however. His last great masterpiece, Cello Concerto in E minor is the most powerful cello piece I’ve ever heard in my life, and I still cry every time I hear it. It’s an intimate portrait of an old man looking back on his life while looking ahead to his own death. It doesn’t get more real than that, and the honesty of this concerto can’t be ignored.


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