There are composers who everyone knows, and there are composers who no one knows.
There’s also a’middle’ category of composers whose names may be familiar to music lovers but whose finest works are not so well-known. In fact, they’re downright neglected.
We asked classical music audiences who they thought were the most underrated composers so we could give them a little more love. Here are ten that they suggested.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
It’s hard to imagine that someone who composed the blockbuster Carnival of the Animals, Organ Symphony, and Danse Macabre could actually be called ‘underrated’, but Saint-Saëns’ music is so much more important than those few works suggest.
Saint-Saëns composed more great symphonies and concertos than any other Frenchman; he wrote the first French piano trio and other ground-breaking chamber music; and he also wrote one of the greatest operas too, with Samson and Delilah. But it goes on. Saint-Saëns was one of the first great composers to make a dedicated study of so-called ‘world music’; he was the first to write music for film; and he even pioneered the recording of classical music on disc.
- “I have long thought that Saint-Saëns was unjustly underrated, yet he was so versatile and so melodic, and everything he wrote is quite wonderful in its own way.” Jo, Sydney
- “I can never understand why Saint-Saëns’ beautiful Piano Concerti Nos. 1 and 4 and Africa for piano and orchestra rarely get an airing. Stephen Hough’s fabulous interpretations of all the above bear testimony to Saint-Saëns’ sheer inventiveness and melodic genius.” Stephen, Carey Bay, NSW
- “Saint-Saëns is so underrated. His piano concertos, in particular, are absolutely amazing! Mark, North Avoca
Gerald Finzi (1901–1956)
The English composer Finzi led quite a solitary existence, where reading poetry and wandering in the English countryside were his main leisure activities. He ended up owning one of the largest private book collections in England, and he never really pushed his own barrow as a composer, leaving manuscripts in the bottom drawer for years at a time and preferring the company of close friends like Ralph Vaughan Williams.
In his 50s, Finzi was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, and, knowing that his days were numbered, he went into a period of intensive revision of his music. The result? Some of the greatest music of the English pastoral tradition.
- “Gerald Finzi’s music just makes me swoon, especially Eclogue and the Cello Concerto, but it’s all equally good.” Phil, Hawthorn
- “Gerald Finzi’s Dies Natalis is a masterpiece.””—Rosemary Norwood
- “I think Gerald Finzi is underrated. I only discovered him in my 60s when I took up the clarinet and came across his Five Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano. But as I quickly discovered, he’s so much more than that!” Kim, Canberra
Max Bruch (1838–1920)
The term ‘one-hit wonder’ is rarely justified, and certainly not in the case of German composer Bruch. Overwhelmingly known for his Violin Concerto No. 1 (and a little less so for his Scottish Fantasy and Kol Nidrei), Bruch actually composed a Second and Third Violin Concerto, which those in the know consider to be equal or even superior to their predecessors. And then there are the three symphonies too; all three of them are works of staggering drama and lyrical beauty, and Bruch’s chamber music is equally fine.
- “I simply couldn’t believe my ears when I first heard that slow, lyrical opening to Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Why do we only ever hear No. 1?” Daisy, Rouse Hill
- “My vote for the most underrated composer goes to Max Bruch, because there is so much more than his fantastic Violin Concerto No. 1.” — Alistair
Francesca Caccini (1587–after 1641)
Francesca Caccini grew up in a famous Italian musical family, and on a visit to France, King Henri IV called Caccini ‘the best singer in France’. Her Italian contemporaries said she was “unquestionably a marvel,” and at the Medici Court, where she served much of her career as a multi-instrumentalist, she was the highest-paid musician on staff. But what’s only just being fully realised now is that Caccini composed some of the most sublime music of the early Baroque, surpassing her famous father Giulio, whose presumed Ave Maria turns out not to have been written by him at all!
- “When I first heard Francesca Caccini’s incredible music, I didn’t know whether to dance or weep.” Alison, Hornsby
- “Where has Francesca Caccini been all our lives?” Denis, Mandurah
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778–1837)
Hummel was born in what’s now known as the city of Bratislava, but his family took him to Vienna, where he immediately came to the attention of Mozart, who taught him for two years. And just like his teacher, Hummel gained a reputation as a child prodigy. He toured all over Europe, just like his mentor had done two decades earlier. Everyone at the time thought of him as the next Mozart and a better pianist than Beethoven. Two centuries on, ABC Classic listeners still think he’s underrated and that nowhere near enough of his music is heard these days.
- “Sometimes I think Hummel gets lost amidst the adoration of Mozart and Beethoven, but he’s such a brilliant and prolific composer in his own right.” Jacqueline, Hobart
- “Everything Hummel wrote is good, except the Trumpet Concerto, which is boring and gets played too much!” — Don
Dora Pejačević (1885–1923)
Dora who? That would have been the response just a few years ago, but recent recording projects and a focus on her by ABC Classic have revealed a major composer whose Piano Concerto and other orchestral and chamber music are worthy of taking their place among the greats.
Born into the Croatian nobility, Pejačević ended up disowning her own family in particular and the European aristocracy in general to forge her own independent career driven by her immense intellect, prodigious learning, and her passion for social justice. She died at just 37 but left behind a profound musical legacy.
- “Dora Pejaević is much better known since she was featured on the Mornings Playlist on ABC Classic, but she’s still underrated.” — Anon
- “Thanks to Dora Pejaevi’s week on the Mornings Playlist earlier this year, I think she’s hitting the big time now!” — Anon
Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745)
Zelenka was a Czech-born contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, and in fact, Bach was one of his many admirers.
In 1710, Zelenka joined the court orchestra in Dresden, where he became one of the giants of the Baroque, despite being a rather controversial character. Following Zelenka’s death, much of his music was “kept under lock and key” by the Dresden court, and the reasons for this aren’t entirely clear. But to those who do know his music, he has almost cult status because he was such an innovator.
- “Zelenka was the master of counterpoint and harmonic invention.” Peter Bajgar
- “Zelenka’s music is sublime, but we hardly ever hear it.” Gae, Thornleigh, NSW
Cécile Chaminade (1857–1944)
For a long time, Chaminade’s name was known only to collectors of piano rolls from the early 20th century. Although she was an obviously gifted pianist as a child, her father wouldn’t let Chaminade study at the Paris Conservatoire, so she ended up having to take music lessons on the sly. That didn’t stop her from becoming a major concert pianist and composer, especially popular in England and America. She composed lots of music for solo piano and a stunning concertstück in C sharp minor, Op. 40. Her music faded into obscurity following her death in 1944 but is now making a rapid comeback.
- “Many female composers are underrated, but especially Cécile Chaminade. Listen in particular to her Thème Varié (Theme and Variations) in A Major op. 89.” Mason, Sydney
Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900)
Sullivan is usually regarded as a composer of enjoyable but lightweight theatrical fluff, set to libretti by W. S. Gilbert, but in his youth, he was actually quite the musical heavyweight. He won the Royal Academy of Music’s first ever Mendelssohn Scholarship, studied in Leipzig, and composed many orchestral works, various piano and chamber pieces, plus over 70 hymns and anthems throughout his long career. And they’re really good. Check out his youthful Symphony in E (sometimes known as the Irish Symphony) for starters.
- “There is a myth that Arthur Sullivan’s only worthwhile music was composed to W.S. Gilbert’s words. Not true! He was outstanding in everything he did. He wrote better orchestral music than Robert Schumann, but Schumann got better publicity.” — Daniel
Vasily Kalinnikov (1866–1901)
Just days after his 35th birthday, when he died from tuberculosis, the Russian composer Kalinnikov wrote two symphonies that aren’t widely known but are revered by those who do know them. Both show the influence of Russian folk music.
Encouraged by Tchaikovsky, Kalinnikov (whose younger brother Viktor was also a gifted composer) made his name initially as a multi-instrumentalist in Russian theatre orchestras, but then his health packed it in, and in the 1890s he had to go off to the warmer climate of the Crimea to try to recover. That’s when he turned his attention to composition, making the last few years of his short life really count.
- “There are so many Russian composers whose music has that real nationalist flavour, but Vasily Kalinnikov stands out for me.” — Anthony
- “Vasily Kalinnikov’s Symphony No. 1 has a wonderful motif running through it. It would be great if you could play it occasionally so he might not be so obscure.” — Rachel