Top 25 Greatest British Composers in History

Byvu lita

Sep 17, 2023

However, he did have a bit of a point – for all the efforts of Parry, Sullivan and co, Britain’s output over the past century or two had been fairly paltry compared to that of his own country.

Schmitz’s timing, though, proved deliciously misguided. His fellow German Richard Strauss had already started to sing the praises of Elgar – from whom two symphonies and a Violin Concerto would shortly follow – and within the next decade, Vaughan Williams would write his own first two symphonies plus the groundbreaking Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, while Holst would begin work on The Planets.

At the premiere of VW’s Fantasia in 1910 were Howells and Gurney, just two of a flurry of fine composers who would drive British music on into the 20th century, and the work itself draws inspiration from the Renaissance, when Britain comfortably rivalled its European counterparts.

Today, the British composing scene is as strong as ever. But who are the greatest composers the country has ever produced? We asked 167 of today’s leading international musicians to have their say, with five votes each, based on the criteria of originality, influence, technique and, of course, sheer enjoyability to listen to and perform. We then totted up the votes to draw up the following Top 25 British composers, in reverse order…

Best British composers of all time

22= Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-94)

Born: Hertfordshire, England

When discussions of great 20th-century string quartet cycles come up, those of Bartók and Shostakovich are usually in pole position. The 13 quartets of Elizabeth Maconchy (left), however, deserve to keep similar company.

Written across half-a-century, Maconchy’s quartets tend towards economy and drama, packing plenty of impact into short movements. They also mix influences from across Europe: the angular soundworlds of Bartók and Berg, the punch and pizzazz of Britten, and more lyrical sections evoking her own Irish heritage. Now add to that a wealth of orchestral works and songs, plus a handful of operas including the quirky and risqué The Sofa of 1956, and you have quite a portfolio.

In her own words: ‘For me, the best music is an impassioned argument.’

22= Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

Born: Gloucestershire, England

Howells Cello Concerto: All you need to know

Hearing a critic shout ‘Thank God that’s over’ in response to the world premiere of his Second Piano Concerto in 1925 may have put the brakes on Howells’s (below) career as an orchestral composer, but it also effectively set him in a new direction, in which he would prove pre-eminent.

Channelling his efforts into choral music, he would produce a string of masterful liturgical settings for the likes of St Paul’s and Gloucester cathedrals and King’s College, Cambridge, in each instance shaping the phrasing and texture of the music to suit specifically the building it was written for.

His masterpiece, meanwhile, was the large-scale Hymnus Paradisi, spurred by the tragic death of his nine-year-old son Michael in 1935. He did not entirely abandon non-choral music, however… and who could possibly not like a composer who, in 1933, wrote a ballet called Penguinski?

In his own words: ‘I have never been able to compose a note of music without either a place or a building in my mind.’

22= Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)

Born: London, England

Composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

When Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha trilogy of cantatas received its first complete performance at the 1900 Birmingham Festival, the composer received a standing ovation – a rather more enthusiastic reaction than Elgar got at the same festival for his Dream of Gerontius.

Hiawatha made the composer a star here and in the US, though not rich, thanks to his selling of the copyright. Its success has also perhaps overshadowed his otherwise rich output, which has all the heady Romanticism and storytelling flair of Dvořák and Grieg (whom he admired greatly), not to mention Stanford, under whom he studied at the Royal College of Music.

In his own words: (On music) ‘Should it not rather come from the heart as well as the brain?’

We named Coleridge-Taylor one of the best black composers you should know about

22=Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006)

Born: Northampton, England

Arnold is best remembered today for his film scores – The Bridge on the River Kwai, anyone? – or perhaps his light music, which ranges from jaunty, pungent Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English Dances to concertos for all manner of unusual instruments (A Grand, Grand Overture demands three vacuum cleaners, one floor polisher and, er, four rifles).

All of this is instantly likeable, and marks Arnold out as one of classical music’s most imaginative (and theatrical) orchestrators. Arguably, however, his greatest music is in his symphonies, from the Sibelian Third to the angst-ridden Fifth, the latter more revealing of an often troubled life than any number of hoover concertos.

In his own words: ‘Music is the social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is.’

19= Oliver Knussen (1952-2018)

Born: Glasgow, Scotland

Conductor Oliver Knussen
Getty Images)

Although widely known for his colourful and exuberant opera based on the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are (1983), Knussen was essentially a miniaturist. Arguably he was the spiritual heir of Ravel, sharing the Frenchman’s mastery of orchestration (Knussen gaining insight from his father being the LSO’s principal double bassist) and a childlike, almost naive delight in music in all its aspects, including at its most advanced. Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks (1988) is a splendid introduction to his vivid, painterly approach to orchestral sound.

In his own words: ‘To me, real music is real music when you’re not sitting around thinking it’s music – it actually takes
you over.’

19= Helen Grime (b.1981)

Born: York, England

Frequently drawing on corresponding artforms such as painting and literature, the music of Helen Grime, with its intricate, multi-layered textures and expressive yet focused character, is becoming increasingly popular.

A student of composers Julian Anderson and Augusta Read Thomas among others, the Scot has applied herself to an array of forms, from large-scale orchestral pieces to concertos, choral, chamber and solo works. Highlights include 2009’s A Cold Spring, Two Eardley Pictures, premiered at the BBC Proms in 2016, and 2017’s Woven Space for Simon Rattle and the LSO.

In her own words: ‘It often feels like you have to learn composing anew for each piece.’

19= Jonathan Dove (b.1959)

Born: London, England

Jonathan Dove has made up for what was a relatively late start as a composer (in his thirties) with a prolific output across genres. The voice sits at the heart of his compelling oeuvre, which is perhaps most at home on the opera stage, though it has often reached far beyond it thanks to community projects, works for children and operas for television.

His seeming need to reflect the human condition and provide social commentary, always with a thread of shining optimism, has resulted in captivating works about climate change (Gaia Theory, Hojoki and others), war (In Damascus) and refugees (Flight).

In his own words: ‘We all have music in our heads; I’m just lucky that I’m able to write it down.’

15= Judith Weir (b.1954)

Born: Cambridge, England

Who composed music for Charles's Coronation - Judith Weir

Imagination and eclecticism are hallmarks of Judith Weir’s writing. This is the composer who managed to compress the story of Harald Hardrada’s vast, doomed invasion of England in 1066 into a ten-minute piece for a single soprano. Whether for opera, orchestrastring quartet or a dozen more intriguing configurations, Weir’s music is distinguished by a joy in storytelling, an uncanny ability for getting straight to a tale’s dramatic essence and some rich, imaginatively rendered soundworlds. Such qualities will surely have played a part in the Scot’s appointment as Master of the Queen’s (now King’s) Music in 2014.

In her own words: ‘I often wonder, if there were no deadlines, would anything ever get ended?’

15= Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

Born: Cheltenham, England

The Planets alone should be enough to propel Holst towards the top of this list – hugely original, brilliantly scored and globally popular, its influence on composers continues to this day, not least in film scores by the likes of John Williams. But there is also so much more to Holst.

For instance, his 1912 Beni Mora, inspired by a holiday in Algeria, foreshadows the minimalist movement by hypnotically repeating the same Arabic flute motif 163 times. Elsewhere, all manner of influences including folk and England’s musical past infuse a richly varied CV that includes the mystery-filled tone poem Egdon Heath, the raucous ballet The Perfect Fool and the soul-stirring Hymn of Jesus for choir and orchestra.

In his own words: ‘Music, being identical with heaven, isn’t a thing of momentary thrills, or even hourly ones. It’s a condition of eternity.’

15= John Dowland (c.1563-1626)

Born: London, England (probably)


The fashionable default mode of the Elizabethan age was melancholy; and, musically, the melancholic zeitgeist proved fertile territory for the composer of a pavan autobiographically designated ‘Semper Dowland, semper dolens’ (‘Always Dowland, always grieving’).

Among his most famous songs, after all, are ‘In Darkness let me Dwell’ and ‘I saw my Lady Weep’; while the ‘Lachrymae’ (‘Tears’) pavan would furnish the starting point for Dowland’s crowning glory in the realm of consort music: the Seaven Teares figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans. Master lutenist, preeminent song composer and man of the musical world thanks to experience gained in France, Italy and Denmark, little wonder that posthumously he was hailed as ‘the rarest musician that this age did behold’. And a rich vein of wit and sparkle running through his music suggests grief was never the whole story.

In his own words: ‘Who loves not music and the heavenly muse, that man God hates.’

15= George Benjamin (b.1960)

Born: London, England

Internationally recognised as one of the UK’s leading opera composers, George Benjamin’s music is notable among other things for its uniquely colourful splashes of timbre: Written on Skin (2012), for instance, includes parts for a glass harmonica and viola da gamba.

The tightly woven melodic development and inner voicing owes much to Benjamin’s grounding as a pianist and conductor, as well as his studies with Messiaen – there’s a strong European expressionist feel to orchestral works such as Palimpsests (2002). He continues to work regularly with librettist Martin Crimp, the writer he has collaborated with since his first opera, Into the Little Hill (2006).

In his own words: ‘You have to be determined and patient being a composer, particularly today. Eventually some things slot into place.’

14 Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

Born: Kent, England

Ethel Smyth

While steeped in the style of Mendelssohn and BrahmsEthel Smyth’s forthright, vigorous and essentially optimistic voice shines through even her early chamber works of the 1880s.

That voice remained a constant even while she absorbed ideas from more advanced composers such as Richard Strauss. In her three-act opera The Wreckers (1904), Wagner looms large in the lovers’ duet, yet it is driven by an authentic passion – apparently inspired by her unrequited love for the art patron Winnaretta Singer-Polignac.

This is preceded by the extraordinary Prelude to Act II, an orchestral seascape, followed by abrupt, Janáček-like declamation as young Jack pursues a suspected traitor. And there’s even a premonition of Britten’s Peter Grimes in the blood-lusting chorus which ends Act I…

In her own words: ‘I feel I must fight for [my music], because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs; not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea.’

13 Frank Bridge (1879-1941)

Born: Brighton, England

Frank Bridge was long assumed to be a purveyor of charming suites and salon miniatures, only finding his unique voice following the trauma of World War I in works such as the pugnacious Piano Sonata (1924) and the mournful Oration for cello and orchestra (1930).

Now, thanks to recordings by the late conductor Richard Hickox and others, a much more significant yet long overlooked master has been revealed. The Hag, Bridge’s 1902 song for baritone and orchestra, depicts a witch’s ride with lurid and malevolent relish à la Musorgsky or Lyadov. By contrast, his beautiful yet melancholic Suite for Strings (1910) is a work of understated yet deep feeling – one that casts a new light on more celebrated works such as the orchestral suite The Sea (1911).

In his own words:‘The happiest thrill I ever get is when the players are as sympathetic and enthusiastic as the audience.’

12 Harrison Birtwistle (1934-2022)

Born: Accrington, England

From the ragged lyricism of chamber works such as the Oboe Quartet (2010) to the raw immediacy of operas including Punch and Judy (1968) and The Minotaur (2008), Birtwistle’s unusual soundworld made him a leading figure in British modernism.

His music, often inspired by ancient myths, features rhythmic spectacles – Harrison’s Clocks (1997-98) for solo piano evokes ticking 18th-century maritime time-keeping – and dark, frenetic abstraction, as heard in Panic, the saxophone concerto written for 1995’s Last Night of the Proms, the title of which accurately predicted its reception.

There is a disguised sense of pastoral, too: The Moth Requiem (2012) is an elegiac meditation on loss and climate change – imbued with thoughtful retrospection and the melancholia that is present in much of the English composer’s later works.

In his own words: ‘You don’t like my music. Go away!’ (to a critic)

10= Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85)

Born: Unknown

Tallis is dead, and Music dies’, mourned Byrd in his elegiac madrigal Ye Sacred Muses. Byrd’s tribute to his recently departed friend neatly sums up the standing of a composer who, through remarkable adaptability coupled with immaculately honed craft, steered a steady course through the reigns of four monarchs – a period of dangerous religious upheaval.

During the brief rule of the Protestant Edward VI, Tallis adapted his music to suit Anglican demands for plain simplicity, while five years of the Catholic Mary I saw him revert to a more florid style in works such as the elaborate Missa Puer Natus est.

Perhaps his greatest achievements, though, date from the reign of Elizabeth I, including the 40-voice motet Spem in Alium and the exquisite Miserere Nostri, a work of extraordinary mathematical perfection. Catholic Tallis may have been, but the queen knew genius when she saw it, granting him and Byrd an exclusive licence to publish music.

Tallis’s epitaph: ‘As he did Lyve, so also did he dy,/In myld and quyet Sort (O! happy Man).’

10= James MacMillan (b.1959)

Born: Ayrshire, Scotland

Who is James MacMillan
Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images

In an age when religious belief is generally in decline, James MacMillan stands out as a resolutely Christian composer of Roman Catholic persuasion. Most of his choral music treats religious texts and themes, including the luminous motet O Radiant Dawn and his riveting St John Passion (2007).

His spirituality also suffuses the exultant breakthrough piece Veni, veni, Emmanuel, a percussion concerto premiered by Evelyn Glennie. In works such as The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, an orchestral elegy for a woman accused of witchcraft, his music also bears the strong imprint of his native Scotland. With operas, symphonies, concertos and chamber pieces also to his name, his body of compositions is formidable.

Renaissance vocal polyphony is a strong influence stylistically, as are skirling folk music elements. But it’s above all acMillan’s searing sense of melody, and his unwavering belief that music can make a social and spiritual difference, that mark him out as a modern musical master.

In his own words: ‘My ideal listener for me is someone like myself, which means someone who’s as thirsty and as ready for the power of transforming through music as I am.’

9 George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Born: Halle, Germany

Thousands of football fans across the country regularly join together in the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus from Handel’s Messiah (admittedly with altered words) to hurl abuse at opposition players and managers – an unlikely, though somehow apt, legacy for a composer who did so much to take music from aristocratic confines and bring it to a much wider audience.

Hailing from Germany then employed in Italy, Handel arrived in England with a pan-European bag of musical tricks that proved instantly appealing to his new home crowd. A string of Italian operas including Giulio Cesare in Egitto made him the toast of London, until John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera lampooned the artform, at which point Handel turned to writing oratorios in English, with equal success.

The master of all occasions, he could do intimate delicacy, as shown in his many chamber works, every bit as deftly as big ceremonial showpieces such as Music for the Royal Fireworks and Zadok the Priest.

In his own words: ‘Learn all there is to learn, and then choose your own path.’

‘Are we allowed to include Handel?’‘Are we allowed to include Handel?’ was a question regularly asked by our musicians when we invited them to vote. Though born in Germany, the great man moved to London in 1711 – aged 26 – and remained there for the rest of his life.

As well as composing the vast majority of his best known works while in Britain, Handel also established himself at the core of the royal ceremonial scene with works including The Water Music and Zadok the Priest, performed at every British coronation since George II. In 1727, he was made a British citizen, with a special act being passed in Parliament to allow this to happen, and his marble memorial enjoys pride of place at Westminster Abbey. He therefore definitely counts as British.

… Although we did name him one of the greatest German composers ever as well…

8 Thomas Adès (b. 1971)

Born: London, England

Thomas Adès has built a reputation for audaciousness and intellectual rigour. Bursting onto the scene in the 1990s as an enfant terrible with the chamber opera Powder her Face (1995) and the orchestral piece Asyla (1997), the pianist-composer-conductor and student of György Kurtág has continued to build on that with a huge range of operas, orchestral works, concertos, chamber and solo music, among them The Tempest, The Exterminating Angel, Polaris and the ‘Concentric Paths’ Violin Concerto.

Stylistically, his music is full of contradictions and whimsical imagination, but with an underlying seriousness of intent. He enjoys visiting and paying tribute to past forms and styles – sometimes literally quoting from previous composers – yet remaking that material afresh. In the words of Radio 3’s Tom Service, he ‘makes you hear things you thought you were familiar with, as if they were completely new’.

In his own words: ‘I like the feeling of falling into a different era, not just in my music, but in any music.’

7 Michael Tippett (1905-98)

Born: London, England

Tippett courted controversy both in his music and in his life, and while he was respectful of his musical roots he pushed the envelope, sometimes to the bafflement of musicians and audiences alike. A Child of Our Time, perhaps his most famous work, was born out of Tippett’s anger, sadness and frustration with an escalating war with Germany – one which he famously resisted serving in, instead doing time in prison as a result of his pacifism.

That pervasive streak of bravado, or imagination (call it what you will), has made him a hero for many, while his music, ever responsive to world events and musical trends, evolved along with him. Five operas, five string quartets, four symphonies, song cycles, concertos, sonatas… each work is forward thinking, sometimes daring, occasionally maddening, but rarely devoid of lyricism. Tippett was a composer who ploughed his own musical furrow, a true original.

In his own words: ‘I am quite certain in my heart of hearts that modern music … is a form of truth and integrity for those who practise it honestly, decently and with all their being.’

6 William Walton (1902-83)

Born: Oldham, England

Walton’s ability to stir the emotions, his fervent lyricism and fastidious orchestral colouring made him a natural heir to Elgar. That mantle held firm with patriotic duties for two coronations – 1937’s Crown Imperial and 1953’s Orb and Sceptre – while his innate flair for drama meant he was well suited to film scoring.

His cinematic exploits proffered concert favourites such as the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue (from the 1942 propaganda film score The First of the Few), while music for Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare films brought a pair of Oscar nominations. Despite a 60-year career, his output was relatively small – such was his perfectionism – and while he was revered in his own lifetime, his music was also gently reviled by some for being old fashioned. Two symphonies, important concertos (Viola, Violin and Cello) and a great cantata (Belshazzar’s Feast) later, he is now rightly celebrated.

In his own words: ‘It’s just as difficult to overcome success as it is to overcome failure.’

5 William Byrd (c.1540-1623)

Born: Unknown

Although there were outstanding homegrown composers before him – Tallis, in particular –Byrd can reasonably be called the first authentic genius of English music.

This is partly due to the range of his achievement, and the politically turbulent circumstances under which he wrote. A Catholic himself, Byrd was forced to toggle between choral settings in Latin and English, as the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary yielded to that of the Protestant Elizabeth I.

Byrd created masterpieces for both the English and the Latin liturgy, including the vibrant, richly textured Great Service and the Masses for Three, Four and Five Voices. The mass settings, composed for gatherings of the Catholic faithful to perform in secret, are particularly exquisite creations, evincing a rare spiritual limpidity.

He also left a substantial body of music for keyboard instruments. Written in a variety of forms – grounds, galliards, pavans, fancies and variations – these are richly rewarding pieces betokening Byrd’s fertile melodic imagination. Chamber music, songs and madrigals also flowed from his pen, and Byrd additionally played a key role as a pioneering music publisher. In sum, he raised the bar substantially on what an English musician could be, providing a formidable template for Purcell and others to follow.

In his own words: ‘If thou bee disposed to pray, heere are Psalmes. If to bee merrie, heere are Sonets. If to lament for thy sins, heere are songs of sadnesse and Pietie.’

4 Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Born: Gloucestershire, England

Vaughan Williams
Vaughan Williams. Photo: Vaughan Williams Estate

Given the enduring popularity of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, you might expect this grandfatherly purveyor of bucolic fare to be at the very top of our composers’ list. And perhaps if this had been a poll of audiences rather than musicians that might have been the case.

Nonetheless, the powerful memory of a ‘green and pleasant land’ evoked in his most popular works plus a masterful adoption and adaptation of the country’s rich musical past, most notably in the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, still earns him a spot in the top five. And, of course, Vaughan Williams was so much more – his nine symphonies alone chart a path from glowing, wistful beauty to violent, anguished dissonance. And then there are the operas and ballets, the chamber music and vocal compositions, both religious and secular.

Like all the best composers, VW was an important historical and cultural figure, too, his love of Tudor music and English folksong representing a break from the Germanic tradition of Elgar and providing a distinctive voice for a Britain deeply affected by two devastating and society-shifting world wars. Harmonically, his works bear strong hallmarks of modal tonality and of the French impressionism of his contemporaries Ravel and Debussy – yet from this he derived an idiosyncratically ‘British’ sound.

In his own words: ‘The art of music above all the other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation.’

3 Henry Purcell (1659-95)

Born: London, England

‘Sometimes a hero in an age appears, but scarce a Purcell in a thousand years’ observed one contemporary. Hyperbole of course, but the sheer breadth of Purcell’s achievement recalls Mozart’s verdict on Haydn: ‘There is no one (else) who can do it all – to joke and terrify, to evoke profound sentiment… and all equally well.’

Fortuitously for Purcell, born on the cusp of the Restoration, he was able to take full advantage of the flowering of musical life following the demise of the Cromwellian Commonwealth. And he seized the advantage across pretty much all available genres. Like Monteverdi in Italy before him, he was adept at styles old and new.

The fantasias for viols offer a rich compendium of old-fashioned consort polyphony, while the more up-to-date sonatas in three and four parts ‘faithfully endeavour a just imitation of the most famed Italian masters’.

Corralling French and Italian styles, he forged a language entirely his own, drawing potently on the music of his English predecessors. An effortlessly supple approach to word setting, rhythmic ingenuity, an incomparable harmonic palette with a flair for ear-bending chromaticism and an unfailing melodic facility are underpinned by a grasp of artifice that all unite in the first great opera in English: his Dido and Aeneas (c.1688). From ceremonial pomp and circumstance to the gravitas of the Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, or from a simple song to the knockabout good humour of his semi-opera The Fairy-Queen, Henry Purcell – as Mozart might have agreed – is the English Haydn, the man who can assuredly ‘do it all, and all equally well’.

In his own words: ‘As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.’

2 Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Born: Worcestershire, England

Elgar Pomp and Circumstance Marches guide

For 20 years, Elgar’s avuncular face adorned Bank of England £20 notes, and in 1985 his Sea Pictures was depicted on 34p stamps. His works have been used to advertise everything from ketchup to spring water, and he is an ever-present at ceremonies both of mourning (‘Nimrod’ on Remembrance Sunday) and celebration (Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 at the Last Night of the Proms). He is, in short, part-and-parcel of popular British culture.

Right from his own time, however, he has also had pan-European appeal, and for all his fond depictions of companions close to home in the Enigma Variations (1899), it was through German friends such as Richard Strauss and Fritz Kreisler, dedicatee of his Violin Concerto in 1910, that his fame stretched well beyond these shores.

Forget the erroneous British stiff upper-lip image, too – Elgar was not afraid to describe in words how his very soul was laid bare in his music, not least in the First and Second Symphonies (1908 and ’11) that cemented his place among the greats. The achingly wistful lines of his 1919 Cello Concerto, meanwhile, describe the mood of both its composer and post-war Britain more eloquently than words ever could.

That concerto had an infamously shaky start, as did The Dream of Gerontius in 1900. Both, though, would soon take their place at European music’s top table.

In his own words: ‘My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us; the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require.’

1 Benjamin Britten (1913-76)

Born: Lowestoft, England

And the greatest British composer of all time? Britten. He famously jolted the international music world with the 1945 premiere of his opera Peter Grimes. Yet Benjamin Britten had already proved himself to be more than simply a world-class opera composer, and would continue to do so in the remaining 30-or-so years of his career.

Performers and listeners have lately caught up with earlier works such as the plangently eloquent Violin Concerto (1939), written in response to the trauma of the Spanish Civil War, and the more modest yet potent melodies of his school song collection Friday Afternoons (1933-35).

What has perhaps most impressed musicians and audiences alike is Britten’s ability to write effectively both for the largest scale – whether the War Requiem (1962), involving a full symphony orchestra and chorus as well as a chamber orchestra, three soloists, and off-stage choristers plus chamber organ – or the smallest, such as the Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for solo oboe (1951).

Or, to consider a different aspect of size, there’s his repeated success as an opera composer, his two greatest achievements besides Peter Grimes being Billy Budd (1951) – notable in being not only a powerful and touching work in its own right but also the only successful full-length opera for an all-male cast – and The Turn of the Screw (1954), lean in its instrumental forces yet so rich in its variety of colour and atmosphere.

Britten’s imagination – whether using conventional instruments, or mugs hit with a wooden spoon to suggest the first plinks of rain in Noyes Fludde (1958) – combined with his ability (aided by hard study) to write idiomatically for every instrument from French horn (1943’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings) to harp (A Ceremony of Carols) has resulted in some of his most hauntingly memorable music. His knowhow was equally evident in writing for the human voice – most famously that of his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, but also writing a deal of wonderful works for other voices, including soprano in Les illuminations and On This Island. At the same time, he typically sets his musicians a challenge, adding an extra layer of enjoyment in performing his music: for example, the tricky 7/4 time signature for the choristers in the ‘Gloria’ from his Missa Brevis, exhilarating once mastered.

Yet these technical challenges are all means to an end, and he could equally touch the heart with something extremely simple. There is the understated yet touching moment when the Madwoman in Curlew River finally sees the spirit of her dead son – principally just a harp ostinato, above which a piccolo pipes a haunting theme. Britten rarely wrote anything which did not have some expressive end, or at least character to engage both performer and listener.

In his own words: ‘It is the composer’s duty, as a member of society, to speak to and for his fellow human being

Who’s missing?

Close… but no cigar – some surprising non-appearances

With any poll such as this, the names who didn’t make it inevitably tend to raise as much of an eyebrow/scream of horror (delete as appropriate) as those who did.

Among those who might consider themselves unlucky not to make the top 25 are the late-19th-century stalwarts Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) and Hubert Parry (1848-1918), whose operettas and choral music remain as popular as ever (plus Parry’s list of pupils reads like a who’s who of British composing). Heading into the early 20th century, concert hall favourites Frederick Delius (1862-1934) and Arnold Bax (1883-1953) are notable by their absence, as is the sublime songsmith Gerald Finzi (1901-56).

Infamously snotty about her peers, Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-83) herself seems to have received similar treatment from today’s musicians – not a single vote – despite some spikily inventive film scores.

Her fellow film composers such as Rachel Portman (b.1960), George Fenton (b.1949) and the ultra-versatile Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012) have similarly missed out. And heading back to the Renaissance, let’s not forget John Taverner (c1490-1545), who set so much in motion in the early 16th century, and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), beloved by the one of the greatest pianists ever Glenn Gould, among many others.

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