Last composer standing

Last composer standing


norman lebrecht

November 13, 2009

A fleeting thought while listening to Gavin Bryars has led to a sweeping discussion as to which 10 living composers will still be played in 50 years’ time. We’ve whittled it down to five certs: Birtwistle, Boulez, Rautavaara, Reich and Sondheim.

But the other five places are still open and being hotly contested on twitter and Facebook.

The probables include Adams, Bryars,Glass, Kurtag, Lachenmann, Pärt, Riley, Sallinen,
Sciarrino and John Williams, with a late rush of votes for James MacMillan and Gorecki.

The possibles are Ades, Carter, Crumb, Dalbavie, Dusapin, Dutilleux, Gubaidulina, Kilar, David Lang, Muhly, Saariaho and Turnage. What, no Magnus Lindberg, Meredith Monk or Kalevi Aho?

Voting ends Sunday night. Post your views and votes below, or tweet them to @NLebrecht.


  • Jos van Kan says:

    Arvo Pärt. I like his medieval (?sp) style.

  • Michael Richards says:

    Gavin Bryars is so individual his music will certainly endure and Pärt’s music has an originality and quality which is beyond question. Surely both composers will rise above the easy tags of minimalism and fusion and there essential qualities will remain.

  • Stephen Seidman says:

    My votes are for Rorem, Rautavaara, Crumb, Dutilleux, Saariaho, and Lieberson.

  • Bruce Brubaker says:

    Do we suppose longevity is a measure of artistic quality? The best meaasure? Could it be that timely music might just disappear after satisfying use?

  • C. Dalton says:

    Boulez, Babbitt, Nørgård, Rihm, Dutilleux
    If it weren’t that he is recently deceased I would add Radulescu.

  • Stuart Sims says:

    I can’t believe that Birtwistle and Boulez are on the “certain” list while Adams and Ades are maybes….Adams clearly should be on the certain list, he’s certainly the most performed living composer mentioned.
    I’m also very surprised that neither John Corigliano nor Osvaldo Golijov are even mentioned, nor William Bolcom!! And that Nico Muhly made the possibles list, but no mention of far more skilled young American composers like Carter Pann or Joel Puckett or Mason Bates or Jonathan Newman is bewildering.
    I suppose, in short, I do not like these choices. For my money, the certains would include: Adams, Reich, Bolcom, Corigliano, Birtwistle, Sondheim, Rautavaara, and Golijov (just watch as his performances increase astronomically in the next decade).
    Likely possibles would include Ades, Crumb, Dutilleux, Lang, and Turnage. I really think that the vast majority of music written in a dense, dissonant aesthetic will be very infrequently played beyond the lifetimes of those still creating such sounds.
    NL replies: Interesting comments. I guess we’ll just have to check notes in 2059.

  • miller asbill says:


  • Shelley Bennett says:

    My votes would go to Saariaho, Dutilleux, Judith Weir, Adams and Part.

  • No one of vernacular music on this list, but I bet Stevie Wonder, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor — maybe this blog’s readership doesn’t consider them composers — will survive several of the aforementioned nominees.

  • Amanda Sweet says:

    What about Philip Lasser, Jennifer Higdon, Joseph C. Phillips, Jr and Christopher Theofanidis?
    NL replies: Limited impact thus far.

  • I decided to name 10, rather than accept your first 5. I’ve listed them and my reasons for them here.

  • Rob Deemer says:

    My question would be detailing “still played”? Played by whom? Widely played by many different ensembles and artists or by a more narrow list of niche ensembles? If it was the latter, I’d say almost any or all of the ones you list…Crumb isn’t going to fade away once he passes, for instance.
    What might be interesting to look at is the number of works from their repertoire that are performed – Terry Riley will always have a place on concerts for years to come, but only through his “In C”.
    For what it’s worth, here’s my 10 (not out of personal taste, but a good guess of what will stick):

  • Tim Benjamin says:

    I rather hope that *I* will still be played in 50 years’ time. I’m only in my early 30s and still hope to compose into my 80s!

  • dvickerman says:

    Adams HAS to be on this list. The number one most performed living composer as a probable? He is already listed in music history textbooks (not that that is the only sign of one’s compositional staying power). Whereas someone like Rautavaara, though I love his music, is not nearly as often played…perhaps this list will highlight differences between countries and cultures…
    I also think Corigliano, Glass and Riley are definites…not probables.

  • Peet says:

    Well, played by who and for what reason? A list of composers played in university survey courses will be different than a list of composers performed regularly in concert halls and opera houses, or programmed on whatever will remain of radio in the future. It’s not a list of significant, interesting, profound, important, or skilled composers. It’s a list of people that artistic directors will most frequently program. Making that divde: Adams, Glass, Reich, Sondheim, Williams, Part, Boulez, Gorecki, Golijov, Ades, and Monk are my votes.

  • Isobel Osius says:

    Any room for John Luther Adams? Gorecki should be part of the list, as well as Golijov and Sallinen. As for Birtwhistle,only if the list is composed of nothing but music critics. I suspect the same is true for Dutilleux.

  • Sakari Oramo says:

    Hi Norman! Seriously,I think the concept of your enquiry is seriously flawed. Bach,Handel,Mozart,Beethoven or Schumann certainly didn’t compose for posterity,in their heydays art was made for the living people,the contemporaries. I also quite honestly think your “certain” list of five contains absolutely no durable candidates. Take my word,none of those composers will be remembered in 50 years from now more than Foulds, Kalliwoda, Enescu, Launis or Magnard are today. Best greetings, Sakari Oramo

  • Dennis says:

    No mention so far of Silvestrov?
    Let’s hope the votes for Adams are wrong. The most excruciating living composer; and I can’t understand why anyone takes his politically and aesthetically absurd operas seriously.

  • Kristi says:

    Carter, Crumb, Glass, Pärt, Diane Thome.

  • US-centrism ? says:

    Reading other proposals, I have the feeling that some people quote composers who are only or almost only played in the US (Golijov, Adams), and who write a music which is full of cliché (problem of the big concert halls and orchestra in the US who have to reach to a non cultivated audience, because they are private), which always existed and will be I think forgotten (written “in the style of” the romantic music, or with fusion, or like 1000 other film music composers. This has always existed, even in the other centuries, and never remained. Have you heard about Conesson ? Qigang Chen ? Daniel Lesur ? Goreski ? Charles Chaynes ? Marcel Landowski ? Thomas Ades ? In this style, the list is pretty long and old).
    I would better bet for people who are really singular, even if still discussed (like Beethoven or Monteverdi were), but are already respected in the entire world by different people who are not from their country or milieu. My list would be:
    – Gyorgy Ligeti
    – Olivier Messiaen
    – Steve Reich
    – Morton Feldman
    – Gyorgy Kurtag (perhaps)
    – Salvatore Sciarrino
    – Pierre Henry
    – Gérard Grisey
    – Beat Furrer
    – Pierre Boulez (perhaps, at least like Lully)

  • fcote says:

    Probable – Hans Werner Henze
    Possible – Peter Lieberson

  • BPJ says:

    I second the nominations of Golijov, Higdon, and Theofadnis.

  • Tim Page says:

    Reich, Glass, Dusapin, Rautavaara. I’m watching David Lang and Osvaldo Golijov carefully.
    If we are opening it up to Taylor, Wonder, Coleman (and I’m not sure this is a bad idea), for me the prize would go to Brian Wilson, whose middle-period stuff strikes me as uniquely beautiful.

  • Dyane Fancey says:

    Meredith Monk! I heard her work for the late great dancer, Jeff Duncan, at a fund-raiser for Mary Pat Clarke! It was amazing1

  • Phillip says:

    One certainty: there will be somebody who is played fairly often in 50 years’ time who none of us would ever have dreamed of putting on this list, in fact that person will probably be somebody whose name is not even known to most of us, even those of us in the professional classical music world.

  • jonathan says:

    My 10 are listed below. I am assuming that not all their works will be necessarily remembered, but even if only one is, that proofs whatever case is being made. Also, composers that are politically well-positioned today may experience a backlash after their death, for obvious reasons having to do with social dynamics. Muhly is very young, so he may be politically active 50 years from now–besides the fact that he can continue to grow. Same for Ades, who is amazingly talented. As someone stated above, staying power may not mean absolute quality–but the ability to connect with audiences beyond their time, for whatever reason.

  • I would suggest these composers, in no order:
    Adams (opera/orchestra for a new era, prolific)
    Pärt (16th/21st century counterpoint hybrid = genius)
    Feldman (this is where so much of minimalism came from)
    Muhly (if you don’t know him, you will)
    Corigliano (pushed through – a master of form)
    Lang (contemporary music to last)
    Golijov (culturally fascinating)
    Gorecki (when you look into the abyss, it always looks back at you)
    Reich (there is beauty in process)
    Glass (maximal music, prolific)
    Honourable mention:
    John Luther Adams (music inspired by landscapes, powerful)

  • Of course *no one* — not even Mr. Oramo! 😉 — knows who *will* be remembered/played 50 years hence. I lifted Norman’s challenge on my pages and modified it to “You’re making a time capsule *to be opened* 50 years hence” and also proposed making two lists — 1) living composers born before 1951 and 2) living composers born after 1950.

  • Tim Page says:

    I would much prefer John Luther Adams to the other one.
    My only hesitation about Meredith Monk is the fact that she does everything herself. That stands to prove she is unique — something I think even her detractors would admit — but I wonder if it will hamper the music’s chance at longevity.

  • Dot Jackson says:

    As someone noted earlier, the decision on “Who Will Live?” will be made in the concert hall and not on the opera stage. Opera is, lest it not always be apparent, at least somewhat about Music. Opera is expensive and ponderous to produce. If a score does not make its mark without aid of visual drama and effects, well, toodle-oo, it was interesting to know you, Dr. Atomic.
    This is no personal judgment of the current crop. It is not to say that some even forgettably-accompanied operas are without worth.
    Rather, let us take note of economics, and human nature. If a work — especially a chilly, prickly one — is not repeated frequently enough for “bonding” with an aural audience, it’s not for the long haul.

  • All respected composers indeed. I would be remiss not to add the composers whom have written for me:
    Liebermann (Lowell Liebermann)
    Charles Strouse

  • Yi-Peng Li says:

    Is there a chance that today’s living composers of Broadway and film music could be among the composers that will be played in 50 years from now? Some people mention Sondheim and Star Wars composer John Williams but could you give some thought to Howard Shore and also Cats composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber? I know you didn’t like it when the Classical BRITS presented a special award to Lord Lloyd-Webber. However, I sense that his musicals (as well as the film music of John Williams and Howard Shore) will still be popular in 50 years from now. I think people would still be performing the Lloyd-Webber musicals and I think he will be like Sound of Music composer Richard Rodgers.
    NL replies: I doubt it. ALW is so concerned with immediate commercial success and so regressive in his themes that it seems to me unlikely that his works will have greater lasting power than those of, say, Victor Herbert.

  • Dutilleux and Kapustin. Cheers!

  • Michel van der Aa says:

    Ligeti, Saariaho, Kurtag, Andriessen
    Certainly not me 🙂
    twitter: @vanderaanet

  • Andy says:

    I vote for
    1. Arvo Part
    2. John Tavener

  • Paul Muller says:

    Gotta go with the minimalists:
    JL Adams

  • Papageno says:

    I vote for Henri Dutilleux. I would also vote for Gérard Grisey and Olivier Greif if they weren’t dead a few years ago.

  • Philip Glass
    Arvo Part
    Egberto Gismonti
    Gyorgy Ligeti
    Ennio Morricone
    John Williams
    Ryuichi Sakamoto

  • David says:


  • Richard Bratby says:

    Dutilleux has to head any such list, surely.
    HK Gruber
    and Luke Bedford (why assume that the greatest music by any currently living composer has even been written yet?!)

  • Eddie Williamson says:


  • kimberly powell says:

    Carter, Babbitt, Wuorinen, Boulez, Crumb

  • kerry says:

    Stephen Hough

  • appoggiatura says:

    Everyone always forgets the percussionists. Keiko Abe’s music will continue being performed for large audiences well beyond 50 years.
    Cage, Glass & Riley? Unlikely.

  • Michael P. Scott says:

    I’d like to cast my vote for Stephen Hough. I thought I did this earlier but it hasn’t shown up.

  • JtM says:

    Osvaldo Golijov
    Steve Reich
    Stephen Hartke
    Robert Muczynski
    Arvo Part
    William Bolcom
    Magnus Lindberg
    Michael Torke
    Nico Muhly
    Henri Dutilleux

  • Rainer Mockert says:

    I am missing Eötvös and Penderecki.

  • Dane Lam says:

    Brett Dean
    Thomas Ades

  • John Taverner
    Arvo Part
    Phillip Glass

  • Thomas says:

    Rather surprised not to see George Benjamin and Jonathan Harvey, and very surprised to see Olivier Messiaen, who died at an advanced age a long time ago.
    NL advises: Unlike Afghanistan, votes for and by the dead are not counted.

  • Tim Brooke says:

    John Adams
    Thomas Adès
    George Benjamin
    Pierre Boulez
    George Crumb
    Jonathan Harvey
    Gyorgy Kurtag
    Arvo Part
    Steve Reich
    Peter Sculthorpe

  • Dominick Argento will be “rediscovered” in 50 years and his operas will be ubiquitous.

  • Tim Page says:

    Somebody mentioned Conesson, who has written some very fine music indeed. I think Dusapin is even better, and that their music is not that far apart, but Conesson seems to me a respectable contender.

  • liz thonton says:

    Crumb, Dutilleux, Boulez, Rihm, Birtwistle, Carter, Adams, Weir, Murail, Andriessen

  • eric mathews says:

    Adams (Alex Ross champions him)
    Pärt (millions sold, the Britten piece is in several movies)
    Duttileux (Boston will always play his commisions)
    Reich (American groups are learning his music)
    Wuorinen (Just hoping…)

  • Paul Muller says:

    Interesting choices in these comments.
    I wonder to what extent the future of the symphony orchestra is going to dictate the type of music played.
    If it becomes too expensive to field 70 or 100 musicians playing acoustic instruments, or to mount an opera like Dr. Atomic – then what will be played in 50 years may not be anything like we expect.
    Just sayin…

  • Eric S. says:

    Dutilleux for sure (my favorite of the composers listed thus far), and I’ll cast a vote for a surprising (to me) omission thus far: Oliver Knussen. Turnage has also made a very positive impression here in Chicago.

  • Geoff says:

    Ligeti MUST be on the list.
    He’s dead, sadly. This is just for the living.

  • Geoff says:

    If Birtwistle is on the list Maxwell Davies should be. Eight songs for a Mad King it still often performed despite be about 40 years old. And his lighter works are popular.

  • ERL says:

    I’m aghast that people actually think composers like Zwilich, Higdon or Liebermann will survive in 50 years. They are already being ignored (rightly so) in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Ask composition students what composers they’re excited about…I guarantee you it’s not Zwilich.
    For those crapping on Ades and Adams…they’re miles ahead of your typical neo-Romantic composers. I must second the US-centrism post (though I disagree with his/her judgment of Ades and Adams). Lots of more substantial names like Georg F. Haas, Julian Anderson, Mark Anthony Turnage and Michel van der Aa being left out here. And I’m surprised Louis Andriessen failed to make the list. I could go on…but American composers (save the minimalists/post-minimalists/and the West coast experimental group) tend to just suck. Big time.

  • RSC says:

    John Adams
    Steve Reich
    Philip Glass

  • Tod Brody says:

    I’m surprised I haven’t seen mention of Mario Davidovsky, who in addition to his groundbreaking electronic/acoustic creations of the 60’s and 70’s has been composing some of the most vital and powerful acoustic chamber music I’ve ever experienced, for the last 30 or so years.
    Additional votes for Feldman, Kurtag, Grisey, Ligeti, Berio, Sciarrino. Music that, even when elusive at first, gets better and deeper the more you hear it.

  • Eddie Williamson says:

    Norman, I forgot KILAR in my vote. Don’t think it matters anyway and the polls are closed.

  • Daniel says:

    Jan Sandstrom
    Tan Dun

  • Scott MacClelland says:

    Maybe not the last, but certainly among the pantheon, Christopher Rouse

  • bobman says:

    1. John Corigliano
    2. Aaron Jay Kernis
    3. John Adams
    4. Pierre Boulez*
    5. Tan Dun
    6. William Bolcom
    7. Hans Werner Henze
    8. Krystof Penderecki
    9. Phillip Glass*
    10. Nicholas Maw
    *This has nothing to do with the fact that I do not enjoy listening to their music.

  • Tomas Vitek says:


  • Peter Lock says:

    You missed out Julian Cochran. His music is hugely intelligent, beautiful and refined but still doesn’t get played much right now – should change after he dies like it happens with most great composers.

  • Elizabeth Jenkins says:

    I’d also add Julian Cochran to the list. I love his 2nd piano sonata, Wooden Dolls and Prelude No. 8. Also adore Gorecki and why was Mike Oldfield not there (early works also incredible).

  • David says:

    Everyone is putting big emphasis on the minimalists. I’d rather listen to Peter Sculthorpe, Cochran, Richard Mills and I would have added Gorecki but sadly he has died just months ago. Terrible news.

  • Kathleen Wells says: