The 12 Greatest German Composers of All Time
From Richard Wagner to Beethoven, World History Edu presents the 12 greatest German composers in history, including their most notable achievements.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
The saying“like father, like son” does not do enough justice to the sheer amount of impact German composer Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach made, considering the fact that he was the son of an equally famous German composer, J.S. Bach. Historians often hold the view that no composer, dead or alive, did a better job succeeding the great J.S. Bach himself than his third son C.P.E. Bach.
Born in Hamburg, Germany, C.P. E. Bach was introduced to music at a very young age. Bach’s tireless work in bridging the gap between the Baroque period and the Classical era catapulted him to lofty heights during the early Classical period. His pioneering musical style – empfindsamer Stil (‘sensitive style’) – is most famous for incorporating rhetoric and drama into music compositions.
Nicknamed “Hamburg Bach” or “Berlin Bach” in an effort to distinguish him from his brother Johann Christian (the “London Bach”), C.E.P. Bach is praised for making instrument music and piano sonata very popular. This was captured in his famous work “Essay on the true art of playing keyboard instruments”. That work in particular influenced many artists and composers that came after Bach, including Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Did you know: CPE Bach, like his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann, trained as a lawyer?
Ludwig van Beethoven
Coming in at number two on our list of greatest German composers of all time is Ludwig van Beethoven. Born into a family of music lovers in the German city of Bonn, Beethoven produced many influential works that allowed him to etch his name in the annals of history as one of the greatest and most admired composers.
Living in a period between the Classical and Romantic eras, Beethoven was able to blend elements from those two eras to create works that revolutionized music as we know. He also had the opportunity to study under some very renowned conductors and composers like Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798) and later Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).
At a very young age, Beethoven’s talents were there for everyone to witness. Initially, he was tutored by his father, Johann van Beethoven, and thereafter started as a pianist before going on to produce some of the best known works in classical music. Riding on novel ideas, Beethoven, the composer who gave the world the Fifth Symphony, was able to revolutionize the classical music genre.
Unbeknownst to some people, Beethoven accomplished all of those feats in spite of his hearing-impairment. Piano Concerto No. 4, Symphony No. 5, Piano Concerto No. 4, Piano Sonata No. 29, and Violin Concerto are just some examples of his masterpieces.
German Romantic composer Robert Schumann was renowned for his literary and musical thinking prowess. In spite of his difficult battle with severe depression and nervous attacks, Schumann was still able to compose some truly magnificent works that made him famous for his skill sets in piano music, orchestral music and lieder.
Schumann left his studies at the University of Leipzig, where he was a law student, to pursue a career as a virtuoso pianist. While training under the German piano and voice teacher Friedrich Wieck, he fell head over heels for Clara, Wieck’s daughter; the two got married in 1840. Schumann and his wife Clara formed a strong musical bond which benefited both their careers.
A distinguished composer of the Romantic era, Robert Schumann is most remembered for producing some really outstanding works in the 19th century, including Konzertstück, Op. 86, Kreisleriana, Rhenish Symphony, Frauenliebe und –leben, Konzertstuck, Op. 86, and Symphony No. 1 in B flat Major.
Did you know: Robert Schuman initially trained as a virtuoso pianist, but his hand injury forced him to turn to composing?
Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer widely regarded as one of the best of the Baroque period. To some music scholars and historians, the Eisenach-born composer is the greatest composer of all time. He is most remembered for his pioneering work in blending secular and church music.
Bach’s talent in music was enhanced by virtue of the fact that he grew up in a family that had strong appreciation for music. He entered the world of professional music as an organist for a number of churches. He also served as the court musician of Duke Johann Ernst and King Augustus III.
In his very illustrious career, he produced hundreds of cantatas, oratorios and concertos, many of which ended up being masterpieces. Some examples of his noteworthy works are St Matthew Passion, the Brandenburg Concertos, and Mass in B minor.
Born in Leipzig, Germany, Richard Wagner is celebrated as the renowned composer and conductor who popularized the concept Gesamtkunstwerk (‘total work of art’) – which means the combination of many forms of arts to produce a truly spectacular musical drama. Some of his most famous works are Tristan and Isolde, The Ring of the Nibelung, The Flying Dutchman, and Tannhäuser. The Ring of the Nibelung, which is undoubtedly his greatest masterpiece, refers to a series of four very powerful music dramas that went a long way in revolutionizing how opera is composed.
Did you know: German Composer and conductor Wagner built the famous Bayreuth Festspielhaus for the premier of his Ring music dramas?
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), a German Composer, pianist, conductor and organist, was an outstanding child prodigy who honed his skills to become one of the greatest music composers of all time. In his teens, Mendelssohn was even compared to greats like Bach, Haydn, and Mozart.
Did you know: Felix Mendelssohn was the grandson of German philosopher and Bible translator Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786)?
Felix Mendelssohn, who grew up in the Romantic period, produced famous works like the Scottish Symphony, Piano Concerto No. 1, the Italian Symphony, and A Midsummer Night’s dream Overture.
A celebrated music figure of the early Romantic era, Mendelssohn was able to infuse elegance and balance with elements from the Classical era and the Romantic era. This paid huge dividends and gave his works immense appeal to audiences all across Europe. Some Felix Mendelssohn most famous works are Italian Symphony (1833), the oratorio Elijah (1846), and Midsummer Night’s dream Overture ( 1826).
George Frideric Handel
Born on February 23, 1685, German composer George Frideric Handel is best remembered for his operas, organ concertos, and anthems. The composer is also famed for having had a tremendous influence on Classical-era composers like Beethoven and Mozart.
Although he was born in Halle, Germany, he spent the bulk part of his life in London, England, having been granted a British civilian status from George II of England.
A master of opera and oratorio, Handel had a firm insight into the psychology of music. This made him arguably the greatest melodist of his era. One of his crowning achievements came when he was chosen to compose the anthem for George II’s coronation ceremony which took place on October 11, 1727 at Westminster Abbey. The coronation anthem – Zadok The Priest – on that day has been performed at every British coronation since then.
Did you know: Handel composed four coronation anthems for George II’s coronation; the other three are Let thy Hand be strengthened, ‘The King shall rejoice’ and ‘My Heart is inditing’?
For his immense contribution to music, Handel was bestowed upon the honorary title Composer of Music for His Majesty’s Chapel Royal in 1723 by George II’s father, King George I.
Did you know: British composer Tony Britten took a lot of inspiration from Frideric Handel’s Zodok The Priest in composing the UEFA Champions League Anthem in 1992?
Carl Maria von Weber
Carl Maria von Weber was born in Eutin, Bishopric of Lubeck and went on to become an accomplished Romantic composer of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Much of his success came from the development of German Romantic opera (Romantische Oper). Many of his iconic works inspired renowned German composers like Meyerbeer, Marschner, and Richard Wagner.
His contributions to the progression of compositions for bassoon and clarinet established him as one of the most prominent composers of his era. During his lifetime, his music became a model for several Romantic composers. Some examples of his most famous works are Der Freischütz, Invitation to the Dance, Euryanthe, Grand Duo Concertant, Oberon, and Bassoon Concerto.
With critically acclaimed works like A German Requiem and Saint Anthony, it comes as no surprise that the Hamburg, Germany-born composer Johannes Brahms is often times included on the list of most influential composers in history.
Brahms, who was by the way influenced by fellow German composers like Franz Schubert and Beethoven, was able to blend some bits from the Classical era with Romantic era vibe. All of that, along with his musical talent and his insatiable appetite for perfection, enabled him to produce some of the most memorable works in history.
This German composer, conductor, and pianist is credited with producing music that was sometimes dark but immensely beautiful, making him one of the most remarkable composers of the Romantic era.
Clara Schumann was a German composer and pianist widely regarded as one of the 19th century’s most foremost and revered pianists. In a career that spanned more than half a century, Clara Schumann composed many brilliant solo piano pieces, choral songs and pieces. Her works are testimony to the solid musical foundation that her parents – Friedrich Wieck and Mariane Bargiel – gave her as a child.
In 1840, she married fellow music composing genius in the person of Robert Schumann, who was her father’s student. Together with Robert, she had eight children. The Schumanns developed a close relationship with fellow German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms.
A gifted pianist, Clara Schumann embarked upon on many tours around Europe. In a male-dominated musical world, Clara largely remained in the shadow of her husband and his legacy for many decades, with some historians describing as her husband’s helper. However, such assertions couldn’t be further from truth. Clara Schumann was in her own right a gifted musical genius and composer who created her unique style of composition. This is evident in the different forms of music – Lieder and fugues, chamber, orchestral works – which she worked on.
Some of her most famous works are Op. 1 (Quatre Polonaises pour le pianoforte), the Piano Concerto in A minor (Op. 7), and Op. 5 4 Pièces caractéristiques.
A testimony to Hans Zimmer music composition prowess is the fact that he has produced music for more than 150 films (as of 2021) over his illustrious film score composing career. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Zimmer’s admiration for music started at a very young age. He took to playing the piano but discarded it due to the rigorous nature of the piano lessons. He then went on to train himself extensively in music, partly using it as a mechanism to deal with the death of his father.
By his teens, Hans Zimmer had turned professional, playing keyboards and synthesizers for a number of bands, including the London-based English band the Buggles, and the Italian electronic music band Krisma.
Around the early 1980s, Zimmer had started making tentative steps into the film score industry, as he partnered with English composer and conductor to work on scores for films like Moonlighting (1982), Insignificance (1985), and My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), among others. His big break came when the film score that he produced for the 1987 film The Last Emperor won the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
In 1987, he worked with Sandy McClelland to compose the theme song for British television game show Going for Gold. That particular gig of his, as well as many previous others, opened doors for him in Hollywood. American film director Barry Levinson tapped Zimmer to score the 1988 road drama film Rain Man, a box office hit that starred Hollywood stars Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. Zimmer received an Academy Award nomination for the score of Rain Man.
Other famous scores of Zimmer include Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean series, The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar, Inception, and Blade Runner 2049.
As of 2021, Zimmer holds a total of four Grammy Awards, two Golden Globes, three Classical BRIT Awards, and an Academy Award. The latter award came for his score for the critically acclaimed animated musical drama film The Lion King (1994). Undoubtedly one of the most celebrated composers of Hollywood film scores, Zimmer truly deserves a place on this list of most famous German composers of all time.
Johann Pachelbel, a German composer and organist, is famously praised for having had tremendous influence on the south German organ schools. Many of his works, both secular and sacred, went on to help in the development of the liturgical composition chorale prelude (also known as chorale setting) and fugue, a contrapuntal compositional technique that uses two or more voices.
The above explains why Pachelbel’s music has remained immensely popular among classical music enthusiasts and composers, even to this day. The latter group was predominantly found in central and south Germany.
Some of Johann Pachelbel’s most famous works are the Chaconne in F minor, Canon in D, the Toccata in E minor for organ, and the Hexachordum Apollinis.