I don’t feel that 20th/21st century music should dominate music history/theory curriculums, and I can only speak from personal experience, but I feel that a large majority of American music students are lacking in their knowledge of 20th century music beyond Stravisnky, the 2nd Viennese School and American minimalism. As an undergrad I learned about Debussy, Shoenberg, Webern, Berg, Bartok, Stravinksy, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Ives, Poulenc and Copland in detail. After that unit of early 20th century music we jumped through Messiaen, mentioned that Darmstadt was a place that existed, learned a lot about American minimalism (at least Glass and Reich) and then finished a superficial passing of composers from ~1975-present.
That said, I don’t really have a solution for this problem, and I understand developing new courses and changing curricula is a long and difficult process. However, there are so many composers that I personally think all undergraduate students should know about, especially if they plan to continue with graduate studies in music. I have narrowed this list down to 35 composers who, if I had my druthers, would required information for all undergraduate history and theory courses. Below is my list of composers as well as a short rationale for each:
…but before we get started
These are composers I feel could be on this list, but excluded them because they seem to receive more coverage in undergraduate courses, and are performed more frequently. This, however, is based solely on my own undergraduate experience and my observation of other undergraduate curriculums I experienced through my graduate and doctoral studies.
And, in a perfect world, I would prefer to teach two courses - early 20th century and late 20th/21st century history - which would include the following composers:
Ruth Crawford Seeger
Stuart Saunders Smith
John Luther Adams
Joan La Barbara
.......but we don't live in a perfect world, so let's move on
The 35 Composers
Edgard Varese - emancipator of noise and sound; key figure in the early 20th century avant-garde, made major impact on electronic music (58 Brussels’ World Fair) , truly unique figure who influenced so many facets of music of the early, mid and late 20th century
Pierre Boulez - arguably one of the most frequently performed and awarded musicians on the 20th century, very skilled conductor, virtuoso pianist, innovative composer, knowledgeable theorist and musicologist; we should get past the mistakes of his youth and give his work the respect it deserves
Luciano Berio - Composer who balanced the lyricism and with the sound world and integral serial methods of the Darmstadt school (in early works), later works showing more eclecticism of style marked by post-Modernist composers, but with the gestural and harmonic language that grew out of Darmstadt. Berio also did some pioneering work in electronic music and text-sound composition; at a minimum one should know the Sequenzas
Karlheinz Stockhausen - Like Boulez, Stockhausen was one of the most influential musical figures of the 20th century, but Stockhausen’s influence (especially in electronic music) reaches into popular music and experimental rock and jazz; also a talented conductor, pianist and theorist in addition to being an innovative composer
Luigi Nono - Darmstadt composer with a different approach from the total serialism of Boulez, Berio, Stockhausen, et al; Nono brings a level of narrative and expression to what is otherwise very aggressive music; highly influential on developments in Italian music of the middle and late 20th century
Milton Babbitt - Though notorious for his “Composer as Specialist,” Babbitt was an incredible teacher and composer who influenced many composers of the 20th century (including musical composer Steven Sondheim); highly influential in terms of music theory and analysis of atonal music with pitch sets, serial procedures, combinatoriality, etc.; Pioneering work in electronic music at CPEMC
Harry Partch - His life is an incredible story; arguably the most important figure in microtonal music of the 20th century, instrument maker, highly influential on microtonal music (experimental and popular)
Iannis Xenakis - Major figure in electronic music and mathematical approaches to composition with serialization; developed his own theories and approaches outlined in Formalized Music
Krzysztof Penderecki - All undergrads will know Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, but it’s likely that few will know De Natura Sonoris Nos. 1 and 2, Polymorphia, Anaklasis, Kanon for Orchestra and Tape, Fluorescences, and the St. Luke Passion. Not only are these beatiful works that explore color and timbre as a primary formal framing device, they are all landmark works in sound mass composition. They are also all used in various films, including The Shining, The Exorcist, Wild at Heart, Children of Men and Shutter Island. Don’t like noisy sound masses? That’s ok, because Penderecki later turned his back on experimental noise music and began writing more traditional neo-Romantic music, which is equally beautiful, albeit a little on the “old” side for my personal taste (but no one asked for that here).
Gyorgi Ligeti - Early pieces utilizing quotation and influence of Bartok and Kodaly, 50s and 60s compositions with micropolyphony, sound-mass composition, textural music based on electronic experimentation; later works showing a multitude of styles. Ligeti basically did it all, and did it well.
Morton Feldman - major figure in experimental music, developed new systems of graphic notation, influential on music and art of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Feldman is primarily important for his contributions to aleatoric and indeterminate music (also developed by his contemporaries Cage, Earle Browne and Christian Wolff). I think Cage is covered fairly well, and while I would like to see Brown and Wolff covered extensively, I would be fine with undergrads having a more than passing acquaintance with Feldman.
George Crumb - Crumb is taught to an extent, but students should know beyond Ancient Voices and Black Angels; incredibly important figure in American new music; style is without comparison in terms of sound and notation; no one writes like Crumb, but Crumb, new approaches to timbre
Peter Maxwell Davies - Later works are mostly tonal works for students, but he was an important composer in Europe, and his early stage works Eight Songs for a Mad King and Miss Donathorn’s Maggot were very influential on crossover works of music, theater and performance art
Jacob Druckman - similar to Joseph Schwantner in terms of orchestrational color and imaginative use of ensemble timbre, but Druckman encompasses a very wide range of style and aesthetic. He was highly influential on a generation of students (including Cindy McTee, David Lang, Laurie Spiegel, Aaron Kernis, Daniel Kellogg and Chris Theofonidis), and he is a great example of a composer who was heavily influenced by electronic music and the potential of new sounds available, more so than many of his post-Modernist contemporaries of the mid-late 20th century.
Mario Davidovsky - Influential composer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, series of Synchronisms for solo instruments and tape. Davidovsky is one of 3 composers to win a Pulitzer Prize with a piece utilizing electronics as a primary component of the piece (Synchronism 6 for piano and tape), the other two being Leon Kirchner and Charles Wuorinen.
Pierre Schaeffer - One of the earliest practitioners of elecronic music; established musique concrete, created Groupe Recherches Musicales (GRM) which is still a highly influential organization for the research and development of electronic music
Helmut Lachenmann - developed the concept of acoustic concrete, which drove entirely new approaches to acoustic composition
Sofia Gubaidulina - Incredibly skilled Russian composer who ISN’T Shostakovich (nothing against, him, but Russian music did continue after Dmitri…); lots of use of quotation, mixing of styles, use of improvisation techniques, exploration of interesting timbres. Gubaidulina has also received numerous awards for her music, and is somehow still not a household name among 20th century composers.
Julius Eastman - I know we’ve all heard of Glass, Reich, Riley and Young, but Julius Eastman is rarely, if ever, talked about in classroom discussions of minimalism, which is really terrible. Eastman was an amazing performer (singer and pianist) and a brilliant composer whose life and work were cut entirely too short. If you’re looking for some minimalism with a little grit and a lot of depth, maybe put down Reich/Glass and pick up some eastman.
Pauline Oliveros - Founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center and the founder of Deep Listening. Oliveros is a highly influential composer and innovator of electronic music who taught at numerous institutions including Mill College, San Diego State University, Oberlin, and the Rensselaer Institute.
Terry Riley - I know I just said we all know about Teri Riley, but really most people just know about In C, which is undeniably influential, and is a lot of fun to perform. That said, Riley’s music is heavily influenced by jazz and Indian classical music, and much of his work outside of In C shows that cross-cultural influence, which became important to the ritualistic aspect of cell-based minimalism. Riley also did important work at the San Francisco Tape Music Center.
La Monte Young - Another composer associated with classical minimalism who existed well outside of that aesthetic, Young was very active in experimental music and performance art, specifically his work with Fluxus. Young’s work was also very influential on John Cale and his work with the Velvet Underground, and helped to pioneer the practice of ambient drone music.
Meredith Monk - Lots of important work in performance art, has received numerous honors and awards for her contributions to contemporary art, music and theater, often works on interdisciplinary multimedia works that stretch genres and has received recognition in the popular music and film world.
Frederic Rzewski - American composer who is often associated with minimalism based on the surface repetition, but Rzewski’s music contains a level of subtlety and improvisation that is not often found in the classic minimalism of Glass and Reich, but is more similar to that of Riley and Julius Eastman (contemporaries of Rzewski). Rzewski’s music is also marked by its association with topics of social and political activism.
Charles Wuorinen - I don’t think Charles Wuorinen ever was, or will be, a household name, but he’s definitely a composer that all undergraduates - especially composers - should have at least a passing knowledge of. While most of Wuorinen’s output could be defined as coming from the 12-tone and serialist tradition, and although he can sometimes be a curmudgeonly old man, his music is vastly rich and deep, and I feel that it has stood the test of time. Additionally, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his piece Time’s Encomium in 1970, the only Pulitzer Prize awarded to an entirely electronic work. It should also be noted that Wuorinen wrote what was at one time a very influential composition book, and he had numerous students that would later become highly successful composers (Arthur Russeell, Michael Daugherty, Aaron Jay Kernis)
Robert Morris - Possibly better known in the theory world, but Robert Morris is an incredibly brilliant musician and a very creative composer. His works are not limited to mental gymnastics of serial and post-serial technique, but are full of expressive beauty and nuance. His outdoor pieces are also incredibly creative works that utilize large outdoor spaces and spatialized ensembles to create immersive sonic events. He was also on faculty at Eastman (along with Schwantner and Sam Adler) and had his own flock of dedicated and talented pupils.
Kaija Saariaho - Arguably one of the most frequently performed composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Saariaho’s music sits somewhere between post modernism and spectralism, but regardless of what genre you want to put on it, the music is crafted masterfully, satisfies modernist interests in complex “systematic” atonality (not serial in any way, but not freely atonal) and is simultaneously hauntingly expressive. Saariaho also has many works that are major pieces for instruments and electronics including Pres for cello and electronics, Noanoa for flute and electronics and Nymphea for string quartet and electronics.
Arvo Pärt - The Estonian king of holy minimalism. Arvo Part’s music is rich and beautiful, but it is also important for being influential in what is now referred to as holy minimalism (along with Henryk Gorecki and John Tavener), a style which utilizes the repetition associated with American minimalism, but with the pacing and mood of choral music, or at least more chorale-like textures. Part is often considered the originator of this approach to minimalism, and his instrumental and choral works in this style are performed frequently throughout the world.
Gerard Grisey - French composer credited with developing spectral composition along with his colleague Tristan Murail. Spectral music was a major development in composition that led to influences in orchestral and chamber music as well as electronic composition (with and without instruments) and film music. In my personal opinion Grisey should be included with Debussy, Les Six, Messiaen and Boulez in terms of his importance to French music and contemporary composition on the whole.
Louis Andriessen - Andriessen’s mature musical style is oten associated with minimalism because of its use of repetition, but it is highly influenced by jazz and simultaneously by the spectral techniques of Claude Vivier. While many minimalists chose to utilize pitch structures related to tonal and modal harmony, Andriessen’s music favors crunchy European dissonance and pitch structures based on the natural overtones series. Andriessen also utilizes odd combinations of instruments instead of more traditional chamber groups or orchestras
Joan Tower - A major figure in the development of late 20th century American music. Tower was also a performer and was a founding member/pianist of the Da Capo Chamber Players. Her music has received numerous awards including a Grawemeyer for Silver Ladders. Other important works include Sequoia, Petroushskates and Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman
Frank Zappa - Frank Zappa is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and talented musical minds of the 20th century. He never formally studied music or composition and could write chamber and orchestral works on the level of Varese, Stravinsky, Berg, Boulez, you name it. He also wrote interesting genre bending popular music in numerous styles, experimented with electronics (having composed numerous fixed media electronic compositions), he worked at IRCAM, was one of the first people to own a personal Synclavier, and arguably influenced music in popular music and contemporary concert music to a greater extent than anyone on this list.
Ellen Taaffe Zwillich - The first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (1983 for Three Movements for Orchestra, Symphony No. 1), first person to hold the Composer’s Chair at Carnegie hall, a massive list of honors and awards, four Grammy nominations, chair of the BMI Student Composer Award (following Milton Babbitt and William Schuman). Zwillich’s music and career should be taught in all 20th century music history courses, without a doubt.
Shulamit Ran - The second woman to win a Pulitzper Prize (1990 for Symphony), recorded by over 12 record labels, numerous honors/awards and five honorary doctorate degrees. Shulamit Ran teaches at the University of Chicago and has been a leading voice in contemporary music throughout the world and her approach to composition is influenced by her studies with Norman Dello Joio, Ralph Shapey and Elliott Carter. This led to a compositional voice characterized by eclecticism of style, harmonic and rhythmic language.
Augusta Reed Thomas - A talented composer who could be described as balancing postmodernism and neo-Romanticism. Thomas was very talented as a young composer and became a tenured professor at Eastman at the age of 33, but later went on to teach at Northwestern. Thomas has composed for numerous ensembles and genres, has received numerous awards and commissions and is frequently performed throughout the world. It is difficult to deny that she is one of the most celebrated composers of the 21st century.
Thomas Adès - I feel that Thomas Adès’ music is similar to Augusta Reed Thomas in terms of style and aesthetic, and I personally feel that I could not include Augusta Reed Thomas without Thomas Adès or Adès without Thomas. His music also demonstrates his approach to post-modernism with eclecticism of style, pastiche, quotation and colorful instrumentation.