Top 10 English composers

Gramophone Thu 21st April 2016

We select ten of the greatest composers England has produced (and some recommended recordings)

To mark St George's Day, we have listed ten of our favourite English composers, from Tallis to Tavener. We have also recommended some recordings by each composer, which you can listen to via the Qobuz playlist below.

John  Tavener 

Most of Tavener's music is explicitly religious, some influenced by late Stravinsky. His most notable works include The Protecting VeilSong For Athene (heard by millions at Princess Diana's funeral) and The Whale.

Recommended recording

The Protecting Veil 
Yo-Yo Ma (vc); Baltimore Symphony Orchestra / David Zinman

(Sony)

'A reading of tremendous stature and technical refinement...' Read review.

Read more on Tavener and discover the essential recordings...

 

Frederick Delius

The sound world of Delius is immediately recognisable – warm, luminous orchestral colours, hazy, impressionistic tone pictures tinged with a romantic glow. No one (unless you include popular music arrangers) followed in his footsteps. He belonged to no tradition; he led nowhere. 

Recommended recording

Orchestral Works, Vol 3 
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Thomas Beecham
(Naxos)

'It is, quite simply, a performance to cherish...' Read review.

Read more on Delius and discover the essential recordings...

 

Thomas Tallis

Tallis can fairly be said to be the first important English composer, though little is known of his life. Most of Tallis’s music is, not surprisingly, for the church and his historic importance is in being one of the first composers to write for the Anglican service, the composer who bridged the transition from the Roman rite. 

Recommended recording

Spem in alium 
Chapelle du Roi / Alistair Dixon
(Signum)

'A fascinating experiment by the choir, who expose the contrafactum for what it really is...' Read review.

Read more on Tallis and discover the essential recordings... 

 

George Butterworth

A keen collector of English folk songs and folk dances, Butterworth's passion for folk music clearly influenced his style of composition. He is one of the great 'what ifs?' of musical history. Who knows what he might have achieved had his life not been cut tragically short on the Western Front in 1916?

Recommended recording

Complete Butterworth Songbook 
Mark Stone (bar) / Stephen Barlow (pf)
(Stone)

'Poignancy is driven home by this collection of his songs...' Read review.

Read more on Butterworth and discover the essential recordings...

 

Malcolm Arnold

A fluent, versatile composer, Arnold wrote scores for nearly 100 films. His most important works are orchestral (nine symphonies, 1951-82; numerous light and serious pieces). His language is diatonic, owing something to Walton and Sibelius, and the scoring is dramatically brilliant, Berlioz being his acknowledged model.

Recommended recording

Symphony No 5
London Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox
(Chandos)

'One of his most accessible and rewarding works...' Read review.

Read more on Arnold and discover the essential recordings...

 

Benjamin Britten

The patron saint of music blessed Britten with precocious gifts for he began playing the piano at two and was reading symphony and opera scores in bed at the age of seven. Britten came of age in 1934, the year in which Elgar, Holst and Delius died. He rapidly dragged British music into another era – his own.

Recommended recording

War Requiem
Melos Ensemble; Bach Choir; Highgate School Choir; London Symphony Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten
(Decca)

'Among the most magnetic performances of British music ever put on record...' Read review.

Read more on Britten and discover the essential recordings...

 

Gustav Holst

Think of Holst and you think of The Planets. Not much else springs to mind and, indeed, his output is comparatively slender, but he wrote much else of interest, including A Somerset Rhapsody, The Hymn of Jesus and A Choral Fantasia. Yet The Planets is such an overwhelming, original work that everything else pales into insignificance in scale and concept. 

Recommended recording

The Planets
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Simon Rattle
(EMI Classics)

'Blazing brilliance, warmth and weight...' Read review.

Read more on Holst and discover the essential recordings...

 

Ralph Vaughan Williams

After receiving conservative English and German instruction, and learning modern French orchestral technique – Vaughan Williams emerged as an adventurous, unmistakably English composer with a distinct voice of his own. The Lark AscendingFantasia on 'Greensleeves' and Tallis Fantasia are amongst the most popular works by any British composer, but it is in his nine symphonies that we feel his true substance.

Recommended recording

A London Symphony
London Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox
(Chandos)

'An essential purchase for anyone remotely interested in British music...' Read review.

Read more on Vaughan Williams and discover the essential recordings...

 

Henry Purcell

Many regard Purcell as the greatest English composer of all time. That is arguable; but considering his importance in the history of British music, it’s ironic that so little is known about his short life. Among his most influential works are the opera Dido and Aeneas and the semi-operas The Fairy Queen and King Arthur.

Recommended recording

King Arthur
Les Arts Florissants Chorus; Les Arts Florissants Orchestra / William Christie
(Erato)

'Christie makes the strongest case for this music to date...' Read review.

Read more on Purcell and discover the essential recordings...

 

Edward Elgar

A composer of individuality and depth, Elgar worked firmly within conventional 19th century German harmonic and structural traditions, yet his voice is quintessentially English. His lyrical side conjures up tranquil pastoral beauty; his pomposity and ebullience remind us of the British bulldog – one with teeth.

Recommended recording

Enigma Variations
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Adrian Boult
(British Composers)

'None has surpassed it in authority and fidelity...' Read review.

Read more on Elgar and discover the essential recordings...

 

Explore: 

Gramophone Subscriptions

From£64/year

Gramophone Print

Gramophone Print

no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Reviews

Gramophone Reviews

no Print Edition
no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Digital Edition

Gramophone Digital Edition

no Print Edition
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2017