How German composers took the world by storm
Germany is home to some of the world’s most well-known incredibly talented classical composers, and has fostered the development of world-class musical talent for the past 500 years. But why are so many composers from Germany, and how is the federal republic still creating new music masters?
Great German composers
From Brahms to Beethoven, it seems Germany has got a gift for creating musical talent. To understand classical music in Germany, we first have to study its history, how music took over Germany, and how German music took over the world!
A brief history of classical music in Germany
Germany played a fundamental role in the development of classical music, opera and poetry with key composers such as Handel, Wagner and Schumann shaping the genre for centuries to follow. Classical music was popularised in 15th century Germany by the revolutionary composer Oswald von Wolkenstein. Wolkenstein travelled across Europe learning new musical techniques, bringing them back to Germany and introducing classical music styles to up-and-coming German musicians.
Following Wolkenstein's lead, 16th-century composers such as Bach and Handel created Baroque music, characterised by long melodic lines and ornamented music such as trills. The Baroque composers inspired a new era of musicians in Europe, bringing about the romantic period. Some of the key figures in German romanticism were Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn, with their genre known for its intense energy compared to earlier music tastes.
After the 19th century, music styles changed rapidly in Germany, and during the 20th century, the country's musical taste evolved to include more modern genres such as jazz, blues, electronica and rock. Modern classical music made in Germany often incorporates historical elements from the Baroque and Romantic periods alongside modern techniques to create new sounds in the genre.
Opera in Germany
Opera gained popularity in Germany in the form of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in 1791. While Mozart himself was Austrian, the German-language opera started a trend within Germany, inspiring later composers such as Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner.
Some of the most famous German operas include Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (1893), and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865).
Though poetry is not always musical, there are a number of great German poets who have shaped lyrics and music in the country. Germany’s most well known poets are Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Heine and Friedrich Schiller.
Goethe is the most well-known German laureate, and is widely regarded as the greatest and most influential writer in the German language, having produced poetry as well as novels and plays.
Why are so many famous classical music composers German?
Germany has created more classical music maestros than other countries its size, thanks in large part to its long history of musical creativity and ingenuity. The country has invested heavily in high-quality events and festivals to showcase the best German music talents, and has created schools specialising in music and opportunities for future generations of musicians.
Classical music schools and conservatoires in Germany
Germany is still a pioneer in terms of classical music in the modern era. It has a particularly high density of orchestras, conservatoires, music schools and theatres, which contribute towards a vibrant classical music scene.
According to statistics from the German Orchestra Association, there are 129 publicly-funded orchestras across the country, with around 10.000 members. The Berliner Philharmoniker is the most well-known professional German orchestra, taking part in shows all around the world each year.
List of German composers
Music, much like many of the other arts, sees tastes and fashions throughout the eras. The most influential periods in Germany's musical development are the Baroque, Romantic and Modern periods, with many composers first starting to gain international attention in the 17th century.
Naturally, we can't cover all of Germany's composers, since there is so much incredible musical talent, but here are some of the most well-known German musicians, composers and musical creatives from throughout the ages.
German composers in the 17th century
The 17th century saw the beginning of the Baroque period, which lasted from approximately 1600 to 1750. Much of the music composed in this period was revolutionary for its time, and the era saw the creation of concertos, operas and sonatas. These are the most famous German 17th-century composers:
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)
Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most well-known composers in the entire world and is often referred to as the greatest Baroque composer ever. Bach was part of a large family of musicians, with over 50 musicians and composers as his relatives. Johann Sebastian was the most famous Bach family member, and his most famous works were the Brandenburg Concertos, The Well-Tempered Clavier and Schubler Chorales.
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759)
Handel is also a well-known Baroque composer, regarded as one of the greatest composers of his era. Handel was born in Halle, and spent a large part of his musical career in the United Kingdom. He started three commercial opera companies to supply the English upper classes with opera, and composed several musical masterpieces, including Zadok the Priest, which is still used for British coronation ceremonies today.
German composers in the 18th century
The period bridging the Baroque and Romantic eras in music, the 18th century proved an interesting and inventive time for music in Germany. These are the most well-known 18th-century German composers:
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Beethoven is arguably the most famous composer in the world, with more than 6,3 million monthly Spotify listeners to this day. He was born in Bonn and moved to Vienna at age 21 to pursue his musical interests. After his first orchestral work premiered in 1800, Beethoven’s hearing began to deteriorate to the point that he struggled to compose. In 1814, Beethoven largely gave up performing and public appearances, but continued to compose some of his greatest pieces well after his hearing had deteriorated.
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681 - 1767)
Georg Philipp Telemann was a Baroque composer with an impressive ability to play multiple instruments. Though less well known than his famous Baroque counterpart Beethoven, Telemann’s work incorporates French, Italian, and German music styles, and was thus unique for the time. His most famous compositions include Tafelmusik and Der getreue Music-Meister.
German composers in the 19th century
In the 19th century, the Romantic musical era was truly upon us, and Germany’s music composition was booming. There are so many composers for this era that not all of them can be included, but here are some of the greatest Romantic era composers hailing from Germany:
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 - 1847)
Hailing from a wealthy family in Hamburg, Felix Mendelssohn began learning the piano at the tender age of six, and made his first public appearance at the age of nine. One of the first significant Romantic composers, Mendelssohn's most famous works is his overture for A Midsummer Night's Dream, and he's also the creator of the melody for Hark the Herald Angels Sing, a popular Christmas carol.
Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856)
One of the greatest Romantic era composers from Germany was undoubtedly Robert Schumann. Schumann originally studied with the intention of going into law, but made the decision to focus on composing music and pursue a career as a piano virtuoso. He went on to marry Clara Wieck, more commonly known as Clara Schumann, who was herself a musical genius.
Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883)
Chiefly known for his operas, Richard Wagner is one of Germany's most influential and controversial composers. He most famously wrote the operas Tristan and Isolde and Ring Cycle. Wagner's life was peppered with political exile, tempestuous love affairs and bouts of poverty. As well as his music, Wagner is nowadays equally infamous for his controversial writing on music, drama and politics, many of which expressed anti-semitic sentiments.
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Another famous composer hailing from Hamburg, Brahms is considered one of the "Three Bs" of classical music (together with Bach and Beethoven) and is one of the most famous composers of Germany's Romantic era, with works that were both traditionalist and innovative at the same time. He spent a great portion of his life living in Vienna.
German composers in the 20th century
In the 20th century, music changed dramatically, and classical music stepped back from the mainstream to make way for jazz, blues and electronic music. Classical music still managed to gain attention from many people in Germany, but it took a back seat compared to the new genres. These are the top German composers from the 20th century:
Richard Georg Strauss (1864 - 1949)
Strauss’s work stretched between the late Romantic and early modern musical periods, with his compositions reflecting the complexity of musical taste building within the 20th century. Strauss’s musical ability allowed him to compose from the young age of six up until his death in his 80s. The most famous compositions by Strauss are his operas Salome, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier.
Paul Hindemith (1895 - 1963)
The multitalented Hindemith was a German composer, music theorist, teacher, violist and conductor who founded the Amar Quartet in 1921. Hindemith’s style bridged the Romantic and Modern eras and his compositions allowed him to tour extensively across Europe. His Amar Quartet made multiple recordings and broadcasts, allowing them to travel to other countries such as Denmark, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.
Composers from East Germany and West Germany
While many German composers are from the former West German region, there are also several great East German composers that often get forgotten. In the period of separation, the music tastes within the East and West noticeably changed, but classical music largely remained the same. Here's a little information on some of the greatest East and West German composers.
East German composers
Two of the most famous East German composers were Udo Zimmerman and Leo Spies. Zimmerman passed away relatively recently, in 2021, after a hugely successful musical and academic career. Throughout his career, Zimmerman founded a centre for contemporary music in Dresden, and was director of the Leipzig Opera and the Deutsche Oper Berlin. His most famous opera was Weiße Rose, a story based on a brother and sister in their early 20s, who were guillotined by the Nazis.
Leo Spies, a German born in Moscow, studied at the Berlin University of the Arts and went on to become a world-class composer and conductor. Spies was particularly active in the German city of Berlin, where he made a name for himself in the theatre industry.
West German composers
After the Second World War, many West German composers came up with new works inspired by the tragedies that came before them, and the hope that the future held. One of the great West German composers of the time was Gerda Herrmann, who was born in Bad Cannstatt in the 1930s. Herrmann grew up during the war, and witnessed terrible tragedies during her childhood. She went on to write more than 400 songs and inspired many young people to take up creative writing.
Another great German composer from West Germany was Werner Eisbrenner, whose work is widely known from films of the early-to-mid 20th century. He was awarded the German Film Award (Lola) and was also a member of the jury at the first Berlin International Film Festival.
Modern German composers
In terms of modern composers, Germany also has a lot to offer. One of the most well-known composers today is Hans Zimmer, who has created music for many popular films and TV shows. Zimmer was born in 1957 and can play an array of different instruments. He has written the music scores for The Lion King, Pirates of the Caribbean, Interstellar, Blade Runner 2049 and many other top films.
Another great modern German composer was Karlheinz Stockhausen, who passed away in 2007. Stockhausen is remembered as one of the most controversial composers of the 20th and early 21st centuries for the polarising effect his modern creations have had on the classical community. His most notable compositions include Gruppen for three orchestras and Momente.
Time to try some German classical music
Now that you know all about classical music in Germany, it’s time to relax and unwind with some soothing classical music. Check out this playlist to hear how some of Germany’s best composers sound.