When I was originally drafting this list, I came up with 14 names of underrated composers. Culling it to just 5 was based heavily on my own opinion (ie I chose musicians that I personally love, and aren’t just considered generally underrated).
I also strove for a diverse mix of musicians – though since Classical music is almost entirely a European tradition, all of the composers on this list were European. You’ll find Germany, Spain, Czech Republic, France and Italy all represented here. One person on this list is female (who were historically underdogs by default).
Almost all of the composers here represent the early to late Romantic period in music – it wasn’t intentional, it just clearly shows my own personal bias toward Romantic music. There is, however, one Baroque composer on this list – who we will start with.
Underrated Composer #1: Scarlatti
Domenico Scarlatti is technically a Baroque composer (he was active in the early-to-mid 1700s), though his music was also leaning in the new Classical direction (mid 1700s to early 1800s).
One of Scarlatti’s main shortcomings is that he was born in the same year as two huge Baroque figures – Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. Everyone nowadays knows Bach, of course, and Handel is still fairly well-known.
Aside from being born in the shadow of two Baroque giants, Scarlatti also didn’t live in the epicenter of European music. Scarlatti was Spanish, and the main musical hubs at the time were in Germany, France and Italy.
Unless you’re a piano player or keyboardist (and even then!), you might not know the name Scarlatti. He was very prolific and wrote a bunch of serious operas (around 60), liturgical pieces and other giant vocal works, but what survives today are some of his 555 piano sonatas.
Now as I mentioned, if you’re a keyboard player there’s a good chance you know the name Scarlatti – which in and of itself means he isn’t entirely underrated. But the reason I included him on this list is because he’s very often overlooked.
Though his works are labeled “sonatas”, they are really nothing like Classical sonatas, and so I think they get swept under the rug by the standard sonata writers like Mozart and Beethoven. It’s a problem of genre classification.
I also think that, as far as Baroque repertoire goes, people tend to stick to the cheery early-to-intermediate dance suites by Handel, and of course everyone must learn Bach. They’re both quintessentially Baroque composers. Scarlatti’s music, however, exists in this blurred limbo between Baroque music and Classical music – it fits neatly into neither category, and so it’s called “transitional”.
Here’s what I love about his sonatas: They’re surprisingly modern-sounding, and stand the test of time. While lots of Baroque music is fascinating historically, I don’t think it’s the kind of music you can appreciate without at least some amount of study, since it’s so different.
I think Scarlatti’s sonatas can appeal to a broader audience, and have a more emotional (and thus universal) sound to them.
You have to check out Horowitz’s Scarlatti – here’s a clip of a very good recording of the same sonata so you can get a sense of his expressive style.
Horowitz – Scarlatti Sonata K.87, L33 in B minor
Underrated Composer #2: Fanny Mendelssohn
Next up is Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of the more famous Felix Menelssohn.
I talked about Fanny on the video dedicated to awesome women composers, but I felt the need to bring her up again. She was a German pianist and composer who lived in the first half of the 19th Century, and, had she been a man, would have certainly gone far in life.
First of all – her output. It’s not like she composed a piece here or there – she composed hundreds of works, same as any other serious musician at the time.
Second, some of the works she composed aren’t even credited to her – it’s thought that she published some of her pieces under Felix Mendelssohn’s name in his Songs Without Words.
Women had a tough time in the Classical music landscape, as with any other creative pursuit. They weren’t taken as seriously by the general public (though, like Fanny, they were well-admired by close friends), and weren’t given the same opportunities to publish and tour.
I want you to know that I’m not including Fanny on this list simply because she’s another historically maligned female in a male-dominated field. I’m including her because she’s criminally underrated (it’s even hard to find sheet music and recordings by her nowadays) – her music is very good.
My favorite collection by her is Das Jahr (The Year), a song cycle with each piece representing a month of the year. Below you’ll find a recording of September, which is absolutely beautiful (and virtuosic).
She was inspired to write this collection when her family was traveling in Italy – it was sort of a musical journal of her experiences.
What I think is cool is that Tchaikovsky is credited with the same idea – 12 pieces based on the year, called The Seasons. His version was written in 1875. Mendelssohn’s was composed around 1845.
The whole cycle is around an hour long, but I highly recommend it. At the very least, check out September: At the River.
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: September: At the River, from Das Jahr
Underrated Composer #3: Charles Alkan
And then we have Charles-Valentin Alkan, who I wouldn’t have even heard of had it not been for a few devout fans writing passionate comments on this channel.
Alkan was a French-Jewish composer active in the Romantic era in Paris around the same time as Chopin and Liszt, who were all acquainted with each other.
So why care about him?
First off, Liszt himself praised Alkan and his compositions. He regularly performed in the same concerts as Liszt and Chopin (when he wasn’t being a hermit). Liszt is quoted as saying,
“Alkan possessed the finest technique he had ever known, but preferred the life of a recluse.”
So that gives us our first significant insight as to why Liszt and Chopin are well-known, but Alkan is largely forgotten – he would spend years at a time eschewing public performances in favor of solitude. It’s very telling that one of the only pictures you can find of him is taken from behind, where you can’t see his face.
(If you want to know more about his whole backstory, we did a video on him a while back.)
Anyway, since Alkan had no interest in promoting himself, and had a meager inclination to perform, his music virtually disappeared when he died. People forgot his name.
His music is also extremely difficult. He was known for pushing the limits on piano technique, exploring its full boundaries. Since his music is so challenging, only a chosen few are able to play them.
Op. 39 etudes, no. 12
I’m going to leave you with a 10-minute etude from his op. 39 minor etudes, no. 12, called Le Festin d’Esop. Again, I couldn’t find a free recording to share, but this YouTube performance will blow your mind. It’s a very exciting theme-and-variations piece that seems impossible to play. But it’s not just key-mashing – it’s very inventive and innovative.
Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs op. 39
XII. Le Festin d’Esope
Underrated Composer #4: Isaac Albeniz
I find that Spanish composers (and basically any composer not from USA, Germany, Britain, Italy or France) tend to get overlooked in music. I didn’t really come across them in my music studies – it was honestly my own curiosity that led me to discover Isaac Albeniz.
Albeniz was active in the late 1800s, toward the end of the Romantic era. He’s best known for his piano compositions, like his epic Iberia Suite – probably his best known work, and one of the most challenging set of pieces in piano repertoire.
Lots of his music has been transcribed to guitar, and some of my favorite Albeniz recordings are performed on classical guitar.
I honestly don’t know why Albeniz isn’t more popular – it could be that his piano music is very challenging, but it’s also very appealing. His music has flair, lightness, and likeability. He also didn’t live particularly long, though he wasn’t exactly young either at age 49.
There were a couple of other influential Spanish composers around the time of Albeniz, notably Manuel de Falla and Enrique Granados (both who could have also been a part of this list). I just happen to really like Albeniz – his music is Liszt-like in its impressiveness, but is immediately enjoyable for even the most casual of Classical music listeners.
I think his music is so enjoyable because it’s largely based on Spanish folk music – folk music, by nature, is very simple and appealing.
My favorite Albeniz is his Suite Espanola op. 47 (which contains my favorite Albeniz piece, Asturias, as well as Grenada). Iberia Suite is also amazing.
Asturias from Suite Espanola
Albeniz, like most of these others, isn’t well-known and well-recorded enough for me to share a clip here, but I’ll leave you with a video on the blog of Asturias, which even non-Classical listeners are sure to enjoy.
ISAAC ALBÉNIZ- ASTURIAS Luis Fernando Pérez, piano
Underrated Composer #5: Antonin Dvorak
Finally we conclude this list with Antonin Dvorak.
Many of you probably know the name Dvorak, so you’re probably wondering why he makes the list. My decision was based on the fact that he’s rather unfairly a one-hit-wonder to most people. Most people know the “New World Symphony” tune – at least a small part of it. But most people don’t know anything else about Dvorak.
He was active in the later part of the 19th Century, and was a Czech composer. Like others in his era, he relied heavily on folk music in his writing. So why wasn’t he as popular?
Partly this has to do with Brahms. Brahms was writing similar music around the same time, and Brahms was hugely successful. Dvorak’s music was also simpler and lighter than many others, so it’s been criticized as being superficial, not as deep.
Sometimes us music fans can fall into the trap of thinking that if the music isn’t gritty in some way, or doesn’t go to dark places, then it isn’t intellectual music. But the inherent optimism in Dvorak’s music is what makes it interesting, I think, especially during a time where musicians were writing these beastly, difficult and dark pieces.
Aside from the New World Symphony (no. 9), no. 7 and 8 are also frequently performed. But his first six symphonies are largely ignored, even though they’re very good (I’ll be linking you to the 45-minute 6th symphony).
In addition to composing symphonies, Dvorak also wrote string quartets, piano trios, operas, and an excellent (yet underplayed) piano concerto.
In the sixth symphony, you’ll hear a likeness to Brahms’ music, but I think it stands on its own. It’s very expressive and melodically beautiful – simple doesn’t have to mean plain.