Throughout the centuries, German composers have had an especially profound effect on the world of music. Some of the most influential of all time have called Germany home and in this post, we’re going to look at 10 of the greatest German composers throughout history and their lives and best works. Let’s get started.
1. Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most popular composers of all time, was born in the city of Bonn, Germany in 1770.
No one actually knows his date of birth but he was baptized on the 17th December 1770 so it must have been around then.
He started playing at a very young age and was definitely a child prodigy, giving his first public recital at the age of seven in 1778.
His first composition was 9 Variations on a March by Ernst Dressler which he wrote when he was only 12 years old.
From there he began his career as a composer and eventually moved to Vienna, Austria in 1792.
It may be shocking now, but Beethoven’s early works received negative reviews which led to a 5-year hiatus.
These pieces weren’t even given opus numbers.
Beethoven style of composition was on the cusp of the Classical and Romantic Eras and his style shows this evolution as he bridges the gap between the two classical periods
Probably his most famous compositions, and one of the most famous piano pieces ever was “Für Elise”.
It wasn’t actually published in his lifetime, only being discovered 40 years after he died.
Some other notable works by Beethoven include another piano piece “Moonlight Sonata,” and his 5th and 9th Symphonies.
One of the big things that Beethoven is remembered for is continuing composing through hearing loss and severe tinnitus.
He began losing his hearing in his late twenties but was completely deaf by the time he was 45.
Despite this, amazingly, he still continued to compose, producing some of his best work!
It’s reported he would sit at the piano and use a pencil in his mouth that touched the soundboard so he could feel the vibrations of the notes.
He had severe liver damage that was believed to be caused by heavy drinking and he died in Vienna after years of illness on the 26th March 1827.
Related: 10 Interesting facts about Beethoven.
2. Robert Schumann
Robert Schumann, one of the greatest composers of the Romantic Era, was born in Zwickau, Germany on the 8th June 1810.
He started composing music at the young age of 7 and also trained as a pianist which was his main passion.
But, the young virtuoso sustained a finger injury in the early 1830s which led him to focus primarily on composition as opposed to performance.
After a long legal battle with her father who didn’t want them to marry, he married Clara Wieck, a fellow German piano virtuoso and composer.
Because of his love for the piano, Schumann wrote pieces exclusively for the piano until around 1840.
One of my favorite pieces of his has to be ‘Träumerei’ from his Kinderszenen Op.15, “Scenes from Childhood”.
Other popular pieces of his include “Carnaval,” “Piano Concerto, in A minor,” and “Kreisleriana.”
Schumann is often remembered for his mental health struggle that began around 1833.
He suffered from what is now believed to be bipolar disorder and even checked himself into a mental asylum after a suicide attempt in 1854.
He sadly never left the asylum and died of pneumonia on the 29th July 1856.
3. Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany on the 7th May 1833.
His first exposure to music was from his father – Johann Jakob Brahms – who was a working musician and taught him the violin and cello.
Brahms then went on to study the piano but was distracted by composing with his teaching once commenting “He could be such a good player, but he will not stop his never-ending composing“
Similar to Beethoven, moved to Vienna, Austria – often considered to be the capital city of classical music – where he spent the majority of his career.
Being a virtuoso pianist as well as a composer, Brahms wrote extensively for the piano and often premiered many of his own pieces and also worked closely with Clara Schumann (Robert Schumann’s wife) who was also a virtuoso pianist.
As well as composing for the piano, Brahms composed for diverse instrumentation including orchestras and vocal ensembles.
One of his most well-known compositions is Wiegenlied Op. 49 (Lullaby) but you probably know it as “Hush Little Baby Don’t Say a Word” which is based on this piece.
Some other notable composition works of Brahms include “Die Mainacht,” “Symphony No. 1,” and “Piano Concerto in F minor.”
In early 1896, Brahms was diagnosed with jaundice and liver cancer with his condition worsening until he died the following year on the 3rd April 1897 at the age 63.
4. George Frideric Handel
George Frideric Handel (baptized Georg Friederich Händel) was born in Halle, Germany on the 23rd February 1685.
He began learning the organ after Duke Johann Adolf I heard him play and recommend he take lessons.
After that he began studying with Germany musician and composer Friedrich Zachow who taught him instruments like the oboe, organ and violin plus lessons on counterpoint.
Handel spent his early years composing in Hamburg but bounced around a little before eventually settling down in London, England in 1712.
Handel was most well-known for his operas and has been described as a dramatic genius.
He premiered many of his operas for noblemen but created them to be enjoyable for the middle class as well.
The diverse pieces appealed to all and he was among the most well-respected composers of the Baroque Era.
His most famous piece is undoubtedly the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from the ‘Messiah’.
Some of Handel’s other beloved works include “Suite No 4 in D Minor: Sarabande,” “Water Works,” and “Music For The Royal Fireworks.”
During the last decade of his life, Handel began to lose his eyesight and eventually went completely blind with cause widely debated but still remaining unknown.
He died on the 14th April 1759 at the age of 74.
5. Richard Strauss
One of the few composers to remain in Germany for the majority of his career, Richard Georg Strauss (not to be confused with Austrian composer Johann Strauss II) was born in Munich on the 11th of June 1864.
Strauss began piano lessons at the young age of four and was heavily inspired by his father, a French Horn in Germany at the time and principal in the Munich Court Orchestra.
Strauss started composing early too writing his first composition at the young age of 6 and continuing to do so throughout his entire life.
Being heavily inspired by German composer Wagner (who we’ll look at later in this article), Strauss’s music is usually associated with the late romantic style with lush melodies and large emotion and expression.
His compositions consist mainly of tone poems and operas however, he did compose some instrumental works including a couple of symphonies and some concertos.
In addition to being an accomplished composer, Strauss was also a rather well-known conductor throughout Germany; sometimes holding 2 prestigious conducting positions simultaneously.
His wife was a soprano opera singer named Pauline de Ahna and due to their lines of work, they collaborated often.
One of my favorite works of Richard Strauss has to be ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ which was used as the opening music for 2001: A Space Oddysey.
Some of Strauss’ other notable works include “Don Juan,” “Death and Transfiguration,” “An Alpine Symphony,” and “Elektra.”
In early 1948, Strauss knew that his health was beginning to decline and at this point, he continued his work and composed “Four Last Songs.”
He had bladder surgery at the end of that year and his health began to deteriorate afterwards, suffering a heart attack in August 1949 but never really recovering afterwards.
He passed away less than a month later on the 8th September 1949 at the age of 85.
6. Felix Mendelssohn
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, more commonly known simply as Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on the 3rd February 1809.
Like many of the great Romantic Era composers, Mendelssohn began at a young age.
He made his musical debut at age 9 and had a repertoire of compositions released by his early teen years.
He wasn’t the only composer in the family either with his older sister Fanny Mendelssohn achieving success as a composer writing over 450 pieces.
Felix Mendelssohn may not have the modern household recognition that some other German composers like Beethoven or Handel do, but his melodies have been heard far and wide perhaps without you realising it was his.
He composed the overture for Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when he was only 17 years old.
Another composition you might recognize is the melody for “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” which is from Mendelssohn’s “Festgesang.”
Some of my favorite other works of his are “Songs Without Words” his “4th Symphony” and his “Vilolin Concerto in E Minor Op. 64.”
Mendelssohn’s health was in decline throughout his final years, but that didn’t hold him back from his passion.
His heavy workload is debated to be a factor in the series of strokes he suffered that ultimately led to his death near the end of 4th November 1847.
7. Engelbert Humperdinck
Engelbert Humperdinck, not to be confused with the English pop singer with the same name, was born in Siegburg, Germany in 1854 on the 1st September.
He composed his first piece at age 7 and started creating stage productions at 13.
The Modern Era composer didn’t have familial support for his musical career but he went to the Cologne Conservatory anyways eventually going on to win various prestigious awards including the first Mendelssohn Award.
Humperdinck’s biggest success was his operatic version of Hänsel und Gretel.
However, he also was the innovative composer who introduced Sprechgesang which is somewhere between speaking and singing.
The composer is also known for other productions including “Königskinder” and “Dornröschen” as well as composing incidental music for various other shows including “The Merchant of Venice”.
In 1912, Humperdinck had a stroke that left his left hand paralyzed.
Even so, he continued to compose with the help of his son until he had a heart attack in 1921.
Humperdinck survived the initial heart attack but suffered a second one the following day from which he passed away on the 27th September 1921.
8. Georg Philipp Telemann
Georg Philipp Telemann was an influential German composer towards the end of the Baroque Era into the early Classical Era.
Born in Magdeburg one the 24th March 1681, the composer lived in various German cities throughout his life.
Against the wishes of his family, Telemann began taking music lessons when he was around 10 years old.
While they tried to forbid music of any kind, Telemann was already composing by age 12.
Telemann was a mostly self-taught multi-instrumentalist who performed on flute, violin, oboe, double bass, and more while composing.
The musical jack-of-all-trades remains the record holder for most prolific composer.
In his life time he wrote over 3,000 musical works, a record that to this day has never been matched.
Throughout his life, he composed operas, chamber music, oratorios, cantatas, concertos, and more.
Some of the most beloved of these works include “Water Music,” Germanicus, “Viola Concerto in G Major,” and Orpheus.
Telemann’s output of compositions began to decline in the 1740s but he still continued to release, just to a lesser extent, into the 1760s.
He lived until the impressive age of 86 when he died on the 25th June 1767.
9. Wilhelm Richard Wagner
Wilhelm Richard Wagner, more commonly known just as Richard Wagner, was born in Leipzig in on the 22nd May 1813.
Wagner spent most of life in Germany however, he was exiled for political reasons for over a decade.
Wagner was primarily known for his opera composition but he did compose a few non-operatic pieces.
Some of the most notable are “Faust Overture” and “Symphony in C Major.”
Operas were his main passion though and he was one of the only composers to write the libretto to his operas.
Perhaps one of his most famous compositions was “Ride of the Valkyries” from Der Ring des Nibelungen also known as “The Ring Cycle”.
It was an absolutely massive work that took him 27 years to finish and over 18 hours to perform.
As well as Opera, Wagner was well known for his use of leitmotifs, which is a short, recurring musical phrase that is thematically associated with a specific character, place, or concept.
Wagner was an influential and controversial figure in the music world during his lifetime both for his music and his writing about his anti semitic views.
This made him very popular after his death and was Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer with reports that Wagner’s music was played in the concentration camps.
In the early 1880s, Wagner began to have semi-regular bouts of chest pain.
This led to a heart attack that took his life on the 13th February 1883.
10. Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach is often credited as the most influential composer of the Baroque period and one of the best composers of all time.
He was born in Eisenach, Germany on the 31st March 1685 to a family that had already produced multiple famous composers and would produce even more after him.
His son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, was perhaps the next most famous composer to come from the family but 3 of his other son’s Johann Christian Bach, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach all become composers.
J.S Bach however was one of the most important composers of all time and developed a lot of the harmony that is still in use today.
He wrote well over 1,000 pieces of such as sonatas, oratorios, cantatas, orchestral music, and more.
Some of his most influential pieces include “Concerto for Two Violins,” “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” “The Brandenburg Concertos,” and “Christmas Oratorio although my favorite is his “Cello Suite No.1 in G Major”.
Bach’s health began to decline in 1749 and so did his eyesight which needed a few surgeries between then and his death.
None of these surgeries were able to improve his health or eyesight and he died in Leipzig, Germany from surgery complications at the age of 65 on the 28th July 1750.
Summing up The Best Composers from Germany
So there you have it, our list of the best German composers of all time which doesn’t even scratch the surface of amazing composers that come from Germany.
As you can see, a lot of these composers remain household names despite dying centuries ago.
Even the names that may seem unfamiliar in this list have beloved pieces that those exposed to classical music are more than likely familiar with.