10 Of The Greatest Italian Composers You Should Know

Last updated

Italy is known for delicious food, beautiful architecture, and rich culture. An enormous part of that culture throughout time has been music. From early sacred choral music through modern film scores, here are the musical stories of the 10 of the greatest Italian composers of all time.

1. Antonio Lucio Vivaldi

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi, born in Venice in 1678 was who most people consider to be the best Baroque composer of all time.

As well as composing he also played violin, taught music, and even served as a Roman Catholic priest.

He had an immediate Baptism, which created rumors that he was in danger.

To this day, no one knows the exact reason.

Vivaldi’s father was a professional violinist and taught Vivaldi to play at an early age.

Vivaldi began to learn composition in his early teens.

He suffered from what historians now believe was asthma, which is likely why he gravitated toward the violin and composition over wind instruments.

It did prevent him from leading many masses, although he remained a member of the priesthood for his liturgical compositions.

Vivaldi composed the majority of his best pieces during his mid to late 20s while playing violin at an orphanage.

Vivaldi was more progressive in his operatic style than the traditionally conservative musicians of his time preferred.

Nevertheless, he produced at least 50 operas, The Four Seasons ultimately becoming his most famous.

Vivaldi went to Vienna in his later career, but lost public esteem and ended up very poor.

He died at age 63 of internal infections.

2. Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi

Guiseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was an opera composer born in 1813.

His family was not a musical one, but he did learn to play the organ at the local school at the age of six.

He was so drawn to music that his parents bought him his own spinet, and he became a paid organist for the local church at just eight years old.

At age 12, he began studying with the director of a music school and co-director of the Philharmonic Society.

During his teen years is when he began to compose.

By his 20s,Verdi was a leader of the Philharmonic Society.

He wanted to attend the Conservatory in Milan, but was not accepted.

Nevertheless, he persisted and eventually became the director of the Busseto school in his hometown.

He married and had two children, but both died young.

Verdi was finally asked to work on an opera in Milan in 1837.

His wife died young while he was composing his second opera.

Despite his tumultuous personal life, Verdi went on to compose several well known operas throughout Italy.

Aida is his most timeless and famous, with Otello (based on Shakespeare’s Othello) and Nabucco topping the list, as well.

He spent time in his later career teaching and mentoring, eventually setting up home base in Paris.

He remarried and became active in Italian politics and philanthropy.

He passed away in 1901 after suffering a stroke.

3. Claudio Monteverdi

Claudio Monteverdi

Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi was a composer, string instrumentalist, and choirmaster.

Like Vivaldo, he also became a priest.

He composed both religious and secular music, and is also thought of as one of the greatest contributors to the opera movement between the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Monteverdi was born in Cremona in 1567.

There are rumors that he sang in the Cathedral choir and studied at Cremona University, but officially very little is known about his musical training.

We do know that he published his first piece, a collection of sacred songs, at just 15.

He also played strings in the Court of Duke Vincenzo.

In the early 1600s, Monteverdi’s work was called into controversy by theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi, who questioned Monteverdi’s musical taste and approach.

This was made even harder by his wife’s untimely death.

Monteverdi persisted and published the opera L’Orfeo and many sacred pieces.

When Duke Vincenzo died in 1612, Monteverdi was not able to impress his successor.

Just a year later, he was able to fill the post of maestro at the San Marco basilica in Venice.

Was commissioned for many pieces throughout Italy, taking break during the 1630s when parts of the nation were riddled with the plague.

In the 1640s, he suffered a bit of a fallout with the church and poured himself into opera.

He revised his earlier piece L’Arianna and composed several new ones before passing away of an illness in 1643.

4. Giacomo Puccini

Giacomo Puccini

Giacomo Puccini was another well known member of the great Italian opera composers.

He was born in Lucca in 1858 to a very musical family full of composers.

They were especially active in the music of the Cattedrale di San Martino.

Puccini began as a chorister and organist.

His studies consisted of the Pacini School of Music in Lucca and the Milan Conservatory, to which he received a grant from Queen Margherita.

Puccini’s first composition was Capriccio sinfonico, written for the orchestra during his studies.

He quickly began composing operatic works after that in collaboration with other great composers.

La bohème and Tosca are two of the most notable pieces from the height of his career.

Madama Butterfly is also a famous piece, although most people do not realize its completion was delayed significantly due to a near death car accident.

In his later career, Puccini lived a more quiet life.

He did compose an ode to Fausto Salvatori to celebrate Italy’s WWI victories, but he was not nearly as politically active as Verdi.

He passed away in 1924 of throat cancer brought on by years of smoking.

5. Ennio Morricone

Ennio Morricone was a modern composer who was known for his eclectic musical style.

He composed classical pieces as well as almost 500 movie and television scores.

Additionally, he enjoyed conducting, orchestrating, and playing trumpet.

Morricone was born in Rome in 1928.

His father was also a professional trumpet player, and he taught Morricone early to read music and play multiple instruments.

He began comprising at age six.

The trumpet stuck with him, and at the age of 12, he attended the Saint Cecilia Conservatory to study it further.

From here, he was chosen to be part of the Orchestra of the Opera under Carlo Zecchi.

Some of Morricone’s most famous pieces include his film scores for A Fistful of Dollars Exorcist II, The Untouchables, and especially The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

These scores span a wide variety of film genres.

After a long and successful career that also included jazz bands and orchestral performances, Morricone passed away at age 91 following a fall.

6. Domenico Scarlatti

Domenico Scarlatti

Guiseppe Domenico Scarlatti was a Baroque composer who also contributed to the birth of the Classical movement throughout his career.

He was born in Naples in 1685, the same year as other great European composers Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel

Scarlatti’s first music teacher was his composer father.

In his 20s, Scarlatti was offered the position of composer and organist of the Royal Chapel of Naples.

He then travelled around Italy and eventually to Portugal and Spain, composing for various European royalty.

Most of Scarlatti’s compositions, including his most famous 30 Essercizi (Exercises), were not published until after his death.

Scarlatti’s unique style reflects his travels around Europe.

His works were infused with Iberian folk elements and Spanish guitar.

He passed away at the age of 71 in Spain.

7. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was a composer of sacred music during the Renaissance era.

He was born in 1525.

His mother died when he was 10 years old, shortly after which he is documented as being a chorister at the Santa Maria Maggiore.

He began studying music during the polyphony movement, the first attempt by musicians to create chords and harmonies by playing multiple lines of music simultaneously.

Throughout his career, Pelestrina served as organist and composer for a variety of sacred chapels throughout Italy.

He is said to have been one of the greatest influencers of sacred music.

He suffered financial distress and the loss of his brother and wife during the plague, but remarried a wealthy woman, which freed him to compose until his death from pleurisy in 1594.

8. Gioachino Antonio Rossini

Gioachino Antonio Rossini

Gioachino Antonio Rossini was a composer of opera, chamber, piano, and sacred music.

He was born in 1792.

His father and childhood music teacher was a well known trumpet player.

He also studied with a local priest, Guiseppe Malerbe.

Rossini had already composed six sonatas by the age of 12.

He served a couple of prison sentences between 1790 and 1800 for insubordination to authorities and political activism.

Rossini composed his first operas between 1810 and 1815, beginning with La cambiale di matrimonio.

During the next five years, he moved his career to Naples, where he wrote a version of Otello that was liked but not nearly as famous as Verdi’s later version.

Hoping to have more success elsewhere, he moved to Vienna and London between 1820 and 1824.

He enjoyed some success, but moved on to Paris to compose a grad opera for the French Royal Academy of Music.

His original plans were derailed with the death of Louis XVIII, but he did manage to compose some popular pieces, including Guillaume Tell, one of his last before an early retirement.

Rossini passed away from colorectal cancer in 1868.

9. Ludovico Einaudi

Ludovico Einaudi by Meghdad Madadi (CC BY 4.0)

Ludovico Einaudi is a modern composer and pianist.

When he began his career in the 1980s, he focused on classical music.

He has since expanded his compositions to include rock, pop, folk, world music, and music for television and film scores.

Einaudi was born in 1955, the grandson of Italian president Luigi Einaudi.

His mother was a pianist, and his maternal grandfather was also a pianist and opera conductor.

Einaudi was only a teenager when he began composing music.

He studied at the Conservatorio Verdi in Milan and immediately after began an orchestration class and earned a scholarship to the annual Tanglewood Music Festival in the United States.

Einaudi began composing movie and television scores in the 1990s, starting with Da qualche parte in città and the award-winning Acquario.

He went on to win and be nominated for several other Italian and British films and television shows, including an Oscar nomination for Fuori del mondo.

He also composed the trailer music for the American blockbuster Black Swan.

Einaudi remains an active composer to this day.

10. Niccolò Paganini

Niccolò Paganini

Niccolò Paganini was not only composer, but also a guitarist and one of the most famous violinists of his time.

He was born in 1782, and his father was a part time mandolin player.

Paganini began learning mandolin from his father at age five, switching to the violin two years later.

He was talented from the beginning, and earned many musical education scholarships.

He outgrew the abilities of his own teachers at an early age, so his father travelled far and wide to find him mentors that could continue to help him grow.

Historical records suggest that Paganini picked up the guitar during the French invasion of Italy during the late 1790s, but that he preferred to have an intimate relationship with the instrument rather than performing it for the public.

He continued to become famous for the violin in his late teens and early 20s, meanwhile becoming infamous for his habits of gambling and womanizing.

Throughout the 1800s, Paganini took his career on the road.

He played concerts in every major European city, and he was awarded the Order of the Golden Spur by Pope Leo XII in 1827.

His performances were often cancelled and rescheduled as he struggled with many illnesses, thought to include Marfan syndrome, syphilis, and tuberculosis.

He ended his concert career and attempted to set up a casino in Paris in 1836.

It failed miserably, and he died four years later of a hemorrhage, completely broke.

Summing up Famous Italian Composers

Thanks to the work of these 10 composers, the musical landscape of Italy has remained vibrant from the 14th century through today.

Their legacy lives on in timeless sacred hymns sung in Catholic masses to this day, as well as in movie scores setting the tone on the big screen.

These talented composers have played key roles in the transition of Italian music throughout the ages.

Photo of author
Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then, he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.