Can you think of other romantic composers besides Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff? If not, read on to discover 10 of the most underrated romantic composers.
If someone was to ask you for the names of romantic composers, which composers would you think of? Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff are probably the first names that pop into your head. And for good reasons. The music of these giants is played, performed and celebrated so profusely that even the non-musicians will have heard of their names at some point in their life.
But what about all the other composers that lived during the Romantic Period? Shouldn’t their music be played and remembered too?
In an attempt to promote these lesser-known composers, I’ve put together a list of 10 romantic composers who I think are underrated. Of course, I could’ve made a much longer list but to keep this article digestible, I’ve decided to stop at 10 composers.
And to make the list most relevant to you, I chose to include composers who have contributed greatly to the piano repertoire in the hope that some of their piano works will tickle your fancy.
Below is the list of 10 of the most underrated romantic composers, in the order in which they appear in the following video. You can listen to samples of some of the pieces I recommend.
1. Anton Arensky (1861–1906)
Anton Arensky was a Russian composer, pianist and professor of music.
He studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov at the St Petersburg Conservatory. After graduating, he became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory. Amongst his students were Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Gretchaninov.
Arensky’s output is varied, having written for chamber music, opera, ballet, orchestra, choir and piano. One of his most popular works is his Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky.
2. Georg Martin Adolf von Henselt (1814–1889)
Adolf von Henselt was a German composer and pianist.
He started piano lessons at age five with Josephe von Flad thanks to whom he received financial support to undertake further studies with Johann Nepomuk Hummel in Weimar. He then went on to study composition with Simon Sechter and perform in Vienna. He migrated to St Petersburg in 1838 where he became court pianist and teacher of the Royal family.
Sadly, he stopped composing at the age of 30, for reasons that are unknown and withdrew from the stage three years later due to chronic stage fright.
Despite such a short period of composing, Henselt has left us a generous list of piano works as well as chamber, orchestral and vocal music.
Henselt’s playing and teaching greatly influenced the Russian school of music and his contemporaries, including Liszt, who would comment on Henselt’s famous legato playing by saying, “I could have had velvet paws like that if I had wanted to.”
3. Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860–1941)
You probably know Paderewski as a pianist but did you know that he was also a composer and a Prime Minister?
Paderewski studied at the Warsaw Conservatory then moved to Berlin in 1881 to study composition with Friedrich Kiel and Heinrich Ruban. After three years of teaching in Strasbourg, he made his concert debut in Vienna in 1887. He was immensely popular for his virtuosic playing and charisma on stage. His compositions were also favourably received.
As the narrator says in the Irving Berlin song, I Love a Piano: “And with the pedal, I love to meddle/When Paderewski comes this way./I’m so delighted when I’m invited/To hear that long-haired genius play.”
Paderewski has left us over 70 orchestral, instrumental and vocal works including many piano works.
4. Mélanie Hélène Bonis (1858–1937)
Mélanie Bonis, known as Mel Bonis, was a French late-Romantic composer.
She taught herself piano. Her parents weren’t very supportive but thanks to the persuasion of a professor of the Conservatoire, they enrolled her into at the Conservatoire at the age of sixteen. Mel studied accompaniment, harmony and composition from César Franck along with Debussy and others. Facing difficulties as a female composer, she changed her first name to a more androgynous form “Mel”.
She wrote more than 300 pieces, including works for piano solo and four hands, organ pieces, chamber music, choral music and orchestral works.
5. Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade (1857–1944)
Cécile Chaminade was a French composer and pianist.
She studied piano, violin and music composition but not officially for her father disapproved of her musical education. At eight years of age, she played some of her compositions to Bizet who was most impressed with her talents. She gave her first concert ten years later. She made her debut in England where her music was very popular. In 1913, she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, a first for a female composer.
Chaminade’s music bears the typical characteristics of late-Romantic French music and often has a lilt and a touch of humour. She composed mainly for orchestra, piano and voice.
6. Louise Farrenc (1804–1875)
Louise Farrenc was a French composer, pianist and teacher.
Amongst her piano teachers were Muzio Clementi and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. She held the prestigious position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory for thirty years. Aside from teaching and performing, she also wrote a book entitled Le Trésor des Pianistes on early music performance.
While she was remembered as a reputable performer decades after her death, her music was sadly mostly forgotten until interest in female composers in the late 20th century led to her rediscovery.
She left a considerable body of work including symphonies, vocal music, chamber music, and many piano works.
7. Alexander Tikhonovich Gretchaninov (1864–1956)
Alexander Gretchaninov was a Russian composer.
He began his studies at the Moscow Conservatory in 1881 against his father’s wishes and without his knowledge. His teachers were Sergei Taneyev and Anton Arensky. In the late 1880s, he moved to St Petersburg where he studied composition and orchestration with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who immediately recognised his musical talent, giving him extra time and financial help.
He returned to Moscow and wrote for the theatre, the opera and the church. He then moved to France several years after the revolution and then to the United States in 1939 where he remained until his death.
Gretchaninov’s output includes symphonies, quartets, piano trios, sonatas for violin, cello, clarinet, piano and balalaika, several operas, vocal music and piano music.
8. Viktor Stepanovych Kosenko (1896–1938)
Viktor Kosenko was a Ukrainian composer, pianist, and educator.
Kosenko started picking out tunes on the piano and tried improvising when he was about five. He had incredible musical memory, being able to play pieces such as Beethoven’s Pathéthique Sonata from memory, having heard his sister practise the piece. His sister gave him his first lessons before he began formal training with Yudytskiy.
He was admitted to the St Petersburg Conservatory where he astonished the committee members with his sight-reading abilities – he could look at a score, put it aside and play the piece from memory!
Apart from his composing, he was involved in a music society, concert appearances, a piano trio, vocal quartets and even a symphony orchestra, besides working as an accompanist for different ensembles.
His first compositions were markedly influenced by the works of composers such as Scriabin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Lysenko. Although his music does not reflect any specific folk song, he was influenced by Ukrainian folk music. He wrote mainly for piano as well as a handful of pieces for orchestra, chamber music and choir.
9. Moritz Moszkowski (1854–1925)
Moritz Moszkowski was a German composer, pianist, and teacher of Polish-Jewish descent.
Moszkowski studied piano in Dresden then moved to Berlin where he continued his piano studies and studied composition with Friedrich Kiel (the same teacher as Paderewski’s). He made his concert debut in 1873. From 1875, he was a teacher at the Berlin Conservatory. He toured around Europe where he gained recognition as a pianist, composer and conductor.
Moritz Moszkowski married Chaminade’s sister, Henriette Chaminade. Around the mid-1880s, he started suffering from a neurological problem in his arm which led him to reduce his recitals in favour of composing, teaching and conducting. As his poor health worsened, his career gradually went into decline and he stopped taking composition pupils because “they wanted to write like artistic madmen such as Scriabin, Schoenberg, Debussy, Satie …”.
Ignacy Paderewski said: “After Chopin, Moszkowski best understands how to write for the piano, and his writing embraces the whole gamut of piano technique.”
Moszkowski composed over 200 short pieces for piano, many of which are used today as encore performances (such as Étincelles). He also wrote larger scale works including two piano concertos, a violin concerto and orchestral works.
10. Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877–1952)
Sergei Bortkiewicz (or Bortkevych) was a Ukrainian composer and pianist.
His music professors included Anatoly Lyadov at the Imperial Conservatory of Music in St Petersburg. He moved to Leipzig where he completed his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory with Alfred Reisenauer and Salomon Jadassohn, who were both pupils of Liszt.
Being a citizen of the Russian Empire, he and his wife were constantly moving from country to country during the two world wars and the Russian Revolution. It was not until 1935 that he and his family settled in Vienna and remained there until his death. He was deeply affected physically and mentally, having to teach in horrid conditions, losing compositions in bombings and suffering from financial difficulties.
His music style was influenced by Liszt and Chopin as well as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Wagner and Ukrainian folklore.
Over to you
Did you know any of these composers? Are there other composers you would’ve liked to see on this list? Let me know in the comments!
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