Composer of the Week Archive

Archive contents

Gustav Mahler

Kaija Saariaho

Henry Purcell

Sir George Benjamin

Franz Schubert

Leonard Bernstein

Unsuk Chin

George Frederic Händel

Gabriel Fauré

Benjamin Britten


Mahler – 1806-1911

Born in Austria, Gustav Mahler was a defining composer of the early 20th century style, bridging the gap with the earlier 19th Century Austro-German style. He was also a very popular conductor of his time. Mahler’s body of work consists mostly of symphonies and orchestral song cycles. His music is known for its beautiful orchestral colour and the drama and emotion that the extremes and contrasts evoke.

Perfect for prayer: ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (‘I breathed a gentle fragrance’) from the Ruckert-lieder.

(translation of the text available here )

Pieces for study:

‘Lieder eines fahrenden gesellen’ – An orchestral song cycle, one of Mahler’s earliest works and the texts take influence from German folk poetry.

Symphony II – one of Mahler’s most popular works. This piece requires huge instrumental forces, not only the symphony orchestra but also two soloists and a large chorus.
(For a quick glimpse, enjoy the final movement. )

Want to hear more? Listen to Mahler’s 9th Symphony.

For a quick listen perhaps ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’, also from Mahler’s ‘Ruckert-lieder’.
Kaija Saariaho (b.1952)

Kaija Saariaho is a Finnish composer and is a leading composer of contemporary classical music. Her works are characteristically intricate and busy, often creating a very delicate sound-world through her chosen instruments and textures.

Perfect for prayer: ‘Nocturne’ for solo violin – this piece begins slow and contemplative and evolves throughout, developing small fragments. Listen out for the unusual string sounds that she explores.

Pieces for study:

‘Orion’ for orchestra – this piece uses large instrumental forces to create a rich texture with lots of different colours and sounds created through a variety of instrumental techniques.

‘Sua Katselen’ (‘I watch you’) from ‘Leino Songs’ –  for soprano and orchestra. Enjoy the rich texture of this piece, listen out for the unusual harmonies too, both create a mystic, hypnotic feel to this piece.

Want to hear more? Listen to ‘Sept Papillons’ (Seven Butterflies).

For a quick listen perhaps ‘NoaNoa’ for solo flute.


Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Purcell was a defining composer of English Baroque Music. In 1679, at just 20, he became the organist of Westminster Abbey, a highly sought after position and he stayed in this role for the rest of his life. Purcell wrote a huge collection of church music during his lifetime and as a composer in the courts, he wrote many odes for royal occasions. His opera ‘Dido and Aeneas’, likely written as court entertainment at the time, is still widely enjoyed and a defining piece in English operatic repertoire.

Perfect for prayer:  ‘An Evening Hymn’

Pieces for study: ‘Music for a While’ – written as incidental music for the play ‘Oedipus’

‘Te Deum and Jubilate Deo’ – one of his later works, a celebratory cantata, featuring chorus, soloists and period orchestra. Hear the ‘Te Deum’ here  followed by the ‘Jubilate Deo’

For a quick listen perhaps the ‘Hornpipe I-II’ with the flute

Want to hear more? Listen to the beautiful and moving ‘When I am laid in earth’ (Dido’s Lament) from ‘Dido and Aeneas’,


Sir George Benjamin (b. 1960)

Benjamin is a pioneering composer of British contemporary classical music. He is also a renowned conductor and is the Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at Kings College London. Benjamin is known widely for his very successful and fascinating opera ‘Written on Skin’ and his exciting new opera premieres at the ROH this May.

Perfect for prayer: ‘Mediation on Haydn’s Name’, for solo piano, this piece is deeply peaceful and reflective.

Pieces for study: ‘Three Inventions’, you can see Benjamin conduct his own piece in this video.

‘Dance Figures’ for orchestra.

‘A Mind of Winter’ for soprano and chamber orchestra; this piece paints a somewhat unsettling, mystical picture of winter.

For a quick listen, here are three minatures, to hear them separately you can find no.2 at 2m 54s and no.3 at 6m 24s

Want to hear more? This is Benjamin’s ‘Octet’ which produces some really interesting instrumental textures and colours


Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Schubert composed a huge amount of music during his short lifetime. He is perhaps best known for his lieder, but he also wrote a number of symphonies and chamber music pieces. Schubert was not widely appreciated during his lifetime but he is now regarded as one of the defining composers of the early romantic era.

Perfect for prayer:’Mondenschein’ , one of Schubert’s pieces for male voice choir. See here for the translation;

Pieces for study: One of Schubert’s most famous works, his song cycle ‘Winterreise’, here performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a pioneer of Schubert’s lieder who is particularly famous for his interpretation of this song cycle.

Here is the beautiful second movement from Schubert’s Symphony in Bb Major

For a quick listen try ‘Rastlose Liebe’, a lively lied about ‘restless love’,

Want to hear more? Here is Schubert’s Symphony in C


Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Bernstein was a hugely influential American composer and conductor of the 20th century. His compositions are performed all over the world and he conducted many of the world’s leading orchestras. He was a passionate educator and social activist, leading a wide range of projects and was a keen advocate for arts education. His pioneering series of lectures for adults on classical music and concerts for children that were broadcast across the states in the 50’s engaged many people with classical music in a new and exciting way. His compositions cover an immensely wide range of genres and Bernstein was equally successful in his work across classical music, musical theatre and film music and he encompasses just about every style of music into his work.

This year would be Bernstein’s 100th birthday and there is a worldwide celebration of his life and work going on throughout the year.

Perfect for Prayer: the beautiful ‘Adonai Roi’ from the Chichester Psalms

Pieces for study:

Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite, from the film ‘On The Waterfront’

3 meditations, taken originally from Bernstein’s huge theatrical piece MASS but now enjoyed as a suite on their own too.

This is Bernstein’s first published piece, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano

Here is Bernstein himself conducting the full ‘Chichester Psalms’ –
For a quick listen: ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story

Want to hear more? Listen to Bernstein’s wonderful First Symphony

A couple of extras; here is a clip of Bernstein’s ‘Young People’s Concerts’

Also, here is a renowned conductor Marin Alsop who studied with Bernstein talking about working with him –

Where can I hear Bernstein’s music soon?

At Cadogan Hall on 31st May –

At St John’s Smith Square with Tenebrae and the Aurora Orchestra on 6th July –

‘On the Town’ will be part of the proms in August –


Unsuk Chin (b.1961)

Chin is a pioneering composer of contemporary classical music. She is from Korea but now lives in Germany and her works are performed regularly worldwide. She has won numerous awards for her work including the 2004 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for her Violin Concerto. She has held residencies all over the world and she is currently the artistic director for the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Music of Today series. She was also last year awarded the prestigious Wihuri Sibelius Prize.

Perfect for Prayer: This is the fifth movement of Chins’ ‘Miroirs des temps’, the beautiful polyphony here reminiscent of that in medieval music mixed with modern sounds. The themes of this whole cycle are reflection, love and life –

Pieces for Study:

Here is the beautiful second movement of Chin’s ‘Piano Concerto’, listen out for the recurring patterns passing around the different instruments –

Chin’s ‘Violin Concerto’, enjoy the virtuosic explorations of the violin, such as the opening solo passage and then listen out for the beautiful, meditative solo passages, such as at around 11 mins in –

‘Akrostichon Wortspiel’, an unusual and creative piece for soprano and ensemble – (the strange text is explained here by the composer: ‘Akrostichon-Wortspiel consists of seven scenes from the fairytales The Endless Story by Michael Ende and Alice through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. The selected texts have been worked upon in different ways: sometimes the consonants and vowels have been randomly joined together, other times the words have been read backwards so that the symbolic meaning alone remains’)

For a quick listen:
Etude No. 5 ‘Toccata’ for Piano –

Want to hear more? ‘Cantatrix Sopranica’, a unique piece for 2 sopranos, countertenor and ensemble –



Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Handel composed during the Baroque era. He was born in Germany but travelled to England in 1710 where he then settled and he contributed greatly to the English music in the 1700’s. He came to England to write his opera ‘Rinaldo’, which was the most important works in bringing opera to England. After composing several more operas, he expanded into oratorio too in London and in this genre he composed his perhaps most famous work, ‘Messiah’.

Perfect for Prayer: ‘The Lord is my Strength’ from the oratorio Israel in Egypt

Pieces for Study: ‘Heart the Seat of Soft Delight’ from Acis and Galetea, this piece is the final aria to this opera, sung by Galetea to Acis as she uses her powers to immortalise him

‘Padre Amato’ from Tamerlano, as Asteria sings to her father

Sonata for Oboe and Continuo, here played on a baroque oboe as it would have sounded at the time

‘Comfort Ye My People’ from Handel’s Messiah

An instrumental movement from Messiah here, known as the ‘Pastoral Symphony’


For a quick listen, try ‘V’adoro Pupille’, sung by Cleopatra in Guilio Cesare


Want to hear more? Here is Handel’s Water Music Suite 1


A couple of well-known favourites to hear again too: here is ‘Zadok the Priest’ from Handel’s Coronation Anthems

….and of course the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus from Handel’s Messiah




Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

Fauré was a French composer and was highly influential the artistic movement between the late romantic era and the different 20thcentury style. His works greatly advanced the changes in harmony and melody that would shape new theory and the 20th century style. Fauré is regarded as a master of vocal writing and he really defined the style of French Art Song, the Mélodie.

Perfect for Prayer: This is the beautiful ‘Pie Jesu’ movement from Fauré’s Requiem –

Pieces for Study: Here is one of Fauré’s most famous works, his Pavane –

This is Fauré’s stunning orchestral suite Pelléas et Mélissande, inspired by the play of the same name by Maurice Maeterlinck –

Here is a selection of Fauré’s iconic French Mélodies….

Clair de lune –

L’aurore –

Après un rêve –


For a quick listen:  Try Notre Amour –

Want to hear more? Here is Fauré’s beautiful Theme and Variations op. 73 for piano


Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Britten was a central figure for British music during the 20th century. He received numerous awards and honours for his outstanding contribution to classical music during his lifetime, including being the first musician to be awarded life peerage. He created a large body of work; he is probably best known for his operas, which are widely regarded as among the best English operas ever written, and his other vocal music, such as the War Requiem. He also composed a lot of orchestral music and chamber works and was a successful conductor and pianist. He was a founder of the fantastic Aldeburgh Festival which continues to this day to be one of the most important events in the English classical music scene annually. It has also from the beginning supported contemporary classical music and in particular offering opportunities for young people in new music.


Perfect for Prayer: ‘In Paradisum’, from the War Requiem


Pieces for Study: Here is the stunning ‘Embroidery Aria’ from Peter Grimes, (aria begins at 0.45seconds)

Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, a beautiful suite made from interludes in the opera Peter Grimes

‘On This Island’ is a fascinating song cycle, setting texts by W H Auden


For a quick listen: here is Britten’s playful ‘Be Kind and Courteous’, sung by Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,

Want to hear more? Here is the lively and virtuosic Suite for Harp