Great Composers Before 1700 & Beyond 1900


In recent weeks yet another challenge to music education was presented in the form of GCSE & A level proposals which would effectively exclude music written before 1700 and after 1900 from these courses of study. More information on this issue and the campaign to reverse it is available at the Protect Music Education website.

This fresh challenge got me thinking. The KS2 music national curriculum calls for children to listen to the music of ‘great composers and musicians’. Clearly the more cynical of us might detect the shadow of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in the use of the phrase ‘great composers’, all of whom fall into the GCSE-friendly 1700-1900 category, but actually the curriculum leaves the choice of composers (and musical traditions) wide open. This is good news if you’re a teacher with a strong knowledge of composers, but what if you aren’t? You’re likely to play it safe and stick to composers that you’ve heard of – and how many ‘household name’ composers are not from the 1700-1900 period? And how many of them would be British? I’m not suggesting that British classical music is any better than that of other countries, I’m just wondering whether we run the risk of subconsciously suggesting to our children that you can only be a classical composer if you’re a dead European?

Let’s hope we can change the GCSE & A Level specifications before it’s too late, but let’s also seize the opportunity that at KS2 we can study whomsoever we choose as a great composer. With this in mind, here are the British classical composers #before1700 and #beyond1900 that I would choose to study with my pupils. These are personal choices based entirely on my love of their music and the potential I can see to engage pupils and support other areas of the music curriculum through listening to their works. Some of these choices are obvious, some are more unusual, but all of them are ‘great’.

1. Henry Purcell 1659-1695

Listen to: Dido & Aeneas, King Arthur, and The Fairy Queen. Purcell inspired #beyond1900 composers Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten, and you could make a lovely English music topic out of investigating the musical links between these three composers.

2. Will Todd b1970

Listen to: Mass in Blue (the Credo in particular is guaranteed to get your KS2 pupils excited!), The Call of Wisdom, and No More Sorrow. Some of Todd’s work is influenced by his background as a jazz musician, so you could make an interesting topic on ‘Fusion’ styles, allowing you to broaden out your pupils’ listening experience beyond the classical genre.

3. Orlando Gibbons 1583-1625

Listen to: The Silver Swan, The Cries of London, and Hosanna to the Son of David. Gibbons’ fantastically atmospheric The Cries of London could be used to link with drama or history work, and/or could provide a stimulus for composition creating a ‘soundscape’ piece about your own city. You could even compare this piece with Lionel Bart’s ‘Who will buy’ from the musical Oliver!

4. Bob Chilcott b1955

Listen to: Can you hear me, Like a Singing Bird, and All for Love of One. Chilcott has written a number of great pieces for children’s voices, so you could make a nice link between your listening and performing work by studying his music. You might also consider compositional work focusing on ‘texture’ (one of the ‘interrelated dimensions of music’) by taking inspiration from the different approaches Chilcott takes to texture in his works, from straightforward homophonic textures to the more complicated polyphony of Like a Singing Bird.

5. Peter Warlock 1894-1930

Listen to: Capriol Suite, Serenade for Strings, and Bethlehem Down. A colourful character (careful which biographical information you choose to share with your KS2 classes!) Warlock was inspired by the music of the Elizabethan era, so you could make a link with your listening work on Gibbons (above), as well as looking as the work of John Dowland who was a major influence.

Elizabeth Stafford is Director of Music Education Solutions Ltd

Further resources to support this area of the curriculum:

Classic FM Timelines

BBC Ten Pieces