By its nature, making a top 10 list of musicians or composers tends to contradict our fluid ideal of music’s place in the modern world. Yet so many websites, even ones that push for a new approach to competition within the field, make them.
So let’s take a look at the traditional “Top 10" (in no particular order), and why it is these composers who make the list time and time again.
1. Francisco Tárrega
Francisco Tárrega was born in 1852 in Spain, the golden era of the development of classical music as we know it today. His music is colorful, romantic and picturesque.
A massively prolific composer, he wrote music for all levels of guitar, right through from easy didactic etudes to some of the most virtuosic pieces written for the instrument.
It is for this reason that Tárrega almost always makes the “Top 10”, so many guitarists of all ages and levels come into contact with his music, and it is pleasant to hear and to play.
2. Agustín Barrios Mangoré
Born 1885 in Paraguay, Agustín Barrios Mangoré is best known for his enigmatic life as both a player and his vivid, technicolor compositions for the guitar.
He has been an object of fascination in the guitar world for many years, prompting volumes upon volumes of documentation about his life. The mystery that surrounds him and his untimely death is just one reason that Barrios’s music always makes “Top 10" lists.
His work fuses South American traditional themes and stories into a traditional classical framework which means that the repertoire he created is incredibly palatable for both seasoned and fresh audiences.
3. Heitor Villa-Lobos
His work is symphonic and incorporates everything that guitarists search for in music, work that transcends the limitations of the instrument.
There is no “Top 10” list that skips the music of Villa-Lobos due to its unique necessity in the guitar world. Many competitions require etudes from his oeuvre as fixed repertoire or to play his concerto in final. It is fragile music, with massive knowledge of the instrument.
4. Joaquin Rodrigo
Born in Spain in 1901, Joaquin Rodrigo is arguably the most infamous composer for the guitar in history. Repertoire with no limits and no pampering to the guitarist’s needs, the music of Rodrigo is bombastic and fantastic in every kind of way.
The chances are, if you have been invited to play a concert with an orchestra, the Concierto de Aranjuez has been on the menu.
His music makes “Top 10” lists because it is some of the most requested music outside of the classical guitar niche.
Here's Goran Krivokapic offering his commentary on Rodrigo's Fandango:
5. Leo Brouwer
One of the only living composers that always makes “Top 10” lists, Leo Brouwer was born in 1939 in Cuba. His music is so popular not least because it is incredibly guitaristic; making it a good choice for both beginners and advanced players.
He, again, has many didactic pieces which also fit within a concert programme, meaning that his pieces are often heard performed by players of all ages and levels.
Many of his pieces also have evocative titles, or are based on well known stories and figures, which means that his music is a dream to programme for an audience that enjoys contextual and imaginative information.
6. Manuel Maria Ponce
Manuel Maria Ponce was born in 1882 in Mexico and is one of the most notable guitar composers due to his baptism of fire working with Andres Segovia, the most infamous of all guitar personalities in the 20th century.
Mystery and confusion surround the debate between the manuscript versions and Segovia editions of his works, so how his music should be played is often up for discussion.
Aside from being hot topic, his music is colorful and measured and set the tone for the further development of classical guitar repertoire. No “Top 10” list is complete without Ponce for his service to the short piece repertoire, the evolution of the sonata for classical guitar, and his monster works like the Variations sur Folia de España et fugue.
7. Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was born in 1895 in Italy and is one of the most prolific guitar composers of the 20th century. His music is poetry, light, brooding and dancing in equal measure.
His contribution to the guitar repertoire is integral not least because he wrote so many pieces of chamber music, uniting guitarists with string quartet, in duo and with orchestra, whilst keeping the qualities of the guitar at the forefront of his works.
“Top 10" lists always include Tedesco because he has made so much contribution to awareness of the classical guitar outside of the niche. Aside from that, the sheer output, not just in the classical guitar sector, during his life is noteworthy enough to put him on any Top 10 list.
8. Fernando Sor
Fernando Sor was born in 1778 in Spain and was a prolific contributor to the development of the guitar repertoire as we know and love it today. His works span from many volumes of didactic material, to Fantasias, variations and large concert pieces.
His mysterious and well travelled life mystifies much of the guitar world. A temperamental character with much to say about his contemporaries, Sor made a name for himself as a loose canon in the classical music world.
Brushing shoulders with some of the most well known and loved musicians, artists and dancers of the time, his music reflects creation at the height of the classical period. His music makes Top 10 lists because it is steeped in the history of our musical tradition.
Feel free to check out this course preview on Fernando Sor's "Study Op. 31 No. 16", by Colin Davin:
9. Giulio Regondi
Giulio Regondi was born in 1823 in Switzerland, but lived much of his life in the UK. His pieces are the perfect addition to a glossy concert programme which entices both guitar novices and guitar buffs, it is for this reason that his pieces are also often played in competitions.
Displaying an astounding technical capacity in his works, Regondi often makes “Top 10” lists because his life fitted into the classical music performance tradition that we often cannot enjoy from composers for the instrument.
Described by the press as “Liszt on the guitar” Regondi enjoyed a glittering career while he was still a child, his music soars and dives into territory that had previously been uncharted waters.
10. Roland Dyens
Born in 1955 in France, Roland Dyens was a major contributor to the guitar world, spanning the last segment of the 20th century and into the 21st. His music bridged the gap between classical guitar and many otherwise unattainable genres; such as fingerstyle and jazz.
His transcriptions also made a massive impact on the playability of commonly transcribed repertoire, inspiring a generations of young artists to approach arranging with freedom and creativity.
His music makes “Top 10” lists because it is loved by students and professionals alike and so concert audiences will often hear his music as final pieces on a programme or for encores. His music is playful, wild and serene, first and foremost he was a storyteller.
There you have it, 10 of the best classical guitar composers of all time.
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