An Intriguing Guide to the Classical Music of the United Kingdom

Classical Music of the United Kingdom

If you're totally new to classical music, chances are that you've heard more tunes from this genre than you know! 

If you’re already familiar with Maroon Five's "Memories", Nas' "I Can", or Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love", you may be surprised to learn that these songs heavily sampled classical pieces.

Besides pop stars, filmmakers and TV show creators have also taken influence from the classic musical genre, and have included classical compositions in their productions. Imagine watching Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or Pirates of the Caribbean without their iconic theme songs. Hard to picture, right?

While there are too many to name, some of the most iconic classical tunes used in modern media include "The Blue Danube", "The Four Seasons", and Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5." And, unless you live under a rock, you have likely heard at least one of these centuries-old songs. 

But how and where did this type of music originate? Keep reading to find out!

By the time you reach the end of this guide, you will know:

  • how and where the classical music of the United Kingdom originated
  • some famous British composers
  • the titles of songs you've heard but didn't know the names of
  • which British royals were talented musicians

History of Classical Music in the U.K

Classical music originated in Southern Europe in the Medieval era and eventually spread across Europe.

The countries of the United Kingdom (past and present) have each contributed their own unique styles and sounds to create what we now know as the classical music of the United Kingdom.

In the early eras of the genre's existence, particularly in the Renaissance period, religion played a major part in the type of music composers wrote and performed. This helps explain why there are so many church-themed anthems and choral pieces from that time period.

Over the course of the five main eras in classical music, the styles of writing music and singing have changed dramatically. The invention of new instruments and printed sheet music also introduced significant changes to the classical genre.

British Composers and Classical Singers

Classical music has evolved over the centuries. The development of the genre can be divided into several different eras: the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern.

Renaissance Era

This early era of classical music spanned the 15th and 16th centuries. 

Notably, there were fewer British composers during this period than in the eras that followed. Most composers at this time were either French, Dutch, or Italian, such as Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi.

The best-known English composers of this era include:

1. William Byrd  

Byrd is perhaps the greatest British composer of this era. He pioneered the madrigal and composed pieces for a wide range of instruments, including the human voice.

2. Thomas Tallis

 Tallis was William Byrd's mentor, and he too is regarded as one of the greatest composers of his time. He primarily composed motets and religious pieces, such as anthems and masses.

3. John Bull 

This composer is regarded as one of the greatest keyboardists of his time and was appointed to several prestigious positions by the Queen of England.

4. Orlando Gibbons 

Like John Bull, Gibbons was also a keyboardist. He wrote popular pieces like "The Silver Swan" and "This Is the Record of John".

5. John Mundy

This musician is best known for his madrigals and sacred pieces.

Baroque Era

This era of music spanned from 1670 to the mid-1700s. 

The best composers from this period include Vivaldi, Pachelbel, and J.S. Bach. Henry Purcell and George F. Handel are regarded as the greatest English composers of this era.

1. Henry Purcell

This famous composer composed a variety of different styles of music, including operas and theater, secular and church music.

2. George Frideric Handel

 Handel's many achievements include directing the Royal Academy of Music and performing at many large concerts. Parts of Handel's Messiah, such as the "Hallelujah Chorus," are still very popular today.

3. Robert Woodcock

 Woodcock is best known for his flute-playing skills and the concertos he created for woodwind instruments like the oboe and flute.

4. Charles Avison

This composer's famous concerti grossi are still widely played today by the finest music ensembles in the world.

5. Robert Valentine

Valentine composed a majority of his pieces for the recorder. He also wrote several sonatas for the trumpet and violin.

Classical Era

The Classical era featured many world-famous musicians who are widely regarded as legends today. These include Haydn, Gluck, Schubert, Mozart, and Beethoven, who is also considered a Romantic-era composer. 

Some of the best English/ British composers from this 17th - 18th-century era were:

1. John Field

 Field was a gifted Irishman and the brains behind the nocturne. He also changed the game with his unique way of using the sustain pedal.

2. Samuel Wesley

Wesley came from a family of musicians, with some of the more notable members being John and Charles Wesley, the famous hymn writers. Samuel, an organist, also wrote hymns, symphonies, and concertos.

3. John Marsh

This multi-talented Englishman's main compositions were symphonies. In addition to being a musician, he was also a lawyer, astronomer, and mathematician.

4. William Herschel

 Although Herschel is best known for his contributions to astronomy, he was also a talented composer. One of his most famous pieces is "Symphony No. 14 in D-Major".

5. William Boyce

 Boyce, like Beethoven, grew deaf later in life but did not let that stop him from continuing to compose music. Some of his most iconic pieces are "The King Shall Rejoice" and "Symphony No. 1".

Romantic Era

The Romantic era of classical music spanned most (or all) of the 19th century. Historians and music experts don't agree on an exact date. 

This period witnessed some of the most legendary composers like Beethoven, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Francisco Tárrega, and Fanny Mendelssohn (whose works were published under her brother Felix's name). 

British greats from this era include:

1. Edward Elgar

Elgar is best known for his ever-popular Pomp and Circumstance Marches and Enigma Variations.

2. Hubert Parry

 Known for his conventional style, this composer created choral works like "Jerusalem" and "I Was Glad".

3. Frederick Delius

 Unlike Parry, Delius's musical style was unconventional and contained elements of other genres. His most famous works include "A Mass of Life" and "Florida Suite".

4. Ethel Smyth

Smyth was one of the few published female composers of this era, and her compositions ranged from choral and ballet to chamber and secular music.

5. George Butterworth

This former military lieutenant is best known for "Banks of Green Willow" and "Two English Idylls".

Modern Era

The Modern era saw the talents of 20th-century composers like the famous Claude Debussy and Ralph Vaughan Williams. 

This time period was also the first in which many of the great composers hailed from outside of Europe - particularly from North and South America.

Some of the best-known British composers of the modern era include:

1. Benjamin Britten

This celebrated composer's most famous works include “The War Requiem,” “Les Illuminations,” and “Ceremony of Carols.”

This versatile composer created music for theater, films, and TV shows such as .

2. Kenneth J. Alford

A bandmaster, he is most known for writing marches like "Colonel Bogey" and "The Mad Major".

3. Gustav Holst

Holst is one of the greatest composers of orchestral music from the modern era. His best-known works include “The Planets” and “Choral Symphony.”

4. John Tavener

This English composer's work comprises mainly choral tracks, and he is best known for composing "The Protecting Veil" and "Song For Athene".

5. Oliver Knussen

Where The Wild Things Are

Postmodern Era

This era, also called the contemporary era, began in the year 2000. Some of the most popular 21st-century classical composers include South Korean musician Unsuk Chin, American composer Caroline Shaw, and the creative Anna Clyne. 

Here are some of the greatest British composers of this era so far:

1. Judith Weir

This talented composer is known for her theater and classical compositions, including her piano concertos. She is also the first woman to hold the title of "Master of the Queen's Music".

2. Sally Beamish

Beamish is another talented musician known for creating theater, orchestral, and vocal musical works.

3. Charlotte Bray

This versatile composer has created many pieces for some of the world's top ensembles, including the London Symphony Orchestra.

4. Thomas Adès

Adès is one of the most skillful and creative composers of the 21st century. His works include "The Tempest", "Polaris", and "Living Toys".

5. Errollyn Wallen

Wallen's creativity allows her to mix elements from other genres of music into her classical works. Her compositions include "La Luga" and "Daedalus".

Some of the United Kingdom's finest classical singers from the two modern eras include sopranos Sarah Brightman and Lesley Garrett, as well as contraltos like Kathleen Ferrier and Louise Lunn. 

On the lower end of the register are tenors like Anthony Rolfe Johnson and baritones like Peter Glossop. Note that Florence Foster Jenkins is missing from this list, but only because she is not British.

Songs You've Probably Heard Before

  1. Hallelujah Chorus from George F. Handel's Messiah

  1. Ode to Joy - George F. Handel

  1. The Planets - Gustav Holst

  1. Dido’s Lament - Henry Purcell

  1. Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1 - Edward Elgar

  1. Crown Imperial (Coronation March) - William Walton

  1. The Prince of Denmark's March - Jeremiah Clarke

  1. Cavatina - Stanley Myers

  1. Peace on Earth - Errollyn Wallen

  1. "Dawn" from the Four Sea Interludes - Benjamin Britten

British Royals and Classical Music

Did you know that many of the British royals were talented musicians? Here are a few:

Frederick, Prince of Wales

Frederick lived in the Baroque period and was very fond of the music of that era. He was an excellent harpsichord and cello player, and even founded his own opera company, putting Joseph Haydn's mentor in charge of composing.

Prince Albert

Did you know that Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, was a composer and avid musician? His favorite instrument was the organ but he also played the piano with his wife.

Besides writing music, he also collected music from his favorite composers, including Felix Mendelssohn, Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Prince Albert's greatest contribution to British music was the Royal College of Music, which he founded and opened to students in 1883.

Queen Victoria

Like her husband, Queen Victoria was also a lover of classical music. She lived during the Romantic era and also played the piano. She and her husband shared similar tastes in musical styles and composers.

Current Royals

Many members of the current royal family are musically gifted. Prince William plays bass guitar while his wife, Kate Middleton, plays the piano. Prince Charles plays the cello, and the Queen herself plays the piano and sings.

The Future of the Classical Music of the United Kingdom

While the popular music of today is very different from the hits of centuries gone by, classical music is still very much alive and well. 

As we mentioned earlier, many rock, pop, and hip hop artists sample the classics in their songs, and filmmakers generously use classical pieces as scores in their movies.

Furthermore, there are many seasoned classical performers and composers, who, together with the budding talents, keep the postmodern era of classical music alive.

You will find these defenders of the art at classical music festivals and concerts, entertaining massive crowds of people. 

Singers and musicians like André Rieu and Andrea Bocelli include pop music hits in their performances, while choirs like King’s College of Cambridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir keep choral music alive in a more traditional fashion, but have performed renditions of contemporary pop music.

Have you ever heard an orchestra play pop, rock, or folk music? If your answer to that question is "no", then it means that you haven't been listening! 

British ensembles like the London Symphony and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras play covers of some of today's most popular music artists, including Coldplay and The Beatles.

There are also smaller chamber music groups like the Smith Quartet, Emerson Quartet, and The Piano Guys that any fan of the classical genre would enjoy listening to. Not sure where to find these and similar acts? Check your local concert listings or event websites for schedule.

About the Author Classical Music Pro