Why Don’t I Recognize These Famous Composers’ Names?

Famous composers are people who have created music to listen to: on our mobile devices, while driving a car, in a grand opera house or at various concert venues.

There is a multitude of popular music that has been written by Baroque period composers, film composers and famous classical music composers of many nationalities. However, Italian composers are still some of best known classical composers. Unfortunately, some of the greatest composers who composed Baroque music, classical music and opera songs are not that famous today.

Read to Discover Famous Composers

These are some of the famous composers you might not recognize:

Famous Composers
Famous Composers


Because She was a Female Born During the Baroque Era

Marusia Churai (1625 – 1653) is a famous music composer of the Baroque Era (1600 – 1750). Unfortunately, very little is known about this female composers’ life. Additionally, many of her songs and musical works have been passed down as folk music.

The female composer Marusia Churai, who lived during the Baroque era in Ukraine, created several famous pieces of music. In time, the music became so popular that many began referring to it as “folk music”.

One such piece of “folk music” is Oj ne khody Hrytsiu (Ой не ходи Грицю!). This “folk tune” is attributed to Marusia Churai. This “folk tune” became a musical theme in the works of Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809), Wolfgang A. Mozart (1756 – 1791), Franz Liszt (1811 – 1881). In 1941, Jack Lawrence (1912 – 2009) perpetuated the tune in the hit Yes, My Darling Daughter.

Why would a Ukrainian female composer of the Baroque era be forgotten?

The Baroque period (1600 – 1750) was the time when instrumental music, choral music and solo songs were first combined into operas. In these operas, female roles were performed by castrati. Castrati were males. The musical world of the Baroque period was dominated by and limited to males. It is therefore not surprising that a female composer, who composed during the baroque era would be forgotten, not mentioned and overlooked.

The Papal States (8thC – 1870) dominated political and cultural developments in Europe during the Baroque period – specifically: architecture, painting, sculpture, and music. Additionally, the Papal States were a centre for documenting political, social and diplomatic developments and transferring these significant developments to large archival depositories.

Composers become famous if their names and works are written down and credit is given to their work. Much of the famous Baroque music we know and enjoy today was “discovered” in the 20th century in such depositories.

During the Baroque period the central lands of Ukraine were dominated by constant invasions, upheavals and revolutions. Constant wars combined with changes in occupying forces and ruling elites hindered the development of archives and depositories. Most archival material from the 17th century in Ukraine has been either deliberately destroyed or lost.

Marusia Churai – A Famous Female Baroque Composer
Marusia Churai – A Famous Female Baroque Composer


Because He Composed Music for a Famous Silent Film

Luigi Russolo (1885 – 1947) is one of the key famous composers of the avant-garde and modernist period in Europe between the two World Wars. During the 1920s he collaborated with Eugène Deslaw (1899 – 1966), born Yevhen Slabchenko – an avant-garde film producer.

Famous composers for the film industry first began appearing during what is commonly referred to as the Silent Film Era (mid 1890s – late 1920s). At the time, the newly developed technology of film provided modern creative opportunities for musicians, actors and artists.

During the Silent Film Era, a film would be produced with no sound – hence the term ‘silent film’. However, today, if we view a silent film, it usually has a musical soundtrack playing in the background.

At the beginning, the music that accompanies the silent films we see today, initially was not part of the film. At the time of its original screening, the film music would be played by a live guitarist, pianist or organist. Interestingly, as the film was shown these musicians would often improvise the music. In larger cities and larger theatres, small orchestras would accompany the film screening. It was only later, with advancing technological capabilities that music could be dubbed into the film.

As long as a single musician – guitarist, organist or pianist – was playing as the film was screened, it was possible for the musician to improvise the film music. However, the introduction of orchestras meant that a music composer had to be engaged and a musical score written down. This enabled the musicians to play the music and accompany the film.

Today, many film audiences are not even aware of the silent film era. More importantly, the producers and the “silent” film era music composers have become almost forgotten. But, at one time, they were famous.

Luigi Russolo and Eugene Deslaw – A “Silent” Film Duo
Luigi Russolo and Eugene Deslaw – A “Silent” Film Duo


Because this Famous Ukrainian Composer Established Russian Classical Music

Dmytro Bortniansky (1751 – 1825) is one of the famous composers of the Classical Era of Music (1730 – 1820). Bortniansky was born on the territory of present-day Ukraine. Ironically, Bortniansky is considered the founder of Russian classical music. To add insult to injury, his Ukrainian name is frequently russified to Dmitri or Dmitry.

Bortniansky received early music training in Hlukhiv. At the time of Bortniansky’s birth, Hlukhiv was the capital of the Zaporozhian Host (1708 – 1764 ) – Військо Запорозьке – within the Kozak Hetmanate (1649 – 1762/1782) on the territory of present-day Ukraine.

At age 18, Bortniansky travelled to Italy (which was not Italy at the time) where he composed several operas and orchestral works. After 10 years (1769 – 1779), Bortniansky left the Italian peninsula and travelled to St. Petersburg – to the Tsarist Court. In 1796, in the capital of the Romanoff Empire, Bortniansky was appointed Director of the Imperial Chapel Choir.

Bortniansky's Ukrainian origins and his insistance on acknowledging his Ukrainian heritage is often ignored by music historians. In 2006, the musicologist Marina Rizarev publised her book Eighteenth Century Russian Music in which she states:

The century of Russian studies on Eighteenth-century national music experience a complicated historiography… I have chosen… portrayals of the two leading musical figures of the period – the Russian composers Maxim Berezovsky and Dmitry Bortniansky… (p.xxi)

From 1779 to 1825, Bortniansky composed a multitude of works that were performed within the Romanoff Emprie. In 1882, when Pyotr Iliych Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893), another compatriot of Ukrainian origin, decided to edit and publish the works of the famous composer Dmytro Bortniansky – they filled 10 volumes.

Dmytro Bortniansky – Famous Among Classical Composers
Dmytro Bortniansky – Famous Among Classical Composers


Because this Famous Composers’ Works Were Destroyed by Royal-Decree

Maksym Berezovsky (1745 – 1777) was born in Ukraine in Hlukhiv, six years before his compatriot Dmytro Bortniansky (see above). Berezovsky went on to become a famous classical composer in his life time. Interestingly, Berezovsky began his musical career as a singer.

At age 13, Berezovsky was taken to St. Petersburg to the Imperial Court of the Romanoff Dynasty’s Empire. In St. Petersburg he began singing in the Imperial Court Choir. By the following year, Berezovsky was performing solo parts in Italian operas staged at the tsarist court.

After 10 years at the Imperial Court, Berezovsky was sent to Italy. Here, on 15 May 1771 he became a member of the Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna – the same institution which had one year earlier, on 8 July 1770, accepted Wolfgang A. Mozart (1756 – 1791) into it’s ranks. Maksym Berezovsky’s name is inscribed in the annals of the Accademia as Massimo Berezovski.

Berezovsky passed away at the age of 31. There is considerable controversy surrounding his death. Howver, what is certain, that although Berezovsky was considered a famous composer, both in the Italian realm and at the Tsarist courts, composed many famous pieces of music, very few of his works have been passed down to us. There is even a claim (that now appears to be substantiated) that following his death, Empress Catherine II, ordered this famous composers’ works burned and destroyed.

Maksym Berezovsky - Ukrainian (Not Russian) Classical Composer
Maksym Berezovsky - Ukrainian (Not Russian) Classical Composer


You Do, But You Don’t Recognize Their True Origins

Most people when they hear the famous composer’s name of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) assume that he is a famous composer of Russian descent. The same could be said for Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) and Igor Stravinsky (1892 – 1971). These famous composers are Ukrainian – not Russian.

Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky were born into families of the Ukrainian Kozak nobility. Prokofiev was born on the territory of present-day Ukraine. Inevitably, the story of these famous composers and their ethnic and national origins is complicated because it involves issues of cultural imperialism.

Ukrainian Composers?
Ukrainian Composers?

All of the famous composers mentioned above, are known, loved and appreciated in their own right. The reason you might not recognize some of these famous composers’ names is because:

  • credit for these famous composers’ work has been given to someone else, or
  • the music these famous composers composed has become part of a more famous person’s overall work, or
  • these famous composers’ work was lost or destroyed during historical upheavals.

Some famous composers whose names you probably do recognize are:

Text: Oksana A. Wynnyckyj-Yusypovych