Obscure Composers

by John A. Sarkett

Backgrounder ----  Buy from Amazon


"Wonderful compilation" -- Henry Fogel, Dean, Chicago College of Performing Arts, Roosevelt University;  former president, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, American Symphony Orchestra League

"An enjoyable read, and a great conversation starter."  - James McCarthy, Limelight magazine, Australia


"...for those seeking to shake up their listening habits and explore musical rarities"  Opera America


"Sarkett's title as author of Obscure Composers is well-deserved."  - Jerry Dubins, Fanfare (response to letter to editor regarding composers for tuba)



New!  The Obscure Composers Index™ ranks all composers, performers, ensembles and more....

Obscure Composers profiles some 80 obscure, yet worthy composers and includes listening suggestions for each. The author cites an additional 100+ for the reader's further investigation, as well. The author reaches out to classical notables -- artists, broadcasters, administrators -- for further suggestions, and includes insightful comments from:


Why this book?  The author explains:


I will let you in on a little secret.

The classical world is prejudiced.

If it’s not Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, (or maybe Bartók), some, most? think  it’s inferior by definition, and not worthy of the attention.

I know whereof I speak, everyone of us who prefer classical has some degree of symptoms, even if subclinical.  Yes, even your humble author. But after having my mind opened a bit, to the assertion of inferiority, we now must invoke the Zen saying, “Not always so.”

So, to ameliorate the situation, and do something material about it, I set off for musical parts unknown, and lo and behold, got something much more than I expected:  a new way of listening, and a set of music to cherish and enjoy many times larger than before.

That is why I wrote this:  to encourage first me, then you, to shake off old listening habits, and the dross and calcium that surrounded your brain after decades of listening to the top 50 classical pieces, and refresh and reinvigorate your brain, your mind, your spirit.

When classical music is preferred by only four to 12 percent of the broad music market (estimates vary), why do we need a book on its most obscure composers?  Are we talking to the 4% of the 4%, i.e. .16% -- that’s “point sixteen percent” -- of music aficionados?

Maybe, but that won’t dissuade us from this important task.  We – or you – might find something out there that immeasurably enriches your life and the lives of countless others.

It’s happened before.

Bach, Schubert, Mahler all were themselves once “obscure composers.”  Incredible, but true.

Here are their stories.....



Foreword by Henry Fogel

There is a tendency among classical music lovers, especially those who like to consider themselves “serious,” to rank art as if it were sports. So this composer is a “master,” that composer is “very good but not quite a master,” and another is “in the middle rank.” In sports, of course, we have won-lost records, or batting averages. But the interesting thing is that in sports, fans attend the games of middle-of-the-pack teams, whereas in music, the so called cognoscenti look down their noses at pieces of music that are not masterpieces, however they define the term.

I remember once at a Q & A session with Pierre Boulez and music students at Northwestern University which I had the privilege of monitoring, a student asked Mr. Boulez if he felt Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin was a masterpiece. Boulez’ response was wonderful, as an example of a master making the students actually think. First he said he wasn’t even sure what the definition of a masterpiece was.  Secondly, he noted that music was the only art form where people worried about that, and where people tended to only attend concerts if they could be assured that they were hearing a masterpiece. He remarked that we did not do that in the theatre, or in art museums, or even the ballet – but in our concert halls and opera houses we seemed obsessed with hearing only “masterpieces,” even if we couldn’t all agree on a definition.

The truth is that while there are some works that are truly masterpieces by anyone’s definition, and they reward repeated hearings with new discoveries every time we listen to them, even works that may not achieve that level of greatness and complexity have much to offer the listener who invests some listening time in them. I for one would much rather hear a work by Berwald, Gal, or Stenhammar for the first time than the Brahms Second Symphony for the umpteenth. That does not mean that I think Berwald, Gal, or Stenhammar are “greater” composers than Brahms. But it does mean that I like variety, and new discoveries, and that I think there is value in allowing the “masterpieces” to keep some of their mysteries.

For those of us who find value in exploring the unusual, John Sarkett has performed a real service. He has gone about that exploration with a vengeance – I know from experience that when I pass on a composer’s name to him with which he is not familiar (most recently Ildebrando Pizzetti) he starts to seek out that composer’s music immediately. In that way he broadens his horizons, and then broadens ours by passing what he has learned onto us in Obscure Composers.

The point of Obscure Composers is not whether he is right in his assessment of any one composer. In fact, there is no “right,” even though many people (some of them music critics) believe that there is. What John has done is ignite our imaginations and our sense of musical adventure. He provides us with the information that should tempt us into our own explorations – and our own discoveries.

If you look at the performance history of many composers, you will learn that the definition of “standard repertoire,” or “the canon,” is ever changing. When I was first growing up as a music lover, Mahler was a rarity, Bruckner even more so, and Nielsen yet still more rare than both of them. Shostakovich was also on the fringes of the repertoire, and Sibelius was going through one of the “downs” of his up and down reputation, which if graphed would look like an EKG of a fairly sick patient.  All of those composers are far more central to the repertoire than they were in the 1950s, and if John were writing this book in the 1950s they would probably each be in it as “obscure composers.” That is not to say that all – or even any – of the composers he covers in this book will become staples of concert life in fifty years. That is not the point. The point is that he has provided an invaluable guide for us to use in broadening our own horizons. One should always have a map to help with a new exploratory adventure, and Obscure Composers fills that role nicely.


Henry Fogel
Dean, Chicago College of Performing Arts, Roosevelt University
Former president, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, American Symphony Orchestra League


Chapter excerpt, Alex Ross, music critic, The New Yorker, author of

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century


While doing research at the National Archives on the Federal Musical Project, the New Deal’s short-lived gift to American musical life, I began writing down the names of completely obscure, oddly named composers who showed up on FMP programs.

I ended up with the following funky list: Vernon Leftwich, Fleetwood A. Diefenthaeler, Armand Balendonck, Bainbridge Crist, Julia Klumpkey, Edna Frida Pietsch, the Right Rev. Fan Stylian Noli, Alexander Skibinsky, Lamar Stringfield, and Uno Nyman. The procession of names somehow reminded me of the roster of senior citizens who unwittingly buy up San Fernando Valley in Chinatown — Jasper Lamar Crabb, Emma Dill, and so on. On a particularly slow writing day, I started typing these mystery names into Google to see what I could find about them. There must be a clinical term for this stage of writing a book..................




  1. After his passing, his manuscripts were used to wrap meat and rose bushes.
  2. Once famous, he was later forgotten and his tombstone was used to cover a well.
  3. A national hero in Spain, he is rarely heard in North America.
  4. She was a student of a famous Russian composer, who told her:  “You do not learn from me, I learn from you.”
  5. After both he and his wife passed away, his last work, a harpsichord sonata was discovered –- in the freezer, wrapped in tin foil.
  6. Celebrated and wealthy as a conductor, he rued that fact that his serious compositions were neglected, even ridiculed
  7. He wrote a set of 12 “Transcendental Etudes” in the signature keys the more famous set, by Liszt, were NOT written in.  He also wrote a symphonic poem subtitled “Hashish.”
  8. He wrote a set of 100 Transcendental Studies, banned performances of his works, and lived in a home with a sign posted “Visitors Unwelcome.”
  9. Admired by Chopin and Liszt, this Irish composer invented the nocturne, and chose to live in St. Petersburg, Russia.
  10. He turned from music to earn his living as an orthopedic surgeon, and later, as the manager of a saw mill and glass factory.
  11. He rode his bicycle down a hill, struck a brick wall, and was instantly killed, just 44.  Since he suffered from depression, some thought this a suicide.  We’ll never know.
  12. He headed and built the most famous music school in the world, and wrote nine symphonies.
  13. A hobo during the Great Depression, he built his own instruments to realize his strange music.
  14. His Little Suite for Recorder lasts just four minutes.
  15. When his wife died unexpectedly, he absorbed his grief with composition and said music “saved him.”
  16. He wrote an opera satirizing the Nazis while imprisoned by them.
  17. He traveled some 95,000 miles giving 1,000 concerts, left behind some 300 compositions, and died too young at 40 while touring South America.
  18. He was a rock star, but also a composer of classical music.
  19. His greatest composition was discovered 11 years after his death among his papers stored at his brother’s house.
  20. Influenced by artists Calder and Pollock, one of his “scores” was a piece of graphic art.
  21. The “black Mozart,” he was as famous as a swordsman as a musician.
  22. This modern composer has written 268 symphonies.
  23. He wrote a “song of Roxane” in 1931, long before pop star Sting wrote his “Roxanne” (1978).
  24. Philosopher known as “The Obscure” for his cryptic statements, this obscure French composer wrote a “sketch” with his name in the title.
  25. Bonus point:  something of a work in progress, which web site purports to actually measure how “mainstream” or “obscure” your tastes in music are?
  26. Mahler credited this composer as ... “the Founder of the New Symphony .... Indeed, he is so near to my inmost self that he and I seem to me like two fruits from the same tree which the same soil has produced and the same air nourished.”  He had a nervous breakdown, died at 26, and did not fulfill his destiny.
  27. He wrote the music for the 1942 film “King’s Row,” which was then virtually requoted in the 1977 “Star Wars” and became perhaps the most famous film score motif of all time?


Answers in the back of the book.



Sample Chapter, Obscure Composers

48.                 Holmboe, Vagn (1909 – 1996)

This neo-classical composer covers the waterfront with symphonies and concertos, but has a special feeling for winds, especially brass.

Holmboe started, at 16, at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen on the recommendation of Carl Nielsen, no less.  After further studies in Berlin, he moved back home to Denmark, and taught at various institutions, including the Royal Conservatory.  Notable students include Per Nørgård, and Alan Stout.

He wrote some 370 works, including 13 symphonies, three chamber symphonies, four symphonies for strings, 20 string quartets, numerous concertos, one opera, and a series of preludes for chamber orchestra.

Holmboe takes his place in Denmark as the rightful successor to his early mentor, Nielsen.

His music is warm, humane, serene, and confident.  We collect tuba music, tuba concertos in particular, and had not come across the name “Holmboe” until this research. Quite a find.  Let’s begin there.  Enjoy.



Author’s picks:  all the writing here for brass; Holmboe has a wonderful facility for winds in general.


Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Tuba Concerto, Op. 127: Concerto For Tuba And Orchestra (M. 280)
Wonderful declamation for the deepest brass voice.  Thoroughly engrossing.


Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Recorder Concerto, Op. 122: I. Allegro Innocente
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Recorder Concerto, Op. 122: II. Andante E Quieto
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Recorder Concerto, Op. 122: III. Allegro Giocoso - Meno Mosso - A Tempo - Poco Stretto
There is some kind of strange comsic truth being dispatched in movement two, followed by the lightest, most gossamer writing imaginable at the outset of movement three.  Interesting “effects” there, too, for the recorder, what brass players call “woolly.”  Bravo, Vagn!

Continuing in the same vein, two flute concertos:
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Flute Concerto No. 1, Op. 126: I. Allegro Con Spirito
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Flute Concerto No. 1, Op. 126: II. Andante Tranquillo
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Flute Concerto No. 1, Op. 126: III. Poco Lento - Allegro - Piu Allegro

Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Flute Concerto No. 2, Op. 147: I. Allegro Giusto
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Flute Concerto No. 2, Op. 147: II. Andante Devozione
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Flute Concerto No. 2, Op. 147: III. Allegro Con Brio - Cadenza - Stretta
Engaging use of bells or chimes to open the Devozione, or Devotion.  Third movement allegro con brio is simply superb writing, the cadenza, pure oxygen.

Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Trombone Concerto No. 12, Op. 52: Allegro Moderato —
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Trombone Concerto No. 12, Op. 52: Andante Tranquillo —
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Trombone Concerto No. 12, Op. 52: Allegro Molto
Engaging opening, evocative second, bright flourishes to finish.

Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Trumpet Concerto No. 11, Op. 44: I. Largo - Allegro Con Forza - Largo
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Trumpet Concerto No. 11, Op. 44: II. Poco Lento
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Trumpet Concerto No. 11, Op. 44: III. Allegretto, Ma Vivace
A bright and shining world of sound.  If “neoclassic” suggests an old, limited, and somewhat unimaginative form hearkening back to the past, after hearing these concertos, Holmboe convinces that the style is “indefatiguable” and infinite in prospect and variation.

Holmboe writing for brass, rhythmic, vital, confident:
Swedish Brass Quintet – Brass Quintet, Op. 79: I. Poco Lento
Swedish Brass Quintet – Brass Quintet, Op. 79: II. Allegro
Swedish Brass Quintet – Brass Quintet, Op. 79: III. Adagio
Swedish Brass Quintet – Brass Quintet, Op. 79: IV. Vivace

Combine it with symphony to make all the more impressive:
Scandinavian Brass Ensemble – Brass Concerto, Op. 157: I. Allegro
Scandinavian Brass Ensemble – Brass Concerto, Op. 157: II. Andante
Scandinavian Brass Ensemble – Brass Concerto, Op. 157: III. Vivace

Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 17: I. Molto Moderato
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra – Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 17: II. Molto Allegro
Something much quieter, and more reflective than the usual fire-breathing, virtuoso showcase we have come to associate with the term “piano concerto.”



Sample Playlists, Obscure Composers


Here are URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) playlists for all our Obscure Composers.  (Why URIs?  We tried web pages, links, etc. and find the Spotify URI to be the most stable, most robust, most reliable method to share a playlist). 

Here’s how it works.  From here or http://sarkett.com/oc/playlists, just copy-paste the Spotify URI code in the right hand column into the Spotify search box (yes, you need Spotify, spotify.com, it’s free), and voilà.  The list of works for that composer appears in Spotify.  Then, save the playlist.  Please, no typing these codes!  Enjoy.









Guillaume Dufay


Josquin des Prez


















Clementi:  Vladimir Horowitz – Horowitz Plays




Stamitz Johann Wenzel Anton


Stamitz Carl Philipp

































































Obscure Composers



Thoughts on Obscurity   9

Obscure Composers on Spotify  13

Forethoughts     14

Acknowledgements, special thanks         15

Foreword          21

Preface            23

Bach, Johann Sebastian 23

Schubert, Franz 26

Mahler, Gustav  27

Summarizing…. 30

We survey some notables          35

Medieval (pre 1400)      43

1.         Machaut, Guillaume de (1300-1377)        43

Renaissance (1400-1600)           45

2.         Dufay, Guillaume (1397-1474)    45

3.         Josquin des Prez (1450 or 1455-1521)     48

4.         Palestrina (1525-1594)   50

Baroque (1600-1750)     53

5.         Babell, William (1690-1723)       53

6.         Bartolotti, Angiol Michele (1615-1682)    53

7.         Buxtehude, Dietrich (1637 or 1639 -1707)           54

8.         Foscarini, Giovanni Paolo (“Il Furioso”) (1600-1647)        56

9.         Graupner, Christoph (1683-1760)            57

10.        Hasse, Johann Adolph (1699-1783)         58

11.        Purcell, Henry (1659-1695)        62

12.        Zipoli, Domenico (1688-1726)     67

Classical (1750-1800)    71

13.        Baguer, Carlos (1768-1808)       71

14.        Boulogne, Joseph – Le Chevalier de St. George (1745-1799)        72

15.        Clementi, Muzio (1752-1832)      76

16.        Hertel, Johann Wilhelm (1727-1789)       82

17.        Salieri, Antonio (1750-1825)       83

18.        Stamitz, Johann Wenzel Anton (1717-1757)         85

19.        Stamitz, Carl Phillipp (1745-1801)           88

20.        Viotti, Giovanni Batista (1755-1824)        90

Romantic (19th century)            96

21.        Alkan, Charles-Valentin (1813-1888)      96

22.        Balakirev, Mily (1837-1910)       106

23.        Berwald, Franz (1796-1868)       110

24.        Chausson, Ernest (1855-1899)    113

25.        Field, John (1782-1837)  116

26.        Gottschalk, Louis Moreau (1829-1869)    120

27.        Hamerik, Asger (1843-1923)      124

28.        Kalinnikov, Vasily (1866-1901)   126

29.        Lyapunov, Sergei (1859-1924)    129

30.        Reinecke, Carl (1824-1910)        132

31.        Rheinberger, Josef Gabriel (1839-1901)  134

32.        Rott, Hans (1858-1884)  139

Modern (20th century)   142

33.        Abe, Keiko (1937- )       142

34.        Atterberg, Kurt (1887-1974)       144

35.        Bax, Sir Arnold (1883-1953)       149

36.        Bernstein, Leonard (1918-1990) 151

37.        Bliss, Sir Arthur (1891-1975)      156

38.        Bowen, York (1884-1961)          162

39.        Brown, Earle (1926-2002)          165

40.        Burleigh, Cecil (1885-1980)        169

41.        Busoni, Ferruccio (1866-1924)    170

42.        Crumb, George (1929- ) 180

43.        Diamond, David (1915-2005)      182

44.        Gál, Hans (1890-1987)   188

45.        Griffes, Charles Tomlinson (1884-1920)  195

46.        Hanson, Howard (1896-1981)    196

47.        Harris, Roy (1898-1979)            199

48.        Hilliard, Peter (1975- )   202

49.        Holmboe, Vagn (1909-1996)      204

50.        Jones, Samuel (1935- )   209

51.        Korngold, Erich Wolfgang (1897-1957)   211

52.        Medtner, Nikolai (1880-1951)     218

53.        Mennin, Peter (1923-1983)         222

54.        Mompou, Federico (1893-1987)  227

55.        Montemezzi, Italo (1875-1952)   233

56.        Mossolov, Alexander (1900-1973)          235

57.        Partch, Harry (1901-1974)         236

58.        Pergament, Moses (1893-1977)  240

59.        Persichetti, Vincent (1915-1987) 242

60.        Piston, Walter (1894 –1976)       250

61.        Raid, Kaljo (1922-2005) 254

62.        Reger, Max (1873-1916)            255

63.        Roussel, Albert (1869-1937)       257

64.        Rubbra, Edmund (1901-1986)     262

65.        Schuman, William (1910-1992)   266

66.        Segerstam, Leif (1944- )            271

67.        Sessions, Roger (1896-1985)      273

68.        Sorabji, Kaikhosru Shapurji (1892-1988)  276

69.        Stenhammar, Wilhelm (1871-1927)         282

70.        Suk, Josef (1873-1935)  286

71.        Szőllősy, András (1921-2007)     288

72.        Szymanowski, Karol (1882-1937)           289

73.        Tippett, Sir Michael (1905-1998) 293

74.        Ullmann, Viktor (1898-1944)      296

75.        Ustvolskaya, Galina Ivanovna (1919-2006)          298

76.        Vierne, Louis (1870-1937)          303

77.        Widor, Charles-Marie (1844-1937)         306

78.        Wuorinen, Charles (1938- )        309

79.        Zak, Piotr (1939– )        310

80.        Zemlinsky, Alexander von (1871-1942)   311

81.        Still more names (65+, in fact)    317


82.        Essay by Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International, UK:  Signposts, pilgrimages, destinations and dead ends, and another 40 Obscure Composers  320

83.        Essay by Alex Ross, The New Yorker and therestisnoise.com:  Tiny Valhalla       329

84.        Essay by Carl Engel, musicologist, Music We Shall Never Hear                           331


85.        Playlists            348

86.        Final thoughts:   fame, obscurity and taking the long view 351

Answers to “Name That Composer”      354

Selected Bibliography and Reference      356

ABOUT THE AUTHOR          357

REVIEWS FOR EXTRAORDINARY COMEBACKS: 201 Inspiring Stories of Courage, Triumph and Success  by John A. Sarkett  358


Bloggers, media:

Review pdf available on request.  Write me at the author's first name initial, followed by no space and then last name, at comcast dot net.  Put in the subject line:  Obscure Composers Review Request!  Include your url.  Thank you!



WOSU AUTHOR INTERVIEW  March 17, 2014 32:15 length


WFMT PLEDGE DRIVE CLIP, March 31, 2014, 8 a.m. hour


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