9 greatest German composers of all time

9 greatest German composers of all time

by Laura Jones

Updated June 15, 2022

If you’re looking to expand your knowledge of famous German musicians and composers, we’ve got a list of nine of the best that we think you should listen to. From the so-called Three Bs – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms – to the 21st-century genius Hans Zimmer, you’ll definitely want to head down a YouTube rabbit hole and get to know some of these famous German composers.

  1. Johann Sebastian Bach
  2. Ludwig van Beethoven
  3. Johannes Brahms
  4. Clara Schumann
  5. Felix Mendelssohn
  6. Fanny Mendelssohn
  7. Richard Strauss
  8. George Friedrich Handel
  9. Hans Zimmer

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1. Johann Sebastian Bach

A world-famous late Baroque composer, Bach’s works include the “Brandenburg Concertos” – you’ll recognize this part from countless TV shows and films – and the ingenious “Goldberg Variations.” Bach was born in Eisenach in 1685 and spent all of his life in a small area around Leipzig. Despite this, he had a colorful life; he was orphaned at the age of ten, married twice, had 20 children and spent a few weeks in jail in 1716. 

2. Ludwig van Beethoven

Widely recognized as one of the greatest composers who ever lived, Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770. At the age of 17, he performed in front of Mozart in Vienna where he managed to make a good impression; he spent a lot of time in the musical mecca of Vienna during his life. His works spanned the Classical and Romantic eras, and many of his pieces are instantly recognizable, like the opening to his “5th symphony”. Beethoven famously went deaf over his lifetime, starting in his late 20s. 

3. Johannes Brahms

Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833 and is one of the most famous German classical composers. As a teenager, he earned money playing in some of Hamburg’s rougher areas while composing music himself. In 1853, he was introduced to composer Robert Schumann. Schumann’s support and endorsement helped propel him to success. Brahms was a perfectionist, and it took him 22 years from when he started composing his first symphony to its premiere when he was finally satisfied with it.  

4. Clara Schumann

Most people know Clara Schumann for her role as Robert Schumann’s wife and her friendship with Brahms, but she was a composer in her own right. She had 23 pieces published and was a piano virtuoso who premiered many of her husband’s and Brahms’ works. Clara was born in Leipzig in 1819 and was a child prodigy who started touring at the age of eleven, giving concerts in Paris and Vienna. 

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5. Felix Mendelssohn

Born in Hamburg in 1809, Felix Mendelssohn was a celebrated early Romantic pianist, composer and conductor. He was a child prodigy, who started composing at the age of ten. Some of his most famous works are “Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the “Italian Symphony.” Most of us will know two of his works over any other though; he wrote the melody for the Christmas carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “The Wedding March.” 

6. Fanny Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister, Fanny Mendelssohn, was a pianist and composer too and was born in Hamburg in 1805. The two siblings had the same musical teachers, and Felix freely admitted that his sister was a better pianist than he was. Fanny composed around 500 pieces of music, six of which were published under her brother’s name. 

7. Richard Strauss

Strauss started composing music in 1870 when he was just six years old and he is most recognized for his symphonic poems and operas. He was president of Germany’s Reichsmusikkammer (Chamber of State Music) from 1933 to 1935 under the Nazis but was dismissed for his connections to a Jewish dramatist. He spent much of the years of Nazi rule trying to use his position to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and her sons. 

8. George Friedrich Händel

Baroque composer Händel was born in Halle in 1685 and worked as a composer and musician in Hamburg and Italy before moving to London permanently in 1712. He was one of the most famous 18th-century German composers. One of his best-known works is “Messiah”, which many of us know from the Hallelujah chorus. Händel was involved in a dual with composer Johann Mattheson in 1704, in which Handel was almost killed. 

9. Hans Zimmer

One of the best German composers of the 20th and 21st centuries, Hans Zimmer has won heaps of awards for his film scores, including two Academy Awards. He was born in Frankfurt in 1957 and now lives in the US, where he is the head of the film music division at DreamWorks studios. He has composed the scores for over 150 movies, including The Lion King, Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean

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Add these German composers to your favorite classical playlist

Start your playlist by adding the most famous German composer, Beethoven, and then put in a little Bach and Händel, who were contemporaries but composed quite different music. If you prefer something more modern, Hans Zimmer’s film scores are pretty magical. Music, of course, is only one facet of German culture. If you want to immerse yourself further, you might want to learn more about some of Germany’s most famous scientists like Einstein or discover some of the country’s best Bier festivals.


Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves travelling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.

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