Johann Sebastian Bach
Described by one biographer as a man of “outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced,” Johann Sebastian Bach is considered by many to be the greatest composer/musician who ever lived. He was a composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and violinist of the Baroque Era. Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21st 1685 in Eisenach, Germany, one of five surviving children of a family of prominent musicians. Orphaned by the time he was ten, he went to live with his eldest brother, Johann Christoph, who was the organist at the Michaeliskirche at Ohrdruf. It was under his guidance that J. S. Bach laid the foundations of his keyboard technique. The young Bach was offered a choral scholarship to the prestigious St Michael’s School in 1699, and in 1703 a teenaged Bach become the organist at St. Boniface’s Church in Arnstadt – a role that saw him on a regular salary and expanding his skills at the keyboard. He was a great admirer of another organist and composer, Dietrich Buxtehude, and the story is that when he was 19 he walked 450 miles roundtrip just to hear Buxtehude play. He became concertmaster and organist in Weimar in 1708. By 1717 he was ready to move on in his career, but his employer had him put in jail to prevent him from leaving. While imprisoned he completed his Little Organ Book and possibly wrote much of the Well-Tempered Klavier. Interestingly another of his great works, The Brandenburg Concertos is also tied to his looking for a better job. The six pieces were compiled as a sort of “musical resume” for employment in the court of Prince Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. Bach did not get the position despite that fact that they are considered some of the finest orchestral music of the Baroque period. Eventually Bach landed in Leipzig, where he remained employed until his death in1750, perhaps due to a botched eye operation to alleviate his growing blindness. He was married twice and fathered 20 children, several of whom became famous composers in their own right.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Perhaps one of the most important and influential musical geniuses whoever lived is the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Born in Bonn on December 16, 1770 (or so we assume since he was baptized on the 17th), by the age of seven he was already performing in public. He had a complicated relationship with his father who was also a musician and Beethoven’s first teacher, but who exploited the young prodigy to make money. Beethoven moved to Vienna in his early 20s, studying with Franz Joseph Haydn and quickly gaining a reputation as a virtuoso pianist. His hearing began to deteriorate in his late twenties, yet he continued to compose, conduct, and perform, even after becoming completely deaf. He was famous also for his ability to improvise at the piano, and indeed, many of the compositions we hear today were first premiered by Beethoven with no fully developed score – he simply made them up as he went along. He loved taking walks in the woods that surrounded Vienna and many of his musical themes were derived from birds or nature sounds that he heard as he strolled with a small notebook writing them down. Nowhere is this more evident than in his “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6. Beethoven’s considerable musical output is generally divided into three periods – his Early Period is taken to last until about 1802, the Middle Period from about 1803 to about 1814, and the Late Period beginning about 1815. Each period is remarkable in its evolution of style. He wrote 9 symphonies, 7 concertos, 45 chamber works (including 16 string quartets), 32 piano sonatas, one opera and many vocal songs and choral works, including his masterful Missa Solemnis. Beethoven had a complicated personal life both with his family and his love interests and was described at times as rude and irritable, but nonetheless had a devoted group of friends and patrons his whole life. With his harmonic experimentation and expansion of musical forms, he is without a doubt a central figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western music.
The composer/conductor/critic Hector Berlioz was born Louis-Hector Berlioz on December 11, 1803 in La Côte-Saint-André in the SE of France. His father was a doctor who homeschooled his son and was set on the boy following in his footsteps, which explains why Berlioz really didn’t study music until he was almost in his teens. Because he started studying at such a late age, Berlioz was never accomplished on any instrument – he was a passable pianist at best. Nevertheless, his innovations in composition and orchestration are formidable – he is even credited with “inventing” the modern orchestra. Berlioz’s greatest artistic influences were decidedly literary, particularly Shakespeare and Goethe. Many of his pieces are based on works by these two. He was also a great devotee of Beethoven and counted Franz Liszt as one of his dearest friends. Love and women muses also played a part in inspiring the composer. Berlioz was married twice and had numerous other women in his life, but it is said that his whole life he carried a torch for a girl he adored at the age of 12 who was 6 years his senior. In Berlioz’s day opium use was quite common in the upper echelons of society and it was Berlioz’s use of the drug that inspired perhaps his most famous composition, “Symphonie fantastique”.
Called one of the “Three B’s” of classical music along with Bach and Beethoven, the great composer Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany on May 7, 1833. He played piano in saloons at a young age to help support his family. As with many composers of his age, Brahms spent a great deal of his life in Vienna. By the time he had reached his late 20’s, Brahms was already considered by many to be the “heir apparent” to Beethoven’s legacy. That mantle weighed somewhat heavily on him, evidenced by the fact that he was well into his fame before he penned his first symphony in c minor (like Beethoven’s 5th) and it took him 22 years to complete the work. He counted among his fans and BFF’s such notable musicians as Robert and Clara Schumann and the famous violinist Joseph Joachim. After the death of Robert Schumann, he became a devoted friend to Clara and her 9 children – rumors have flown that he had a romantic interest in her and were fueled by the fact that their letters to one another were destroyed by them. Music history refers to the “War of the Romantics” when talking about Brahms – pitting him against Richard Wagner stylistically, Brahms being the more conservative of the camps. Brahms was certainly a passionate and sensitive individual – you can hear that in his music. One of his greatest works, “Ein deutsches Requiem” (“A German Requiem”) was written after the death of his mother and Robert Schumann. Brahms himself died of cancer at the age of 64. His works span many genres (and he is celebrated in all categories), including orchestral, chamber, solo piano, choral and Lieder.
Romantic era pianist and composer Frédéric Chopin was born on March 1, 1810 near Warsaw, Poland, the son of a French immigrant who taught French in Warsaw schools. Even as an infant he was fascinated by his mother or sister playing the piano and by age 6 was formally studying the instrument. Concertizing by the age of 7 and composing by the age of 8, he was indeed a prodigy. At 16 he enrolled at the Warsaw Conservatory where his imagination, creativity and individuality were encouraged by wise teachers who saw his potential. In 1828 he made his way to Vienna to further his experience and made his performance debut there in 1829 to much success. He returned home to Warsaw and wrote his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor (1829) and his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor (1830), as well as other works for piano and orchestra designed to exploit his brilliantly original piano style and prepare for further concert engagements. His first études were also written at this time (1829–32) to enable him and others to master the technical difficulties in his new style of piano playing. Avoiding political unrest in Eastern Europe influenced Chopin’s decision to go to Paris. He found there a place where his genius could flourish. He quickly established ties with many Polish émigrés and with a younger generation of composers, including Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz and, briefly, Vincenzo Bellini and Felix Mendelssohn. Chopin settled down to teaching and composing for some of the wealthiest homes in Paris. His high income from these sources set him free from the strain of concert giving, but he did continue to perform in private salon settings. In the summer of 1838 he began a long-term, but sometimes tumultuous, relationship with the novelist Aurore Dudevant, better known as George Sand. Most of Chopin’s works are for solo piano, including 24 Preludes covering every major and minor key. Always a bit frail, Chopin eventually succumbed to tuberculosis and died in Paris in 1849. His body, without the heart, was buried at the cemetery of Père-Lachaise (his heart was interred at the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw). Although he never returned to Poland, his love of that country and its folk music are evident in many of his solo piano compositions. It is said he carried soil from Poland in his pocket. And we can see his heart was/is there!
Aaron Copland is known as “The Dean of American Composers”, a moniker given to him by his contemporaries for the distinctly “American” sound he created in his compositions. Before Copland, American classical composers were writing more in the style of European genres. His blending of jazz, rhythmic and classical elements was revolutionary at the time. He was born on November 14, 1900 to a conservative Jewish family in Brooklyn. His mother was his earliest musical influence, taking him to concerts, operas, ballets and chamber events in New York. At the age of 15 he attended a concert by Paderewski and decided then and there that he wanted to become a composer. He went to Paris and studied with the famed teacher, Nadia Boulanger, whose wide range of musical tastes influenced his musical style. His first compositions were widely rejected in public performances, so Copland crafted what he called a more “vernacular” style, and with compositions such as “Rodeo”, “Billy the Kid” and most notably “Appalachian Spring”(commissioned by Martha Graham’s ballet company) he soon became a household name and put American classical music on the international map. The original chamber version of that ballet won the New York Critics’ Circle Award (1945) and Copland’s full symphony orchestra arrangement received the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Music. As early as 1939 Copland had turned his attention to writing music for films and radio broadcasts. In 1950, Copland won an Academy Award for “The Heiress”. Leonard Bernstein, who Copland met when Bernstein was a 19-year old student at Harvard, is considered one of the greatest interpreters of the composer’s works. His “Fanfare for the Common Man” (1945), and “A Lincoln Portrait” (1942) are two other of his enduring works. By the 1960’s Copland rather reluctantly turned to conducting and lecturing when he no longer found inspiration for composing. “It was exactly as if someone had simply turned off a faucet.” He died of Alzheimer’s disease and respiratory failure in his home in Tarrytown (Sleepy Hollow), New York in 1990. Following his death, his ashes were scattered over the Tanglewood Music Center near Lenox, Massachusetts. Much of his large estate was bequeathed to the creation of the Aaron Copland Fund for Composers, which bestows over $600,000 per year to performing groups.
An “angelic” violinist/composer of the late Baroque era who had quite an impact on Western music is Arcangelo Corelli. As a touring performer Corelli was instrumental in the establishment of violin techniques and the violin’s prominence and popularity as an instrument. He was also the composer who expanded the potential of the concerto grosso and sonata forms. Perhaps most importantly, Corelli established in his compositions what we now take for granted as modern tonality and harmony. His influence as a composer and virtuoso musician on the violin was widespread, most notably on J.S. Bach and the young Handel. Corelli was born on February 17,1653 in the small town of Fusignano to a prosperous, but not noble family. His father died five weeks before the composer’s birth and he was raised by his mother alongside four elder siblings. At 17 he was admitted to the Academia Filharmonica in Bologna where he studied with some of the greatest violinists of the day. He later traveled to Rome where his two great patrons were Queen Christina of Sweden and Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, who in 1689 became Pope Alexander VIII. Despite the fact that Corelli firmly established tonality in his works, he is also known in his compositions for what has been called the “Corelli clash,” a bold harmonic suspension. As a performer, he was noted for his passionate playing (although he shunned the use of the extreme upper registers of the violin), and one observer said that Corelli was so moved that his “eyeballs rolled.” Contemporary writers have said that Corelli tried to make his violin “speak” and that he said, “Do you not hear it speak?” Although Corelli’s compositional output was relatively modest, what he did compose and publish had an impact on composers decades after his death at the age of 59 in Rome. He is buried there in the Pantheon.
One of the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was (Achille) Claude Debussy. Debussy was born on 22 August 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Seine-et-Oise, on the north-west fringes of Paris to a family of very modest means and no musical background. The young Claude exhibited extraordinary musical aptitude, so much so that at the age of 10 he was admitted to the Paris Conservatory where he studied piano and composition. Although prominent composers of the time, like Tchaikovsky (whose patroness Nadezhda von Meck employed Debussy as a pianist), were none too impressed with the composer’s early works, while at the conservatory he won the coveted Prix de Rome for composition and subsequently spent four “torturous” years studying in Italy. When he returned to France personal issues tainted his reputation so much so that he eventually fled to England for a time. While in England he married Emma Bardac. Emma and Claude had one child, to whom Debussy was devoted, Claude-Emma, known affectionately as “Chou-Chou”. She became a great inspiration for Debussy. He wrote his suite “Children’s Corner” for her. His compositional style was radical for the time and has been labeled “impressionist”, mirroring the movement in French visual art at the time. Debussy himself rejected that label. He said: “I am trying to do ‘something different’…what the imbeciles call ‘impressionism’, a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics.” But it has “stuck” nonetheless. One music historian succinctly defines his style, noting he had a penchant for using “ancient and oriental modes and for vivid colorations, and a certain disdain for academic rules”. Some of his best known works include the “Suite Bergamasque” (containing the iconic piano piece, “Claire de Lune”), Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, La Mer, the opera “Pelleas et Melisande”, and the three-part orchestral and choral suite “Nocturnes”. He also wrote many exquisite art songs (“chansons”) for voice and piano. Debussy died in Paris at the age of 55 of cancer.
Czech composer Antonín Dvořák is considered by most to be the most gifted composer that country has ever produced. He was born in Nelahozeves, near Prague, in the Austrian Empire, (now the Czech Republic) on September 8, 1841. By the age of 6 he was already showing much musical promise, and began composing at a young age. But it was not until he was in his 30’s that he began to gain fame. He admitted to destroying most of his early pieces, saying, “I always have enough paper to make a fire.” We can thank Johannes Brahms for recognizing Dvorak’s gift and promoting his music to among others, his publisher. Dvořák’s father was a zither player and so he grew up listening and performing folk music – perhaps the reason that he uses much of that folk flavor in his compositions . In 1873 Dvořák married his wife Anna, after courting and being turned down by her sister, Josefina. After his marriage, he took position as a church organist in Prague which guaranteed a good income, greater social status and more time to compose. It was the lure of even greater income that persuaded Dvořák to venture to New York. He became the Director of the National Conservatory of Music from 1892 – 1895. For a little teaching and conducting, with four month’s vacation (which he used to travel to places like Iowa) he was promised the unimaginable salary of $15,000 – 25 times what he was paid in Prague. That would be about $1,000,000 in today’s terms! He never actually received that salary, but was determined to discover “American music” and thought that African-American and Native American music should be used as a foundation for the growth of American music. It was travelling around the U.S. and his time here that inspired his most popular work – Symphony No. 9, From the New World. Once it became clear the money he was promised was not forthcoming, he returned to his beloved Czechoslovakia. He continued to compose and conduct and especially support young musicians, including Josef Suk who became his son-in-law. Dvořák died of complications from the flu on May 1, 1904.
Sir Edward Elgar was born on June 2, 1857, in Broadheath, near Worcester, where his father was a music shop owner and a piano technician. Elgar was the fourth of six children and taught himself to play all the musical instruments that were at his disposal in his father’s shop. He also studied all the sheet music available in the shop. Thus the young Elgar had no formal training as a musician or composer. Unrestricted by rules of “teaching”, he remained highly original in developing his unique musical style, but it also meant he had no one who would connect him into the entrenched musical establishment of Victorian and Edwardian society. For this reason and the fact that he was also a devout Roman Catholic in a largely Anglican society, Elgar was always sensitive about his background and unsure of his own talent. In 1889 Elgar married his student, Alice Roberts, daughter of an army general. She married beneath herself in opposition to her relatives. Alice played a vital role in Elgar’s career as his “muse” and by always reminding him of her faith in his genius. Elgar was 42 years old when his “Enigma Variations” (1899) was premiered in London and brought him the first big success internationally. His best-known works were composed between 1899 and 1920. Most of them are orchestral, but he also wrote quite a few choral works and both his violin and cello concertos are considered masterpieces of that genre. He is also well-known as being a huge proponent of the gramophone and recording music. The death of his beloved Alice in 1920 took away much of Elgar’s inspiration and will to write music. Elgar died on February 23, 1934 and was laid to rest beside his wife. Perhaps you know him as the man who wrote the march to which you most likely received a diploma or two!
Edvard Grieg is a prominent Norwegian composer and pianist whose music is likely known to anyone who ever studied piano – although the “jury is out” as to whether he would be thrilled about why that is. Grieg was born in Bergen June 15, 1843, the son of a local official and a piano teacher. At the age of 15 his musical talent was recognized by the great Norwegian violinist, Ole Bull, who procured a position for the young Grieg at the Leipzig Conservatory. After graduation from the conservatory, Grieg toured as a concert pianist and returned to Norway in 1867 to marry his first cousin, the lyric soprano Nina Hagerup who is the inspiration for most of his song repertoire. Franz Liszt became a great admirer of Grieg’s music and the two finally met in Rome in 1870. Liszt sightread the piano and orchestra parts of the young composer’s now famous Piano Concerto in A minor and gave him some pointers on orchestration. In 1876 Grieg completed what has become his most famous work, the incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt”. It contains some of the most recognizable music in the classical oeuvre, including “Morning” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, a piece which Grieg was not particularly fond of and wished he had never written. Like Sibelius, who he greatly influenced as a composer, and Frederic Delius and Percy Grainger, who became a close friends, Grieg used (Norwegian) folk themes in much of his music. Edvard and Nina were never blessed with children who survived infancy. As one biographer puts it, “Sickly from his youth, brooding on the passing of his baby daughter and of his parents, Grieg worked out his peace with death through his Unitarian faith, by connecting himself with the Norwegian people and their mountainous landscape, by putting his faith in nature as a whole, and through the life-affirming exuberance of his music.” Grieg died of heart failure in 1907 on the eve of a world tour. One thing that most may not know – the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was a second cousin of Grieg.
George Frederick Handel
Another composer of monumental importance in the Baroque period was George Frederick Handel. Born in the German city of Halle on February 23, 1685 as Georg Friederich Händel, he spent a major portion of his life in London and so later Anglicized his name. If his father had had his way we wouldn’t even have him on our list. Handel’s lawyer father did not approve of his son’s love of music. Luckily for us, he had a sneaky mother who used to hide a small keyboard in the attic of their home so young George could practice when his father was not home. In the early 18th century Handel had already achieved considerable fame in Germany as a composer and organist/musician. In 1711 the British audiences went wild for his opera Rinaldo and not long after that Handel decided to move permanently to London. He greatly impressed the royal families in England as evidenced by such well-known compositions commissioned by them like Zadok the Priest which is still sung at every coronation. And who can forget the Music for the Royal Fireworks and his Water Music Suites for King George I’s barge excursion up the Thames? Through the 1720’s he composed very successful Italian-style operas, but by the 1730’s that style had fallen out of favor and so Handel turned his efforts for the next two decades toward the oratorio, creating such masterpieces as Samson and Messiah. He suffered a stroke in 1737 and became increasingly blind from cataracts. By the time Handel died in 1759, he had written 42 operas (in 3 languages), 29 oratorios, more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets, numerous arias, chamber music, a large number of ecumenical pieces, odes and serenades, and 16 organ concerti. His funeral in London was attended by over 3000 people. He was a great influence on both Mozart and Beethoven. In 1788 Mozart did a re-write of one of Handel’s first English language operas. Of Handel Beethoven said, “I would bare my head and kneel at his grave…Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.”
Franz Joseph Haydn
Among the most important composers of the Classical Era, Franz Joseph Haydn was born in the tiny Austrian town of Rohrau, on March 31, 1732 the son of a cook and a wagonmaker. At the age of 8, he went to Vienna to sing in the choir at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and to attend the choir school. Young Joseph (his preferred name) could never resist playing a joke (a personality trait that shows up frequently in his compositions – one of his best known “musical jokes” is the 2nd movement to the “Surprise” Symphony No. 94) which got him into considerable trouble at school. The most famous musician of his time, it is interesting to note that he spent most of his career in isolation on the estate of his patron, the powerful Esterhazy Family. But his innovations in music were so fantastic that his fame spread outside the walls of that estate, undoubtedly the reason Beethoven (and Mozart) sought him out as a tutor and mentor. Joseph Haydn (and like the Bach family we must distinguish because his brother Michael was also a composer), said he was “forced to become original” because he had only himself to rely upon for compositional inspiration. That originality expressed itself in chamber and symphonic music alike, as Joseph Haydn is known as both the “Father of the String Quartet” and the “Father of the Symphony” – although he did much to advance the piano trio, sonata and concerto as well. His other talent lay in business. He died in 1809 a wealthy man – he had become a successful music publisher and held the rights to much of his music, including over 100 symphonies and 70 string quartets.
Gustav Mahler, a key figure on the bridge between late-Romantic and Modern music was born on this day, July 7, 1860, Kaliště, Czechia, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He discovered a piano in his grandmother’s attic at the age of 6 and began to teach himself to play. By 10 he was performing his first concert. Following his graduation from the Vienna Conservatory he held posts as a conductor at the Leipzig Opera, the New German Theatre in Prague, the Vienna Court Opera (where he conducted for 10 years), New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. He conducted his last concert in Carnegie Hall. During his lifetime (and really for 50 years after his death) he was mostly recognized as a conductor, a fact that very much frustrated him. He felt he was “ahead of his time” compositionally. He wrote 10 monumental (and very long for the most part) symphonies and songs for voice(s) and orchestra, many of which he referred to as symphonic movements. Like Romantic composers before him, his music was programmatic. But in Mahler’s case it was the musical expression of a personal view of the world. His obsessions with death and the meaning of life, perhaps brought on by witnessing the physical abuse of a frail mother at the hands of his father and the deaths of many of his childhood siblings, is also a constant theme in his music. Possibly his greatest personal triumph was winning the hand of Alma Schindler, a much sought-after debutante in Vienna social circles of the late 19th century. The story goes that Mahler wrote for her and sent her the beautifully sensuous and yearning “Adagietto” to win her heart. Mahler’s music was virtually abandoned after his death in 1911 and it is Leonard Bernstein and Eugene Ormandy who are credited with rediscovering and promoting his orchestral works which are some of the most popular in our present day repertoire. So it seems he WAS ahead of his time…
Another important composer/conductor of the Romanitc era is Felix Mendelssohn. Born on February 3, 1809 into a prominent family of philosophers and bankers in Hamburg, Germany, he and his sister Fanny both showed great musical talent at a young age. Felix and his siblings were raised in a very privileged and well-educated household where frequent musical salon performances were the norm. These intimate performances would greatly influence Mendelssohn’s tastes in music and connect him socially to some of the great thinkers and artists of the 19th century (e.g., Goethe). The young Felix learned of the music of J.S. Bach in these settings from his aunt, Sarah Levy, who had been a pupil of two of Bach’s sons – W.F. and C.P.E.Bach. And it was through his grandmother, Bella Salomon, that he would later obtain the forgotten score and conduct a performance of Bach’s great oratorio, the “St. Matthew Passion”, leading to a revival of the music of the “obscure” Baroque composer. J.S. Bach! His career in music led him to Leipzig where he became the influential conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the founder of the Leipzig Conservatory. A brilliant pianist as well as conductor, his compositions range from solo piano works to chamber music to symphonies to oratorios. One if his best-known and beloved works is his Violin Concerto in E minor. Like many great composers, Mendelssohn died at a young age. In his 38th year he passed away in Leipzig after a series of strokes – something that had also taken many members of his family including his sister Fanny. Mendelssohn had once described death, as a place “where it is to be hoped there is still music, but no more sorrow or partings.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
One of the most gifted, influential and famous composers who ever lived, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria. His father, Leopold, was a prominent musician himself and recognized that his young son was a musical “Wunderkind” (“wonder child”) as early as the age of 3. Mozart was performing professionally and composing by the age of 6. He wrote and produced his first opera at the age of 12. His early years were spent travelling and performing at the courts of Europe with his father and sister Nannerl. Eventually he returned to Salzburg and assumed a position in the employ of the court there, as his father had before him. Seeking larger fame and fortune he moved to Italy to compose operas in his teens and then on to Paris in his twenties. But even with his now considerable fame, Mozart could never find the right employment for his talent and ambitions, so he returned to Austria, this time to the city of Vienna, for the last ten years of his life, 1781 – 1791. These ten years are some of the most productive and revolutionary compositional years of any composer who ever lived, filled with operas in both Italian and German, symphonies, concertos, chamber works and sacred choral compositions. He also married his beloved Constanze Weber during these years. They lived an extravagant lifestyle together and by the end of his life Mozart was greatly in debt, despite his successes as a composer, conductor and soloist in the Viennese community. Shortly before his death in December of 1791, he had begun work (some say ironically) on his famous “Requiem” mass (a church service honoring the dead). It was left unfinished and completed by one of his pupils. Along with his good friend, Franz Joseph Haydn, Mozart is considered one of the innovators in the Classical Era of classical music, advancing many forms of composition and elevating the skills needed to perform them.
Russian/Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev is considered one of the major composers of the 20th century – and rightly so, given his output. Sergei Prokofiev was born on April 27, 1891 in the rural town of Sontsovka, which is now a part of Ukraine. His mother, a member of a family of former serfs who had been trained in the arts, was his first big fan and influence. A composer since age 11, it was through her connections that he eventually enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. His career as a concert pianist and composer took him to the U.S. and to Paris, but he eventually settled his family in Moscow in 1936, already having gained fame through several compositions, including his opera “The Love for Three Oranges”, several symphonies, his piano concertos and his ballet, “Chout”. He had developed strong ties to Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and Igor Stravinsky. It is interesting to note that his conversion to Christian Science in1924 had a great influence on his compositional style, preferring what he called a “new simplicity”. His relationship with the Soviet government was not always an easy one – for years some of his works were banned as being essentially “too Western”. But after WW II those restrictions eased. Prokofiev died of cerebral hemorrhage on March 3, 1953, the same day as Joseph Stalin which complicated funeral plans because of the throngs of people mourning Stalin. His coffin was carried by hand through back streets as no hearse was allowed and his funeral was attended by only about 30 people. There are many wonderful pieces – the Classical Symphony, portions of “Romeo and Juliet” or “Cinderella”, his Violin Concerto – but in this time when so many children are home, we must mention one of his most famous works, “Peter and the Wolf”, which was written for a Russian children’s theater.
One of the most melodically-gifted composer/conductor/pianists of the late-Romantic period who ever lived was Sergei Rachmaninoff. He was born April 1,1873 to a royal Russian family on one of the two estates they owned (no one is quite sure which!). He started his piano lessons at four with a teacher who made his students practice 16 hours a day. Tchaikovsky was one of his greatest encouragers early in his career as a pianist and composer, but recognition did not come to Rachmaninoff as we might imagine today. When his first symphony was performed, critics and audiences shunned it. He lost confidence and found himself unable to compose. Finally in desperation and severely depressed, Rachmaninoff went to a hypnotist, who repeated over and over to him, “You will write your Concerto, You will write your Concerto.” He did, producing his famous Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Rachmaninoff and his family emigrated to the United States via Switzerland. Here his fame grew. Possessed of enormous hands and a razor sharp memory (he could recall and play note for note things he had only heard once years later), his skill as a concert pianist was unequaled. His music is beloved today and performed frequently in concert halls all over the world. We are fortunate also to have recordings of him playing his own pieces.
Maurice Ravel was born on March 7, 1875 in the Basque town of Ciboure, France, around 9 miles from the Spanish border. His father was an engineer which may explain his stylistic approach to composition. Stravinsky once described Ravel as “The most perfect of Swiss watchmakers,” which refers to the intricacy and the precision of Ravel’s works. As a child, he displayed a strong interest in minute objects, miniatures, the tiny world of figurines and little things that worked by clockwork. Ravel himself admitted to striving for technical perfection: “My objective, therefore, is technical perfection. I can strive unceasingly to this end, since I am certain of never being able to attain it. The important thing is to get nearer to it all the time.” His innovation in composition is decidedly more in the vein of The New French School of the likes of Debussy than the atonality of Schonberg. He emphasized the importance of melody, stating to his pupil Ralph Vaughan Williams that there is “an implied melodic outline in all vital music.” He is almost as well-known as an orchestrator as a composer. Were it not for his brilliant orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano piece “Pictures at an Exhibition”, one wonders if we would know it at all. In October 1932, Ravel suffered a severe blow to the head in a taxi accident. It caused him to gradually lose his memory and some of his coordination. Sadly, Ravel never composed after the accident. His miniaturist approach to composition can perhaps be best seen in his famous “Bolero” for orchestra. Originally commissioned and staged as a ballet, it was “immortalized” by the film “10”.
Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini was born February 29, 1792 in the town of Pesaro, just three months after the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Like Mozart, he was a child prodigy in music who came from a musical family. His father played trumpet in local bands and orchestras and his mother was an accomplished singer. Young Rossini studied music in Bologna and began composing at the age of 12. By 14 he had written his first opera. His first produced opera came when he was 18, while managing theaters in Naples. And although Rossini wrote in all forms and genres of music, today he is best known for his operas. “Legend” has it that Rossini could write operatic material at amazing speed. Perhaps that was helped by the fact that he often recycled or borrowed material from one opera to another. He was equally adept writing in both comic and serious subject matter (although in his one encounter with Beethoven, the German composer told him to stick to comedy!). By 1823 he had written 34 operas that had been staged all over Italy and was quite famous in that country, and in musical centers like Vienna and Paris. Tiring of the Neopolitan life and its audiences, Rossini and his wife moved to Vienna and then on to Paris. It was while in Paris under a lucrative contract to the King that he wrote one of his most famous opera seria, Guillaume Tell (William Tell), whose overture has been used over and over in pop culture. It was to be the last opera Rossini would write. He retired from the opera world quite a wealthy man in 1829. The last 40 years of his life were spent in Florence and then Paris, writing smaller solo and chamber works for private salon, not public, performance. There has been widespread speculation as to why he quit composing operas at the peak of his success, but ill health may have been a factor. Rossini died of cancer November 13, 1868 in Paris. His funeral was attended by more than 4000 people. Some of his most popular operas today are The Barber of Seville, Cinderella, The Thieving Magpie, Semiramide, and The Italian Girl in Algiers.
Late Classical/early Romantic composer Franz (Peter) Schubert was born in Himmelpfortgrund just outside of Vienna, Austria on January 31, 1797. He was one of 10 children and his father was a respected schoolmaster. His father also played the violin and he was young Franz’s first string teacher. His older brother Ignaz was his first piano teacher. But Schubert didn’t learn much from them or his early teachers outside of the family – such was his genius that he was way ahead of them even without instruction! His most significant teacher was the famed Antonio Salieri who taught him theory and composition from 1804 – 1817 and exposed him to the music of Mozart and Beethoven, who became Schubert’s musical “heroes”. Eventually Schubert joined his father’s school as a teacher of young children and continued to write music. He was so poor that he had no piano of his own upon which to compose – he would write things down on paper and then rush to the school to see how they sounded. Schubert’s nickname was “Schwammerl” (“Little Mushroom”) because he was 5’1″ and plump. Although he only lived to be 31, Schubert had a huge musical output – over 1500 pieces. His gift for melody is almost legendary, and in every genre of music he excelled and surpassed his contemporaries. In his lifetime not many of his works were publicly performed, but the salon parties, “Schubertiads”, with his artistic friends were ideal places to preview and hear his music. It was not until 10 years after his death that his music was really appreciated. Robert Schumann discovered a chest containing some of Schubert’s greatest works, including the original manuscript of the “Great” Ninth Symphony, which, Schumann excitedly reported, “transports us into a world where I cannot recall ever having been before.” Just three months later, Felix Mendelssohn conducted the premiere in Leipzig. Declaring Schubert “the most poetic musician who ever lived”, Franz Liszt then set about making a series of celebrated song transcriptions for solo piano and Johannes Brahms later took on the responsibility of editing and seeing much of Schubert’s music safely through the printing presses.
Often referred to as the “most romantic of the Romantic composers” because of his constant and passionate striving for the ideal, Robert Schumann was born on June 8, 1810 in Zwickau, Germany. He had an uncanny gift even as a child to express emotions through melody. As a youth, he was encouraged by his father to take an interest in the arts which expressed itself both in musical and literary compositions. His father died when Schumann was 16 and he was not encouraged by his mother or step-father to do anything but study law. After hearing the great violinist Niccolo Paganini play at the age of 20, he pleaded with his mother to let him study music. She was moved by his passion and soon after he was once again studying with the noted piano teacher Friedrich Wieck. That was a turning point in Schumann’s life for one reason – he fell deeply in love with Wieck’s young daughter, Clara, who was a gifted virtuoso pianist. Wieck, however, was not in favor of the match. Famously “moody” and possibly suffering from bipolar disorder, the stress of his arguments with his teacher over technique and his passion for Clara, drove him to severe bouts of depression. It was during this time that a hand injury (possibly unintentionally self-inflicted with a device to strengthen weak fingers) ended his dreams of being a concert pianist. Schumann turned to his other gift, writing, and founded the “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik” where he expressed his ideas on the music of the past and present and notices and analyses of new works. We can thank him for recognizing and promoting Brahms, Chopin, Schubert and Mendelssohn. Eventually it took a legal battle for Clara and Robert to be able to wed, which they did the day before Clara’s 21st birthday. They had 8 children together. Clara was an inspiration musically and a stability factor. In the first years of their marriage Schumann composed 140 German art songs (Lieder), two symphonies and important chamber pieces, including “inventing” the Piano Quintet. By 1854 his depression had turned to suicidal tendencies and insanity. For the sake of the safety of Clara and the children, he had himself committed to an asylum and died there two years later. Clara was forbidden to see him until 2 days before his death. Critics say Schumann may have not shown his true genius in some of his larger works, but his compositions for chamber ensembles, piano, and particularly his songs and song cycles, are considered some of the best ever written.
Without a doubt the greatest composer Finland has ever produced is Jean Sibelius. He was born on December 8, 1865 in Hämeenlinna, Finland. Although his father, a doctor, died when Sibelius was quite young, the family was still prosperous enough to afford lessons for the young prodigy who studied in both Berlin and Vienna. Like Beethoven, Sibelius loved hiking and exploring nature. As a boy he used to wander the Aulanko Forest near his home with his violin in hand playing melodies. The music of Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Bruckner were some of his greatest influences, but as a composer his greatest desire was to craft a musical style that was uniquely Finnish. Beginning in 1891 he began to compose tone poems depicting the rich mythology of Finland—works like “The Swan of Tuonela” from the epic poem “Kalevala”. But it was the greatest of these works, “Finlandia”, which cast Sibelius as the symbol of the Finnish Nationalist movement. After years under the oppressive Tsarist Russian government, his works epitomized the return of national pride, so much so that the Finnish government paid a British company $15,000 to record the composer’s first two symphonies catapulting him to international fame. His excessive drinking and smoking had taken a toll on his health and his marriage and in 1909 he underwent a successful operation for throat cancer. World War I brought a halt to his composing and conducting until 1917 and he remained active until 1929 when he retired, except for composing Masonic ritual music, hymns and some incidental music. He lived the rest of his life (almost another 30 years) with his beloved wife Aino, in their country home Ainola near Lake Tuusula, Järvenpää, Finland, surrounded by family and admirers . Sibelius’s works are among the most spectacular in the Late-Romantic repertoire. Some of his other works, based on Finnish epic poems and literature, include the Lemminkäinen Suite and the Karelia Suite, as well as other orchestral works like the well-known Valse Triste.
The wonderful late-Romantic/early Modern composer Richard Strauss (no relation to the waltz family of composers of Vienna) Richard Strauss was born in the beautiful city of Munich, Germany on June 11, 1864. His father was a famous horn player and principal of the Court Opera Orchestra of Munich. His father’s musical connections, particularly with prominent conductors of the day (like Hans von Bülow) would become invaluable to the young composer. In addition to being a prominent composer, Strauss was also known as a leading concert pianist and conductor. By the time Hitler gained power, Strauss was 68 years old and world-famous for particularly his operas and symphonic tone poems. He pretended to cooperate with the Third Reich mostly to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren and to help preserve what he could of classical composers like Debussy, Mahler, and Mendelssohn who had been banned. In his surviving letters it is evident that he despised everything the Nazis stood for and particularly Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who he called a “pipsqueak”. There is a famous story about Strauss and the U.S. Army at the end of the war. Strauss was in his house in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria when the Allied forces arrived rounding up Nazi sympathizers and commandeering homes. He came down the stairs of his house announcing loudly that he was Richard Strauss “the composer of “Rosenkavalier” and “Salome.” Luckily the commanding officer was a classical musician. Signs were immediately posted outside the house…:”Off limits.” Strauss’s style and music greatly influenced tonal music in the modern era. His music has entered popular culture many times, but perhaps most recognizably in the Stanley Kubrick film, “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The opening of the film utilizes his tone poem “Also sprach Zarathustra”.
The “revolutionary” modern composer, Igor Stravinsky was born on June 17, 1882 in Oranienbaum near St. Petersburg to a noted operatic bass and the daughter of a high-ranking regional Russian aide. His lifelong interest in the ballet, which would be a cornerstone of his compositional fame, began at age 8 at a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty”. He entered the university in St. Petersburg to study law, but became friends with the son of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and began studying music theory with him privately. He continued those lessons until Rimsky-Korsakov’s death in 1908. It was another ballet which premiered in Paris and sparked riots for which he became famous in 1913 – “The Rite of Spring”. Stravinsky had started a professional relationship with his fan, Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes in 1909 and had already composed his “Firebird” for them. Now he was an international sensation. His innovations in composition cover both the rhythmic and the melodic. In 1940 he moved to the United States. He became both a naturalized citizen of France and The U.S., perhaps because his music had intermittently fallen in and out of favor in the Soviet Union for years. In 1972, an official proclamation by the Soviet Minister of Culture ordered Soviet musicians to “study and admire” Stravinsky’s music and she made hostility toward it a potential offence. We admire it for its importance in music history, innovation and excitement.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
One of the most famous composers who ever lived, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 in Votkinsk, Russia. His first career was as a civil servant in the Ministry of Justice. He had been taught piano as a child and obviously had musical gifts, but being a musician was disparaged at that time in Russia. It was while occupying this rather mundane position that Tchaikovsky’s love for music grew and soon after he enrolled in the new St. Petersburg Conservatory as its first composition student. The rest, as they say, is history and largely because of the fame and popularity of his ballets, symphonies and other orchestral pieces. His patroness for a great portion of his career was a woman named by Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow of a railroad tycoon. Her support financially allowed Tchaikovsky to focus exclusively on composition. While Tchaikovsky called her his “best friend” they agreed to never meet under any circumstances. There are few composers in history who have as many “Top 40 Hits” in classical music as Tchaikovsky…just to name a few, The 1812 Overture, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet, the Symphonies No. 4 and 6, his Violin Concerto and, of course the Piano Concerto No. 1. It seems one can never get enough of his beautiful melodies that superbly blend Western musical influences with Russian melodies and nationalistic themes. Facts of his life are well-documented, but here are a couple of things you may not know:
1) He was cursed with terrible stage fright and so each time he took to the podium to conduct an orchestra he held onto his head with his free hand because he was convinced it would fall off during the performance. 2) He never drank anything but bottled water. Which is probably why the theory that he committed suicide was born. Technically he died of cholera in 1893, but there are stories that he drank unbottled water days before his death despite the severe cholera outbreak in Russia at the time.
Ralph Vaughan Williams
The son of the local vicar, Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Down Ampney, on 12 October 1872. He is widely regarded as the most important English “nationalist” composer of the early to mid 20th century. He began studying music from his aunt at a very early age and continued those studies at his boarding school, the public Charterhouse School, and then eventually at the Royal College of Music and Trinity College, Cambridge. He was a pupil of Charles Stanford and Hubert Parry, later studying with Max Bruch in Berlin and Maurice Ravel in Paris. In his early twenties, Vaughan Williams travelled the English countryside and began cataloguing tunes that had heretofore only been handed down aurally. This activity would greatly influence his overall style of music and his melodic sensibilities. As musical editor of The English Hymnal he composed several hymn tunes that remain popular, including Sine Nomine, “For all the Saints” and Down Ampney, “Come down O love Divine”, named after his birthplace. By 1914, he was already quite famous for beloved works like The Lark Ascending, and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. As a composer and orchestrator he is credited with founding an English style, quite separate from the Germanic traditions that had dominated English composition. Vaughan Williams volunteered for service in World War I, and was stationed on the front lines in France. The many friends he lost in battle (most especially fellow composer, George Butterworth) would have a profound effect on his post-war musical compositions. Although he turned down knighthood, he did eventually accept the Order of Merit in 1935. Vaughan Williams continued to compose well into his 80’s. His works include nine symphonies, concertos for piano, violin, oboe and tuba, five operas, chamber, ballet and film music, a large body of songs and song cycles, and various important unaccompanied and orchestral choral works. His orchestral works include other such popular favorites as Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, The Wasps Overture and the English Folk Song Suite. Something you may not know about Vaughan Williams: He is related to both the family of Charles Darwin and the Wedgwood Family of fine china and porcelain fame.
Considered a Baroque era “Rockstar”, Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice on March 4, 1678. He was immediately baptized because an earthquake rocked the city during his birth. It is also believed that his traumatized mother dedicated him then and there to the priesthood. He was nicknamed “Il Prete Rosso” (the Red Priest) because he actually became a priest and had flaming red hair. Vivaldi was a virtuoso violinist and spent nearly 30 years as the master violinist and teacher at an orphanage in Venice, the Pio Ospedale della Pietà. Many of his best-known works were written for the orchestra of young girls there. One of his protégées at the orphanage, Anna Girò, would go on to be a famous opera star and become his favorite Prima Donna. For a great portion of his life Vivaldi was a celebrated and innovative composer who greatly influenced other composers of the era, including J.S. Bach. He wrote a great many instrumental concerti, sacred choral works and over 40 operas. As was the case with other composers, in his latter years Vivaldi’s works grew out of favor. He died penniless in Vienna where he had moved in hopes of obtaining a commission with the royal court and was buried in a public hospital graveyard. “The Four Seasons” violin concerti are today one of the most popular pieces of music from the Baroque era. They were inspired by the seasons of the year and were published with accompanying sonnets probably written by the composer himself.
Richard Wagner is the composer who more than anyone else may define the “Romantic” revolution in music, and particularly the operatic theatrical form (or “music dramas” as he preferred to call them). But what he did with chromatic harmonies reaches far beyond the 19th century and into the 20th century style of classical music. (Wilhelm) Richard Wagner was born May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, Germany. His father died when he was just 6 months old. It was his step-father, the actor, playwright and painter, Ludwig Geyer, who was perhaps Wagner’s first influence. As a young boy Wagner acted in Geyer’s theater productions and became familiar with Shakespeare and Goethe. It was his love of theatrical plays that prompted him to study music so that he could express those plays musically. What he eventually did, however, was to use mostly German mythology as his story lines. His other great influences include Weber, Beethoven, Schopenhauer, and not just a few women who became muses in his life. Wagner was unusual in the operatic world as he wrote both the libretto and the music for his music dramas. He would go on to write a treatise explaining his concept of “Gesamtkunstwerk” (the whole work of art) – where he saw the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts all working in ensemble, with originally music subservient to the drama. That concept changed in his later music dramas where music definitely is the most dominant element. A controversial (to say the least) figure to this day because of his political and philosophical views and writings, these also caused Wagner to be exiled from Germany for a period of 12 years. He had already written, “The Flying Dutchman”, “Lohengrin”, and “Tannhäuser”, but those years in exile gave birth to the beginning of the composition of the “Ring Cycle” for which he is perhaps most famous. Once back in Germany, he gained the patronage of his devoted fan, the young Bavarian king, Ludwig II, who came to be known as “Mad King Ludwig”. It was through Ludwig’s financing that he was able to start to build his famous theatre at Bayreuth to his own specifications and (to this day) to perform his works. Unusually, the orchestra is recessed under the stage and covered by a hood, so that it is completely invisible to the audience. This not only serves to keep the audience focused on the drama, but also to allow singers to sing over the sometimes massive orchestrations Wagner uses. The famous “Ride of the Valkyrie” from the Ring Cycle has been used extensively in popular culture.