Johann Sebastian Bach
John Adams (b. February 15, 1947)
John Adams grew up in the New England area and played the clarinet from a very early age. (This may come as a surprise to anyone who’s played his piece Short Ride in a Fast Machine.) He studied composition at Harvard University where he conducted the Bach Society and was a substitute clarinetist for the Boston Symphony.
In 1972, he began teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory where he also worked in the electronic music studio. During this time, he composed some of his most well-known works, including Shaker Loops, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and the opera Nixon in China, based on President Richard Nixon’s visit to China to meet Chairman Mao. After Nixon in China, Adams focused more on non-western forms of music and the techniques involved, such as “blue notes,” bent notes, slides, and other stylistic changes that used more than just written notes on a page.
Adams is generally considered a minimalist composer, which means that he uses a lot of repeating patterns, although not to the extent that other composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass do. In many of his pieces, specifically the Violin Concerto, he begins to develop a pattern but then changes it. He was very influenced by John Cage’s compositions and his book Silence, and he found Cage’s philosophy very liberating after spending most of his college career studying serialism. By the time he graduated he found the Darmstadt School and its teachings very limited.
In 2003, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his composition On the Transmigration of Souls, a memorial piece dedicated to the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In general his pieces tend to be controversially received: some pieces receive rave reviews and others are eaten alive by critics. Nixon in China certainly revived an interest in opera, and his style is overall considered a positive response to the limited aspects of minimalism and serialism.
How you know him: Short Ride in a Fast Machine has been transcribed for wind bands as well as orchestras and is a great example of Adams’s distinct style.
Karim Al-Zand (b. 1970) The music of Canadian-American composer Karim Al-Zand (b.1970) has been called “strong and startlingly lovely” (Boston Globe). His compositions are wide-ranging in influence and inspiration, and encompass solo, chamber, vocal and orchestral works. From scores for dance, to compositions for young people, to multi-disciplinary and collaborative works, Al-Zand's music is diverse in both its subject matter and its audience. His works explore connections between music and other arts, and draw inspiration from varied sources such as graphic art, myths and fables, folk music of the world, film, spoken word, jazz, and his own Middle Eastern heritage. Al-Zand’s music has enjoyed success in the US, Canada and abroad and he is the recipient of several national awards, including the Sackler Composition Prize, the ArtSong Prize, the Louisville Orchestra Competition Prize and the “Arts and Letters Award in Music” from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He holds degrees from Harvard and McGill Universities and is currently on the faculty of the Shepherd School of Music (Rice University) in Houston. Al-Zand is also a founding member of Musiqa, Houston’s premier contemporary music group, which presents concerts featuring new and classic repertoire of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Performers of Al-Zand’s music include groups such as the American Modern Ensemble, the Flux Quartet, the Enso Quartet, North/South Consonance, Brave New Works, Pinotage, Ensemble Pi, the Beausejour Trio the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, the Louisville Orchestra and OrchestraX. He has been awarded three times in the Canadian SOCAN Competition, (for Fantasy and Fanfare,Sonata and String Quartet). His two string quartets have received awards and recognition from the 1997 Blodgett Composition Competition, the Salvatore Martirano Award, Harvard’s Bohemians Prize and the Tampa Bay Composers’ Forum Prize for Excellence in Chamber Music. While a fellow at the 2000 Oregon Bach Festival Composers’ Symposium, Al-Zand’s work Parizade and the Singing Tree was performed to critical acclaim.
Other awards include those from the American Modern Ensemble, Composer’s Guild, ASCAP, the Society of Composers, and the National Association of Composers. He has received fellowships from the June in Buffalo Festival Wellesley Composers Conference, the MusicNinetySeven Festival, and the MacDowell Colony. He has been commissioned through the Canada Council (Beausejour Trio), Houston Arts Alliance (River Oaks Chamber Orchestra), the Fromm Foundation, and ASCAP/SCI, and by ALEA III, OrchestraX and Ensemble Pi.
While at McGill University, Al-Zand he studied composition with Donald Steven, John Rea and the late Bengt Hambraeus and worked in the McGill’s Group of the Electronic Music Studio with alcides lanza. As a pianist he has studied under Eugene Plawutsky and Louis-Philippe Pelletier. At Harvard University he studied composition with Mario Davidovsky and Bernard Rands, and music theory with David Lewin. In his scholarly work, Al-Zand has pursued several diverse areas of music theory, including topics in jazz, counterpoint, and improvisation (both jazz and 18th century extemporization). His PhD.
CPE Bach (March 8, 1714-December 14, 1788)
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the son of JS Bach, the notable Baroque composer. As JS Bach’s death marked the end of the Baroque period, so his son was considered one of the fathers of the classical period. His father trained him in music, but he studied law in college. As soon as he obtained his degree, he began pursuing a career in music.
His first job was with the Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, the future Frederick the Great. When Frederick succeeded the throne in 1741, Bach became a member of the royal orchestra. During this time in Berlin, he was heavily influenced by his father, JS Bach, and his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Joseph Haydn. He became one of the foremost composers of the day. His treatise, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments), became a definitive work for keyboard technique because it encouraged the use of thumbs, something that up until that point had been strongly discouraged.
In 1768, he succeeded his godfather Telemann as the director of music at Hamburg and was named court composer for Frederick’s sister, Princess Anna Amalia. This position required him to compose music for the Protestant church services at Michaeliskirche (Church of St. Michael) and other churches in Hamburg. He also composed an oratorio (Die Israeliten in der Wüste or The Israelites in the Desert), 21 settings of the Passion, approximately 70 cantatas, litanies, motets, and other liturgical pieces. He even presented pieces by his contemporaries including JS Bach, Salieri, Handel, and Haydn.
He died in Hamburg on December 14, 1788, and was buried in the Michaeliskirche. None of the children he had with his wife Johanna Maria Dannemann became musicians, and his own music had mixed receptions throughout history. Mozart said of him, “He is the father, we are the children,” and Beethoven held him in high regard, but during the 19th century, Robert Schumann remarked that his music wasn’t nearly as creative as his father’s.
How you know him: Though most of his work is unrecognizable, and much of the pieces published in the late 18th century were attributed to him even though he didn’t write it, the Sonata in A Major is a great example of his style.
Johann Sebastian Bach (March 31, 1685-July 28, 1750)
Johann Sebastian Bach was mostly raised by his older brother Christoph, a church organist. He taught Bach harpsichord and organ and spent most of his life as a church musician. In his teen years, he traveled to Hamburg to hear concerts and take organ lessons, but his most significant trip was to Lübeck. Young Bach walked 250 miles to visit the composer Buxtehude. By the age of 18, he was appointed as the court organist and violinist to the Duke of Weimar. This enabled him to study all types of music and allowed him the time and opportunity to develop his own composition skills. He was also able to write many pieces for organ and harpsichord, including several cantatas.
In 1717, he was hired as the court choirmaster to the Prince of Cöthen, which gave him even more time to compose, including hundreds of works for clavier, the most well-known of which is The Well-Tempered Clavier (not to be confused with an equal-tempered clavier), strings, instrumental ensembles, solos, duets, trios, and concertos. After his wife Maria died in 1720, he married the singer Anna Wülken.
Bach remained in Cöthen until the prince’s wife decided she wanted less serious music, at which point Bach and his family moved to Leipzig where he took a job as a private school choirmaster. He was very unhappy in this job, but it provided an excellent educational opportunity for his children. Not only was he paid less in this position, but his living conditions were significantly decreased, and his music was performed by amateur musicians rather than paid professionals.
Johann Sebastian Bach is considered the father of Baroque music and wrote for both the church and the community. He also taught music, Latin, and conducted the school choir. Despite the less-than-tolerable conditions of his employment, he remained at the school for the rest of his life. In 1749, his health began to decline, and in particular his vision deteriorated to the point of blindness. John Taylor, a British eye surgeon, was brought in to perform surgery to repair the problem, but Bach died in 1750. Scholars associate his death with the end of the Baroque period of music.
How you know him: Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions are considered the best and most accurate interpretations of the works.
Béla Bartók [bay-lah bar-talk] (March 25, 1881 – September 26, 1945)
Béla Bartók was raised in a small town in Hungary. He was a sickly child who suffered from eczema until the age of five, although he could pick out different dance rhythms that his mother played on the piano before he could even speak (according to his mother). While studying piano with István Thomán and János Koessler at the Royal Conservatory in Budapest, he met Zoltán Kodály, who became a lifelong friend and mentor. This made him one of the first ethnomusicologists. Bartók and Kodály also completed a lot of research together about Magyar folk music and used the melodies in these tunes in their own compositions, sometimes note-for-note.
During WWII, Hungary sided with the Nazi party, which Bartók strongly opposed. Eventually, he and his second wife, Ditta, emigrated to the US. He struggled to compose there because most Americans knew him as an ethnomusicologist, pianist, and teacher, not as a composer. In 1944 he was diagnosed with a form of leukemia, but he found new inspiration and energy as a composer and produced a last flourish of masterpieces. Among these works are Concerto for Orchestra (perhaps his most famous and well-liked work), String Quartet No. 6, Sonata for Solo Violin, and Piano Concerto No. 3. The first three of those works were commissioned by various conductors and soloists, most prominently was Fritz Reiner of the Chicago Symphony. He had long been a supporter and champion of Bartók and his work since Reiner had been his student at the Royal Academy.
Bartók died in 1944 in New York City. Sadly, his funeral was attended only by 10 people. After the fall of the communist party in Hungary, Bartók’s sons had his body exhumed and moved back to Budapest where there was a state funeral in his honor on July 7, 1988. His body is now buried next to his late wife Ditta in Farkasréti Cemetery, who died in 1982.
How you know him: Here is the opening of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned for the Boston Symphony in 1943.
Arnold Bax [backs] (November 8, 1883-October 3, 1953)
Arnold Bax was a British composer born into a distinct upper-class family. His talent for music appeared at an early age when he began playing Wagner operas on the piano. His formal music education began at age 16 at the Hampstead Conservatoire under the instruction of Cecil Sharp. In 1900, he was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music where he studied for five years with Frederick Corder, Tobias Matthay, and Julian Egerton. Corder emphasized the compositional style of Franz Liszt, who became an influence in Bax’s compositions.
Bax’s love of literature led him to the works of William Butler Yeats, whose Irish Literary Revival writings heavily influenced his composition style. This “love affair” inspired him to travel to Ireland where he drew further inspiration from the land: roaring seas, rolling hillsides, local peasants, and Irish culture. He didn’t limit his inspiration to music, though. Bax also discovered a love of poetry and published works under his pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne.
His love affair with Natalia Skarginska in 1910 led to a resurgence of inspiration which resulted in an interest in Russian Slavonic themes, but it mostly resulted in melancholy pieces due to the heartbreak he suffered after the affair ended. Just one year later, he married his childhood sweetheart Elsita Sobrino, and the couple moved to Dublin. His close circle of friends there knew him only by his pseudonym.
By 1916, the threat of war forced Bax and his family to relocate to London. His pre-existing heart condition prevented Bax from enlisting in the service, so he spent the rest of the war composing. Bax was personally affected by the conflict in Ireland and Dublin’s destruction during the war, and he found himself working more and more with pianist Harriet Cohen. It quickly turned from a professional relationship to a romantic relationship, although it never led to anything because Bax was still married to Elsita. His emotional struggles led to a number of compositions, and though there was a significant amount of speculation about how his romantic interlude inspired these pieces, there is no evidence to substantiate this claim.
Despite his emotional and personal ties with Ireland, he accepted a knighthood in 1937. He continued composing, but he became increasingly restless and dissatisfied with the world in which he lived. The style of music was changing to more modern tastes, and he found himself drinking as a coping mechanism for his increasing age and lack of personal connections.
In 1929, he began adjudicating the Feis Maitiú Corciagh in Cork where he developed a long-term friendship with the Fleischmann family. Tilly Fleischman was a renowned concert pianist who performed Bax’s music in Ireland as a way to show him that his music was still relevant, but it wasn’t until Aloys Fleischmann began conducting his works with the Irish Radio Orchestra in Dublin that Bax received national acclaim.
Bax was not convinced by either of these phenomena and turned his attention to the world of academia as he focused less on composing. One of his last compositions was the Coronation March used during Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1952. His Violin Concerto, which was originally written for Jascha Heifetz, was premiered in 1942 by Eda Kersey after Heifetz refused to perform the piece. Bax died at the age of 69.
Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770-March 26, 1827)
Arguably the most famous composer of all time, Beethoven was also one of the most disorganized composers with terrible follow-through and a frightening temper. He studied composition with Joseph Haydn in Vienna, Austria, where he was also a concert pianist. In an effort to find a way to support himself, Beethoven became very social and made friends with a lot of people who were acquainted with wealthy music supporters. This enabled him to abandon his teaching altogether to focus solely on his compositions.
Traveling through Europe, he displayed his talents for composition and piano, though many of his early works were orchestral and chamber works in sonata and concerto form. In 1800 shortly after finishing his first symphony, he began composing oratorios, and the next 15 years became very productive for him. By 1815, he had composed 8 symphonies, 27 piano sonatas, many sonatas for various string instruments, 10 piano trios, 11 string quartets, dozens of orchestral works, and countless vocal solos and choral works.
Beethoven was obsessive about his works and refused to have anything published until he felt it had been perfected. This was very frustrating for his patrons who paid him a lot of money only to have to wait around for months -- or even years! --for the composition to be finished. It’s an understatement to say that he didn’t like deadlines and didn’t stick to them very well.
He had already begun to lose his hearing in his 20s and by his mid-40s had to give up live performance completely. He spent the rest of his life composing and slowly going deaf until he died in 1827. The cause of his death is still debated, but most scholars have narrowed it down to either alcoholic cirrhosis, syphilis, infectious hepatitis, lead poisoning, sarcoidosis, or Whipple's disease. Some researchers even believe that he slowly and accidentally poisoned himself to death with lead supplements prescribed by his physician.
Though he fell in love several times, he never got married because of his background as a person of ill-means and being exploited by his father who forced him to perform publicly. Thanks to the support of his friends, though, he was able to write some of the greatest and most recognizable music of the nineteenth century.
How you know him: Excerpts from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony were featured at the beginning of Disney’s Fantasia: 2000, and his Sixth Symphony (Pastoral) was featured in Fantasia.
Alban Berg [Bear-g] (February 9, 1885-December 24, 1935)
Berg did not begin studying music until 1900 when he was 15 years old. Four years later he began studying counterpoint, music theory, and harmony with Arnold Schoenberg. Within three years he was composing and studying full-time. One of the teachings that Berg took away from his time with Schoenberg was that of developing variation. Berg’s student Theodor Adorno put it succinctly when he said, “The main principle he conveyed was that of variation: everything was supposed to develop out of something else and yet be intrinsically different." In 1911, he married Helene Nahowski, despite the hatred her wealthy family felt for the him.
In 1922, Berg completed his most well-known opera and well-known work, Wozzeck. It was premiered on December 14, 1925, and it is considered by many to be one of the most important works of the 20th century. Before he died in 1935, he began work on another opera called Lulu. Due to a personal conflict, Berg’s wife refused to let him finish the work, so only the first two acts were premiered.
Shortly after her death in 1979, an orchestration was commissioned by Friedrich Cerha and premiered in Paris under the baton of Pierre Boulez (current conductor for the Cleveland Orchestra). It is now a prominent work for the opera repertoire. During the composing phase of Lulu, Berg accepted a commission from Louis Krasner for a violin concerto. The piece employs Schoenberg’s famous 12-tone technique but feels surprisingly tonal, a description that is true of many of Berg’s later works. He died on Christmas Eve in 1935 from blood poisoning, allegedly caused by an insect bite.
How you know him: Berg’s opera Wozzeck is his most well-known work.
Hector Berlioz [bear-lee-oze] (December 11, 1803-March 8, 1869)
Berlioz never learned to play the piano, something he saw as both an asset and a hindrance to his composition. After he graduated from high school, he began studying medicine in Paris, though he was repulsed at a dissection of a human body. He decided to take advantage of the cultural opportunities afforded him in the big city by attending opera performances and hanging out at the Paris Conservatoire library. In 1824, he finally abandoned his medical studies to pursue music full-time, despite his parents’ fury and outrage.
At age 23 he submitted his first fugue to the Prix de Rome, which was rejected in the first round. It took him four obsessive years to finally achieve his goal. In 1827, he attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Othello and Romeo and Juliet where he became infatuated with Harriet Smithson, an actress in both performances, whom he later married. He barraged her with love letters which scared her off, but the interaction inspired him to write his most famous work, Symphonie Fantastique, a programmatic symphony about one man’s opium-induced dream about a woman he can’t have. Around this same time, he became engaged to Camille Moke, the French Revolution broke out, and he won the previously mentioned Prix de Rome.
During his time studying in Italy (the result of winning the Prix de Rome), his soon-to-be mother-in-law wrote him that Camille had called off their engagement to marry a man named Camille Pleyel, son of the noted composer and piano-maker. Enraged by the loss of his bride-to-be, Berlioz devised an elaborate scheme to kill Camille, Camille, her mother, and himself. After taking a carriage all the way to Genoa, he realized he left his costume in the carriage and as he arrived in Nice, he resolved to call off the plan and return to his studies in Rome.
Upon completing his studies in Rome, he returned to Paris where he composed some of his most well-known pieces (Symphonie Fantastique, Harold en Italie, Grande messe des morts, and Roméo et Juliette). He became acquainted with some of the leading writers of the day, most notably Ernest Legouvé. After one performance of Symphonie Fantastique, he met Harriet Smithson and the two were married, but it turned out to be a bad match for both.
After the 1830s, Berlioz traveled throughout Europe to find audiences who recognized and appreciated his music. He eventually found himself conducting more than composing -- Berlioz was as famous for conducting as he was for composing. After several more compositions and a brief but lucrative position as head librarian at the Paris Conservatory, he became plagued with an intestinal illness.
After the death of his second wife in 1862, he became distracted and disillusioned with his career. He suffered from increased stomach pains, and his compositions were decreasingly popular. In 1867, his son died of yellow fever in Havana, which further added to his emotional turmoil. He had founded a musical journal and found that he could no longer write for it, so he retired. Berlioz traveled around Europe, but with his increased physical discomfort, he wrote a will and died a few months later.
How you know him: Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is arguably his most well-known work and certainly has received the most acclaim.
Leonard Bernstein (August 25 1918-October 14, 1990)
Leonard Bernstein was born to Ukrainian immigrant parents and grew up in Massachusetts. He attended the Garrison Grammar School and Boston Latin School while taking piano lessons. He attended Harvard University where he studied with Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston, but he was very influenced by the aesthetics of Professor David Prall’s studies on multidisciplinary arts.
During his time at Harvard, he met fellow composer Aaron Copland. The two remained close friends, and Bernstein was heavily influenced by Copland’s composition style. After graduating, he studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he studied conducting with Fritz Reiner, late music director of the Chicago Symphony, counterpoint, orchestration, piano, and score reading.
In 1940 he studied with Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony’s summer institute. This introduction was initially made by Copland and Mitropoulos but later developed into a significant professional relationship with Koussevitzky. His debut as assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic came suddenly when Bruno Walter came down with the flu. It was heralded by the New York Times as a “good American success story.” Since the performance was broadcast nationally, Bernstein earned national fame and was able to launch his career as a composer.
In 1951, he married Felicia Cohn Montealegre. Many people speculate that this was to dispel rumors that he was gay, particularly since he was trying to secure a major conducting job with a very conservative orchestra board. There is no evidence that he and his wife had an unhappy marriage, though, and the couple had three children.
He became a household name with his televised series called Young People’s Concerts, broadcast by CBS. These were inspired by and grew out of his Omnibus programs where he discussed major classical works such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Shortly before he took over the New York Philharmonic, he composed the scores for the operetta Candide and West Side Story. These quickly became his most well-known works. During the 1960s he helped revive an interest in the works of Gustav Mahler through his recordings of Mahler’s complete works with the New York Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the London Symphony.
He was a champion for other composers such as Nielsen, Sibelius, Copland, Schuman, and Diamond. In 1969, he resigned from the symphony to focus on his compositions. In 1971, his mass was premiered as a commission by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It is a very contemporary piece incorporating elements of rock music, Latin liturgy, Hebrew prayer, English lyrics, and was heavily criticized by the Catholic church.
In 1980, he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors, and he spent the rest of his life conducting, composing, and teaching. As a lifelong smoker, Bernstein battled emphysema, and in 1990 he died of pneumonia. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY. Bernstein was a strong supporter of social change and always supported philanthropic efforts.
How you know him: Bernstein is most well-known for his score to the film West Side Story, though he would be sorely disappointed to know this today because his symphonies (particularly his second, The Age of Anxiety) and mass are beautiful pieces with their own musical merit.
Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833-April 3, 1897)
Though he was a terrible student, Brahms excelled at piano. He studied with several people during his youth and brought in extra revenue for his family by playing popular music in dance halls. He began studying composition very early but destroyed nearly all of his early works. In 1853, his works began to receive more acclaim as he traveled through Europe with Eduard Reményi.
Throughout his life, Brahms was very close friends with Robert Schumann, who supported and tried to spread the word about Brahms’s music. After his friend’s death, he fell in love with Schumann’s widow Clara, who was an accomplished pianist and composer. They never married, but Brahms always closely followed her advice. In 1868, the premiere of his Requiem (greatly inspired by the death of his mother and close friend Robert Schumann) secured his place in Europe’s music scene. Many people raved that this composition surpassed Beethoven and the symphony form.
Brahms’s next big break didn’t come until 1873 when he was 40 years old. The piece was “Variations on a Theme by Haydn.” At the time, he was also working on his First Symphony, which was finally performed 22 years after its initial conception. Over the next 20 years, Brahms wrote music in all forms, except opera, and was beloved in Austria, his adopted country, where he taught countless students.
His attempt to stop composing at age 57 was clearly futile as he had several works published shortly before his death. Among these are chamber pieces for clarinet, which were inspired by his admiration for clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. A few years later he was diagnosed with cancer, and his condition gradually worsened. He died at age 67, and he is buried in Zentralfriedhof, Switzerland. Before he died, he attended a dinner where the host proposed a toast to “the most famous composer,” implying Brahms, who replied, “Quite right. Here’s to Mozart!”
How you know him: Brahms has been featured in the popular PSA supporting arts education in public schools. His Lullaby Op.49 No.4 Wiegenlied is a very popular piece for anyone with a baby.
Benjamin Britten (November 22, 1913-December 4, 1976)
Benjamin Britten showed musical promise and talent at a very early age. His first piano teacher was his mother, but by age seven he began receiving private lessons with the teacher at his prep school. At age 14 he began composition lessons with Frank Bridge. In 1928, he began attending Gresham’s School, Holt, and two years later won a Composition Scholarship for the Royal College of Music. During his time in London, he was exposed to a wealth of new music, including that of Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Mahler, and Dmitri Shostakovich.
In 1937, he became acquainted with and formed a lifelong partnership with the tenor Peter Pears. Two years later, the two moved to the US where Britten composed several song cycles for Pears, and Britten became even more influenced by the music of Aaron Copland, particularly Billy the Kid and An Outdoor Overture. They remained in America until 1942 when they returned to England where WWII was in full swing. Both applied to be conscientious objectors as a way to keep themselves out of the fighting and as a means of protesting the war, and Britten was able to avoid combat. In time he was granted unconditional exemption after an appeal. He had by that time already begun work on his opera Peter Grimes.
The next few years were very productive for Britten, and he spent most of his time composing operas and choral works at his home in Sussex, acquired due to the inheritance he received after his mother’s death in 1937. After a financially unsuccessful tour of his opera The Rape of Lucretia by the Glyndebourne English Opera Company forced them to discontinue tours, Britten, his librettist Eric Crozier, and Pears formed the English Opera Group.
Throughout his career as a composer, particularly during the 1950s, Britten was strongly influenced by the music of Eastern and Asian cultures. This was especially true after his visit there with Pears in 1957. During the 1960s he developed relationships with Russian musicians and composers, most notably Dmitri Shostakovich, Sviatoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich. By the end of the 1960s, the Aldeburgh Festival that Britten developed had outgrown its venue options, and Britten was able to convert outdated malthouses just outside Aldeburgh into a more suitable concert venue. He and Pears performed regularly at the festival with Pears singing and Britten accompanying. After heart surgery in 1973, Britten was no longer able to perform because it left him partially disabled.
In 1976, he was the first composer to accept a life peerage changing his name to Baron Britten, of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk. In this same year just a few months after finishing his final piece, Welcome Ode for children’s choir, he realized that he was no longer able to compose. His friends threw a party to celebrate his life, and he died on December 4, 1976, from congestive heart failure. Peter Pears, who was knighted in 1978, is buried next to him.
How you know him: Benjamin Britten’s very popular series “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” was featured extensively in Wes Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom. His opera Albert Herring is a delightful musical look into the English countryside of the early 20th century.
Anton Bruckner (September 4, 1824-October 11, 1896)
Bruckner’s first music teacher, like many of his peers, was his father. Through his father’s musical talent and Bruckner’s own aptitude for learning, he was able to move ahead in school. After his confirmation, he was sent to a new school in Hörsching where he finished his education and learned to play the organ. After the death of his father in 1837, Bruckner went to the Augustinian Monastary in St. Florian where he continued his musical education and fell in love with the organ. In spite of his musical abilities, his mother sent him to a teacher’s seminar, after which he became a teaching assistant in Windhaag. The low pay, despicable living conditions, and constant degrading from his superior were strong proponents of Bruckner’s future inferiority complex. He never complained or rebelled, though, despite his unhappiness, and eventually he moved to Kronstorf an der Enns where his compositions improved and he began to develop his own style.
He returned to St. Florian where he remained for ten years as an organist and teacher. In 1855, he met with Simon Sechter to show him his Missa Solemnis in the hopes that Sechter would accept him as a student, which he did. Through correspondence with Sechter, Bruckner learned in-depth about music theory, counterpoint, and other valuable subjects, and Bruckner later based his own teaching on Sechter’s teaching skills and book Die Grundsätze der musikalischen Komposition.
Bruckner was a devout Catholic who liked drinking beer, which did not align him with his contemporaries. He did not achieve well-known recognition or fame until he was 60. In 1861 he met Franz Liszt, who shared his Catholic faith, and together they worked with Richard Wagner to develop the German school. During the 1870s he lived in Vienna where he taught at the Vienna Conservatory and the Vienna University and spent a great deal of time and energy composing. He is often characterized as simple and provincial, and biographers have commented that his music does not reflect his life and his life does not reflect his music. His symphonic works were at the time of their premieres described as wild and nonsensical, and they are in great contrast to his choral works, which were described as contrapuntal and conservative. He died a bachelor at the age of 72.
How you know him: The Houston Symphony’s former Music Director Maestro Hans Graf has performed or recorded all of Bruckner’s works. Chances are good that if you’ve been to a concert during his tenure here, you’ve heard a Bruckner piece.
Frédéric Chopin [show-pan] (February 22 or March 1, 1810-October 17, 1849)
Frédéric Chopin was a Polish composer of the Romantic period and grew up mostly in Warsaw. He was raised in a fairly musical home and is considered by many to have been a child prodigy. Until age 13, he was tutored at home, but in 1823 he enrolled in the Warsaw Lyceum and continued to study under the tutelage of Wojciech Zywny. Three years later he began studying with Józef Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatory who taught him music theory, figured bass, and composition.
When he turned 18, Chopin left Poland with his friend Feliks Jarocki. The two traveled to Berlin where Chopin met and saw several of the famous composers of the day such as Felix Mendelssohn and Carl Friedrich Zelter. This provided him with a significant amount of inspiration when he returned to Warsaw. In this year, he premiered his first two piano concertos and began to achieve wider acclaim for his piano-playing and composition, so he left Warsaw for Austria en route to Italy. During and after the November Uprising, he renewed his love for Poland when the revolution was crushed, and France did not come to Poland’s aid. At the time, he was traveling to Paris, and his emotions inspired the Scherzo in B minor and the Revolutionary Étude.
When Chopin arrived in Paris, he was ambivalent about remaining in the country, but like many of the other expatriates of what came to be known as the Polish Great Emigration, he did not return to his homeland. Within a few years, he had developed new friendships and earned new patrons who were able to provide him with new opportunities for growth as a musician. He gained French citizenship in 1835.
In 1835, he met with his parents for the last time and proposed marriage to Maria Wodzinski, but the couple was never married. The loss of his bride-to-be led to several heartfelt and emotional pieces. A few years later he began an affair with George Sand, a pseudonym for feminist author Amandine Aurore Lucille Dupin, the Baroness Dudevant. The couple moved to Majorca as a means to stave off Chopin’s quickly deteriorating health, but as they were not married, the people of Majorca greeted them with inhospitable attitudes. While there he composed several pieces on his Pleyel piano (after some difficulty in acquiring it from customs), and this quickly became his most productive period. As his health declined, his affair with Sand ended and he gave fewer and fewer performances. A trip to London and Scotland in 1848 after the revolution in Paris led to a rumor of a future engagement to Jane Stirling, but their relationship was purely platonic. He gave his final performance in London on November 16, 1848 and died a year later.
How you know him: Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2 (played here by Artur Rubinstein) is often used in movies and commercials. His Fantasie Impromptu, played by Artur Rubinstein, is another popular piece.
Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900-December 2, 1990)
Aaron Copland was not raised in a musical family; in fact they discouraged him from pursuing a career in music. Despite this, he began studying piano at age 14 and after high school studied with Nadia Boulanger at the Paris Conservatoire. She was an excellent teacher and inspired Copland so much that he continued his studies with her for an extra, unplanned two years.
When he returned to the US in 1924, he took up piano playing at a local resort to make ends meet, but within a year two all of his compositions had already been performed. He also received the first music scholarship from the Guggenheim Foundation and won a composition contest sponsored by RCA Records. These events allowed him to give up piano playing to focus solely on composing.
In the 1920s, he joined the League of Composers, a group he remained active in throughout his life and became the head of its board of directors. In his 30s he began expanding his compositional palate outside of strict orchestral works and wrote pieces that incorporated American folk and jazz melodies, music for ballets such as Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring, and he wrote music for movies such as The Red Pony.
One of Copland’s passions was making music accessible to younger audiences, so he composed several orchestral works and an opera for student groups, and encouraged other composers to do the same. In the 1960s, he began conducting rather than composing because he felt a lack of creative inspiration.
Although Copland never associated himself with a particular political party, he was included on an FBI list in the 1950s during the Red Scare and was eventually blacklisted because of his support of the Progressive Party candidate for president. His style as a composer evolved a great deal over his life from pieces heavily influenced by Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg to large-scale symphonic works such as El Salon Mexico and Quiet City. He died in 1990 from Alzheimer’s disease and respiratory failure, but his estate now provides $600,000 per year to performing artists through the Aaron Copland Fund for Composers.
How you know him: The ad campaign for beef used the Hoe-down movement from Copland’s piece Rodeo.
Claude Debussy [deb-you-see] (August 22, 1862-March 25, 1918)
Claude Debussy was raised in France by his aunt after his father went bankrupt. His aunt was a great supporter of the arts and was responsible for his first introduction to music and art through concert performances and art galleries. She also supported his piano lessons, and at age 11 he entered the Paris Conservatory of Music, where he studied for 11 years. He began his study of composition at the conservatory and acquired Madame Nadezhda von Meck as a patroness. Coincidentally, this was the same patroness who supported Tchaikovsky, and this connection helped expose Debussy to Tchaikovsky’s music. He spent a great deal of time traveling through Russia and Europe with her and providing her children with piano lessons.
After returning to Paris from Rome, where he was required to study as the winner of the 1884 Prix de Rome, he began spending time with a group of artists, writers, and composers who inspired him to begin composing in the style of the Impressionist painters. Debussy refused to be categorized as an Impressionist composer, though. His music marks the beginning of the disillusionment of tonic-centered music, especially as he composed pieces with dissonance and a severe lack of tonality. This was revolutionary at the time, and many of Debussy’s contemporaries did not understand it or appreciate it. Much of his music was inspired by a desire to write in contrast to the works of Richard Wagner. In fact, the opening bars to Golliwog’s Cakewalk, part of his suite Children’s Corner, pokes fun at the opening bars of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.
Debussy’s personal life was also frowned upon by his contemporaries and those in French society because of his many love affairs. His first, an eight-year romance with Blanche Vasnier, ended when he left for Rome. He became acquainted and soon moved in with Gabrielle Dupont but at the same time seeing Thèrese Roger, but he eventually left both of them for Rosalie Texier who threatened suicide if he did not marry her. They were married in 1899, but a mere six years later he divorced her for Emma Bardac, whom he had been seeing for the past year and a half. Debussy and Texier divorced after she attempted suicide in the Place de la Concorde. The pregnant Bardac and Debussy fled to England where she gave birth to their first child.
Debussy’s divorce was finalized in 1905, but the couple living together unmarried with a child born out of wedlock led to Debussy being alienated by most of his friends and Bardac being disowned by her family. They were married in 1908 and remained together until Debussy’s death in 1918. During this time in England, he edited and finished his most well-known work La Mer and dedicated his suite Children’s Corner to his daughter Claude-Emma, affectionately known as Chouchou. Debussy was diagnosed in 1909 with rectal cancer, which led to his death nine years later.
How you know him: Debussy’s piece Clair de lune is one of his most well-known works, and was featured in the film Twilight. It is somewhat tonal, which is unusual for Debussy’s works.
Henri Dutilleux [doo-tea-yuh] (b. January 22, 1916)
Henri Dutilleux’s style as a composer is similar to that of his French predecessors Debussy, Ravel, and Roussell, though there are some notable differences. For example he was heavily influenced by the music of Stravinsky, Bartók, and American jazz, but he did not fully subscribe to the more extreme forms of serialism. He did practice this style, but he felt that it was too limited. Before winning the Prix de Rome in 1938, he studied with Jean and Noël Gallon for harmony and counterpoint, Henri Büsser for composition, and Maurice Emmanuel for music history at the Douai Conservatory.
Due to the outbreak of WWII, he could not complete his studies in Rome. He returned to Paris in 1940 after working as an orderly for one year. During this return to his home city, he worked as a pianist, arranger, and music teacher, and in 1942 he was the conductor for the Paris Opera chorus.
After his time at the Paris Opera, he worked as the Head of Music Production for French Radio for 18 years. He served as Professor of Composition at the École Normale de Musique de Paris from 1961 to 1970 and was appointed to the staff of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in 1970. From 1995 to 1998, he was composer in residence at Tanglewood.
His music shows a very deliberate sense of structure and organization, and he also found inspiration in the art and literature of the time, particularly that of van Gogh and Proust.
How you know him: Maestro Hans Graf has recorded all of Dutilleux’s orchestral works.
Antonin Dvorák [duh-vor-jhak] (September 8, 1841-May 1, 1904)
Antonin Dvorák’s father was a butcher, innkeeper, and professional zither player, and his mother was the daughter of the prince’s bailiff in what is now a suburb of Prague, Czech Republic. He was the first of 14 children, eight of whom survived, and he had a very strong love of his homeland, which was present in his compositions. He first learned music from his primary school teacher Joseph Spitz, and then he studied with Anton Liehmann where his father sent him at age 14. After two years, he returned to Prague to become a student of the organ school there. He also played in local bands and small orchestras during this time to support himself.
For eleven years after his organ study, he played in the Czech National Opera orchestra and began composing. At age 32 he married Anna Cermakova and really began to take composing seriously. One year later his first symphony, for which he received an award from the Austrian government, was premiered.
In 1884, he became financially stable through a successful conducting experience in London and an increase in the number of his published compositions. He even bought a summer villa. Eight years later he moved to New York to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. During the summers when the school was closed, he spent his time with a Bohemian community in Iowa. It was here that he wrote his most famous work, a symphony titled From the New World.
He returned to Prague in 1895 and spent the next few years composing chamber works and operas and teaching at the Prague Conservatory. With his health declining, he attended fewer and fewer performances in Prague, and in 1904 he died of a stroke.
How you know him: The adagio movement from Dvorák’s New World Symphony has one of the most recognizable English horn solos in orchestral literature. It was featured in an episode of Little Einsteins.
Edward Elgar (June 2, 1857-February 23, 1934)
Edward Elgar was born in England just outside Worcester. His father was a piano tuner and owned a shop selling sheet music and musical instruments, and his mother encouraged his study of music as a child. During his general education, he received piano and violin lessons from local teachers. Due to the lack of local music teachers, he spent much of his time reading music theory books from the library and being disappointed in his parents’ lack of money to send him to study in Leipzig. In a way, this was a benefit to his later compositions because he wasn’t as influenced by the composers of the day.
When he left school in 1872, he went to work as a clerk for the town solicitor, but he quit after a few months to compose and arrange works. He also joined the local glee club with his father and worked in his shop.
Elgar spent a lot of time playing violin, and playing Dvoràk’s Sixth Symphony under the composer’s baton was a life-changing experience for young Elgar. He also played bassoon in a wind quintet with his brother Frank, for which he arranged many pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn, and this allowed him further opportunities to hone his compositional and arranging skills. He traveled abroad several times and spent a considerable amount of time listening to orchestras perform the works of very well-known and influential composers such as Saint-Saëns, Wagner, Brahms, and Schumann.
His first piece, Sérénade mauresque, was premiered in 1883 with Elgar as a violinist in the orchestra rather than as conductor. He continued to struggle to make his compositions successful, despite many trips to London. He worked with his father at the Catholic church where he was able to compose several motets.
When he was 29, he met Caroline Alice Roberts, one of his students, and they married three years later. She was eight years older than Elgar, and her family disinherited her because she had married a Catholic, penniless, unknown composer. She supported him for her entire life, worked to get his music the attention of high society, and urged him to move to London where there was more of a musical culture than in the country. They had one daughter, Carice Irene, who was born at their home at West Kensington in London. The family spent a lot of time attending concerts in an effort to expose themselves to new music.
By the end of the 19th century, Elgar began to achieve the fame he desired through his choral compositions for the English Midlands festivals. In 1899, the Enigma Variations were published and premiered in London. Elgar was inspired by his friends’ individual personalities and dedicated one movement to each of them, and the piece was a huge success. Critics loved its charm and originality.
With the death of Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1900, Elgar was further propelled into the spotlight by composing for more choral settings. Between 1901 and 1930, he composed the five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, with the first being his most well-known as it is performed every year on the last night of the BBC Proms. He was knighted in 1904, and from 1905-1908 was the Peyton Professor of Music and the University of Birmingham. He was uncomfortable in this post because he did not think that composers should be the heads of music schools. He was at the height of his popularity, but he didn’t enjoy how much it interrupted his life as he was often in poor health.
His final pieces were very patriotic, inspired by WWI and WWII, and were all well-received except his cello concerto because it was shunted to the back of every rehearsal. In 1920, his wife died of lung cancer, a loss from which Elgar never recovered because he found it more difficult to compose. Instead he focused on large-scale arrangements of pieces by Bach and Handel and made recordings of his own pieces. At the end of his life, his music received a revival in England and wider Europe, but he died before he could complete his final composition, a Third Symphony commissioned by the BBC.
How you know him: A staple of every commencement ceremony and the traditional closing piece for the BBC Proms, Elgar’s most prominent work is his Pomp and Circumstance march.
Manuel de Falla [man-well day fal-uh] (November 23, 1876-November 14, 1946)
Manuel de Falla is considered one of the most important Spanish musicians of the 20th century. He was born in Cádiz and began studying piano with Eloísa Galluzo. In a few years time he stopped taking lessons from her so she could join a convent. In 1889, he began piano lessons with Alejandro Odero, and he studied harmony and counterpoint with Enrique Broca. In 1891, he founded the literary magazines El Burlón and El Cascabel after discovering a profound love of literature and journalism.
At age 20 he began attending the Real Conservatorio de Música y Declamación where he studied piano and composition. In 1899, he was awarded first prize in the conservatory’s piano competition, and one year later he began teaching piano lessons as a way to make money. During his time in Madrid, he became very interested in the Andalusian flamenco style of music and dance, and this heavily influenced his composing style. His one-act opera La vida breve was a major turning-point in his career, and it won him first prize in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando musical competition.
In 1907, he moved to Paris where he was influenced by composers Ravel, Debussy, and Dukas, and in 1908 King Alfonso XIII awarded him a grant that allowed him to remain there until he finished his most recent composition. He returned to Spain shortly after the outbreak of WWI, and two years later he was commissioned by Diaghilev to write a piece for the Russian Ballet. It was choreographed by Massine with set designs by Picasso. The piece was originally titled The Magistrate and the Miller’s Wife but after revisions was changed to The Three-Cornered Hat. Its first performance in London was a great success.
He settled in Granada in 1919 after his parents’ deaths where he remained until the end of the civil war in 1939. It was here that he composed several of his most important works including El retablo de maese Pedro (Master Peter's Puppet Show), Psyché, and Concerto per clavicembalo (Harpsichord Concerto). He moved to Argentina in 1939 and worked there until his death in 1946. His last work, Atlàntida, was left unfinished.
How you know him: The Suite from The Three-Cornered Hat is a very popular piece by Falla.
Göran Fröst has performed as soloist and chamber musician in most European countries and Japan. During his career he has collaborated with artists such as Nobuko Imai, Christian Poltera, Antje Withaas and Maxim Rysanov. As a member of Kammarensemblen – Sweden’s leading ensemble for contemporary music – he is a keen interpreter of the modern repertoire and has had many pieces written for him. As an orchestra musician Göran has worked with Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Mahler Chamber Orchestra. He currently holds the position as principal violist in BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Since 2007 Göran has started to turn his interest towards writing his own music. Orchestras such as Australian Chamber Orchestra, Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie have played his works. The collaboration with his brother Martin Fröst has proved to be a fruitful one with arrangements of Brahams Hungarian dances for Clarinet and Orchestra, and the completion of Three Klezmer Dances, played and appreciated all over the world.
Together with Martin he has developed the concept of conducting choreography, a completely new form of stage performance. He premiered in the two pieces DClipse April 2013 and DTangled August 2013.
(Courtesy of goranfrost.com/wp/biography)
George Gershwin (September 26, 1898-July 11, 1937)
George Gershwin and his brother Ira were a dynamic composition duo during the early 20th century. He grew up in New York with his Russian-immigrant parents, and they were pleasantly surprised to find that while he wasn’t studying he was learning to play the piano. He began working in Tin Pan Alley, a specific neighborhood in Manhattan where song publishers and arrangers worked during the last half of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century. In 1924, he and his brother Ira became the dynamic duo of Broadway musical composition. They became famous for their jazzy rhythms and ingenious lyric-writing. Together in 1931 they wrote Of Thee I Sing, the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize.
In spite of his fame, Gershwin had an itch to write “serious” music that wasn’t just for stage productions. His Rhapsody in Blue did just that. It captured the attention and imagination of audiences everywhere and made jazz music more accessible to fans of more traditional classical music because it bridged the gap between casual easy-listening music for anyone and cerebral music associated with Mozart and Beethoven. His opera Porgy and Bess was based on DuBose Heyward’s novel of the same name, which portrayed American Gullah life, and his suite An American in Paris was used extensively throughout the 1951 film starring Gene Kelly.
Gershwin was beloved by Americans, and they were devastated at his sudden death from a brain tumor at the age of 38. John O’Hara put the nation’s feelings into words some years later when he wrote, “George Gershwin died July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” Indeed, the tunes that he wrote are some of the most memorable in all of American jazz literature, and his more “serious” works are easily recognizable and exhibit his great style. They have been used in films, commercials, and recorded by hundreds of artists.
How you know him: George Gershwin wrote a plethora of popular tunes. An extremely abbreviated list includes: “I Got Rhythm,” “Summertime,” Rhapsody in Blue, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “They Can’t Take That Way From Me.”
Alberto Ginastera [jean-uh-stare-uh] (April 11, 1916-June 25, 1983)
Alberto Ginastera is widely considered the most influential and important of the Latin American composers. He was born in Buenos Aires to a Catalan father and Italian mother. He graduated from the conservatory in Buenos Aires and taught at the Liceo Militar General San Martín. He visited America for two years and studied with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. When he returned to Argentina, he co-founded the League of Composers and held several teaching positions. He spent another two years in the US in 1968 before moving to Europe in 1970. He died in Geneva, Switzerland.
As a composer, he classified his music into three categories. The first, “Objective Nationalism,” integrated a large amount of traditional Argentine music. The second and third, “Subjective Nationalism” and “Neo-Expressionism,” focused more on using the traditional elements in an abstract and non-traditional way. The group Emerson, Lake, & Palmer used Ginastera’s piano concerto on their album Brain Salad Surgery, surprisingly with Ginastera’s endorsement. Ginastera felt that no one had ever understood his music as well as Emerson did.
How you know him: A recording of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s take on Ginastera’s piano concerto can be heard here.
Edvard Grieg [greeg] (June 15, 1843- September 4, 1907)
Edvard Grieg, a Norwegian composer, was raised by a musical family in a very musical area of Norway. His uncle by marriage, Ole Bull, was a prominent violinist and encouraged the family to send him to the Leipzig Conservatory when Grieg was 15. He disliked everything about the conservatory except the recitals and learning the piano and organ. After he graduated from the conservatory in 1863, he spent three years in Copenhagen, Denmark where he became acquainted with several of the leading composers of the day, including Rikard Nordraak who composed the Norwegian National Anthem. A year later, he married his first cousin Nina Hagerup. Their only child, Alexandra, was born just a year later and died in 1869 from meningitis.
As his compositional skills developed, he gained influence from Franz Liszt who shared suggestions about orchestration technique. Liszt thought very highly of Grieg and even performed his violin concerto. Grieg was also acquainted with Tchaikovsky, who thought very highly of Grieg’s compositions. The feeling was mutual, but Grieg felt that Tchaikovsky was a very sad man whose music paralleled its composer’s angst.
In 1906, he met Percy Grainger, who was in Grieg’s opinion the first and only person to do justice to performing his Norwegian folk songs. He died just one year later after a prolonged illness. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people attended his funeral service in his home town.
How you know him: The opening melody from Peer Gynt has been used in many Looney Tunes cartoons to signify morning.
Sofia Gubaidulina [goo-bye-duh-lee-nuh] (born October 24, 1931)
Sofia Gubaidulina’s music is characterized by unusual instrument combinations and variation from the norm. She studied piano and composition at the Kazan Conservatory in the Tatar ASSR. After she graduated, she continued her studies in Moscow where she was awarded the Stalin-fellowship, but her unusual and non-traditional style was deemed irresponsible. Dmitri Shostakovich supported her and guided her down her “mistaken path,” which the Soviet government absolutely detested.
She used composition as a personal escape from the oppressive Soviet Russian society and political atmosphere of the time. It also reflects her deeply religious beliefs, which involve mysticism and her own attempts to use music as a way to achieve the divine.
Since the 1980s, her contemporary music has taken flight, and she has received much acclaim. Her home is outside of Hamburg, Germany, and she has been commissioned by Berlin, Helsinki, and Holland Festivals, the Library of Congress, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic. Her music has been championed by Vladimir Tonkha, Friedrich Lips, Mark Pekarsky, Valery Popov, and Gidon Kremer, for whom she wrote her Violin Concerto. Her music is characterized by unusual and non-traditional instrument pairings, a fascination with Asian instruments and folk music, and non-traditional tuning systems. She has received many prestigious awards and two honorary doctorates.
George Frideric Handel (February 23, 1685-April 14, 1759)
Handel showed an aptitude for music from a very early age, but his father insisted that he study to be a lawyer. He continued his love and study of music while studying law by playing organ at a local cathedral. Upon the untimely passing of his father during his first year at university, Handel gave up law to pursue his true passion by joining an opera orchestra in Hamburg, Germany as a violinist. It was at this time that he began composing his first of many operas.
In 1707 at age 22, he began studying opera in Italy, where there was a great appreciation for the art form and dozens of opera companies. Five years later he returned briefly to Germany before leaving for England where he continued to write operas and sacred choral music. He spent the rest of his life in England, obtained citizenship in 1726, and wrote his most famous work: an oratorio called Messiah in 1742.
He was commissioned in 1727 to compose four anthems for the coronation of King George II, and one of them (Zadok the Priest) has been used at every British coronation ceremony since then. When his contract ended, Handel began his search for a new theater and opened one with his colleague John Rich in Covent Garden. He recovered quickly from what is thought to have been a stroke in 1737 and was quickly performing again after losing the use of four of the fingers on his right hand. A carriage accident was quickly followed by the loss of his vision after an operation to remove a cataract, and he was blind by the time he died in 1759. He was buried at Westminster Abbey and was never married.
How you know him: Handel’s Messiah is one of the most popular oratorios performed at Christmastime, particularly its Hallelujah chorus at the end.
Franz Joseph Haydn [high-din] (March 31, 1732-May 31, 1809)
Like many of his contemporaries, Haydn grew up in a very musical family; however, his family were amateur musicians. At age six he began to show signs of musical aptitude and was sent to live with his uncle in Hainburg where he was more likely to receive the musical education he needed. The living conditions at his uncle’s house were deplorable, and Haydn took jobs based on whether it would provide food. When he was too old to sing in boys’ choirs, he moved in with a friend, Johann Michael Spangler, and began a career as a freelance musician.
To make up for the fact that he never received formal music training, he worked his way through the exercises in Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum and carefully studied the works of C.P.E. Bach. His skills increased and improved, and he received patronage from wealthy aristocrats in Austria. Among these patrons were Countess Thun, to whom he gave keyboard and singing lessons, Baron Carl Joseph Fürnberg, and Count Morzin, his first full-time employer in 1757. This steady employment allowed him to marry Maria Anna Aloysia Apollonia Keller, the sister of a woman he had previously loved. They had a very unhappy marriage and eventually divorced, although Haydn supported her financially for the rest of her life.
In 1761 he became the assistant choirmaster to Prince Paul Esterhazy, an Austrian prince and a great admirer of music. Haydn later became a full-time court musician for the prince. During this time, he was isolated from the musical world save for a few trips to Vienna. Thus he received minimal influence from outside the palace and was able to write in a very unique style. At first his compositions were the sole property of the Esterhazy family and he wrote only for them, but after a time he was able to write for other ensembles and have his works published.
After the prince’s death in 1791, Haydn traveled to England where he met Handel. He was very impressed by the composer’s oratorios. Four years later he returned to Vienna permanently where he wrote the Emperor’s Hymn, the future national anthem of Austria.
By the time Haydn was in his mid-60s, his health was quickly deteriorating. He accepted a part-time position to return to the Esterhazy family as Kapellmeister, but due to his failing health he wasn’t able to write as much as quickly. In 1808, a triumphant performance of his piece The Creation was performed in Vienna. The concert was attended by many composers and members of aristocracy including Beethoven and Salieri. He left the concert at intermission due to exhaustion but was very moved by the gesture since most of the attendees recognized that this would be his last public appearance. He died a year later during a French attack on Vienna led by Napoleon while trying to reassure his servants that despite the canon-fire, everything would be fine. Haydn is considered the father of the string quartet, having written over a hundred in his lifetime.
How you know him: Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony (Symphony No. 94) is a very recognizable work and very much in Haydn’s distinct style.
Jennifer Higdon (b. December 31, 1962)
Jennifer Higdon began her musical studies as a flutist at the age of 15. Her formal music studies did not begin until she was 18, and her compositional interest did not take flight until she was 21. These are considered late starts for a musician, but she has overcome them and is today one of the leading figures in contemporary classical music. In fact, the League of American Orchestras estimates that she is one of America’s most frequently performed composers.
She has been commissioned by no fewer than 16 performing arts organizations including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the New Zealand Symphony, and the President’s Own Marine Band, among many others. In 2010 she received the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto. She is also the recipient of awards from the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and ASCAP.
Between 2010 and 2011, she was the Eminent Artist-in-Residence at the University of Wyoming and has been a Featured Composer at festivals such as Tanglewood, Vail, and Grand Teton. Higdon has served the Pittsburgh Symphony, Green Bay Symphony, Fort Worth Symphony, and Philadelphia Orchestra as Composer-in Residence. Each year she is commissioned for 5-10 new works, and more than 45 CDs feature her compositions. Currently, she is writing an opera based on Cold Mountain, the 1997 novel by Charles Frazier, and serves as the Milton L. Rock Chair in Composition Studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Paul Hindemith [hin-duh-mit] (November 16, 1895-November 28, 1963)
Paul Hindemith was a German composer who started his musical career as a violinist and a violist in chamber groups, and he studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg. As a musician living in Nazi Germany, his compositions received mixed reviews from the Third Reich. Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, denounced him as an “atonal noise-maker,” while others felt that he brought modern music to the German people. Shortly before WWII broke out, though, he and his part-Jewish wife immigrated to Switzerland. During the 1930’s, he was a major influence on the Turkish reform of music education, although he mostly shared the German view of music history and music education. This was convenient for the Nazi party who both sought to remove him from their sights and to spread Nazi idealism.
In 1940, he immigrated to the US and taught at Yale University, and six years later he obtained American citizenship. He returned to Zurich in 1953 to conduct and teach at the local university. He continued composing until the end of his life, which was brought about by pancreatitis in 1963. His composition style is unique because it encompasses much of the atonality of the day, but it possesses many romantic qualities as well. Hindemith’s later pieces were mostly large orchestral works after he spent a great deal of time composing chamber works for unusual instrument combinations. In many ways it can be described as neoclassical, but it remains vastly different from his contemporaries who fall under that label (i.e.: Stravinsky). Some of his most popular pieces are his Gebrauchsmusik compositions, which were intended to have an everyday purpose rather than just for people to listen to for pleasure. He also composed sonatas for every orchestral instrument, and many of them are considered standard pieces in solo literature. They vary in levels of difficulty, and many of the pieces are tonal but non-diatonic.
How you know him: The pieces Mathis der Maler and Symphonic Metamorphosis on a Theme by Carl Maria von Weber are Hindemith’s most recognizable works. They are great examples of his varying composition styles
Gustav Holst (September 21 1874-May 24, 1934)
Gustav Holst was a British composer most well-known for his suite The Planets. His mother died soon after giving birth to Holst’s sister when he was eight years old. His health was severely neglected as a child, and he suffered from poor eyesight, asthma, and neuritis in his hands. His father was determined that Holst should follow in his footsteps as a talented pianist, but Holst’s neuritis made practicing the piano very straining and painful. Despite this, he enjoyed the piano much more than the violin, which was his first attempt at a musical instrument.
After his father married his student Mary Thorley Stone in 1885, Holst was sent to Cheltenham Grammar School. He continued to struggle with piano and instead began writing music. He made many attempts at composition, but none of the major British conservatories offered him any scholarships.
In 1893, he began his first job as organist at Wick Rissington, a small village in Cotswold. He quickly earned a new position as organist and choirmaster of the choral society at Bourton-on-the-Water, and these early experiences helped instill in him a love of choral music. Holst’s two-act operetta Lansdowne Castle inspired his father Adolph to borrow money to send Holst to the Royal College of Music where he studied with Charles Stanford.
He became closely acquainted with Fritz Hart, and the two went to a performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung conducted by Gustav Mahler. Holst quickly became a Wagner enthusiast. His hand problems continued to plague him to the point of giving up the piano altogether. He instead took up the trombone, which benefited him in three ways: it allowed him to play in an orchestra to gain extra income, improved his technique as a composer, and it strengthened his chest and lungs, which had been weak since childhood.
Money was always tight for Holst. He changed his eating and drinking habits to accommodate his frugal lifestyle and walked or biked to the school each day with his trombone strapped to his back. An unexpected scholarship in 1895 allowed him to loosen his belt, particularly after his father stopped sending money and funding his studies. That same year, he began his lifelong friendship with Ralph Vaughan Williams with whom he shared his compositions and discussed matters of art and literature. By playing in an orchestra, he learned the inner-workings of the instruments, which allowed him to be a thoughtful orchestrator.
After accepting a full-time position as first trombone for the Carl Rosa Opera Company, he left the Royal College of Music in 1898. A few years later he developed an interest in Hindu philosophy and Sanskrit, which inspired several works and a study of the Sanskrit language. His opera Sita was never performed live, though he worked on it until 1906. In 1901, he married Isobel Harrison, a soprano in the Hammersmith Socialist Choir at William Morris' house in Hammersmith Mall where he spent time working.
It was some time before Holst achieved success as a composer. He gave up playing the trombone and spent many years writing songs that were good but not critically acclaimed. Holst inherited a small sum of money after his father’s death, but he and Isobel still struggled to make ends meet.
In the early 20th-century, Holst accepted a position as a singing teacher at the James Allen School in Dulwich, and by 1905 he was appointed the Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith. He was becoming more influenced by English folk music, which eradicated any trace of Wagner from his compositions. A setback of the loss of a competition sent Holst to Algeria where he bicycled through the desert and admired the warm and brightly-colored landscape. He became newly inspired and began composing new works that remained inspired by Sanskrit poetry and stories. He wasn’t able to enlist during WWI and spent his time teaching instead as the Musical Organizer for the YMCA. It was during this period that he began working on what would be his most well-known work: The Planets suite.
A fall off the back of a podium in 1923 left him with a severe concussion, from which he never fully recovered. His music received wide acclaim in the United States but continued to be poorly received in England. When he returned from a trip to the US, his health continued to deteriorate. He suffered from sudden and frequent pains in his head, and a vacation funded by an anonymous donor did nothing to ease his suffering. He found that listening to anything was torture, and his doctor ordered him to take a one-year leave of absence from all work.
When he returned to composing and teaching, his first two works were flops, but his lectures were well-attended. He continued to travel, teach, and compose, and his compositions were better received, particularly his commissioned works, but his health always held him back. He entered a nursing home in 1933 and underwent elective surgery, but he died just two days later on May 25, 1934.
How you know him: The Jupiter movement from Holst’s Planets suite was used in this commercial for Reese’s peanut butter cups. His First Suite in E-flat is a great example of his later works which incorporated elements of traditional English folk melodies.
Charles Ives (October 20, 1874-May 19, 1954)
Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut, two years before Brahms finished his First Symphony. Because of his father’s musical talents as a military band leader during the Civil War, Danbury prided itself on being the “most musical town in Connecticut.” The profession was still viewed with little understanding or respect, though. He began his musical education on the drums after his father heard him banging on the piano with his fists at the age of five (this technique of playing groups of notes without any chord structure together is today called tone clusters). He studied the organ and by the age of 14 was the youngest salaried church organist in Connecticut. His first compositions, written at age 13, were mostly marches, fiddle tunes, and church songs. His organ piece Variations on “America” became considerably more popular after he died. His father invested a lot of time educating Ives on traditional American songs such as “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground,” “Aura Lee,” marches, and bugle calls.
In 1893, he attended the Hopkins Grammar School where he focused mostly on his compositions. After extra tutoring, he passed the Yale entrance exam and began studying with Horatio Parker, who did not appreciate Ives’s contemporary compositions including Fugue in Four Keys (a fugue where the hands and feet are all playing the same piece in four different keys). Shortly after his Yale education began, his father died of a stroke. The two were very close, and Ives never fully recovered from the shock. His academics outside of music suffered until his graduation, although he was very popular socially and pulled several humorous stunts involving putting popular tunes into different keys and meters. This became a source of inspiration for later works such as Decoration Day.
Upon graduation, Ives went into the life insurance business with the Mutual Life Insurance Company. This allowed him a steady income with time on the side to compose because a more traditional path would have been to continue studying as an organist at a German conservatory. In 1902, he resigned his organist and choirmaster jobs and focused more on his experimental compositions.
In 1906, he suffered a nervous breakdown and a probable heart attack, caused by his manically-paced lifestyle. He also began courting Harmony Twichell, the daughter of a well-known Hartford minister. The two courted for several years after knowing each other for about ten years previously. They were married in June 1908 and felt that their romance was a reflection of divine love. This marriage was a significant milestone in Ives’s compositions and allowed him to further develop into his mature style.
His mature works are a symbol of human life, striving, and spirituality, and he found that his pieces Three Places in New England, Second String Quartet, Fourth Symphony, Second Orchestra Set, and Robert Browning Overture helped him seek and find the “music of the ages” for which he had been searching since his father’s death. His music was filled with quotes from Beethoven, Stephen Foster, and American hymns, and it seems to portray a more vivid visual landscape than the works of his contemporaries or predecessors.
In 1917, he worked closely with the American war effort in addition to his growing insurance business, compositions, and raising a family. He suffered a heart attack in 1918 from which he never fully recovered. Despite this, he continued working and spent more time promoting his work, which was constantly being rejected by musicians.
By 1930, he retired from his insurance business to focus on his compositions, but he remained an invalid for the rest of his life as his health slowly deteriorated. He didn’t receive wide acclaim until the late 1930s and early 1940s when Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Nicolas Slonimsky, among others, devoted significant parts of their lives in his work. Aaron Copland, Lou Harrison, and John Kirkpatrick gave performances of his music, which further spread his music and earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1947. He died in 1954.
How you know him: Variations on America was one of the first pieces to put Ives on the map as a significant American composer. It is a great example of his style.
Erich Korngold (May 29, 1897-November 29, 1957)
Erich Korngold was born in what is today part of the Czech Republic but in 1897 was part of Moravia. His father moved the family to Vienna in 1901 to take a job as a music critic for Neue Freie Presse. Korngold began piano lessons at a very young age and was considered by many, including Gustav Mahler, to be a prodigy who wrote his first composition at the age of eight. His father used his connections to arrange for young Korngold to study with Alexander von Zemlinsky, who wound up being Korngold’s only teacher, and to secretly publish and distribute his son’s compositions. Performances of his works continued to astound the composers and sponsors of the day, and he quickly received offers from people to promote his works.
By the time he was 19, he had mastered a variety of styles from large orchestral works in the style of the Romantic composers to small, intimate chamber works. He even began to experiment with opera in 1916, and Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta were instant successes. He began working on arranging and adapting pre-established pieces as a way of continuing to develop his composition skills. He re-worked several operettas while composing original works. Korngold was steadfast in his style despite the changing tastes of the public to more modern fare and his recently accepted title of Professor at the Vienna Academy of Music.
In 1934 he traveled to Hollywood at the request of his close friend Max Reinhardt, and he quickly became one of the first composers to struggle with the disconnect between remaining true to their artistic vision of composing art music and the popularity of writing film scores. His exclusive contract with Warner Bros. led him write many film scores, the first established and world-famous composer to do so. His first score was for the Errol Flynn film Captain Blood, his first swash-buckling adventure. Korngold’s score for the film Anthony Adverse won him an Oscar in 1936. As WWII made its first threat to Austria, Korngold moved his Jewish family from Vienna to Hollywood. His substantial income allowed him to support his friends and family, and he vowed not to write another concert work until Hitler was removed from power. His music was unconventional and novel for the time because he used his compositions to enhance the moods of the films and used Richard Wagner’s concept of leitmotifs to further develop and illustrate characters. In 1943 he obtained US citizenship.
After he returned to Vienna at the end of the WWII, he continued to use elements of his film scores in his concert works. After a less than successful radio broadcast of his Symphony in F-Sharp and a failed production of Die stumme Serenade, Korngold agreed to compose for the film Magic Fire, a biographical film of Richard Wagner produced by Republic Pictures. Instead he wound up overseeing arrangements of Wagner’s works for the film. At the age of 59, he suffered what would eventually be a fatal stroke, and just one year later, he died from cerebral thrombosis. He left a second symphony and a sixth opera unfinished.
How you know him: The films The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, and The Sea Hawk were some of Errol Flynn’s most successful films and all feature tremendous scores by Erich Korngold.
Édouard Lalo (January 27, 1823 – April 22, 1892)was born in Lille, France, and began his musical studies at a very early age. In 1839, he moved to Paris to study with François Antoine Habeneck at the Paris Conservatoire. He was also a very accomplished violist and violinist and played in the Armingaud Quartet, a group he helped form. In 1865, he married Julie Besnier de Maligny, a contralto from Brittany. Her talents as a vocalist helped arouse Lalo’s interests in opera. Unfortunately, these works were not well-received because they resembled too closely the works of Richard Wagner, so instead he turned his attention to chamber music.
He had a very distinctive composition style, despite not being one of the most well-known French composers. His music is filled with strong melodies, intricate orchestrations, and a strong Germanic flavor. Lalo did not gain fame for his compositions until his late 40s when he wrote his opera Le Roi d’Ys, based on the French legend of Ys. This is the same legend that inspired Debussy’s piano piece La cathédrale engloutie. It was not performed until Lalo was 65 years old. He received the Legion of Honor in 1880 and died in Paris 12 years later. He is well-remembered for his piece Symphonie espagnole for violin and orchestra.
Magnus Lindberg (b. June 27, 1958)
Magnus Lindberg’s career recently took off when he was hired as the composer-in-residence for the New York Philharmonic from 2009-2012. His studies began in Helsinki, Finland, at the Sibelius Academy where he studied piano with Einojuhani Rautavaara and Paavo Heininen. He has written many pieces for the Finnish group Toimii, which means “It Work” in Finnish, and he has even performed with the group as pianist.
Franz Liszt [list] (October 22, 1811-July 31, 1886)
Born in Hungary, Franz Liszt had a very musical upbringing. His father, who played piano, guitar, violin, and cello, was in the service of Prince Nikolas II Esterházy and was personally acquainted with composers Hummel, Beethoven, and Haydn. He began teaching his young son piano and composition at age 6 and 8, respectively, and Liszt began appearing in concerts at age 9, where he received sponsorship to study in Vienna. While there, he received lessons from Carl Czerny, a former student of Beethoven and Hummel, and Antonio Salieri, then music director of the Viennese court. Liszt was a huge success, and his father eventually left Prince Esterházy’s service to move the family permanently to Vienna.
After his father’s death in 1827, Liszt moved to Paris, France, where he lived in an apartment with his mother and gave lessons to make ends meet. After falling in love with one of his pupils, Caroline de Saint-Cricq, the daughter of Charles X’s minister of commerce, the affair was called off by her father.
Shortly thereafter, Liszt fell so ill that an obituary was printed in a Paris newspaper. It was at this time that Liszt suffered from religious doubts and sought to rejoin the church, which his mother discouraged. He spent a lot of time with Chrétien Urhan, who introduced him to a more romantic style of writing since he himself was a violinist and wrote anti-classical music with very suggestive titles (Elle et Moi, La Salvation angélique, and Les Regrets). Liszt also spent a lot of time reading to make up for his lack of education.
During this time in 1830, the July Revolution occurred, and Liszt met Hector Berlioz, who inspired him to write more emotional works. Liszt and Berlioz became good friends. He became rather a champion of Berlioz’s work, transcribing Symphonie Fantastique among other works to try to help Berlioz become more recognized. Liszt also became good friends with Frédéric Chopin, who influenced his composition style into further lyricism and romanticism.
In 1833 he developed two relationships: one with the Countess Marie d’Agoult, and one with Felicité de Lamennais. Both women greatly influenced his work, but his relationship with the countess took a turn for the romantic. She eventually left her husband to live in Geneva with Liszt, and they had three children.
He started touring again after a time to raise awareness and money for a Beethoven monument, and became the Justin Bieber of the 1830s. Women flocked to his concerts, sought his affections, and instead of Bieber Fever, there was Lisztomania. In 1844, he and the countess separated. As a result of all his performances, he was able to donate much of the proceeds to charity (a Romantic era Bono, as it were).
In 1847 he met Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who encouraged him to give up performing and focus solely on composition. Their attempts to marry were thwarted by the Russian czar and the Russian Orthodox Church, since Princess Carolyne had been married to a Russian military officer who was still living. At the same time, he was appointed Kapellmeister Extraodinaire in Weimar, at the request and long-standing invitation of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna.
After leaving Weimar, he suffered a series of personal catastrophes, including the deaths of two of his children. In an effort to console himself, he moved to the monastery Madonna del Rosario, where he received tonsure and the minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte. During the last part of his life, Liszt traveled for performances at Weimar, Budapest, and Rome, in what he called his “three-part life.” Considering his age and the difficulty of traveling at this time, this was a considerable feat.
His health deteriorated drastically during the last five years of his life. After falling down a set of stairs in Weimar in 1881, he developed a series of ailments including asthma, dropsy, insomnia, and a cataract, and he eventually died of pneumonia in 1886. In many ways, his music reflects what was happening in his personal life, and in the last years of his life when his health was failing him, he had a preoccupation with death. As he told Lina Ramann, “I carry a deep sadness of the heart which must now and then break out in sound.”
How you know him: You’ve probably heard Liszt’s Transcendental Etude Liebestraum. He is also in the title of Phoenix’s hit song “Lisztomania.”
Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860-May 18, 1911)
Gustav Mahler was the second of six surviving children of Bernhard Mahler and his wife. The family was Jewish, which caused a lot of problems for Mahler later in life because Jews were so often shunned in society. He was a rather sickly child, a problem which plagued him throughout his life, but loved music from an early age. Growing up in Iglau, Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic), he was exposed to music in street songs, dance tunes, folk melodies, and the military music of the local militia. After the unexpected and traumatic death of his brother in 1874, he wrote his first opera, which did not survive.
In 1875 he was accepted to the Vienna Conservatory and studied piano and composition. He became influenced by Bruckner during this time after hearing some of the composer’s lectures, though he never studied with him. No composer influenced him more than Wagner, though. After leaving the conservatory in 1878, he spent one year at the Vienna University pursuing his new interests in philosophy and literature. In 1880, he began his illustrious conducting career in Bad Hall, a spa town south of Linz. He quickly worked his way up in the conducting world, and within a year’s time he had premiered Verdi’s opera Il trovatore at the Landestheatre in Laibach. Two years after that, he began conducting in a run-down operahouse in Olmütz where he conducted five new operas including Bizet’s Carmen.
His controlling and dictatorial style of conducting and rehearsing caused a great deal of friction, especially when he arrived in Leipzig after a brief stint in Prague. He was supposed to share the conducting responsibilities for a performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle with his colleague Arthur Nikisch, but, after a bitter and heated rivalry, Nikisch wound up getting sick. This left Mahler with complete responsibility and entitlement of conducting, which was greatly resented by the musicians because of his tyrannical rehearsal schedule and demanding conducting. They were particularly disgruntled after the performance received rave reviews. Mahler received further acclaim with his revival and completion of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Die drei Pintos (The Three Pintos). He then went to Budapest where the citizens preferred non-German opera, forcing Mahler to travel to Italy where he found Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria rusticana to be a major success.
In 1889, Mahler’s father, mother, and sister died, and in the same year his First Symphony premiered. The critics hated it, and it wasn’t until 1892 when Mahler was in England for a tour with the Hamburg singers that he began composing again. That summer he finished his second and third symphonies, and from then on, his summers were reserved only for composing. The following years were filled with composing and conducting all over Europe. In 1902 he married Alma Schindler and had two children with her. In 1907, his daughters fell ill with scarlet fever and diphtheria, and only one survived. In that same year, Mahler was diagnosed with a defective heart.
He spent the last four years of his life conducting in New York at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. In February 1911, he became quite ill with bacterial endocarditis, a common ailment for people with defective hearts and heart valves and without antibiotics the mortality rates were very high. After returning to Europe, he died on May 18, 1911 in Vienna.
How you know him: Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is his most well-known and popular work. It was featured in the film Death in Venice, which is based on Thomas Mann's eponymous novella.
Fanny Mendelssohn (November 14, 1805-May 14, 1847)
Fanny Mendelssohn was Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister. She was raised in Berlin, Germany, after her family fled Hamburg. By the age of 13, she was a talented pianist, and her parents encouraged her to attend lectures and studies of physics. Since composing was not considered a respectable occupation for a young lady of the 19th century, many of her compositions were published under her brother’s name. In 1822, her family began giving Sunday afternoon concerts as a way to feature the compositions of Fanny and Felix.
Though her father and brother discouraged her from composing, her husband, Wilhelm Hensel, and mother did not. She continued to compose and eventually several of her songs were published under her own name. She was a great positive influence on her brother’s works, and her fatal stroke in 1847 while preparing for a performance of one of his pieces for a Sunday concert was devastating to him.
Felix Mendelssohn (February 3, 1809-November 4, 1847)
Felix Mendelssohn was born into a wealthy German family who moved from Hamburg to Berlin in 1812 to escape a French invasion. He studied piano with his mother and other teachers in Berlin and began giving piano concerts at age 10. His compositional studies began at age 12 and he wrote several symphonies, string quartets, and two operas in his teens.
In many ways he was a child prodigy, though his parents downplayed his talent for fear of exploiting him. Many of his early works were premiered for his parents and their wealthy friends. He was a strong supporter of J.S. Bach’s works, which were looked down upon at the time, and today without his insistence of their performance, they may never have resurfaced and become the baroque musical pillars that they are today.
In 1835 he became the conductor of an orchestra in Leipzig, and two years later he married Cecile Jeanrenaud. During this time in Leipzig, he became very devoted to composing. For the rest of his life, he continued to compose, teach, and conduct and received many commissions from European orchestras. He even toured England, which inspired him to compose his Scottish Symphony. When his sister Fanny died, he became extremely depressed and died shortly thereafter from the sadness of her death and overwork from touring and composing.
How you know him: A wedding ceremony staple, Mendelssohn is responsible for composing The Wedding March.
José Moncayo [monk-eye-oh] (June 29, 1912-June 16, 1958)
José Moncayo was a Mexican composer who began studying music when he was 14 years old. He studied formally at the National Conservatory while financing his education by playing jazz piano at local bars and taverns. At the conservatory, he studied a wide range of musical subjects including composition, which at that time was a course called Class of Musical Creation taught by Carlos Chávez. His debut as a composer was in 1931 at the Renovation Musical Society, and just a short while later he was admitted to the Symphony Orchestra of Mexico.
With the change in administration in the Mexican government after the election of 1934, the composition course was canceled. Moncayo and his colleagues were labeled as Chavistas and consequently blacklisted from the conservatory from its new administration for their prior support of their professor. The group emerged as an avant-garde group of composers and organized their own concerts and classes to practice their composition skills and teach composition to young students.
In the late 1930s, Moncayo began a relationship with the National Symphony Orchestra in Mexico City. Initially he was a percussionist, according to programs from the 1936 season, but he quickly began conducting and by 1941 he and his contemporary Contreras were commissioned to write for a festival featuring the orchestra. In 1942 he studied at Tanglewood (known then as Berkshire Music Institute) thanks to a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation, but the premiere of the symphony he was working on at the time was postponed. When he returned to Mexico, his conducting responsibilities increased and he was appointed to the position of assistant conductor and then Artistic Director. He died in his home at the age of 45.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27, 1756-December 5, 1791)
Mozart was the first recognized child prodigy and began composing at age 5. His father was a violinist and music teacher, so Mozart and his sister received an extensive musical education from a very early age. He and his sister (nicknamed Nannerl) traveled throughout Europe giving performances and meeting the composers of the age. Among the most influential on young Mozart was Johann Christian Bach. These trips, though beneficial, were very strenuous on the family because of the difficulty of getting from place to place, the expenses incurred, and the diseases they contracted. During non-touring times, Mozart and his father worked for the Archbishop of Salzburg, who allowed them to take leaves of absence to tour.
In 1781, Mozart moved to Vienna full-time to focus on composing and teaching, but he realized quickly that there was more money in performing than there was in composing, even though several of his pieces had been published by that time. A year later he married Constanze Weber, the sister of a woman he had previously courted. Throughout his career, Mozart struggled to make ends meet, but he did find success in his operas The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.
In 1787 he became a private musician to the Austrian emperor, which gave him a steady income and steady work composing. Unfortunately, it was likely too much for him to handle since he died from overwork just four years later.
How you know him: Mozart and Beethoven are two of the most well-known composers of all time. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is definitely a popular and easily recognizable piece by Mozart along with the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, which was mistakenly identified as a composition by Rachmaninoff in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Modest Mussorgsky [moo-zorg-skee] (March 21, 1839-March 28, 1881)
Modest Mussorgsky (originally spelled “Musorsky” but changed to “Mussorgsky” by his brother to avoid resemblance to the Russian word for "garbage") grew up south of St. Petersburg in Russia. His piano lessons began at age six with his mother, a trained pianist, and he began composing six years later after studying at the St. Petersburg School. Just one year later, he and his brother entered the Cadet School of the Guards to comply with their parents’ wish of continuing the family military tradition.
At age 17, he began his friendship with Alexander Borodin, another Russian composer and contemporary of Mussorgsky. He also became acquainted with Alexander Dargomyzhsky, who was so impressed with Mussorgsky’s piano-playing that he frequently invited him to play at his house. Among the influential people he met at Dargomyzhsky’s home was Mily Balakirev who helped expose Mussorgsky to music outside the world of piano. He eventually gave up the military life altogether to devote himself to music and gained significant, valuable experience and knowledge through working on theatrical productions.
By the early 1860s he stopped studying with Balakirev and mostly taught himself. To make ends meet, he worked as a civil servant in St. Petersburg, and this was surprisingly satisfying for him because he lived in a six-man commune where he had intellectual and artistic conversations. After the death of his mother in 1865, he suffered from his first bout of alcoholism (or dipsomania as it was known at that time). Despite the setbacks of working as a civil servant and the devastating loss of his mother, it was a surprisingly productive time for him. Two years later he finished his original orchestration for Night on Bald Mountain, a piece based on the premise of Bald Mountain as the location for satan and his cronies to meet at Halloween time. Sadly, the piece was not premiered in his lifetime because of Balakirev’s opposition to it.
After a time, Mussorgsky sought Balakirev’s advice less and less and eventually not at all. He instead became closer to Dargomyzhsky, who was not as involved with the influential Russian composer group known as The Five, which comprised Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin. After a few failed works, Mussorgsky began work on an opera based on Alexander Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov, but this was his last major work. His compositional output began a sharp and steady decline, and he became less social. Some of his friends remarked that he began to have fits of madness, and most sources agree that alcoholism was a trend of writers in Mussorgsky’s generation because it was a way to rebel against the establishment.
There were a few plateaus during this time when he produced successful works such as Pictures at an Exhibition, but for the most part his alcoholism became a more severe problem until he was dismissed from civil service duty altogether. After a series of seizures during a dismal conversation with his friend, he checked into a hospital where he died just one week after having his portrait painted.
How you know him: Though he is most well-known for Pictures at an Exhibition, the libretto for his opera Boris Godunov was very far ahead of its time. His piece Night on Bald Mountain was, like so much standard orchestral literature, was featured in Fantasia as a prelude to Ave Maria.
Carl Nielsen (June 9, 1865-October 3, 1931)
Carl Nielsen was the seventh of twelve children who grew up poor but musical on the Danish island of Funen. His father was an amateur musician who played fiddle and cornet and was in great demand for local celebrations. His mother came from a well-to-do family, and his uncle was a composer, though facts of his childhood were greatly romanticized in his autobiography.
Despite having shown promise as a composer and pianist, he was apprenticed at age 14 to a local shopkeeper at his parents’ bequest. Within two years’ time the shopkeeper went bankrupt, so Nielsen went home to parents’ house and learned to play brass instruments. This skill led him to play bugle and alto trombone in the 16th Battalion, though he continued to play the violin at parties with his father.
He did compose some short quartets and trios while in the military, though some studies suggest that he struggled with the transposing brass instruments. He eventually became more serious about his violin playing and started taking lessons from Carl Larsen, the sexton at the Odense Cathedral. In 1884, he left the military to study at the Royal Conservatory in Copenhagen, where he remained for two years.
Though he did not progress much in composition at the conservatory, he excelled at violin and music theory. Three years after graduating, he joined the Royal Danish Orchestra’s second violin section, where he remained until 1905. He did compose some pieces during his time with the orchestra and taught violin lessons as a way to make ends meet. While traveling on scholarship, he discovered the music and art of other European composers and musicians and met an artist named Anne Marie Brodersen, his future wife. Her independence strained their marriage, especially when she left to be on location for months at a time leaving Nielsen to raise their three children alone in addition to composing. She denied him a divorce in 1905, and the couple remained married until Nielsen’s death.
Things started to pick up for Nielsen at the turn of the century, and he was commissioned to write many incidental suites and cantatas. He also received a state pension, which allowed him more time to compose because he no longer had to teach privately. Because he spent much of his married life away from his wife, Nielsen suffered from periods of creative droughts. He did pick up conducting posts, but in 1925 he suffered from a heart attack that forced him to curtail his activities. He continued composing and published a memoir and several essays before his death in 1927.
How you know him: Nielsen’s Wind Quintet is one of the most dreaded to play for woodwind quintets and often appears on orchestra auditions.
Niccolò Paganini (October 27, 1782-May 27, 1840)
Niccolò Paganini is best known as a violin virtuoso. He was born in Genoa, Italy, and began playing the mandolin at age five. Two years later he began playing the violin but struggled to find teachers who could keep up with his skills. In 1796, the Paganini family moved to their country estate near Bolzaneto, but just five years later, Paganini was appointed first violin of the Republic of Lucca. He still maintained a substantive freelance career, and he was as well-known for his gambling and womanizing as he was for his violin playing.
He didn’t receive widespread European acclaim for his talent until a three-year tour started in Vienna in 1828 and hit every major city from Germany to Poland to Bohemia. He then traveled to Paris and Great Britain. He suffered all his life from various illnesses, and researchers today believe that he had Marfan syndrome. In 1822 he was diagnosed with syphilis, whose treatments at the time included mercury and opium, both of which had physical and psychological side-effects. Two years later he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, but these diseases did not cause major problems until later in his life when he had to cancel performances and tours to recover.
In 1834, Paganini retired from public performance and returned to Genoa to focus on teaching and having his compositions published. Two years later, he opened a casino in Paris, which failed miserably, and he was forced to auction off his personal possessions (including his instruments) to make up for his financial loss. His health continued to deteriorate, and in 1838 he left for Nice. In 1840, a local parish priest was sent to give Paganini his last rites, but Paganini sent him away believing him to be too early.
He died a week later in Nice from internal hemorrhaging without his last rites. This, and his rumored association with the devil, caused some trouble because the Catholic Church would not grant him a burial in Genoa. An appeal was made to the Pope who, in 1844, allowed the body to be transported to Genoa but not buried. His body was not laid to rest until 1873, 33 years after his death.
How you know him: This recording of Jascha Heifetz playing Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 is an excellent example of the composer’s style and most well-known work. It was also used in Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini.
Ástor Piazzolla [pee-ah-sole-ah] (March 11, 1921-July 4, 1992)
Ástor Piazzolla grew up in Greenwich Village in New York City with his Italian immigrant parents. At that time, Greenwich Village was run by violent gangsters, and Piazzolla’s parents worked long hours leaving Piazzolla to fend for himself. In 1929, he began playing the bandoneón, courtesy of a purchase made by his grandfather a pawn shop. One year later he moved to Little Italy with his parents where he began taking lessons, and in 1934 he met Carlos Gardel, an influential figure in the world of tango music. He invited Piazzolla to join him on tour, but lucky for Piazzolla his father wouldn’t allow him to go. Gardel and his orchestra died in a plane crash while on that very tour.
During a family vacation to Mar del Plata to visit his grandfather, Piazzolla discovered tango music, specifically that of Elvino Vardaro. This music inspired him to move to Argentina permanently when he was just 17 years old. He joined the Anibal Troilo’s orchestra as a temporary bandoneónist replacement who wound up being taken on full-time as a permanent musical fixture. Eventually things became very tense between Piazzolla and the Troilo because of Piazzolla’s progressive style so that in 1944 he left and joined another orchestra.
Piazzolla’s mentor Ginastera encouraged him to continue composing, and in 1954 he won a competition to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. While studying in France, Piazzolla and his wife’s two daughters were raised by their grandparents. Piazzolla tried to break away from his tango-style music of the past, but it didn’t take long before he realized that there was no shame in being talented at this particular style.
Upon his return to Argentina, Piazzolla formed a string orchestra, and his compositions became increasingly controversial because of their departure from tradition. Feeling that he didn’t receive the credit due to him, he moved with his family to New York City where things did not improve either. His father’s death in 1959 inspired his most well-known tango Adiós Nonino, and things began to slowly take off. He released an album called El Tango, introduced a new style called the tango song, and in 1966 left his wife and began a relationship with Amelita Baltar.
His return to Paris in 1970 was followed by the formation and dissolution of his chamber group and a heart attack in 1973. Piazzolla moved to Italy where he made several recordings over the course of five years, and for the last few decades of his life, he devoted a great deal of time to touring and performing at various venues across Europe and South America with many tango ensembles. In 1990 he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage that left him in a coma for two years. He never recovered and died in 1992 in Buenos Aires.
Sergei Prokofiev [pro-ko-fee-eff] (April 23, 1891-March 5, 1953)
Sergei Prokofiev grew up in a very isolated, rural area called Sontsovka (now eastern Ukraine). His mother took piano lessons in Moscow and St. Petersburg for two months out of every year, and her practicing sparked Prokofiev’s initial love of music. He wrote his first composition at the age of five, two years before he discovered a love for chess. In 1902, when Prokofiev was 11, he began formal music lessons with Reinhold Glière. Eventually, his mother decided that he wasn’t receiving the musical education he so clearly desired in their rural home, so she arranged for him to apply to the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
In 1904 he began his studies at the prestigious school, and the family moved to St. Petersburg. He was younger than many of his classmates and brought a sense of haughty arrogance with him. During his time at the conservatory, he studied with a variety of professors, most notably Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a well-known composer and orchestrator. His compositions were considered very rebellious for the time. After his father died in 1910, he was completely unfunded to continue his studies. Luckily he had already graduated and was relatively well-known for his compositions.
During his first trip abroad, Prokofiev met Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned him to write a ballet score for Ala and Lolli but quickly rejected it and commissioned him for a ballet called Chout instead. After the outbreak of WWI, Prokofiev returned to the conservatory to avoid being dragged into the fighting. In 1917, the February Revolution broke out and that summer, Prokofiev composed his first symphony (Classical, so-called by Prokofiev because of the style in which it was written, but a more accurate title would be Neoclassical).
In 1918, as the white forces (in this context meaning democratic forces working against communism) entered St. Petersburg, Prokofiev fled Russia for the US. Things did not go his way in the US due to the performance one of many failed operas, which resulted in a failed solo career as well, so he left for Paris in 1920 where he married a Spanish singer named Carolina Codina.
He also found that his works were more well-received by the French people. It was around this time that he and Stravinsky rekindled their friendship, though Prokofiev still did not care for Stravinsky’s later works. This period of time was particularly successful for the composer, but eventually he returned to Russia after composing one of his most well-known works: the score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet, whose controversial happy ending caused a premiere delay of several years.
In 1936, he returned permanently to the Soviet Union. By this time, the government had established the Union of Soviet Composers, which forced a tremendous amount of isolation on Prokofiev and Shostakovich, his contemporary. During this time, he composed one of his most well-known works Peter and the Wolf, which was part of a series of children’s music.
When WWII broke out, Prokofiev decided that the time was right for him to compose an opera based on Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace. After a fashion, his extramarital affair with Mira Mendelson came into the light and forced a separation of Prokofiev and his wife. During the war, Prokofiev was more free to compose in the style he preferred because the rules to which he and his contemporaries were confined were less severe. He moved to a composer’s colony outside of Moscow where he composed his Fifth Symphony and suffered a concussion. It is widely believed that the concussion led to his death in 1953 (the same day as Stalin).
After the war ended, the creative freedom that Prokofiev so enjoyed was removed, and he was again forced to compose for the Soviet government. His declining health restricted the amount of physical activity he could enjoy, including composing. He was able to compose his cello sonata and concerto (later retitled a symphony-concerto) and his seventh symphony.
On the day he died, Prokofiev’s body could not be carried out of his apartment because of the crowd gathered in Red Square mourning the death of Stalin. In the Soviet musical periodical, Prokofiev received a brief obituary preceded by 115 pages about Stalin’s death.
How you know him: Though his ballet scores and symphonic works are phenomenal pieces of music, Prokofiev is most well-known for Peter and the Wolf. The horn and flute parts for this piece, which represent the wolf and bird in the original piece, were featured as the music for Scut Farkus’s character in the holiday classic A Christmas Story.
Sergei Rachmaninoff [rock-mahn-in-off] (April 1, 1873-March 28, 1943)
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born into an aristocratic family whose money had all been squandered away. They had historically been in the service of the czars and had strong musical and military leanings. Rachmaninoff received his very first piano lessons from his mother, but his grandfather Arkady Alexandrovich brought Anna Ornatskaya from St. Petersburg to teach him.
In 1883, after the family moved to St. Petersburg to save themselves from financial ruin, Ornatskaya arranged for Rachmaninoff to enter the St. Petersburg Conservatory. His grandmother took him to many Russian Orthodox services, which introduced him to the liturgical chants and church bells of the city. His sister died suddenly at the age of 18 before she could enter the Bolshoi Theater. She had been a great influence on Rachmaninoff, and his grandmother, in an attempt to shield him from further tragedy, took him to a retreat on the Volkhov River. Here, he became an avid rower but was very spoiled by his grandmother causing him to become very lazy and fail his general education classes.
He did play at many important events while at the conservatory, but further educational disappointments led him eventually to take private piano lessons with Nikolai Zverev at the Moscow Conservatory. It was here that he met fellow student Alexander Scriabin, who would become a very close friend.
He gave his first independent concert on February 11, 1892, where he premiered his Trio élégiaque No. 1, and a month later premiered his first piano concerto. For his final composition, he wrote an opera called Aleko. Rachmaninoff was sure it would flop, but the Bolshoi Theater loved it and offered to produce it. He graduated in May of 1892 with the title of “free artist.”
After the death of Tchaikovsky in 1893, he was inspired to write a second Trio élégiaque, and four years later his First Symphony was premiered. Unfortunately, it was panned by the critic César Cui who said it was a depiction of the ten plagues of Egypt and suggested it would be admired by the "inmates" of a music conservatory in hell. In Rachmaninoff’s defense, the piece did not receive the full attention of the orchestra or its conductor who apparently made very poor use of his rehearsal time.
This poor reception led to a period of writer’s block and deep depression. He eventually sought the aid of psychologist Nikolai Dahl who helped him recover his confidence through auto-suggestive therapy. It was wildly successful and encouraged him to write his Second Piano Concerto. His marriage to Natalia Satina in 1902, after three years of engagement and hindered only by the Russian Orthodox Church and Natalia’s parents, was another bolster in Rachmaninoff’s newly-found confidence and success.
In 1909 he went on tour in the US, but he found himself very unhappy and only returned when he emigrated in 1917 during the Russian Revolution. Since he and his family were of the Russian bourgeois, they were heavily targeted in the revolution and fled the for the US by way of Helsinki. While in the United States, Rachmaninoff began to focus greatly on performing and touring, and the amount of compositions he produced dropped off tremendously. Between 1918 and 1943, he only completed six compositions. This was not only because he spent a great deal of time touring, but also because he found himself without inspiration after leaving his homeland behind.
It wasn’t until 1932 when he built a second home on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland that he began to feel inspired again. In 1928, he befriended Vladimir Horowitz, through a Steinway artist representative; and after hearing Horowitz’s interpretation of his own Third Piano Concerto, the two became fast friends.
During a concert tour in 1942, Rachmaninoff fell very ill and was diagnosed with melanoma. A year later, he and his wife became American citizens, and just sixteen days after that he gave his last recital. He died about a month later in his home in Beverly Hills, California. He is buried in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, against his final wishes of being buried at his home in Switzerland. Due to the outbreak of WWII, this wish was impossible. His style is impossibly romantic and takes after that of Tchaikovsky, but his use of widely-spaced chords is all his own.
How you know him: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is by far his most well-known and widely-acclaimed composition.
Maurice Ravel [ruh-vel] (March 7, 1875-December 28, 1937)
Born near the French border of Spain, Maurice Ravel grew up in a happy home. His father was a notable and important inventor of an internal combustion engine and one of the first roller-coaster rides, which was very successful until a fatal accident at the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1903. His parents were Catholic, but it was his mother’s Basque-Spanish heritage that had the most influence on him as a child.
Encouraged by his parents, he attended the Paris Conservatoire and won first prize in a piano competition in 1891. During his time at the conservatory, before being expelled for failing to meet the requirement of earning a competitive medal in three consecutive years, he met Erik Satie, who became a significant influence for Ravel’s compositions. Satie had an unorthodox style of composing and living, which Ravel had never experienced before. He returned to the conservatory in 1898, a few years after his initial expulsion, and studied with Gabriel Fauré, Camille Saint-Saëns’s favorite student. He continued to not meet the standards of the conservatory and was promptly dismissed after two years.
Ravel became very well-known for his orchestrations and transcriptions of his works, and his study of each instrument in the orchestra including its timbre, color, and capabilities is a likely explanation for his highly-developed skill in this area. Despite many attempts, he never won the Prix de Rome, probably because his composition style was considered too radical by the conservative judges.
He instead spent time with a group called Apaches, comprising young artists, poets, critics, and musicians until WWI. Ravel also traveled frequently, and in the summer of 1905 a yachting trip sparked the beginning of his “Spanish period.” Claude Debussy’s influence was felt quite strongly among Ravel and his friends, particularly his opera Pelléas et Mélisande which was both loved and hated by critics. Two factions began to emerge in Paris: Ravel supporters and Debussy supporters. The two groups often fought in the streets over who was the superior composer. Eventually the feud strained their friendship, and Ravel and Debussy were forced to part company.
After the end of WWI, during which Ravel drove trucks for the French and mourned the death of his mother, he found decreased inspiration for new compositions. This was further hindered by the death of Debussy and the emergence of composers such as Satie, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky.
In 1921 he retired to the French countryside to continue writing and composing. Ravel continued his support and involvement with SMI (Société musicale indépendante), a group he helped found with his contemporaries in Paris who sought to support and promote new music, particularly from French and British composers. Though his own music was considered the height of sophistication in Britain, the French were more intrigued by the works of Erik Satie, and Ravel soon became the moderator between his generation of composers and Satie’s (known as Les Six). As jazz began taking over the music scene, Ravel incorporated many elements of it into his compositions.
In 1922, he completed his most famous arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. During the rest of the decade, he spent most of his time touring and recording his works and not much time composing. In 1928, he completed a tour of North America to rave reviews and positive acclaim, and he also became acquainted with George Gershwin, with whom he maintained a friendship for the rest of his life. Upon his return to France, he completed his most popular piece, Bolero, which was really an exercise in writing a piece with no thematic development, and he was blown away with surprise by its popularity.
In 1932, he suffered a traumatic head injury in a taxi cab. It turned into a more significant injury in the long-run because it caused him to have brain surgery, which led to his death. Initially, his doctors suspected that he had a brain tumor like the one that killed his friend George Gershwin, but upon closer inspection, they determined that the left hemisphere had shrunk. They injected it with serous fluid, but he died just a few short weeks after the surgery was complete after slipping into a coma and never recovering.
How you know him: Ravel’s most well-known work is Bolero. He also completed the most well-known arrangement and orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s piano piece Pictures at an Exhibition, which has one of the most famous trumpet solos in orchestral literature.
Ottorino Respighi [res-pee-gee] (July 9, 1879-April 18, 1936)
Ottorino Respighi began studying music as a child in Italy with his father, who taught piano in their town of Bologna. He studied music formally at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna, and a year after graduating with a diploma in violin he was hired as principal violinist for the Russian Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg. During his time in St. Petersburg, he studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov. This inspired him to return to Bologna to get a degree in composition. In 1913, after his compositions began to receive attention, he accepted a position as composition teacher at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecelia (today known as Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecelia). He retained this position for the rest of his life, while his Roman tone poems Fountains of Rome received world-wide acclaim.
In 1919, he married his former student Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo, and in 1922 Benito Mussolini gained power in Italy. Respighi attempted to stay neutral during this period, and though his popularity allowed the government to exploit him, he also worked to allow outspoken critics and musicians, such as Arturo Toscanini, freedom from political persecution. The third part of his Roman trilogy was premiered by Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic in 1929. Respighi spent a considerable amount of time researching the music of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries and published editions of works by Claudio Monteverdi, Antonio Vivaldi, and Benedetto Marcello. This research also inspired him to compose works with styles and forms in the pre-classical styles but with harmonies and textures in late-19th-century styles. After his final tour in January 1936, his health began to fail, and he died from a cardiac infection on April 18 at age 56. His wife remained a champion of his music for the rest of her life, and she died at the age of 102 in 1996.
How you know him: Respighi’s The Pines of Rome was featured in Fantasia: 2000.
Silvestre Revueltas [ruh-vwell-tas] (December 31, 1899-October 5, 1940)
Silvestre Revueltas was a Mexican composer, and he is considered by many to be the most influential composer of the Mexican Nationalist movement. He grew up in a very artistic family, the oldest of four children who all took careers in different artistic fields. He showed an interest in music from an early age, and he entered the National Conservatory in 1913. At age 18, he traveled to the US to continue his study of the violin. He began his time in America in San Antonio, Texas, but he soon moved to Chicago where he remained until 1924.
He spent the next five years touring Mexico and the United States, and in 1929 he accepted a full-time position as conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Mexico. Though he devoted a great deal of time to the orchestra, he also developed his skills as a composer. During the next eight years, he composed nine pieces that defined his style as an innovator and gave Mexican music a more reliable and significant identity. In 1937, he went on tour to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Revueltas composed a score for the 1940 film La Noche de los Mayas, and the celebration party after caused severe complications for his health. He died shortly thereafter from pneumonia and alcoholism, brought on by his lack of financial success.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov [rim-skee kor-sa-kov] (March 18, 1844-June 21, 1908)
Rimsky-Korsakov grew up outside St. Petersburg, Russia in a family with a long history of naval and military service. His brother’s exploits as a naval officer and his love of literature instilled in him an interest and poetic love of the sea. Instead of taking formal piano lessons, he joined the Imperial Russian Navy at the age of 12 after encouraging from his older brother and his interest in the sea. He did take private piano lessons while studying at the School for Mathematical and Navigational Sciences in Saint Petersburg. Though he remained indifferent to the lessons, he began to develop a love of music while also developing social skills. His time at sea exposed him to many new cultures, but it also decreased his interest in music and caused him to neglect his musical studies.
Once he returned to St. Petersburg in 1865, Balakirev encouraged him to take up writing again, and Rimsky-Korsakov was once again inspired to compose. He began spending a lot of time with the group known as The Five, five Russian composers (Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin) who greatly influenced each other. This group further developed his skill as a composer and exposed him to varying opinions and styles of composition, and they came to regard him as a very skilled orchestrator. He and Mussorgsky became good friends and later roommates, and their arrangement of sharing the piano in their apartment led to very productive composition periods for both of them.
In 1871, he was hired as Professor of Practical Composition and Instrumentation and leader of the Orchestra Class at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory while remaining active in the naval service. This new position further pointed out his shortcomings in music education, though, and he consulted Tchaikovsky for help in learning more about music theory. To combat his lack of education, he stopped composing for three years just to get caught up and stay ahead of his students. He used his new knowledge to revise his early works, including popular works such as Sadko and Antar. The financial stability he found in his new professorship allowed him to finally marry Nadezhda Purgold with whom he had developed a close relationship during weekly gatherings at her family’s home. She was very well educated in music and devoted much of her time to critiquing Rimsky-Korsakov’s compositions.
His change in attitude regarding music education led to a change in his style of composition from wildly romantic to reserved, neo-classical, which his contemporaries greatly criticized him for. His collection of transcribed Russian folk songs and his edits of Mikhail Glinka’s orchestral scores helped bring him out of this conservative rut, which few of his contemporaries appreciated. Though he sometimes suffered from lack of inspiration, he kept busy with his transcripts and orchestrations. His increased familiarity with Mitrofan Belyayev, the Belyayev Circle, and correspondence and advice from Tchaikovsky led to a very productive time for Rimsky-Korsakov when he experimented more with his composition technique. This period was not without its own emotional struggles, though, because of his painful and difficult separation from The Five and the increased popularity of Tchaikovsky’s works brought on by his increased public appearances with the composer.
He became very critical of the music of his contemporaries, particularly that of Claude Debussy, whose compositions he considered boring, requiring little to no technique to compose or perform. These feelings were followed by a creative slump and exacerbated by the illness of his wife and two of his sons, and the deaths of his mother and two of his children. The death of Tchaikovsky, however difficult to overcome, brought on a period of inspiration for Rimsky-Korsakov. The 1905 Revolution and Rimsky-Korsakov’s support of the rebelling students at the St. Petersburg Conservatory led to a ban on his music and his removal as professor of the conservatory. He continued teaching students from his home, and after a student production of his opera caused his works to be banned, 300 students and several faculty members left the conservatory. Rimsky-Korsakov was reinstated after an onslaught of sympathetic letters and monetary donations from the Russian people, but he retired from the conservatory in 1906. The controversy surrounding his compositions continued with his opera The Golden Cockerel.
A 1907 Paris performance of collected Russian masterworks led to a resurgence in their popularity, but Rimsky-Korsakov was fully aware that his compositions were “behind the times.” In 1890, he was diagnosed with angina, and with the increased stress from the Revolution his condition worsened. He eventually stopped composing and working, and in 1908 he died at his home in Lubensk.
How you know him: Scheherazade is a great example of Rimsky-Korsakov’s romantic and programmatic style. His piece Capriccio Espagnol is another very popular piece.
Joaquín Rodrigo [wa-keen rod-ree-go] (November 22, 1901-July 6, 1999)
Rodrigo contracted diphtheria at the age of three and was blind for the rest of his life. All his compositions were written in braille and transcribed. His musical studies began at age eight with solfege, piano, and violin, and by the age of sixteen they had progressed to harmony and composition. He studied music and musicology at the École Normale de Musique in Paris, and in 1943 he received Spain’s National Prize for Orchestra for his composition Cinco piezas infantiles ("Five Children's Pieces").
In 1939, he composed his most well-known work, Concierto de Aranjuez, for the guitarist Regino Sainz de la Maza. He later said that it was written as a response to his wife’s miscarriage. Gil Evans later arranged the piece’s adagio movement for Miles Davis’s album Sketches from Spain. In 1943 he received Spain's National Prize for Orchestra for his composition Cinco piezas infantiles ("Five Children's Pieces"), which was based on his earlier composition of the same piece for two pianos.
Rodrigo was awarded Spain's highest award for composition, the Premio Nacional de Música, in 1983, and in 1991 the King Juan Carlos I gave him the hereditary title Marqués de los Jardines de Aranjuez. He died in 1999.
How you know him: As a composer for guitar, his concerto for guitar Concierto de Aranjuez is a must-hear for those interested in guitar music.
Christopher Rouse [rowse] (born February 15, 1949)
Christopher Rouse grew up outside of Baltimore, Maryland and studied at Oberlin Conservatory and Cornell University. After graduating with his master’s and doctoral degrees, he was the 1976 recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Throughout his life his musical interests have ranged from classical music to popular music, and he incorporated these interests in his teaching at the Eastman School of Music through his course in the history of rock and roll.
His concerti have received particular acclaim, and his Trombone Concerto won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize. His concerti have been commissioned or performed by instrumental talents such as Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Joseph Alessi, and Emmanuel Ax. He currently teaches composition at the Juilliard School and just last year began his two-year tenure as composer-in-residence for the New York Philharmonic.
How you know him: The Houston Symphony recorded Rouse’s Flute Concerto, Symphony No. 2, and Phaethon under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach in 1994.
Camille Saint-Saëns [cam-eel san sawn] (October 9, 1835-December 16, 1921)
Saint-Saëns was born and raised in Paris, France by his aunt and mother after his father’s sudden death. By the age of two, he demonstrated perfect pitch, and his first public performance was accompanying a performance of a Beethoven violin sonata at the age of five. His debut recital was given at the age of 10. The performance received acclaim all over Europe and reached as far as Boston. His First Symphony was published when he was 16. In the 1840s he began studying at the Paris Conservatoire, and a short time later after his second symphony was published he became good friends with Hector Berlioz.
He played organ as a source of income, and his public improvisations caused Liszt to rave that Saint-Saëns was the best organist in the world. During his only teaching position, he pushed the boundaries of traditional music education by teaching his students contemporary works by Liszt, Gounod, Schumann, Berlioz, and Wagner. His personal interests also lay outside of music in the world of acoustics, occult science, archaeology, geography, and the study of butterflies. He also loved astronomy and incorporated it into performances of his pieces so that they coincided with events such as solar eclipses.
After the Franco-Prussian War ended in a brief six months, Saint-Saëns moved to London to avoid the Paris Commune siege on the city. When he returned to Paris in 1875, he married Marie Laure Emile Truffot, a woman nearly 20 years his junior. They had two sons, but both died a few years later: one from sickness and the other six weeks later from falling out of a fourth-story window. Saint-Saëns blamed his wife for the latter son’s death and left her while on vacation in 1881.
Five years later he composed and published two of his most well-known works: Carnival of the Animals and his Third Symphony (the Organ Symphony), which was dedicated to Franz Liszt who had just died. He spent the next few years mourning his mother’s death while traveling around Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. He spent the last few years of his life writing articles and essays about music, scientific, and historical topics and traveling. He finally settled in Algiers, and in 1921 he died from pneumonia after receiving Grand-Croix de la Legion d'honneur, France’s highest honor.
How you know him: The finale from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals was featured in Fantasia: 2000 to the animation of flamingos. His Third Symphony is a great showcase for the organ.
Alfred Schnittke [shnit-kuh] (November 24, 1934-August 3, 1998)
Alfred Schnittke was born in the former Soviet Union and began studying counterpoint, composition, and instrumentation at the Moscow Conservatory in 1953. He graduated in 1961 from the post-graduate program and immediately joined the Union of Composers. The Moscow Conservatory appointed him to the position of instructor of instrumentation in 1962, and spent the next ten years at the conservatory.
After he left his teaching position, he composed mainly film scores. He is most noted today for his “polystylistic” technique of composition. Schnittke composed 9 symphonies, 6 concerti grossi, 4 violin concertos, 2 cello concertos, concertos for piano and a triple concerto for violin, viola and cello, as well as 4 string quartets and much other chamber music, ballet scores, choral and vocal works. His works were premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra, the National Symphony, the Boston Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic.
He won several prestigious awards including the Austrian State Prize, Japan’s Imperial Prize, and the Slava-Gloria-Prize. He suffered a massive stroke in 1985, and in 1998 the second stroke was fatal. He died at his home in Hamburg, Germany on August 3.
Robert Schumann [shoe-mahn] (June 8, 1810-July 29, 1856)
Robert Schumann, like his good friend Johannes Brahms, began his studies in law but left to pursue a career in music. He began as a pianist but permanently injured his right hand. There are several theories as to why this may have happened. One suggests that he created a machine to strengthen the weakest fingers by holding back the strong ones while the others were exercised. A second theory states that the injury was the result of medication for syphilis, and a third more wildly claims that he underwent surgery to separate the tendons of his third finger from those of his second. Whatever the cause, he abandoned his career as a pianist to pursue one of composition.
His compositions were exclusively for piano until 1840 when he married Clara Wieck, the daughter of his former piano teacher. The marriage was quite a scandal at the time because Clara was not yet 21 years of age and still needed her father’s permission to get married. Clara was also a composer and performing pianist. Indeed, it is one of the great love stories of the musical world because they courted for many years in secret before marrying. During what is known as the Liederjahr (“Year of the Song”), Schumann wrote many songs influenced by and dedicated to Clara.
They were married for 16 years until Schumann died, and they had eight children, of whom seven survived. After an attempted suicide, he checked himself into a mental institution where he remained for the last two years of his life.
How you know him: Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor and Kinderszenen are his most recognizable pieces.
Dmitri Shostakovich (September 25, 1906-August 9, 1975)
Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, the second of three children. He began composing at the age of nine. By the age of 13 he was a student at the Petrograd Conservatory. One of his teachers, Maximilian Steinberg, felt that Shostakovich was wasting his time imitating Prokofiev and Stravinsky. In 1926, his First Symphony was premiered and was his first musical achievement. When he graduated, he tried to make a living as a pianist and a composer, but his dry and unemotional style of playing was poorly received unlike his compositions. Any performances he did were strictly of his own works.
In 1927, he became close friends with Ivan Sollertinsky who introduced him to the works of Gustav Mahler, which had a tremendous influence on Shostakovich’s future compositions. Despite rave reviews of his opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Stalin attended a performance and hated it. As the leader of the Soviets, Stalin’s opinion was the only one that mattered, and Shostakovich fell out of his favor immediately. Thus began Shostakovich’s long and complicated relationship with Stalin and the Soviet government.
As a result of Stalin’s poor review in Pravda, he experienced a dramatic decrease in the commissions he received and in the amount of money he was making. Reviews published in Pravda continued to be published, scolding Shostakovich for his progressive, forward-thinking works. In 1936, at the beginning of the Great Terror, many of the composer’s friends and relatives were killed or imprisoned, which further diminished his creative freedom as he wrote music to keep himself and his family alive.
Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was composed between 1935 and 1936, but it wasn’t premiered until 1961 after Stalin’s death. Whether the work was voluntarily withdrawn or banned by the government remains debated today. His Fifth Symphony put him back in Stalin’s favor, though, and just in the nick of time. Between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, he had been composing film scores and fearing for his and his family’s lives. At the outbreak of WWII, Shostakovich returned to the conservatory and volunteered with the fire brigade (his poor eyesight prevented him from fighting with the army).
It was during this time that he composed the Seventh Symphony followed by the Eighth Symphony a few years later, and the Ninth Symphony a few years after that. The Seventh was very well received, the Eighth less well, and the Ninth not well at all. Stalin was outraged by the Eighth Symphony’s apparent recollection of tragedy at the end of the war, and he was infuriated that the Ninth Symphony seemed to mock the Soviet Union’s victory.
After the war in 1948, Shostakovich and many of his contemporaries’ works were banned, and they were publicly scorned for their so-called “formalist” compositions. In 1949, Shostakovich was sent to New York to attend the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace. He was forced to go by Stalin and found himself publicly humiliated at the world’s realization that he was a pawn in Stalin’s government and merely repeated what the government wanted him to say. He didn’t feel creatively free again until Stalin’s death in 1953. His Tenth Symphony features a particularly aggressive second movement that is said to be a musical portrait of Stalin.
In 1960, he joined the Communist Party in order to accept the position of General Secretary of the Composer’s Union. Whether he did this of his own free will, was blackmailed, or politically forced is not clear. Whatever the cause, he was now committed to writing the homage to Lenin that he had promised the party: his Twelfth Symphony. Since he now had the personal creative freedom that he so desperately needed, he was able to compose his own response to this requirement of his new position and wrote his Eighth String Quartet subtitled “To the victims of fascism and war.” This quartet was largely autobiographical as it included many quotations from his earlier works.
Shostakovich’s health began failing him after his third marriage in 1962, although he refused to give up vodka and cigarettes. In 1965, he was diagnosed with polio, which diminished the use of his right hand, and he broke both his legs in a fall down a set of stairs. He had a preoccupation with his own mortality in the last years of his life, which is particularly evident in the Fourteenth Symphony (a song cycle based on poems with the theme of death). He eventually died of lung cancer.
How you know him: Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto accompanies the animation for The Steadfast Tin Soldier in Fantasia 2000.
Jean Sibelius [si-bay-lee-us] (December 8, 1865-September 20, 1957)
Jean Sibelius was a Finnish composer whose father was a doctor. He attended Hämeenlinnan normaalilyseo, a Finnish-speaking school, but he was raised by Swedish-speaking parents. Thus, he spoke Swedish all his life. Romantic Nationalism swept Europe by storm, and this became a significant source of inspiration for him.
Though he was an accomplished violinist, he studied law after graduating from high school in 1885. He soon quit his studies to practice music in Berlin and Vienna. During the 1890s he began to move away from the Wagnerian style he so loved, calling it pompous and vulgar. He turned instead to the music of Anton Bruckner and Peter Tchaikovsky for inspiration.
In 1892, he married Aino Järnefelt, and the couple had six daughters. In 1908, he underwent an operation for suspected throat cancer, and this brush with death is what likely inspired the composition of Luonnotar and the Fourth Symphony a few years later. He spent long periods of time abroad in Vienna, Berlin, and Italy, and he was very active in the Scandinavian countries, UK, France, and Germany.
He adored the Finnish countryside, and many of his pieces were inspired by nature. After 1926, he stopped composing as much, particularly after his Seventh Symphony, but two of his most influential and significant works were composed during this time: incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the tone poem Tapiola. On New Year’s Day in 1939, he participated in what is the only known example of Sibelius’s interpretation of his own music during an international radio broadcast where he conducts his piece Andante Festivo. During this time, he and his wife lived in Helsinki, but he avoided speaking publicly about his music and that of other composers. He died in 1957 of a brain hemorrhage.
How you know him: Though it may not be a familiar piece, Sibelius’s piece Finlandia is certainly his most well-known. His tone poem The Swan of Tuonela is the second part of his Opus 22, Lemminkäinen (Four legends), which was based on the Kalevala epic from Finnish mythology. In the piece, the English horn represents the swan which circles Tuonela, the island of the dead. Lemminkäinen has been charged with killing this swan, but he dies before his task is completed.
Bedrich Smetana [bed-jheek smet-ahn-ah] (March 2, 1824-May 12, 1884)
Bedrich Smetana was the first son of František Smetana and Barbora Lynková. His father, though uneducated, taught him music from a very early age, and Smetana gave his first public performance at the age of six. After learning about Beethoven and Mozart in his elementary school, he began his first early compositions around age eight.
In 1839, he traveled to Prague where he attended school for a very brief period of time. His classmates made fun of him for his manners, which they considered country, and he skipped class most days to attend performances. When his father found out, he removed him from the school immediately. Eventually his cousin Josef took him under his wing, and through his guidance Smetana was able to complete his education in Pilsen.
In 1843, he secured a formal music teacher for himself so that he would be able to make his dreams of being a professional musician a reality. His teacher in Prague used techniques established by Beethoven, Chopin, Berlioz, and Liszt, and by 1844 he had accepted a position as music teacher to Count Thun’s children. This did wonders to ease his financial difficulties, and a few years later he left the post to pursue a career as a concert pianist. His tour through Western Bohemia was fruitless, though, and he returned to Prague to continue teaching.
For a brief period of time, Smetana was a revolutionary supporting the end of Habsburg rule, but this interest quickly faded as he opened his own music school. In a few years time, the institute became stable and successful. It attracted supporters of Czech nationalism, and this new-found financial stability allowed Smetana to marry Katerina Kolárová, a woman he had courted and loved for many years. They were married in 1851 and between then and 1855 had four daughters.
During this time, he became increasingly devoted to composition, but the happiness was short-lived. In 1854, his first daughter died of scarlet fever, and a few years later his fourth daughter died just a year after being born. Shortly thereafter, his wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and his friend Karel Havlícek, a revolutionary who was sent to exile, died. The misery that had settled over Prague was exacerbated by the political turmoil that had come to roost.
Smetana left Prague for Gothenberg, Sweden in the hopes of finding a more supportive environment to compose and teach. His first trip to Gothenberg forced him to leave his ailing wife and remaining daughter in Prague, but he established himself in a very positive way. The piano school he opened was immediately successful, and he became the conductor of the Gothenberg Society for Classical Choral Music. He didn’t have more time for composing, but he developed a positive social circle.
The summer of 1857 found Smetana mourning his father’s death and attempting to deal with Katerina’s rapidly failing health. The family moved to Gothenberg after a brief visit to Weimar where Smetana’s good friend Franz Liszt lived. When he arrived in Gothenberg, his creativity was stimulated, and he churned out many successful compositions.
Katerina died in the spring of 1859 in Dresden on her way back to Prague. Their daughter Žofie was raised by Katerina’s mother while Smetana returned to Weimar with Liszt. In 1860 he married his brother’s sister-in-law, a woman 16 years his junior. He made one final fleeting attempt at a career as a concert pianist, but again he was unsuccessful. He finally resigned himself to returning to Prague where he was still poorly received as a composer. A quick trip to Gothenberg reaffirmed, though, that he needed to remain in Prague, his homeland. Things were not easy for Smetana in Prague either because his mastery of the Czech language was very poor, having studied in Germany for so long. He began studying the language to better communicate with the singers in the choir he conducted.
In March 1863 he was elected president of a local society for Czech artists, and by the next year he was hired as a music critic for the local newspaper. Despite encouragement from his friends, Smetana was not hired as the Director of the Prague Conservatory, but in 1866 he won the Harrach opera competition with The Brandenburgers. That same year he premiered his comedic opera The Bartered Bride, which was an instant success after several revisions due to the popularity of The Brandenburgers. Smetana left Prague to avoid any backlash that his operas might cause when Germany invaded the country.
When he returned, he was appointed to the post of principal conductor of the Provisional Theatre. His third opera, Dalibor, was poorly received and led the people to try to drive him out of his conductorship position. Some of his peers, particularly Mily Balakirev and František Rieger, accused him of taking cues from Wagner’s style, focusing on an all-encompassing music-drama rather than an opera supported by an orchestral accompaniment. Eventually this led to division within the theater, and Smetana was forced to leave. Many subscribers, musicians, and composers (including Antonin Dvorák) signed a petition that reinstated him, though, so upon his return in 1873, Smetana began bringing in more works by Czech composers.
His fourth opera The Two Widows was premiered in 1874 to positive acclaim, but his adversaries continued to degrade him and insult his work as a composer and a conductor. Smetana became extremely ill soon after his reappointment, suffering from a throat infection, rash, and ear blockage which eventually led to deafness in his right ear. A press release passively acknowledged the attacks that had been made by stating that Smetana had “become ill as a result of nervous strain caused by certain people recently.” He resigned completely from the theater after his health did not improve and agreed to let the theater continue to use his works for an annual sum almost equal to his annual salary.
His former students organized a fundraiser which allowed Smetana to seek medical help outside of the Czech Republic, but nothing helped. His marriage with Bettina was quickly dissolving because of disputes about money, but they did not divorce. Smetana continued to compose and conduct to positive reviews, but by 1879 he was beginning to lose mental capacity. Within a few years he experienced depression, insomnia, hallucinations, giddiness, cramps, and a temporary loss of speech, which hindered his ability to compose. His family moved him to Katerinky Lunatic Asylum in Prague, where he died on 12 May 1884. Though the hospital diagnosed him with senile dementia, his family believed his mental instability was the result of syphilis, which was confirmed by an autopsy. Recent reports suggest otherwise, though.
How you know him: The Overture to The Bartered Bride is pretty typical of Smetana’s style and those of his peers.
Richard Strauss (June 11, 1864-September 8, 1949)
Richard Strauss is most well-known for his symphonic works and tone poems. He was heavily influenced by the music of Richard Wagner, which was banned by his father, who was the principal horn player for the Court Opera in Munich. He began composing at the age of six and continued until his death at age 85.
He studied philosophy and art history at the university in Munich for one year before leaving to study conducting in Berlin, where he quickly earned a position as assistant conductor to Hans von Bülow, who retired in 1885. It was at this time that he wrote his first horn concerto, and his style became heavily influenced by the works of Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. In 1894, he married soprano Pauline de Ahna, and together they had one child.
In the same year that Hans von Bülow retired, Strauss met Alexander Ritter, who encouraged Strauss to branch out of his comfort zone of conservative chamber works and into tone poems. Death and Transfiguration was in fact inspired by a poem by Ritter, written at Strauss’s request. In 1933, during the rise of the Nazi party, Strauss aligned himself with Hitler, not because he admired his political ideals (Strauss’s daughter-in-law and two grandchildren were Jewish) but because he hoped that the political figure would support and promote German music and art. Hitler had in fact seen a performance of Strauss’s opera Salome in 1907 and been a fan ever since. In fact, by taking a position as president of the Reichsmusikkammer, he was able to protect his family from persecution and being sent to concentration camps. He died at the age of 85, and his wife died just eight months later.
How you know him: Also sprach Zarathustra was used as the opening bars for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Igor Stravinsky (June 17, 1882-April 6, 1971)
As a child, Stravinsky attended his father’s opera performances and began piano lessons at age nine. His parents insisted that he study to become a lawyer, so he spent several years studying law at the University of St. Petersburg. However, he also studied composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He preferred music to law but had concerns about his ability to make a living as a composer.
After graduating he decided to try his hand at being a professional composer, and his first symphony was performed when he was 26. It sparked the interest of the Ballet Russe, which commissioned him to write several works for them, including Firebird and Petrushka.
In 1913, his most famous work The Rite of Spring practically caused a riot because the audience was so far removed from what they were used to hearing. In 1919, he left Russia and moved to Paris to continue writing ballets for Ballet Russe. Since his wife was pregnant with their third child, they decided to remain in Paris, and eventually he became a French citizen. While pregnant with their fourth child, Maria was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The family thus spent the summer months in Russia and the winters in Switzerland, where Maria lived in a sanitorium.
After the outbreak of WWI, Stravinsky struggled financially because he was unable to receive the royalties due to him for the Ballet Russe’s performances of his pieces. This was largely due to the facts that Russia did not adhere to the Berne Convention and Diaghilev did not adhere to his contract with Stravinsky. He turned to the Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart while writing Histoire du soldat, and Reinhart continued to financially support Stravinsky’s compositions.
In 1939 he moved to Massachusetts after the death of his wife and the outbreak of WWII. A year later he remarried, obtained US citizenship, and moved to California. During his time in California, he was commissioned by many different organizations including Ringling Brothers Circus, jazz bands, and an opera company, and he continued to write ballets. He didn’t return to Russia until 1962 where Russian audiences welcomed him warmly. Toward the end of his life, he wrote fewer works for large orchestras and focused on short works for small ensembles.
Stravinsky died of heart failure in California at the age of 88. He is very well-known for being a meticulous and precise person, and these traits come across very clearly in his composition style. He did not care whether critics or audiences liked his music and disregarded any advice or suggestions that people offered. For most of his life, he was a devout Roman Catholic.
How you know him: Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring was featured in Disney’s Fantasia to the animation of dinosaurs. It has one of the most recognizable bassoon solos in orchestral literature. His music for The Firebird was also featured in Fantasia 2000.
Peter Tchaikovsky [chigh-cough-skee] (May 7, 1840-November 6, 1893)
When Tchaikovsky was growing up in Russia, there were very few opportunities for a musical education, so he went into the field of public service. When an opportunity for a musical education arose at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, he jumped on it and in 1865 he graduated.
Tchaikovsky had a distinctly western style of composition, which set him apart from his Russian contemporaries (at the time, Russia was divided on whether to adopt western philosophies and practices or to retain its historically Slavic culture). Russian critics either loved or hated this non-traditional facet of Tchaikovsky’s compositions. They either appreciated that he was branching out of normal Russian music or resented it and wished to stay with what was familiar.
Though Tchaikovsky’s works are some of the most well-known in the world and remain a staple of modern orchestral literature, his life was plagued by unhappiness and emotional turmoil. Events that stand out are his family sending him away to boarding school, his mother’s sudden death, a long-term relationship with the widow Nadezhda von Meck, and -- to a certain extent -- his same-sex orientation. Many scholars now believe this had less to do with his emotional struggles than they initially thought, though.
He was briefly engaged to Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt, but she left him for Spanish baritone Mariano Padilla y Ramos. He later married one of his students, Antonina Miliukova, but he quickly realized that he preferred a bachelor’s life and the company of men. They did not divorce because of the social implications, but Antonina did have three children with another man while Tchaikovsky continued to support her.
In 1884 during his return to Russia, his opera Eugene Onegin, based on the novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin, premiered with much acclaim by the czar and the public. He did not relish his new-found fame but tolerated it in order to further support his students and Russian music.
Tchaikovsky was terrified of the “curse of the ninth,” which proposed that no composer could write more than nine symphonies. This has been disproven by countless composers, though, namely Shostakovich who wrote 14 full symphonies, but at the time it seemed a very real thing. In fact, Tchaikovsky died from cholera just nine days after conducting the premiere of his Sixth Symphony Pathétique.
How you know him: Tchaikovsky is the composer of the following extremely well-known ballets: The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty.
Giuseppe Verdi [you-sep-pee vair-dee] (October 10, 1813-January 27, 1901)
Though he was technically born a Frenchman, Giuseppe Verdi is considered one of the most influential and prolific Italian composers of the Romantic era, particularly his operas. When he was 20 he began his formal music studies in Milan where he studied counterpoint and attended many opera performances. With the support of Antonio Barezzi, a local merchant, Verdi gave his first public performance in 1830. Barezzi also enlisted Verdi as his daughter’s private music teacher. The two quickly fell madly in love, and Verdi was devastated when she died of encephalitis. They had two children together, both of whom died in infancy.
Verdi fell into despair in 1840 after the death of his beloved wife and the flop of his second opera. He vowed to give up composition altogether, but Bartolomeo Merelli convinced him to begin work on a new work called Nabucco. This opera launched Verdi’s career, and its chorus Va, pensiero stood out the most. For the next decade between 1843 and 1853 (the “galley years”), Verdi produced 14 operas. The most controversial of these masterpieces was Macbeth, which broke the Italian opera tradition of having a love story. During the end of the period, Verdi wrote his most famous opera, Rigoletto, which had to have its libretto revised many times to appease the censors. In the midst of the “galley years,” Verdi began an affair with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi. They lived together before marrying in 1859, but in most of the places they lived, their out-of-wedlock cohabitation was quite scandalous. During his “middle period,” he composed the last two of his three most famous operas: La traviata and Il Trovatore.
Between 1855 and 1867 he continued to compose successful, popular, and well-known operas. It was widely believed that he and the soprano Teresa Stolz had an affair while Verdi was married to Giuseppina. Whether this is true or not, the two were close companions after Giuseppina’s death, and a number of the soprano roles in Verdi’s opera were written specifically for her. Toward the end of his career, Verdi spent a great deal of time revising his earlier operas in addition to composing new works. His last opera, Falstaff, is a great example of Verdi’s skill in counterpoint, and it is a great comedic opera. He composed several sacred works before his fatal stroke on January 21, 1901. He died six days later.
How you know him: Verdi wrote some of the most memorable operatic arias of all time. A short list includes: “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto, “Brindisi” from La traviata, the “Dies irae” section from his Requiem.
Antonio Vivaldi (March 4, 1678-July 28, 1741)
Vivaldi was a Baroque composer who grew up in Venice, Italy. Despite his ill health (likely asthma), he learned to play the violin. He was ordained as a priest at the age of 25 but only served the church in a musical capacity. His red hair earned him the nickname “the red priest.” Around 1705 he began composing keyboard sonatas and developed a love for opera, of which he composed several. Since he was only supposed to compose music for the church, these were quite controversial works. For five years from 1709 until 1714, he was supported by an Italian prince in Mantua, but after the prince ended this support, Vivaldi became the orchestral conductor at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. He stayed at the church for 27 years, and coincidentally, it was the same church where his father played violin.
In 1719, Vivaldi received financial support from a new patron, which enabled him to compose operas for various opera companies through Italy. Within 6 years, his compositions were well-known throughout Europe, but his operas remained controversial in Italy. He remained affiliated with the church and continued conducting at St. Mark’s until 1741 when he moved to Vienna. While there he hoped to receive a position as a court musician or composer, but he died without receiving any offers.
How you know him: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons are his most timeless work and have been used in countless films and commercials. They exhibit the repetitious style that is typical of Baroque and Classical pieces.
Richard Wagner [reek-hard vahg-ner] (May 22, 1813-February 13, 1883)
Wagner’s father died shortly after he was born, so he was raised by his mother and stepfather (though there is no evidence that they were officially married). Wagner suspected his whole life that his stepfather, Ludwig Geyer, was actually his birth-father and probably Jewish. His stepfather was a great supporter of the arts and took Wagner to see many performances, which was a tremendous influence on him. At the age of 15, he heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and was forever affected by the composer’s work. He often referred to himself as Beethoven’s musical heir. In the early 1830s he began composing operas, and he held positions with regional opera companies in southern Germany and Latvia. Opera quickly became his most well-known and favorite medium of composition.
After marrying Minna Planer, he spent a fair amount of time and money working as a critic and trying to sell his operas to various opera houses and companies. In 1842, he returned to Dresden where his operas Rienzi and Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) were premiered. The following year he was appointed Second Kapellmeister for the king of Saxony in Dresden. He fled Germany after a warrant was issued for his arrest for insurrection, so he settled in Switzerland to write essays and his most famous work: The Ring of the Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle). During this time, he was supported by several wealthy patrons, particularly King Ludwig II who financed Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger. In 1872 he began to build the Festival Theater in Bayreuth where several of his operas were premiered. In 1883, he died of a heart attack and was buried at Bayreuth.
Richard Wagner is arguably one of the most influential and controversial composers in the history of classical music. His techniques were unsurpassed, and the techniques he introduced to the compositional world were completely new. As a person, though, he was unethical and completely deplorable. He was an open anti-Semitic who wrote essays on the nature of race, but his leitmotifs and chromaticism used in his operas (or music dramas) were state of the art. If composers didn’t write music to emulate his style, they wrote music to oppose his style, which created even more new music. In France, there was even an anti-Wagner movement.
How you know him: Wagner wrote a slew of operas, many of which are still used today in everyday events and popular films. The most notable are Apocalypse Now’s use of The Ride of the Valkyries and the wedding march from Lohengrin.
William Walton (March 29, 1902-March 8, 1983)
William Walton’s father was trained as a musician at the Royal Manchester College of Music, taught singing, and played organ at the local church, and his mother was a singer before her marriage to Walton’s father. Walton attended the local school, but in 1912 he was accepted to the Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford, despite missing his original audition time. His mother had to beg and plead for them to listen to him anyway.
He left the school in 1920 without a degree after failing all his final exams except for those in music. He had no prospects for employment despite his teachers believing him to have a promising future. While at school, though, he befriended several poets, the most important of whom was Sacheverell Sitwell who invited him to stay with him, his brother Osbert, and his sister Edith in London. Walton later recalled that he “went for a few weeks and stayed for about fifteen years.”
The Sitwells provided Walton with a broad and encompassing cultural education including music lessons, trips to the ballet, and meeting influential composers such as Stravinsky and Gershwin. In 1923, he collaborated with Edith Sitwell to produce Façade, which was a success only in the sense that it further exposed Walton to the public. The piece comprised Edith reciting her original poetry behind a screen while a group of six musicians played an accompaniment that Walton composed. The musicians mostly detested the work, and Noël Coward, a well-known poet, walked out in the middle of the performance. Within 10 years, though, the work was used as the music for the ballet Façade and more well-thought-of than during its premiere.
His Viola Concerto really launched his career as a classical composer. It was first performed by Paul Hindemith, a notable composer and viola player, although it was originally intended for Lionel Tertis. He received further success with his choral cantata Belshazzar’s Feast. BBC originally commissioned it for a small chorus, orchestra of no more than 15 musicians, and a soloist, but it quickly grew to a larger-scaled ensemble and had to be reprogrammed for the Leeds Festival. Osbert wrote text for the piece, much of which was pulled from the Old Testament. It was a major success and today is a significant part of choral repertoire.
During the 1930s, Walton began to grow apart from the Sitwells due to a growing social circle and several love affairs, most notably Viscountess Alice Wimborne. During WWII, he composed music for war propaganda films and cinematic films. After the war and destruction of his house from bombs, he stayed with Alice Wimborne’s family in Northamptonshire where he composed pieces for his own enjoyment, the most well-known of which was a string quartet. This was his most significant work since his Violin Concerto, written for Jascha Heifetz. He also composed many film scores. The string quartet put him back on the map as a composer not just of film music. During a conference in Buenos Aires, he met Susana Gil Passo, and after some persistence from Walton the couple was married, despite a 24 year age difference. The couple spent most of their time on the Italian island of Ischia.
After undergoing surgery for lung cancer in 1966, he continued to write. As his age progressed and his health regressed, though, he found it more difficult to compose. He died in 1983 after he and his wife played the cameo roles of King Frederick Augustus and Queen Maria of Saxony in Tony Palmer's nine-hour film Wagner.
How you know him: Belshazzar’s Feast is an extremely popular choral work, and it was ahead of its time when it was composed.
Carl Maria von Weber [carl maria fon vay-ber] (November 18 or 19, 1786-June 4 or 5, 1826)
Carl Maria von Weber was an influential composer of the Romantic period of music. Historically, adding a “von” to a name meant that the person was aristocratic, but this was not the case with Weber’s father. He had been a military officer but was fired and went into music instead.
In 1787 he founded a theatrical company after holding several music director positions. He was able to give his son a comprehensive education, but the family moved quite a bit, interrupting Weber’s instruction. After his mother died in 1798 from tuberculosis, Weber was sent to Salzburg to study with Joseph Haydn’s younger brother Michael. He also spent time studying in Munich in that same year.
His first work was published at age 12, and his first opera, Das stumme Waldmädchen (The Silent Forest Maiden) was published at age 14. In 1806, he was hired as the director of the Breslau Opera, at the suggestion of his teacher Georg Joseph Vogler. Up until that point, Weber had been a talented pianist and singer, but after accidentally ingesting engraver’s acid (today known as nitric acid) that his father had stored in a wine bottle, his singing career was ruined. This incident marked the beginning of a long and unpleasant time in Weber’s life when he left the Breslau Opera, took on a tremendous amount of debt, and was arrested on charges of misappropriating his new employer Duke Ludwig’s money. His father was also arrested, and the matter quickly resolved itself into banishment from Württemberg.
For the next few years he traveled around Europe working at various opera houses, and in 1817 he married Caroline Brandt, a singer who created the title role of his opera Silvana. In 1821, his opera Der Freischütz was successfully premiered in Berlin. He composed two more operas before his death: Euryanthe and Oberon. He traveled to London for the premiere of Oberon, which had been commissioned by The Royal Opera in London in 1826. At this time, he was already sick with tuberculosis, and he died in London. He was buried in the same city, but 18 years later his body was moved to Dresden. Richard Wagner gave the eulogy at the funeral.
How you know him: Weber’s most well-known work is his opera Der Freischütz (The Marksman).
Ralph Vaughan Williams [raiph von williams] (October 12, 1872-August 26, 1958)
Though he was born into a family of wealth and privilege, Vaughan Williams was a tireless champion of preserving the English folk song tradition, which he incorporated into many of his compositions. In the early 20th century, he travelled throughout the countryside transcribing and recording the oral folk song tradition of his homeland. He studied piano and attended the Royal College of Music and Trinity College, Cambridge. After his time at Trinity College, he returned to the Royal College where he studied organ. He also became good friends with Gustav Holst and Leopold Stokowski at this time as well. Their friendships were a significant part of Vaughan Williams’s life and compositional career.
During WWI when Vaughan Williams was 41, he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Prolonged exposure to gunfire eventually led to deafness at the end of his life. His time in the armed forces inspired his Third Symphony in the trumpet cadenza which is based on a bugler warming up and repeatedly hitting a wrong note (a flat seventh). This “error” echoes throughout the symphony as well. After 1924, his compositions embodied much more of the dissonance that was typical of the day. His Fourth Symphony is particularly fraught with these tensions. His intimate friendship with Harriet Cohen, the Irish pianist, helped promote his works for piano as she traveled with them throughout Europe, America, and the USSR.
He continued writing until his death in 1958 including three more symphonies, several choral works, a tuba concerto, and several unfinished works. He was married twice: first to Adeline Fisher and second to Ursula Wood.
How you know him: Fantasia on Greensleeves and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis are two of Vaughan Williams’s most recognizable works and best examples of his composition style because of their use of traditional English folk tunes.