This document does not attempt to be a final word on anything. It
has always been in a state of flux, and I expect it will continue to
be so for a while to come. Some of my information is woefully
inadequate (my entry for Schubert read
famous song composer for an embarrassingly long
time), and a good proportion of the rest is little more than (what I
hope is at least reasonably informed) opinion.
With the exception of entries provided solely to provide links to other pages, all entries are present because I know something about the composer in question and their works. If a composer is not on these pages, there’s a good chance that while I’ve probably heard of them, I haven’t actually heard any of their compositions. These pages are my own thoughts about composers, not a compiled encyclopædia of biographical details. (Of course, I’m always open to people mailing me and telling me that I simply must listen to so-and-so...)
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Wikipedia has much more information on many more composers than I will ever have here. Wikipedia didn’t exist when I began this page (over 10 years ago), but I’d now recommend it as a great first source for information on these composers, and more.
One of the greatest Baroque composers along with Handel. His most famous works are probably the Brandenburg Concerti, the Well-tempered clavier, The art of fugue, his Mass in B-minor, and the St. Matthew Passion. Needless to say, I wholeheartedly recommend each and every one of the above works.
From what I’ve read and heard, Bach is now considered somewhat atypical as far as Baroque composers go. His “obsession” with the fugue was apparently rather anachronistic; most other composers of the same era held that the fugue was an out-dated form.
Without doubt, one of the true greats. Just awesome, man. Beethoven didn’t write as much as Mozart or Schubert, but what he produced is all worth listening to. (The stereotype has it that he sweated over every note in a way that Mozart didn’t. This makes light of Mozart unduly however; letters of his describe how he found the composition of works such as his later quartets very hard.)
I can recommend all of Beethoven’s symphonies but in particular, the third (Eroica), the fifth, the sixth (“Pastoral”), the seventh and the ninth (“Choral”). The last three piano concerti (nos. 3, 4 and 5), the Missa Solemnis, the triple concerto (for violin, piano and cello) and the string quartets are also all well worth listening to.
Apart from the triple concerto mentioned above, a wonderful violin concerto, and a Choral Fantasy for piano, orchestra and choir, I believe that Beethoven didn’t write any other concerti for orchestral instruments. Though this seems a shame, I suspect it was probably because he had little experience of other instruments. (Beethoven was primarily a pianist, having earned his living for a while in Vienna from performing, but did also play the viola). My own theory is that perhaps this came about because concerti for instruments for other instruments seemed unduly “light”.
Of course, one of the most famous things about Beethoven as a person was his deafness. I find it hard to imagine being able to compose music as wonderful as the Choral symphony whilst being unable to hear the music except in one’s head. There is an impressive, but rather sad, story about how Beethoven was encouraged to help conduct at a rehearsal for the Choral symphony. Even as the rehearsal finished, Beethoven was still conducting to the orchestra, and he had to be made aware that the musicians had finished playing.
Links: Deryk Barker has written a very
of various Beethoven symphony recordings, which is worth
looking at. There is a very extensive site (in French, English
and Italian) at
Another comprehensive site is Iulian Munteanu’s All about
I don’t actually know anything of Berlioz’s music or life, but I’ve included this entry just so I can provide pointers to Matthew Tepper’s Berlioz pages.
It has long been an accepted myth that Brahms’s childhood was spent in what was a fairly seedy part of Hamburg, and that at the age of twelve, he was playing the piano in a bar, consorting with the good folk of that area, and generally getting what was probably a fairly untypical education for a composer. However, I believe that this myth has now been thoroughly debunked, and that while Brahms had a relatively poor upbringing he wasn’t quite the piano player in the brothel that legend would like him to have been.
Brahms was good friends with Robert Schumann and his wife Clara. Clara survived her husband by many years, and she and Brahms were very close. I believe most authorities consider this to have been a solely Platonic relationship. In any case, Brahms was apparently a pretty difficult character to get on with. He never married, but managed lots of tiffs with his friends (the Schumanns and the violinist Joachim for whom, and with whose help, he wrote the violin concerto).
Brahms’s major works include all four of his symphonies, Ein Deutsches Requiem, the two piano concerti, the violin concerto and the clarinet quintet. (This latter apparently so impressed Clara Schumann that she became reconciled with Brahms after them having drifted apart over some misunderstanding.)
I have found Brahms’s music very rewarding. It is perhaps not as easy to listen to and “grasp” as (say) Mozart’s, probably because in the orchestral works the sound tends to be denser, while his chamber music also seems quite complex. His later chamber music, such as the two string quintets and the clarinet quintet, is very beautiful, often conveying a wistful, slightly melancholic mood.
Further, Brahms’s concerto slow movements are definitely beautiful, and do not necessarily approach the same density as other examples of his music. I am thinking of the second movement of the violin concerto, and the third of the second piano concerto in particular. In both pieces, the solo instrument seems to take a back seat to another instrument. In the violin concerto, the second movement opens with a beautiful melody played by the oboe. The piano concerto sees the cello take the lovely main tune for quite a period while the pianist is reduced to occasional accompanying trills.
Played well, it doesn’t sound it.
Though born in Poland, Chopin spent the last half of his life in Paris, arriving there in 1831. In Paris, he came to know the novelist George Sand, and was her lover for a time.
The Vancouver Chopin Society have an interesting web-site with more information on Chopin and his works.
Elgar wrote just two complete symphonies, but left enough of his plans for a third when he died that Payne, a contemporary English composer has recently been able to reconstruct an approximation of what Elgar intended for his third symphony. In the short time since this was done, this new work has received quite a favourable reception (in Britain at least).
Another famous work of Elgar’s is his cello concerto. Jacqueline du Pré made a famous recording of this, which I can recommend. No doubt said recording features in the recent film Hillary and Jackie.
Readers interested in Elgar will surely enjoy Anthony Anderson’s account of the 1995 Elgar weekend.
Pieces of his that are particular favourites of mine are his organ concerti, his Water-music and Fireworks-music, and the Messiah. The latter is probably his most famous work. It is a huge choral piece that includes the well-known Hallelujah Chorus. I recently went to my first performance of this, and I will attempt to include a description of it in these pages soon.
One shouldn’t assume that Haydn’s pioneering rôle in the development of the symphony and the string quartet means that his pieces have been superseded by subsequent composers’ works. Indeed, one of the many ways in which his music seems impressive is the self-assurance with which a relatively limited palette is explored.
One of the themes to Jupiter was subsequently used as the basis for rather a patriotic hymn (I vow to thee my country), in much the same way as one of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches was turned into Land of Hope and Glory.
The sixth symphony is also one that I have come to know, and I can also thoroughly recommend it. The Naxos label have a cheap recording of this with Antoni Wit and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, which is very good. The Penguin guide also recommends this recording. It’s a double CD.The fourth symphony I listened to first was again on DG, but with Karajan conducting. I can’t remember the orchestras. This I also liked almost instantly.
Deryk Barker has written a very extensive Mahler page of reviews and information about the man and his work.
Another composer who was famous as something of a child prodigy, Mendelssohn didn’t manage to achieve the fame of composers such as Mozart or Beethoven. He wrote five symphonies (the last of which, the Reformation symphony, I particularly recommend), a famous violin concerto and some famous theme music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the Wedding March from this is often used at real weddings). Mendelssohn also wrote a number of religious works, including the St. Paul oratorio.
There does seem to be a tendency among some people to label Mozart as nothing more than the composer of “pretty tunes” or little twiddles. I couldn’t disagree more. In particular, I think his religious music exhibits a great deal of feeling, and transcends mere “twiddles”. In my opinion, the problem is probably that people tend to know things like Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and because this particular piece is eminently hummable, not particularly “deep”, and played to death in Muzak-like environments, people assume that all of Mozart’s music is like that.
The best Mozart site on the web is probably The Mozart Project. But you may also find the online site for the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe fascinating. This is an online presentation of authoritative editions of all of Mozart’s music, freely available for personal use. For more information on Mozart’s home-town, and some biographical details about Mozart, see the Visit Salzburg site.
Bach, Handel and Scarlatti were all born in the same year, but though Bach and Handel knew of each other, it was only Handel and Scarlatti that managed to meet. On the occasion, it is said that they held an informal competition, and while Handel was held to be the better organist, Scarlatti was judged the better harpsichordist.
Schubert died just a year after Beethoven, and it was thought quite tragic that Vienna should lose two great composers so close upon each other’s heels.
Tomoko Yamamoto has a published a page celebrating the two-hundredth anniversary of Schubert’s birth. Bart Berman has some notes on Schubert, with particular reference to some of his piano music.
Schumann was committed to a mental asylum after throwing himself into a river, and died soon afterwards. Schumann’s attempted suicide led Brahms to write his first piano concerto. Schumann earlier caused himself a debilitating injury to his hand while using a mechanical device supposed to improve his finger strength and reach for piano playing
Robert’s wife Clara was an internationally famous concert pianist (and also a minor composer).
Stravinsky apparently said of Shostakovich that he was one of the most frightened men he had ever met (this reported comment may in fact have been something similar made by Robert Craft), and this feeling of fear (terror, even) is something one can often hear in Shostakovich’s music. This is not to imply that all of his work is irredeemably grim. The second movement of the second string quartet is beautifully sad and sweet, for example. Significant works include his fifth and tenth symphonies, the eighth quartet, the two cello concerti and the 24 preludes and fugues.
Shostakovich had a strong musical education. He entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory at a young age and was taught there by Glazunov, among others. His first symphony was his graduation piece (composed in 1925), and was well received. He supported himself and his mother in this period by playing the piano at silent movie screenings.
In later works, Shostakovich made frequent use of a D-Eflat-C-B theme. Written using the German notation this reads D-S-C-H, his “initials” (given another Romanization of his name; Dimitri SCHostakovich).
There are a large number of other music pages and resources on the Web devoted to Shostakovich, so I’ve collected them together into a Shostakovich links page.
Interestingly, Sibelius’s last published works came out in the 1920s. That means that he was alive for about 30 years and not producing anything he considered worthy of publishing. Apparently, he spent much of that period working on an eighth symphony. He sent some material to a publisher at one point, saying that the final work would be eight times as long, and that he thought it was the best stuff he’d ever done. However, he grew increasingly self-critical, eventually asked for the material back from the publisher and burnt it.
Having recently travelled to Finland to attend a conference (Sibelius is on the 100 Mark banknote), I can’t claim that the Finnish landscape is an obvious inspiration for Sibelius and his music. However, I was there in summer (and it was warmer there than in Britain), and at a stretch I can imagine that seeing everything blanketted in snow might well lead one to music like Sibelius’s. Perhaps. Or perhaps music says a lot more about one’s inward feelings than it does about the topography of one’s country.
There is still some controversy over the nature of Tchaikovsky’s death. It happened very suddenly without much warning, and it has been speculated that Tchaikovsky committed suicide.
His most famous work is undoubtedly the Four seasons, but his flute concerto La Notte is also well-known and very good listening.
My biographies page is part of The Classical Music Web Ring, the free linking service hosted by OrchestraNET. Give it a go:
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These pages were once selected by the Eye on the Web
people. I suppose I’m honoured, though I have no real way of
telling how selective the Eye is. (And now, in 2005, the whole company
eyeontheweb.com seems to have disappeared; their glowing
words of praise are lost to us forever.)
At one stage these pages were reviewed by the McKinley people for their Magellan search engine. The review suggests that sample music clips are missing, but they do give me two stars, which is nice I guess. The incitement for me to go out there and test copyright laws by providing music samples is one I’ll ignore (if only because of a lack of disk space, and because I have real work to do). The fact that my page is still around, but their review of it is now only preserved on my machine, says something for the transient nature of the Web.