From the Author
My inspiration for this book comes from Alexander Witeschnik’s Musizieren geht übers Probieren, which contains funny stories from the lives of the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic. I decided to do something similar, but with a broader scope; that is, to collect such material about the most famous composers and performers, while offering further insight. I wanted to compose fascinating and at the same time informative information all within one book. Thus, the reader can have not only information about where and when a certain musician was born, but also learn more about their personality and creativity.
This book is for a wide range of readers. It is not an academic text, so you will not find analyses or criticism of musical works. This book is a kind of a door, through which you will get to know famous musicians via their relationships with the surrounding world and their colleagues. Here you will learn how musicians spoke about one another, whom they loved and whom they disliked, with whom they were friends and with whom they competed. In addition, you will learn how their music is born and the beneficial impact it has on all of us.
Facts on the Greatest Composers
Johann Sebastian Bach
1. Johann Sebastian Bach came into the world on March 21st 1685. He was born in the town of Eisenach, Germany, to Johann Ambrosius Bach and Maria Elisabeth Lammerhirt.
2. Bach was an orphan by the age of 10. His older brother, Johann Christoph, took him in. Like his father, Johann Christoph was a musician and had studied organ with the famed Johann Pachelbel (who composed Canon in D, which you have probably heard at a wedding). Young Johann Sebastian longed to study a score which had been given to his brother by Pachelbel, but J.C. kept the score locked away. At night, J.S. would sneakily uncover the hidden manuscript and copy it by moonlight. He did this for six months before he was caught by J.C., who not only took away the manuscript but also J.S.‘s copy.
3. As a young boy, Bach had a beautiful soprano voice, which helped secure him a spot in the boy’s school in Lüneburg. When his voice changed, he switched his focus to playing violin and harpsichord.
4. In 1705, Bach walked 200 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear the organist Dietrich Buxtehude. He was only granted four weeks leave from his position as an organist in Arnstadt, but ended up taking off four months without permission.
5. In 1717, Bach accepted a position with Prince Leopold in Cöthen. The Prince was passionate about music and even played the violin. It is no surprise many of Bach’s great instrumental works, including the Brandenburg Concertos and The Well-Tempered Clavier, came out of the period from 1717—1723 when he was working in Cöthen.
6. Prince Leopold dissolved his orchestra in 1723, so Bach had to find a new job. He was hired as the cantor of the Thomas School at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, a position he held until his death. His duties included serving the four churches in Leipzig, directing music for public events, and teaching music at the Thomas School. During this time, he composed a new cantata once a week and ended up completing five full cycles of church music — different vocal music for every Sunday of the year! He also composed the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, the Christmas Oratorio, the Goldberg Variations, and the Mass in B Minor.
7. Like many composers of his time, Bach wrote in a contrapuntal style; however, his style tended to be denser than his contemporaries and explored more dissonant harmonies. Where performers were often meant to embellish compositions with ornaments, Bach wrote out most of the fine details, leaving little room for interpretation.
8. Bach was the father of twenty children and was married twice. He and his first wife, Maria Barbara, had seven children. He had thirteen children with his second wife, Anna Magdalena. Four children from his first marriage and six from his second marriage survived to adulthood. Of his six sons, only one did not become a professional musician.
9. Bach never left his provincial corner of Germany. When he died, it seemed most of his music died with him. Little had been published during his life. It was not until 1829 when a young Felix Mendelssohn, only 19 years old, arranged for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion to be performed in Berlin. Audiences were blown away and a Bach revival began. Now, he is one of the most celebrated composers in history.
10. In the 1740s, Bach’s eyesight began to fail. In the spring of 1750, Bach had an operation on his eyes by a famous oculist named Dr. John Taylor. The operation restored Bach’s full eyesight for a very short period of time, after which he became totally blind.
On July 28, 1750, Bach suffered a stroke and died.
Ludwig van Beethoven
1. Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany in December 1770, but no one is sure of the exact date! He was baptized on December 17th, so he was most likely born the day before.
2. When he was 12, he was already composing pieces with funny names like “Lied an einen Säugling” (Song for an Infant) and, later, “Elegie auf den Tod eines Pudels” (Elegy on the Death of a Poodle). The identity of the lucky poodle remains unknown.
3. On his first visit to Vienna, 17-year-old Beethoven was scheduled to perform for Mozart. The latter was generally unimpressed with other musicians, having been so far ahead of his peers in talent and accomplishments. No one really knows what happened during that fateful meeting, but rumor has it Mozart walked out of the room saying, “Keep your eyes on him — someday he’ll give the world something to talk about.”
4. By 1793, just 22 years of age, Beethoven often played the piano in the salons of the Viennese nobility. He often performed the preludes and fugues from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier and quickly established himself as a piano virtuoso.
5. Composing anything is a challenge, even for a musical genius. So when you consider Beethoven started to go deaf around 1796, aged just 25, it is a wonder he managed to write any music at all. He communicated using conversation books, asking his friends to write down what they wanted to say so he could respond.
6. After Beethoven had been composing for some years, the piano began to come into its own. Whereas his predecessors had composed for harpsichord, Beethoven decided he would focus his efforts on the instrument for which no one had yet written comprehensive pieces.
7. Despite his increasing deafness, by 1802 Beethoven was almost at breaking point. On a retreat to Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna, he wrote: “I would have ended my life — it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.” It is known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament” and was published after his death.
8. One of Beethoven’s great piano works, but he never knew the piece as the Moonlight Sonata. He simply called it Piano Sonata No. 14, and it did not receive its poetic nickname until 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death. German poet Ludwig Rellstab said the first movement sounded like moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne, and the name stuck.
9. Symphony No. 9 with its choral finale, the Missa Solemnis, late string quartets, and some of his greatest piano music including sonatas and the Diabelli variations — Beethoven’s late period is full of musical genius. Much of the music is characterized by its intellectual intensity, but it sounds just as wonderful to beginners and Beethoven-aficionados alike.
10. Beethoven died in 1827. His autopsy revealed a shrunken liver due to cirrhosis.
Just like Beethoven’s birth, his last words are also a bit of a mystery. It is often thought his last words were, in Latin, “applaud friends, the comedy is ended” but his parting gift to the world was far less cerebral. After a publisher bought Beethoven twelve bottles of wine as a gift, the dying composer’s final words were: “Pity, pity, too late!”
1. Johannes Brahms was born on May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany.
2. The young Brahms was forced to play the piano in dance halls to contribute to the family’s income as they were so poor.
3. Robert Schumann was so impressed with Brahms’ talent when they met he wrote an essay entitled “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths) which gave Brahms a lot of publicity.
4. Brahms met a Hungarian refugee and violinist by the name of Eduard Remenyi in 1850, and was introduced to a whole range of folk and gypsy music which massively influenced his composing style.
5. Although Brahms began composing his First symphony in 1854, it was not premiered until November 1876, 22 years later. The whole piece underwent severe edits until he was completely happy with it.
6. When Schumann died in 1856, Brahms immediately went to Düsseldorf to be with Schumann’s wife, Clara. It is unclear exactly what kind of relationship the two had, but they later destroyed a large amount of their letters they had written to each other, possibly suggesting they had something to hide.
7. When his mother died in 1865, Brahms was overcome with grief. It is speculated this led him to compose his German Requiem, one of the most celebrated works from his career.
8. Perhaps due to their musical opposition towards one another, Wagner and Brahms were not exactly best friends when they met in Vienna in 1864, after Brahms moved there to direct the Vienna Singakademie. Wagner later attacked Brahms in the press.
9. When he was 57, Brahms announced he was finished with composing. However, he was clearly unable to stop his creativity, as he produced some incredible late-period works, especially for the clarinet, like his Clarinet Sonatas, Trio and Quintet.
10. Brahms died of either pancreatic or liver cancer (the evidence is unclear) on April 3, 1897.
1. Georges Bizet was born in Paris on October 25, 1838. His father was a singing teacher and his mother was an accomplished pianist who gave Georges his first lessons. The Paris Conservatoire was so impressed by the boy’s abilities it waived its age rule and offered him a place at age nine.
2. A brilliant student, Bizet won many prizes for his outstanding piano playing. The composer Gounod became a lasting influence on his musical style. Shortly after his 17th birthday, Bizet wrote his own symphony, a close resemblance to Gounod’s — note for note in some passages.
3. As a young man, Bizet became a regular guest at Offenbach’s parties, where among other musicians he met Rossini, who Bizet described as “the greatest of them all, because like Mozart, he has all the virtues.”
4. Bizet’s early keyboard and orchestral compositions were largely ignored and he earned his living mainly by arranging and transcribing other people’s music.
5. In May 1861, at a dinner party at which Liszt was present, Bizet astonished everyone by sight reading one of the maestro’s most difficult piano pieces. Liszt said, “I thought there were only two men able to surmount the difficulties… there are three, and… the youngest is perhaps the boldest and most brilliant.”
6. In June 1869, Bizet married Geneviève Halévy, the nervously unstable daughter of the composer Fromental Halévy. Her family initially opposed the relationship, considering him an unsuitable catch: “penniless, left-wing, anti-religious and Bohemian.” The marriage was intermittently happy and produced a son, Jacques.
7. Bizet started many theatrical projects during the 1860s, most of which he abandoned. Neither of the two operas which reached the stage — Les pêcheurs de perles and La jolie fille de Perth — were immediately successful. Les pêcheurs de perles later won more popularity for its beautiful duet.
8. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, during which Bizet served in the National Guard, he had a hit with an orchestral suite derived from his incidental music of Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne. The music was dismissed by critics as too complex for popular taste, but the suite received an enthusiastic reception.
9. The production of Bizet’s final opera, Carmen, was delayed because of fears its themes of betrayal and murder would be too offensive. In the audience at the opera’s premiere were Massenet and Saint-Saëns, who both loved it. Gounod accused Bizet of plagiarism and much of the press was negative. Bizet was convinced the opera was a failure.
10. Bizet, who was a heavy smoker, died of a heart attack aged 36, three months after the première of Carmen, unaware his opera would become a spectacular and enduring success.
1. Bruckner was born in Ansfelden (then a village, now a suburb of Linz) on September 4, 1824. His father was the local church organist and his mother a singer in the choir. However, he did not begin his formal music training until he was eleven, when he spent the next five years as a choirboy at the monastery of St. Florian.
2. Starting out his professional life as a music teacher, Bruckner made a few attempts at small-scale composition, although it was not until 1848 when he felt inspired to produce his first notable work, the Requiem in D minor.
3. Having been appointed organist at St. Florian, most of Bruckner’s energies remained on teaching and the organ, an instrument upon which he had become widely recognized as one of Europe’s greatest.
4. On attending a performance of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser, the 38-year-old Bruckner felt driven to make composition his main vocation.
5. Inspired by Wagner’s example, he set to work on an Overture in G minor and the Symphony in F minor, which were followed over the next three years by Symphonies Nos. 0 and 1, and his first indisputable masterpiece, the Mass in D minor of 1864.
6. The sheer strain caused by the hours of constant study, in addition to his professional responsibilities, resulted in an acute nervous collapse early in 1867.
7. Recovered, he took a teaching post in Vienna in 1867 at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. In 1875, Bruckner became the first lecturer in harmony and counterpoint at the University of Vienna.
8. In his diaries, Bruckner kept lists of the girls he fancied (most in their late teens). He had a mania for counting the bricks and windows of buildings, and for counting the numbers of bars in his gargantuan orchestral scores, making sure their proportions were statistically correct.
9. Bruckner’s final years were largely devoted to the composition of the Ninth Symphony, which remained tantalisingly incomplete at the time of his death.
10. Bruckner died on the October 11, 1896 while still in Vienna. His legacy is engraved in the libraries of Vienna, having complete records of his works and revisions. He was decorated with the Order of Franz Joseph on July 1886 while the Anton Bruckner Private University for Music, Drama, and Dance was named in his honor.
1. Frédéric Chopin was born in Żelazowa Wola, 46 kilometers (29 miles) west of Warsaw. Frédéric’s father, Nicolas Chopin, was a Frenchman from Lorraine who had immigrated to Poland in 1787 at the age of sixteen.
Chopin was composing and writing poetry at age six, and gave his first public concerto performance at the age of eight. It is not really surprising — his mother was a piano teacher, and his father played the flute and violin.
2. Chopin was very fond of Bach. He urged his piano pupils to practice Bach every day in order to strengthen their fingers and exercise their minds with the mathematical music.
3. His Piano Concerto No. 2 was written before his Piano Concerto No. 1, in 1830. But the former was published after the latter, leading to the confusion.
4. Despite only arriving in Paris in September 1831, Chopin never returned to his homeland of Poland. While he was in The City of Light, he forged friendships with great composers including Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Liszt.
5. As way of making money while living in Paris, Chopin built up a book of rich contacts to whom he would give piano lessons. Unfortunately, he felt too embarrassed to ask his pupils for money, so he looked away while they left the fee on the mantelpiece.
6. Chopin’s Minute Waltz is not minute as in small, it is minute in that it lasts 60 seconds. Well, nearly; the 138 bars of music take between a minute and a half to two minutes to play. Chopin’s publishers coined the nickname.
7. Chopin was forced to postpone his engagements due to his health, an ongoing problem. Word spread among the people in Warsaw believing the composer had died because he was so ill in 1835.
8. When Chopin visited Majorca, he had trouble bringing his precious piano along with him. The piano, made by the famous Pleyel et Cie company, was held up by customs from December 20, 1838 until January 4, 1839. Eventually George Sand agreed to pay 300 francs to have the instrument released.
9. Chopin had an long and stormy affair with a novelist called George Sand after meeting her in 1836. At least, that is what she said her name was in order to get noticed in a society which did not look favorably on female authors. Her real name was Aurore Dudevant.
10. Chopin died in 1849, most likely from tuberculosis, at the age of 39. He is buried near his friend, composer Cerubini, at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Mozart’s Requiem was performed at his funeral. The composer’s sister, Ludwika, took Chopin’s heart in an urn, preserved in alcohol, back to Poland in 1850.
1. Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, on August 22, 1862. He was the eldest of five children.
2. Aged ten, Debussy started his studies at the Paris Conservatoire. During the next eleven years, he studied composition with prestigious French musicians including Émile Durand and César Franck, but failed to win the premier prix for piano, so he abandoned his dream of becoming a virtuoso.
3. Debussy won the Prix de Rome for composition, with his piece L’enfant prodigue. This meant he received a scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in the Villa Medici, and had to complete a four-year residence from 1885—87. He was pretty unhappy there; sometimes he was so distressed he was unable to compose.
4. Debussy’s Suite bergamasque is comprised of four movements, of which his beautiful Clair de lune is the third, after the Prélude and Menuet, and before the Passepied. The relaxing music is inspired by a poem, written by French poet Paul Verlaine.
5. Based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, Debussy’s symphonic poem for orchestra Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was first performed in 1894. It describes the dreams of a faun, a mythical half-human, half-goat figure, in the afternoon heat.
6. Pelléas et Mélisande is Debussy’s only opera, and it is considered to be a landmark in 20th-century music. The five-act love story premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in April 1902.
7. His music may be relaxing, but Debussy’s private life was anything but. He had a number of high profile affairs, broke off an engagement, and left his wife, Rosalie Texier, for Emma Bardac. The couple were forced to flee to England in 1905 after causing controversy in France.
8. Debussy’s music is often described as impressionist, but he was not a fan of the label. He said, “I am trying to do something different… what the imbeciles call ‘impressionism,’ a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics.”
9. Despite the title, Children’s Corner isn’t actually a piece for children. It was written in 1911 for the composer’s three-year-old daughter, Claude-Emma, and was intended to evoke childhood toys and memories.
10. After being diagnosed with cancer in 1909, Debussy’s health deteriorated. He died in Paris on March 25, 1918 and is buried in Passy Cemetery.
1. Born in Lower Broadheath near Worcester on June 2, 1857, Edward William Elgar came into the world in a countryside idyll which went on to dominate his creativity for the rest of his life.
2. Elgar became something of a musical oddity, regularly accompanying local groups and choirs, as well as making early forays into composing. It was not the most lucrative path and he spent some time working at a law firm to make ends meet.
3. One of Elgar’s most popular works, the Enigma Variations from 1899, is also his most mysterious. Each of the fourteen variations has a cryptic subtitle which relates to a particular person or animal in Elgar’s life, including his wife, his publisher, and various friends and students.
4. Elgar met the woman who was to become his wife, Caroline Alice Roberts, in 1886. She was from good stock and very wealthy, and was to become a hugely dominant force behind Elgar’s creativity. He dedicated several pieces to her, including Salut d’Amour, which he composed as an engagement present.
5. The eleventh variation in the Enigma Variations supposedly depicts George Sinclair’s (who at the time was organist at Hereford Cathedral) bulldog, Dan, after it fell into the River Wye.
6. In 1923 Elgar made a little-documented trip to South America, where he embarked upon a cruise of the Amazon river. The event was fictionalised in James Hamilton-Patterson’s novel Gerontius, which makes a rather fanciful fist of the whole episode.
7. One of the masterpieces of the modern cello repertoire, it is intriguing Elgar’s Cello concerto was not widely performed until Jacqueline Du Pré got hold of it in 1965. The premiere recording was made by Beatrice Harrison, with Elgar himself conducting in 1920.
8. Elgar was one of the first composers to fully embrace recorded music. He regularly teamed up with the team at HMV to make premiere recordings of his works, including the Enigma Variations, the Cello Concerto, and Symphonic Study “Falstaff.”
9. As well as being behind some of the most beloved English music of all time, Sir Edward Elgar was also a keen amateur chemist. He would happily spend hours in his shed tinkering away at little experiments, but the culmination was most certainly his invention of the Elgar Sulphuretted Hydrogen Apparatus, a device for synthesizing hydrogen sulfide which briefly went into production.
10. Inoperable colorectal cancer was discovered during an operation on October 8, 1933. He told his consulting doctor, Arthur Thomson, he had no faith in an afterlife, “I believe there is nothing but complete oblivion.” Elgar died on February 23, 1934 and was buried next to his wife at St. Wulstan’s Roman Catholic Church in Little Malvern.
1. Born on June 15, 1843, Edvard Grieg is Norway’s most famous musical son, although the Scots lay claim to him being one of their own. His Scottish great-grandfather immigrated to Scandinavia after the Battle of Culloden.
2. A fortuitous encounter with a family friend, the violin virtuoso Ole Bull, resulted in the 15-year-old Grieg’s immediate transfer to the Leipzig Conservatory. Yet in his own words, he left the Conservatory “as stupid as when I entered it.”
3. Grieg did not particularly enjoy his time away from Norway, but he did gain the opportunity to hear performances from the likes of Clara Schumann and Richard Wagner.
4. In 1866 Grieg gave a concert of his own music, including some piano miniatures and the First Violin Sonata, which proved to be a sensation.
5. Following Grieg’s 1867 marriage to his cousin Nina Hagerup and the birth of their baby daughter, Alexandra, he composed his first and most enduring masterpiece, the A minor Piano Concerto, in a flurry of inspiration.
6. Grieg was determined to make his mark on the world with his first full orchestral piece. The Piano Concerto was an instant success and many expected Grieg to follow it up with a second. But he never composed another.
7. In 1874–76, Grieg composed incidental music for the premiere of Henrik Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt, at the request of the author. The opening movement, Morning, and In the Hall of the Mountain King have become staples of the concert repertoire and have featured in many TV commercials.
8. In 1885 the family took up residence in Troldhaugen near Bergen, where Grieg was to stay for the next 20 years. His piano piece Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, taken from the Lyric Pieces, was written to commemorate his and Nina’s own silver wedding anniversary.
9. Grieg was given an honorary degree by Cambridge University in 1894. Straight after the ceremony he rushed to the post office and sent a telegram to a friend, a physician in Bergen who shared his surname. He signed his telegram “Doctor Grieg.”
10. In the summer of 1906 Grieg penned his final composition — the Four Psalms — and then, seriously weakened, left for the comparative warmth of a hotel in Christiana. He was on the verge of undertaking a journey to Britain in the autumn of 1907 when he suffered a massive heart attack, dying in hospital shortly after arrival.
George Frideric Handel
1. George Frideric Handel was born on the 23rd of February 1685 (the same year as Bach) in Halle, Germany.
2. Handel’s father, a lawyer by trade, was not a huge fan of his son’s musical ambitions. In fact, when he was a boy, Handel had to sneak to the attic to play a clavichord which was hidden up there.
3. Handel was a hit in London, as evidenced by the very generous salary of £200 he received from Queen Anne when he moved there in 1712.
4. Handel’s successes in London continued, and he was eventually made the musical director at The Royal Academy of Music.
5. In 1711, the Queen’s Theatre in London was treated to its first ever opera composed specifically for it. The premiere performance of Handel’s Rinaldo took place there on February 24th in Haymarket.
6. Handel was such a popular opera composer he was allowed to pick his own leading ladies. However, this perk led to an almighty bust-up between sopranos Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, two rival singers of the day, who ended up having a scrap on stage during a performance of Giovanni Bononcini’s Astianatte. They both had to be dragged off stage to stop them pulling bits off each other’s costumes.
7. Some of Handel’s biggest and best works were composed in the latter stages of his life. This might not sound too impressive, but he did suffer from a stroke in 1737, was involved in a coach crash in 1750, and had cataracts before going blind after a botched eye operation 1751.
8. Handel’s final oratorio, Jephtha, was a heartbreaking experience for the composer. He was rapidly going blind during its composition, eventually leading him to write on the score, “Reached here on 13 February 1751, unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye.”
9. When, after a life of chaos and incredible music, Handel succumbed to his afflictions in 1759. His funeral was attended by 3,000 people and was a huge state affair.
10. Praise does not come much higher than from Ludwig Van Beethoven, who said of Handel’s works, “Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.”
Franz Joseph Haydn
1. Franz Joseph Haydn was born in the village of Rohrau, Austria on March 31, 1732 to poor parents. His father, Mathias Haydn, was a master wheelwright while his mother, Maria Kohler Haydn, was an under-cook for an aristocratic family of Count Harrach. Haydn had eleven other siblings, but six of them died in infancy.
2. The other Haydn, Michael Haydn, was also a prolific composer and indeed related to Franz Joseph Haydn. They were brothers.
3. Haydn was famous for his pranks. While studying at St. Stephens Cathedral, he cut off the ponytail of a fellow chorus member. He was suspended and summarily dismissed with no home to go to. While on the street, Haydn became a “street serenader” and was soon discovered by a successful composer who took him in as a student.
4. Haydn’s personal favorite composition, Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser (Emperor’s Hymn), has been used throughout history by famous composers such as Tchaikovsky, Czerny, Rossini, Paganini, Smetana, and many others and is currently used for the German national anthem.
5. Franz Joseph Haydn was affectionately called Papa Haydn by many people and for many reasons. The title originated from his care for his often mischievous orchestra musicians, who frequently needed saving from trouble while in the court of Prince Esterhazy. Mozart continued the torch and affectionately referred to him as Papa Haydn as well.
6. Another important layer to the Papa Haydn nickname comes from his reputation as the “Father of the Symphony” and the “Father of the String Quartet.” Haydn was not the inventor of the symphony or quartet, but rather is respected for perfecting them.
7. During an unexpectedly extended stint of summer concerts away from home, Haydn wrote his Farewell Symphony on behalf of his musicians. The final Adagio movement calls for each musician to stop playing at one point, blow out their candle, and leave the performance until only two players are left playing (Haydn and his Concertmaster in this case). The joke and message was received, as the next day Prince Esterhazy decided it was finally time for them all to return home.
8. After serving as Kapellmeister for the Esterhazy family for many years, Haydn left his position and went to London to study music from English composers and experience their larger orchestras. While there he wrote his final twelve symphonies and some of his best-known works.
9. In the late 1700s Beethoven attempted to study with Haydn, but Haydn was too preoccupied with his own works and travelling to give Beethoven his due attention. Upon Haydn’s second trip to London, Beethoven began studying with other teachers and lessons with the Papa Haydn never resumed. Beethoven famously recalled, “I learned nothing from Haydn.”
10. Haydn died in Vienna on May 31, 1809. Upon his death, phrenologists took his head from his grave and brought it back for study. After quite a series of extraordinary events, Haydn’s head made its way safely to the wonderful display in the Esterhazy estate where the rest of his body rests peacefully still to this day.
1. Franz Liszt was born to Anna Liszt and Adam Liszt on October 22, 1811 in the village of Doborján in Sopron County, in the Kingdom of Hungary, Austrian Empire. Liszt’s father played the piano, violin, cello, and guitar. He had been in the service of Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy and personally knew Haydn, Hummel, and Beethoven.
2. Liszt’s early progress was astounding. By the age of nine, he had already mastered Ferdinand Ries’s excruciatingly difficult E flat major Piano Concerto.
3. Through Chopin’s friend, George Sand, Liszt met the Comtesse d’Agoult, who in 1835 left her husband and family to live with him. Three children were born of this liaison — Blandine, Cosima, and Daniel.
4. Between 1835 and 1843, Liszt concertized extensively in Vienna, Leipzig, Prague, and Dresden while continuing to compose. Apart from several fine pieces, most of these works were transcriptions and arrangements of compositions by others. In 1843, already separated from the countess, Liszt accepted an appointment at Weimar as Grand Ducal Director of Music Extraordinary.
5. In 1846 Liszt returned to Hungary, where he became interested in gypsy music and eventually incorporated some of their melodies in his Hungarian Rhapsodies. On a concert tour in Russia, he met the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, who eventually left her husband to marry him. Unable to obtain a divorce in Russia, the princess moved with Liszt to Villa Altenberg, a home they bought in Weimar in 1848.
6. Here Liszt settled down to compose, teach, and conduct. He wrote two piano concertos, the Todtentanz for piano and orchestra, and the symphonic poems Tasso, Les Préludes, Mazeppa, and Hunnenschlacht in addition to conducting the first performances of numerous works, including Wagner’s Lohengrin in 1850 at the Staatskappelle Weimar. Liszt’s daughter Cosima married the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow in 1857. She later left him for Wagner, with whom she had three children before marrying him.
7. In 1871, Liszt was appointed Royal Hungarian Counselor and began the three-cornered journey to Rome, Weimar, and Budapest which became the pattern for the rest of his life. In 1873, the fiftieth anniversary of his career was celebrated at Budapest as a national occasion. In 1877, he participated in a concert in Vienna for the fiftieth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s death, just as he had contributed to the activities celebrating the centennials of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1856 and of Beethoven in 1870.
8. Liszt moved to Rome in 1861. Such was his devotion to the church, Pope Pius IX conferred on him the title of “Abbé” four years later. The rest of his life was dominated by a series of inspired sacred compositions, while his piano music became more calmly reflective and meditative in tone.
9. In 1881, Liszt’s seventieth birthday was celebrated in Rome with a concert of his own music. On May 22, 1883, Liszt gave a memorial concert for Wagner, who had died in February. Liszt gave his last concert on July 19, 1886. The extent of his tours and the number of his concerts defy the imagination.
10. Liszt died in Bayreuth on July 31, 1886 from dropsy complicated by pneumonia.
1. Mahler was born on July 7, 1860 in Kalischt, Bohemia, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and which is now located in an area which is part of the Czech Republic.
2. Mahler discovered a piano in his grandmother’s attic when he was six years old. Just four years later, he gave his first public performance.
3. Mahler graduated from the Vienna Conservatory in 1878. Sadly, few of his student compositions were preserved, so it is not clear what he may have sounded like at the time.
4. Following his tenure with the Leipzig Opera, Mahler moved to Prague in 1885 to take up a post with the Neues Deutsches Theater (New German Theatre) in Prague.
5. In 1897, Mahler became director of the Vienna Court Opera, a post he would go on to hold for ten years. It was a trying time for Mahler, who on more than one occasion had to prove his German cultural credentials to appease his employers. He did so with some storming concerts of Wagner.
6. Mahler met the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, after a series of tragedies plagued Mahler’s already tragic life. Freud’s diagnosis for Mahler was mother-fixation.
7. Mahler wrote a song cycle on the death of children called Kindertotenlieder, which enraged his wife Alma Mahler. Sadly, not too long after, one of his two children passed away.
8. Mahler is known for creating the autobiographical symphony. He claimed, “a symphony should be the world, it must embrace everything.” His Symphony No. 3 is one of the longest symphonies ever created, clocking in at roughly 95 minutes. Composed between 1893 and 1896, it is still performed in symphony halls around the world to this day.
9. In 1907, Mahler was diagnosed with bacterial endocarditis, also known as infective endocarditis. It is an infection of the inner lining of the heart and at least one of the heart valves. He died just four years later.
10. On February 21, 1911, Mahler conducted his final concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. He was severely ill afterwards and confined to bed. He traveled back to Vienna, where he died on May 18, 1911.
1. Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born February 3, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany. He came from a wealthy family who mixed with many of Germany’s leading artists and musicians. A frighteningly clever child prodigy, the young Felix excelled as a painter, poet, athlete, linguist, and musician.
2. In 1812, the family moved to Berlin, Germany, where his father established himself as a banker, converted to Protestantism, and changed the family name to Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
3. Felix began taking piano lessons from his mother at age six. After the family moved to Berlin, Felix and his three siblings all studied piano. He made his public debut at the age of nine.
4. Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, Mendelssohn wrote twelve string symphonies influenced by Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. His first published work, a Piano quartet, was written by the time he was thirteen. At fifteen, he composed his first symphony for full orchestra. The following year, Mendelssohn completed his String Octet in E-flat major, the first work which demonstrated his true genius.
5. In 1829, Mendelssohn organized and conducted an acclaimed performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which had by then been quite forgotten. The success of the performance — the first since Bach’s death in 1750 — played an important role in reviving Bach’s music in Europe.
6. Mendelssohn traveled widely and made his first of ten visits to Britain in 1829. Afterwards he headed off to Italy. The buoyant and optimistic mood with which his Italian Symphony begins bears all the hallmarks of a happy man, eager to make his mark on the work and express his travels through music.
7. Mendelssohn was a lover of Britain and the people of Britain loved him and his music back in equal measure. He traveled throughout the country, with trips to Scotland sparking two of his best loved works — Scottish Symphony and Hebrides Overture.
8. Mendelssohn was an excellent watercolor painter. He also maintained an enormous correspondence which illustrates his wit. Sometimes he would draw sketches and cartoons in the text of his letters.
9. Along with composing, Mendelssohn was a highly proficient conductor, being given the position of music director at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835 when he was just twenty-six years of age. His concert programs included many of his own works as well as pieces by his contemporaries. He was deluged by offers of music from rising composers including Richard Wagner.
10. Mendelssohn suffered from poor health in the final years of his life. A hectic final tour of England left him exhausted and ill. He died aged 38 after a series of strokes. Mendelssohn once described death as a place “where it is to be hoped there is still music, but no more sorrow or partings.” Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn died November 4, 1847.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
1. Baptized as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, born on January 27, 1756 in Salzburg in what is now Austria. His parents had six children, but only he and his eldest sister, Maria Anna, nicknamed “Nannerl” survived infancy.
2. His father, Leopold Mozart, was a native of Germany and also composed music, but was primarily a musician for the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg and pedagogue. He wrote a violin textbook which was well received when published in the same year Mozart was born.