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.