A Broad Brush View: History’s Top Composers


“There is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music is.” William P Merrill

A Short History of the Top Ten Composers of all Time

The brief overview above (click on the Short History link) will get you started and aid in your understanding of the most famous composers of all time, but don’t stop there. You have yet to meet Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Prokofiev, and so many more. Want to learn about the great Rossini? To whet your appetite for his fun and recognizable music, here’s a cute video of his Duetto buffo di due gatti. (Hint: It means Comic Duet for Two Cats.)

The same year Rossini was born in Italy, 22-year-old Ludwig Von Beethoven received his first lesson in music composition from Franz Joseph Haydn in Vienna. I think it’s important to get a timeline in your head — to get a feel for what was going on in the world while the music of the past was being written. Some of the most famous composers produced their music during times of revolution and war or during a season of church growth or of economic trouble or plague or perhaps personal suffering. These things matter because you can often feel the emotions of the composer as you listen to what he dredged from his traumatized, embittered, or perplexed mind. Perhaps he was dealing with unrequited love like Beethoven or Brahms (not so sure it was unrequited in Brahms’ case). If you know what a composer’s world was like, you can get a better understanding of his music. New ideas were constantly springing up from the imaginations of gifted composers, much as they are today. If we pay attention, we can watch them unfold.

I hope you’ll read on and learn about each composer the way I did, with rapt attention to their lives and work and to the culture of the world around them. Enjoy!


To learn more about Charlotte Mason’s living educational principles and how to apply them to music study, I hope you will consider purchasing my book, A Touch of the Infinite.

George Gershwin (1898-1937)


Gershwin and Copland had a lot in common. Like Copland, Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York to Russian-Jewish immigrants. Originally Jacob Gershvin, he first began his musical career at the age of 11, when his parents bought a secondhand piano for his older brother Ira.

George dropped out of school at fifteen and began playing piano in nightclubs for money. By his late teens, he was accompanying broadway performers and had already made a name for himself as a pianist. His first song, “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em,” earned him five dollars, but he was hooked. Before long, he came up with a song called “Swanee” that became a blockbuster hit. Everybody knew Swanee! It was whistled everywhere, from the streets of New York to the cotton fields in Mississippi.

Gershwin was on fire! Over the next four years, he wrote 45 songs and a 25 minute opera called “Blue Monday.” In 1924, he began collaborating with his brother Ira and continued writing with him for the Broadway stage for many years. They wrote hit after hit after hit! But all the while, George was secretly writing serious musical compositions for the orchestra. When he finally revealed his work, it was remarkable. No one had ever blended jazzy contemporary music with orchestral music before. And when you heard it, you could feel the excitement or grief or joy or sorrow in this music without words.

 One of Gershwin’s most famous works, Rhapsody in Blue, was written in under five weeks’ time in order to meet a premiere deadline, and Gershwin himself performed with the orchestra on the piano. Famous composers Serge Rachmaninov and Igor Stravinsky were in the audience. I wonder if he found that intimidating or exhilarating? One section of the piano solo was improvised on the spot and only later written down, so you’d have to guess how it originally sounded. Either way, it was fantastically well received. Up until this point jazz had been largely discounted within the realm of orchestral music, but Gershwin managed to blend the two seamlessly, leaving audiences hungry for more.

George composed for Broadway shows in a jazz-opera style. His brother Ira was lyricist for many of his most popular songs, and the Gershwin brothers share a legacy as a jazz duo. George would write a melody, and Ira would come up with a witty word-play to go along with it.

 Then came Hollywood! George and Ira wrote for movie musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. George was in the middle of writing for a movie when he became ill. He planned to return to New York to write a string quartet, a ballet, and another opera, just as soon as he had surgery to remove a brain tumor. 220px-George_Gershwin-signed.jpg

Unfortunately, George never woke from the surgery. The world lost a gifted, brilliant composer, and he was only 38 years old when he left us. What a shame.

While he left many works unfinished, George left us with his Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, Porgy and Bess and countless other classics that are still well loved today.



Links to videos of Gershwin playing his own music (pretty cool!):

“I Got Rhythm”


1929 “Strike Up the Band” solo (and others)


Porgy and Bess
Rhapsody in Blue
An American in Paris

Link to clips from the movie An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron:

I Got Rhythm:

Dance Scenes from the movie:

For $2.99, you can watch the whole movie here.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)


Aaron Copland as a young boy

Aaron Copland was a New Yorker, born and bred in Brooklyn. He was the youngest of five children born to Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father worked for several years in Scotland in order to pay for the trip to America, and either during that time or while going through US customs the family surname changed from Kaplan to Copeland.

His older sister taught him to play the piano, and by age 15 his heart was set on composing. But he didn’t have the resources to learn what he wanted where he lived. Throughout his early twenties, he studied composition abroad in Paris under Nadia Boulanger.

In his early career Copland wrote music with strong jazz influence, which was all the rage in America at the time. As he got older, though, he made a shift in his compositional style as he felt the need to be more authentic. He began writing folk music, and it was wildly popular. As he aged further, Copland had another moment of self discovery. He realized that he didn’t need to write music with the intention of being American. Being American was a part of him, so whatever he wrote as a composer would reflect that.



Aaron Copland chatting with children after a free concert

Aaron Copland was not particularly religious and didn’t celebrate Judaism. But his spiritual nature led him to write with the force of the human spirit, that grit and determination one might imagine finding on the frontier, on the Oregon Trail, in the Yukon with dreams of gold, risking cholera and typhoid and being gunned down by outlaws. He celebrated the common man and was relatively unpretentious.

Copland’s famous works:

Fanfare for the Common Man
Appalachian Spring
Billy the Kid


Vivian Kerviss who helped him write his autobiography, wrote:

“Copland’s method of composing was to write down fragments of musical ideas as they came to him. When he needed a piece, he would turn to these ideas (his “gold nuggets”). Copland himself said, “I don’t compose. I assemble materials.” He was embarrassed that he cobbled together music from nuggets he’d come up with at the piano until he learned that Stravinsky also composed sitting at the piano.

Aaron Copeland never married, but he did have several close male companions. He even took on the financial burden of one man’s child when he passed away.

Check out this video clip of Aaron Copland conducting El Solon Mexico with the NY Philharmonic! What a treat!

Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)

img-659.jpg      Corelli’s life began on a somber note. His father died just five weeks shy of his birth, leaving his mother bereft. In her grief, she named her son after his father, Arcangelo. He was born on February 17, 1653 in Fusignano, Italy. While he preceded some of the greats by a generation, Arcangelo paved the way for his contemporaries by heavily influencing style for the violin, which at the time was a fairly new instrument. His music was popular during his lifetime, and G.F. Handel paid him a visit to honor him during his tour in Italy.

As a violinist, Corelli was a hit among royalty. In Rome he led a festival performance for Queen Christina of Sweden in 1685, and in 1708 he made a trip to Naples at the invitation of the king. He didn’t just play and compose music, though. Corelli shared his knowledge and skills by teaching others. Some of his students would later reach notoriety as composers themselves. One such student was Antonio Vivaldi. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?


Corelli never married, and little is known about his personal life. He died in Rome at the age of 59, leaving a legacy behind him. While his music may seem calm, it is said that Corelli himself was passionate, and regarded his violin as its own entity when he played, willing it to speak. Corelli also popularized a musical style called Concerto Grosso, a Baroque style which interweaves the melody between a small set of solo instruments and an accompanying orchestra.


Georg Philipp Telemann (1681 – 1767)


Telemann’s father died when he was four years old, but his mother persevered and was able to raise Georg and his two siblings by herself. His affinity for music was apparent from a young age, and Telemann let nothing stop him. He taught himself to play the violin, viola di gamba, double bass, flute, trombone, oboe, and piano, and wrote his very own opera at the age of twelve!


Telemann’s mother was extremely religious, and those around her thought that a career in music would be similar to running away and joining the circus. She was convinced by her peers to pressure her son into studying law, but Georg’s first love was music. He chanced to meet his namesake in Halle: another Georg! This Georg was Georg Friederich Handel, at the time only sixteen years old. This meeting lit the flame in his heart anew, and Telemann began feverishly composing cantatas for a church in Leipzig, Germany. He later wrote four operas for the Leipzig Opera before moving to Poland in 1705.

Telemann’s personal life was chaotic and tragic. He married Amalie Eberin in 1709, but she passed away delivering their child before they had been married even a year. His second wife, Maria Katharina Textor, had a horrible habit of gambling. It was so well known that a collection was taken up by Hamburg citizens in order to assist the couple in escaping financial ruin. Eventually Maria tired of her husband and ran off with a military man from Sweden. Poor Telemann!


Incredibly, Telemann composed a massive body of work during his lifetime, including 1,700 cantatas! He also lived a longer life than many composers (to the ripe old age of 87). I guess he didn’t let his love life get him down!



Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Perhaps one of the best known composers of all time, Ludwig van Beethoven was certainly a character. He was born in 1770. That’s about when the English Colonies were deciding the tax on tea was too large a burden to bear and wondering if they ought to take up arms and declare their independence from England. They did, six years later.



Johann van Beethoven, Ludwig’s brutal father

His mother, Maria Magdalena, was always described as “a gentle, retiring woman, with a warm heart.” Beethoven referred to her as his “best friend.” His poor mother gave birth to seven children, but only three sons survived. Beethoven was the oldest and must have felt a profound responsibility to care for his younger brothers when his father, a drunkard, was unable to provide for the family.

When at an early age he showed musical prowess, his father forced him to practice mercilessly for hours each day, slapping him if he made a mistake. Yes, parenting was different then, but this was beyond even the harshest treatment known of at the time.

From Beethoven: The First Biography:

“On March 26th 1778, at the age of 7 ½, Ludwig Van Beethoven gave his first public performance at Cologne. His father announced that he was 6 years-old. Because of this Beethoven always thought that he was younger than he actually was. Even much later, when he received a copy of his baptism certificate, he thought it belonged to his brother Ludwig Maria, who was born two years before him and died as a child.”

His father was obsessed with making him the new Mozart. You would think he’d grow to hate music after practicing endlessly for hours upon hours each day and being beaten and mistreated by his bear of a father. But Beethoven’s love of music somehow remained intact.

I’m so glad it did!


Young Ludwig van Beethoven

What were you doing at age 14? I went to roller skating parties and school dances, took guitar lessons and tried out for cheerleader (didn’t make the squad).

Beethoven had to drop out of school at 14 and provide for his family financially. He was appointed organist of the court of Maximillian Franz, the Elector of Cologne. I wonder if his feet even reached the pedals yet? I suppose they did by age 14, but only barely perhaps.

He made lifelong friends during his time in Cologne and was out of the reach of his father.
His father Johann was incapable of caring for the family at all anymore, so Ludwig became the main provider and caretaker of his two younger brothers. I’m sure his mother was grateful, but when you compare her to Clara Schumann, whose husband was also incapacitated and who was also the mother of many, Beethoven’s mother was somewhat lacking. Was it her passive personality? While Clara wrote music and performed in recitals and even at one point carried her children safely across a battlefield while eight months pregnant, poor Maria Magdalena let her son take over and faded away into the background.


Karl van Beethoven


Beethoven never married or had any children, though he did fancy a married woman and write her love letters at one point in his life.

When his brother passed away he fought his sister-in-law for custody of their son Karl, which he won after years of battling the courts. Karl ran away to see his mother frequently.

Classic FM has a short but informative biography of Karl that includes what happened to the Beethoven family line (hint: it ends in Michigan!)

The French Revolution wasn’t even a thought in any frenchman’s mind when Beethoven wrote his first musical piece as a child, but it soon would be and Beethoven would keep a watchful eye on it from his home in Bonn, Germany. Later, when Napoleon Bonaparte disappointed him by making himself an Emperor, Beethoven would scratch through his name in the dedication to his third symphony, titled Eroica (Heroic). It is a regal piece, suitable for a national hero’s dedication. But Beethoven believed in democracy. He flew into a rage when he heard the news about Bonaparte making himself emperor and said, “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!” This was the sort of impulsive behavior Beethoven was known for, so it wasn’t surprising that he tore up the title page of his composition. He was a passionate man, bigger than life, irascible, and irritable.

Beethoven’s greatest personal affliction was the gradual loss of his hearing. Because of this he retreated into himself, composing feverishly, all the while knowing his time was running out as his condition worsened. Can you imagine? How brutal for a composer to lose his hearing. I know a worship leader who had to deal with the same thing. He recorded an album after losing a significant amount of his hearing. I think that was quite brave of him!

It was around this time that Beethoven met an inventor named Maelzel. From Beethoven: The First Biography:

“Genius inventor and probable inventor of the metronome, Maelzel created various devices to help Beethoven with his hearing: acoustic cornets, a listening system linking up to the piano, etc. It was above all the metronome, which helped evolve music, and Beethoven, who had taken interest straight away, noted scrupulously the markings on his scores, so that his music could be played how he wished.” A metronome mark could show any orchestra what tempo Beethoven wanted his music played, which helped immensely. Before the metronome, the tempo at which a piece would be played was a guess once time passed and a new generation tried performing a piece.


Maelzel’s Metronome 1815

Although he lacked social decorum, Beethoven was a brilliant composer who left behind a body of work that is revered today. Many of his later compositions were written when he was completely deaf, which lends to his stubbornness and genius. The opening to his Fifth Symphony is so widely recognized that you’d be hard pressed to find a person young or old who hasn’t heard it.



Antonin Dvorak 1841-1904


Antonin Dvorak’s dad was a butcher, but he recognized his son’s musical talent and only made him assist him part-time. He played both violin and viola, and during the 1860s, while Americans were entering a Civil War, he joined Smetana’s Bohemian Theatre Orchestra but later quit to focus on composing and teaching.

Poor Dvorak fell in love with one of his students, but it wasn’t meant to be. She married someone else. He was heartbroken, of course. So heartbroken that he married her sister! Antonin and Anna eventually had nine children together. I wonder how her sister felt about the marriage and how his wife felt about his love for her sister! (above, Anna is on the left and Josefina on the right) Dvorak wrote a series of love songs for Josefina, now known as The Cypresses. You can listen to one of them here.

Dvorak’s music was unique, but it was influenced by his love of his homeland, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic). Its folk songs combined with the influences of Wagner and Brahms made for a special blend of Eastern European liveliness and rich, dramatic music. For a child’s level biography of his life, check out this Classics for Kids episode, from Cincinnati Public Radio.

During the 1880s, his music was performed in England, where it was a rousing success, especially his Slavonic Dances, the Stabat Mater,* and the Sixth Symphony. He even received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge! For more information on his Slavonic Dances, check out this Classics for Kids episode devoted solely to them.


In 1892, he was invited to America to become Director of the National Conservatory in New York, where he remained for three years. What a power-packed three years! He studied the music of Native Americans and African Americans, incorporating them into his most famous work to date, The New World Symphony, Symphony No. 9 in e minor. It premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1893, and he was a superstar. The link above is to the New York Philharmonic. It’s a nice recording of Symphony No. 9. I hope you’ll listen to it over and over until it sinks into your soul. As you do, keep in mind that he is expressing both his love for his native homeland of Czechoslavakia and American roots music, too! It’s quite a blend and will quickly become an ear worm inside your head as you go about your days. A pleasant ear worm. A lovely, retrospective, historical, nationalistic ear worm.

Even though he was such a success in America, his heart was still in Czechoslavakia with his wife and nine children. Plus, he missed his homeland. He became director of the Prague Conservatory in 1901 and lived happily with his family until his death in 1904.

*For more on what the Stabat Mater was, click here.



Antonin Dvorak feeding pigeons


To learn more about Charlotte Mason’s living educational principles and how to apply them to music study, I hope you will consider purchasing my book, A Touch of the Infinite.

Medieval Music

Medieval music has always made me want to dance. It reminds me of gypsies with flowing skirts and hair, hands on their hips, jewelry clanging and feet stomping, raucous laughter and shouts, dashing gents and lovely damsels.

200px-CantigasDeSantaMariaPanPipesThere was Medieval chant music — serious, worshipful, reverent — and Medieval folk music, which was looser and more lyrical. It told a story and was often based on a poem. At first, most Medieval music was a capella, but later flutes and lutes, drums and tambourines, were added.

200px-MALaute1From Medieval-life.net:

Music was often played during holidays and parties. For weddings and on Valentine’s Day, lovers’ music was played that was sure to evoke a romantic atmosphere. This type of music was called “chivaree.” The musicians would play buoyant and cheery music with crescendos. Many a different Medieval music instrument was played, including, recorders, horns, trumpets, whistles, bells, and drums. At high court, however, music was somber and reverent, with few instruments until later, during the Renaissance time period.

On Mayday, dancers would dance to specially-prepared, high-pitched music. It was believed that by doing so, the hibernating spirits would be awakened and forewarned that spring had arrived. During Christmas festivities, the sound of bells brought the good news of Jesus’ birth to eager listeners.

People during the Middle Ages also ate to the sound of traditional music during and between meal courses. They would at times play from a specially-built platform or stage at the end of the Great Hall. It was believed in those days that medieval music was not only delightful to the ears, but it also helped in the digestion of food.

Minstrels and Troubadours

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Troubadours, Trouveres, and Minstrels were the poets and musicians who influenced Medieval music, singing songs of courtly love. The aristocratic troubadours were poets who originated in the south of France where they wrote the lyrics in a language called Provencal (langue d’oc). It was the language of the area known as Provence today. The troubadours of the north of France wrote in French and were called trouveres. The poetry of the troubadours and the trouveres was linked with music.

The songs of French troubadours were heard in English courts as a result of England’s political affiliations and royal marriages. Since the Norman Conquest, the language of the English court was French, so the songs and music of the French troubadours and minstrels were easily assimilated into English society. The tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, originating with music and the poems of the English and Welsh bards, were themes which were included in the lyrics of the troubadour and minstrel songs. Noble ladies of the Medieval period were famous for their patronage of Medieval music. Eleanor of Aquitaine married King Henry II of England in 1152 and brought her love of music and the troubadours to the English court, transferring the tradition to England.

The oldest Medieval musical instrument was the human voice. The spread of Christianity during the Dark Ages and the early Medieval period led to the popularity of hymns and secular songs. The earliest church organ dates back to the eighth century. Many Medieval musical instruments were the forerunners to our modern orchestral instruments.

Stringed Instruments:

Harp – 30 inches long, could bow, pluck, or strum
Fiddle – bowed or plucked, held under the chin or in the crook of the arm
Rebec – round, pear-shaped body like a violin
Psaltery – similar to a harp, bowed
Dulcimer – strings were struck with a small hammer
Hurdy Gurdy – strings were struck when a wheel was cranked
Viol – like an early cello

Wind Instruments:

Flute – like a modern flute
Trumpet – longer than our modern trumpets
Pipe – flute with only three melody holes
Shawn – reed instrument with vent holes
Recorder – basic pipe with a few melody holes
Bagpipe – Used by the poor, made of sheep or goat skin and reed pipe
Crumhorn – curved horn, double reed instrument
Genshorn – ox horn played like a flute
Lizard – s shaped horn


Drum – made from a hollow tree trunk, clay, or metal covered with animal skin
Cymbal – thin, round plates of metal
Triangle – metal
Tambourine – used by women, like a small drum

from: http://www.lordsandladies.org/middle-ages-music.htm

Medieval Psaltery


Medieval Hurdy Gurdy






Medieval Horns


Medieval Concert (click on the words “Medieval Concert” at left)

For a rare treat, click the link above and listen to authentic horns and harps from the Medieval time period performed by Ann & Charlie Heymann in 2013, posted on youtube by The Moore Institute.


To learn more about Charlotte Mason’s living educational principles and how to apply them to music study, I hope you will consider purchasing my book, A Touch of the Infinite.

Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf 1739-1799

Despite his unusual name, the music of Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf is quite traditional, although he wrote for instruments not generally seen as great for solo performances. Take, for example, his concerto for double bass. You can expect Doom and gloom, right? Perhaps a conversation Eeyore might have with Mr. Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street? The double bass may sound low and somber and sad, but Dittersdorf’s Double Bass Concerto is as lively as a double bass can get. One reason for this is that it’s written in E flat major, not a minor key. But why did Dittersdorf choose to write a concerto for double bass, I wonder. And how did it survive until today, leaving him a legacy of gratitude from all the oft ignored double bass players in every symphony across the world? Listen and you can decide for yourself whether it’s worthy of remembrance. I think it is.

Dittersdorf also wrote a duet for viola and double bass. I can’t think of any other instrument that has been more ignored than perhaps the viola. We tend to focus on violin concerti as listeners (and performers), but the viola gets a bad rap for no reason. It’s slightly bigger than a violin and its tone is rich and warm and full. Maybe I’m biased because my father was a viola player in the Dallas Symphony for many years, but I think it’s lovely. You can listen to the duet and see if you agree with me. I think it’s regal and lively and uplifting.

Dittersdorf’s Journey

Young Carl showed talent on the violin at an early age and performed in the orchestra at St. Stephen’s in Vienna. Prince Joseph Frederick, who was a disastrous soldier but a great patron of the arts, noticed him there and took him at age 11 to be in his private orchestra. Young Ditters developed some bad habits during the Seven Years’ War and fled to avoid his gambling debts. After briefly playing for the Vienna Opera, he joined his friend Gluck in Italy. Next, he found great success as a concert violinist and reveled in it, traveling and being recognized as Europe’s primo virtuoso. If he was a bit wild and fancy free, we can chock that up to his age — he was only 23 when he toured Italy and his experiences during the Seven Years’ War had left him somewhat lax when it came to morals. To have such talent and notoriety at such an early age makes him more like Justin Bieber or Lindsay Lohan, to place him in contemporary terms. Fame does strange things to people.


When he was hired to conduct the orchestra of the bishop of Grosswardein, a Hungarian magnate, he set up a stage at the episcopal palace for his first opera buffa, Amore in Musica. But performing comic opera at what was essentially a church did not sit well with Empress Maria Theresa (Marie Antoinette’s mom). She scolded the bishop, and in a fit of anger, Dittersdorf dismissed his entire orchestra.

His continued friendship with Gluck and Haydn allowed Dittersdorf to be remembered to this day as a great storyteller (check out his Metamorphoses) and composer. He’s especially remembered for his comic opera (opera buffe) and his sonatas. But all of his work is cheerful and lively and uplifting. It makes me want to skip and dance. In fact, I think I’ll go put on some Dittersdorf and skip down the sidewalk with my grandchildren and think fondly of this creative genius.


Six Symphonies after Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

The Four Ages of the World (gold, silver, bronze, and iron)
The Fall of Paeton
The Transformation of Actaeon into a Stag
The Rescuing of Andromeda by Perseus
The Petrification of Phineus and his Friends
The Transformation of the Lycian Peasants into Frogs

In 1786 his comic opera Der Apotheker und der Doktor (The Pharmacist and the Doctor) was an amazing success, and he shot to fame once again. He composed eight more comic operas over the next five years. These were considered singspiele, which means it had spoken dialogue and folk elements mixed in with normal opera style elements. Mozart was directly influenced by Dittersdorf’s singspiele, which is high praise indeed!

Dittersdorf is the only composer I know of who wrote his own autobiography. I’ll bet there are some great stories in it that would make us all laugh — where else would he have gotten all those ideas for comic operas?



To learn more about Charlotte Mason’s living educational principles and how to apply them to music study, I hope you will consider purchasing my book, A Touch of the Infinite.


Johannes Brahms: Late Bloomer in High Waters

You can’t possibly hear the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh and go slow. — Oscar Levant, explaining his way out of a speeding ticket

Johann Strauss Jr and Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

May 7, 1833 – April 3,1897

Born in Hamburg, Germany

but also lived and performed in Vienna, Austria-Hungary

Johannes Brahms was a German Lutheran who was known for his long beard, cigar, and highly dramatic music. But he was quite a different man in his youth. Brahms was very short at age 20. He had blonde hair, had a high voice like a 12 year old, and  girls didn’t take him seriously until his voice finally changed when he was 24 years old. Can you imagine the teasing he must have endured? His beard finally grew in when he was in his mid 30s. He wore a beard at middle age because he couldn’t when he was young. It was a badge of honor for him.

Brahms was a very private person and was very critical of his own work. He once said, “It’s not hard to compose, but it’s very hard to let the extra notes fall under the table.” He struggled with what to let go and at one point burned 20 string quartets in a furnace because he thought they weren’t good enough. I wish we still had them today! He also burned all of his receipts and letters, which is why we know so little about him. He kept no journals, gave few interviews, and left no autobiography. Fortunately for us, we have a few of the letters he wrote to Clara Schumann. And frankly, they are a little juicy!

Here is the backdrop for Brahms’ relationship with Clara. You may remember that Clara Schumann was married to another famous composer, Robert Schumann, whose work is still performed today. Robert became ill while still very young, in his early thirties. He threw himself over a bridge in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. He was institutionalized for the next three years, where he eventually died. Clara was not allowed to see him while he was in the hospital because they feared he would become too agitated. She was grief-stricken and begged others to let her know how he was faring. The news was never good.

Enter Johannes Brahms.

He was much younger than Clara Schumann. In fact, when Robert was hospitalized, Brahms served as a babysitter and house boy to the family while Clara was off performing. He was in love with her. There was no doubt about that. But the age difference was a problem for both of them. Clara was 35 when her husband jumped off the bridge. Brahms was 21. Still, the letters he wrote to her showed genuine affection, and they were lifelong companions after Robert died.

Take my letters,’ Brahms said, ‘as the innermost caresses of my soul. I love you too much to be able to write it down to you.’ ‘How empty and barren all is when you are not there! I think of you endlessly, with the most burning love… How sorry I would be if I did not have you!’

‘I would love to be able to write so delicately about how much I love you, and I love you as much as I can put in words… you, my love, you my divine Clara!’

Here are a few more of his letters. I imagine he would have been so embarrassed to know they survived after he burned all of his own personal papers, but he couldn’t burn Clara’s!

Jan 25, 1855: Most Honored Lady, I can do nothing but think of you . . . what have you done to me? Can’t you remove the spell you have cast over me?

June, 1855: My dearly Beloved Clara, I can no longer exist without you . . . please go on loving me as I shall go on loving you, always and forever.

Clara’s daughter Eugenie said of her mother, “She said she could never have borne her sorrows without the efforts of friends like Brahms. It was Brahms whose genius lent mama wings to soar.”

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) in his lodgings in Vienna. Note: He has a bust of Beethoven on his study shelf.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) in his lodgings in Vienna. Note: bust of Beethoven on his shelf.

Johannes Brahms was rich and famous during his lifetime. His first symphony was so famous that it became known as Beethoven’s tenth. He was under intense pressure and scrutiny because he was so famous. He was also difficult to get along with, which may or may not have been because of this intense pressure to perform.

More Tidbits about Brahms:

Brahms had no children of his own and never married. He loved playing with toy soldiers, had frogs for pets, once conducted an outdoor concert standing in a tree, adored coffee (Viennese roast), had migraines, and was nearsighted.

Likes: fireworks, Italy, Vienna, bowling, good beer and wine.

Dislikes: autograph hunters, having his picture taken, the English, aristocratic conceit, dentists (he lost all his teeth and had to wear dentures.)

A young Johannes Brahms

Brahms refused to wear a tie unless he absolutely had to. He loved to go on long walks, frequently ate French sardines — beginning by slurping down the oil before scarfing down the fish, cut his pants off four inches above the ankle for comfort, and never forgot his humble roots. He dressed poorly in reaction to his success and the high society where he found himself.

In the Summer of 1885, a fire broke out in a nearby work room. He rushed to the scene and was part of the bucket brigade. Even though the fire was inching toward his own apartment, he didn’t leave the bucket line. A friend grabbed the keys from his pocket and rescued his symphonies because he felt the poor people needed his help more. Then he paid to rebuild the workshop where the fire began. Brahms was kind and caring, even though his demeanor was prickly and harsh.

Brahms used his fame and influence to publish works by lesser known composers, He rescued Dvorak from the poorhouse by insisting on the publishing of his Slavonic dances. While he sewed patches on the elbows of his jacket to avoid buying new clothes, he insisted that Dvorak consider Brahms’ fortune his own.

Brahms Quotes:

“There is no real creating without hard work. That which you would call invention, that is to say, a thought, an idea, is simply an inspiration from above, for which I am not responsible, which is no merit of mine. Yet it is a present, a gift, which I ought even to despise until I have made it my own by right of hard work.”

and in advising a young composer:

“It seems to me you are too easily satisfied. … Let it rest, let it rest, and keep going back to it and working at it again and again, until it is completed as a finished work of art, until there is not a note too much or too little, not a bar you could improve upon. … I am rather lazy, but I never cool down over a work once begun, until it is perfected, unassailable.”

Here is one final letter Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann, scolding her for getting emotional after he left her home:

October 11, 1857: My dear Clara, you really must try hard to keep your melancholy within bounds and see that it does not last too long. Life is precious and such moods as the one you are in consume us body and soul. Do not imagine that life has little more in store for you . .. you must seriously try to alter, my dearest Clara . . . Passions are not natural to mankind, they are always exceptions. The man in whom they overstep the limits should regard himself as an invalid and seek a medicine for his life and for his health. The ideal and the genuine man is calm both in his joy and in his sorrow.


Best Brahms biography and very readable: http://www.musicacademyonline.com/composer/biographies.php?bid=26



Many thanks to The Great Courses for their wonderful course on Brahms.

To learn more about Charlotte Mason’s living educational principles and how to apply them to music study, I hope you will consider purchasing my book, A Touch of the Infinite.

Schubert: A Candle Snuffed Out Way Too Soon

“Every night when I go to bed, I hope that I may never wake again, and every morning renews my grief.” Franz Schubert


Franz Peter Schubert

Born in Vienna, 1-31-1797 died in 1828

When Franz Schubert was born, Beethoven was already 27 years old and a renowned composer. Although Beethoven lived a long life, filled with glorious musical compositions, Schubert died at age 31 — but not before leaving us nine symphonies and many other compositions, over 600 of them. One of his symphonies was called The Unfinished Symphony because he died before finishing it. His most famous pieces are: Ave Maria and Serenade. It’s tragic that we lost him so soon, don’t you think? Historians believe he was dealing with two different diseases: Typhus and Syphilis.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Schubert’s dad was a schoolmaster, and Schubert was, too, for three years before realizing that his true love was music and always would be. It was his brother who taught him to play the piano. He would have been too poor to afford lessons as a child, so I’m thankful for his brother! But his natural gift for music far exceeded his brother’s, and he found himself composing symphonies at the ripe young age of 16. In fact, he wrote more than 100 songs before he turned 18. What a talent!

Schubert often set fairy tales and fables to music. I think that’s what I love best about him, and keep in mind how difficult it must be to create music that describes what is happening in a story. Not every composer can pull that off, but it was Schubert’s specialty. Read this post to the end, and I’ll explain what I mean using his “Death and the Maiden” as an example. It’s passionate and terrifying. If you’ve heard them, think of Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. They, too, match the tone of the story they’re expressing. Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev is another example of this technique that Schubert mastered so perfectly.

Below are a few of Schubert’s most beautiful pieces. Schubert’s Ave Maria is sung in many Catholic churches today and was even performed by opera singers like Luciano Pavarotti. Here’s a version by the great Maria Callas:

1. Ave Maria

2. Piano Sonata No 20 in A Major

From youtube: “This is Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, written in September 1828—about three months before his death. It is one of three that he wrote after the death of Beethoven (19 March 1827), whose funeral he attended. The passing of this great master was an important event in the life of Schubert, for though mourned the loss of the musician he greatly admired, he also perhaps felt somewhat liberated from the older composer’s dominance. Appropriately, each of these last three piano sonatas contain stylistic nods to Beethoven; in the case of this A major sonata, the Rondo is based on the finale (also a Rondo) of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 16 in G major.”

Here is Beethoven’s Sonata No 16 Rondo, so you can compare the two:

3. Schubert’s Serenade (I love this one!)

Beethoven lived in Vienna during Schubert’s short lifetime, and Schubert visited him. By this time, Beethoven could no longer hear, so he communicated by writing notes to people with a large pencil. But poor Schubert was so enamored by the great Beethoven that he was too nervous to write any replies.

Schubert would have read the novels of Scott who was a little older than he was and a year younger than Beethoven. Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Jennings Bryan were all little boys when Schubert was born. Other composers who were alive when he was are Rossini and Donizetti. We learned a little bit about Rossini in the first blog post.

There is a Librivox recording of the ebook recommended for study this year by AO, and if you listen to it on youtube you can also hear the music played on piano in excerpts for you as you read. It’s lovely!



February 26th, 1869 Franz Schubert’s Symphony number 4, “The Tragic”, premièred.

Let’s have a party!

You can have a celebration on this day of the school year — you might even call it tragedy day. Your children will remember it forever. Read through Hamlet as a family by candlelight, wear old prom dresses from Goodwill to get into the feel of the 1700-1800s time period, listen to Schubert’s Tragic Symphony or even just to bits of it. Learn a dance from the time period and practice it to the music. There are any number of things you could do to make this a special day.

Ask your students when they graduate from high school if they remember Tragedy Day, and they will be able to narrate the entire thing back to you with details you won’t even have remembered! They could also learn a phrase or two of his symphony on the piano, violin, or guitar and have a performance time. They could learn a tragic poem and recite it that night, too. There’s a fine line between having a day like this where children celebrate what they’ve learned and turning it into a unit study totally created by the teacher. You may just want to tell them it’s tragedy day and let them run with that and create what they want to out of it. Here’s the symphony:

Schubert is sometimes difficult to talk about with students because he died young of Syphilis due to his promiscuity. But there’s something marvelous about every composer. It’s marvelous just to be remembered throughout history, even if it’s because you were infamous. Schubert’s music is enough.

Schubert’s Death and the Maiden for quartet is haunting and beautiful. I’ll tell the story while you listen to the music (above). There is a movie version of this from 2003 (not to be confused with the awful 1994 movie) that is entirely silent and set to Schubert’s music.

“Set to the music of Franz Schubert’s string quartet piece in a snow covered central European forest in the 1830s, Death and the Maiden tells the tale of a beautiful young maiden’s encounter with the Angel of Death. She comes upon a dark and handsome stranger in the forest dressed in the riding clothes of a nobleman. When he reveals that he is Death, and that it is her soul he has come to take, she is naturally very alarmed.

As the story progresses, Death finds himself becoming enamored with the young maiden, while she, accepting that he must do what he was sent for, takes him back to the cottage she lives in with her grandfather. There she goes to bed for the night, expecting Death to take her away in the night while she is asleep. But Death finds his duty even more difficult as he spends the night with his hostess, watching the sleeping maiden and drinking in her beauty. In the morning the maiden awakes to find she is alone in the cottage, and fearing that Death has taken her grandfather instead, panicks, running out of the cottage.

The snow has disappeared, and she see Death in the woods crouched over a bare patch of ground that is shaped like a grave, leveling the earth with his hands. Immediately believing it to be the grave of her grandfather, she runs over and begins to dig desperately into the grave with her hands. Death tries to pull her away, but she resists, and after several tries, he eventually gives up and walks away. When she does reach the object that Death has buried there, her relief at what she finds makes us realize it is the wild rabbit that was seen is several scenes earlier in the story.

She runs over to Death and embraces him, kissing him. Death at first does not respond to her kiss, but then gives way to his own bridled passion and they make love. When it is all over, he wills her to close her eyes and when she opens them again, Death is gone and the snow has returned. She wanders around looking for her ethereal lover, but she cannot find him.

The story then moves forward several months, and we’re in the cottage where a baby, tended by its mother the maiden lies in a cradle, and on the mantle piece above the fire place the mother hides a picture she has drawn of the child’s father.

Death has left behind a life.”

Franz Schubert String Quartet No 14 in D minor Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden)
Alban Berg Quartet
1.Allegro, in D minor and common time 0:00
2.Andante con moto, in G minor and divided common (2/2) time 11:35
3.Scherzo: Allegro molto, in D minor and 3/4 time 22:18
4.Presto, in D minor and 6/8 time 25:50

The String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, known as Death and the Maiden, by Franz Schubert, is one of the pillars of the chamber music repertoire. Composed in 1824, after the composer suffered through a serious illness and realized that he was dying, it is Schubert’s testament to death. The quartet is named for the theme of the second movement, which Schubert took from a song he wrote in 1817 of the same title, but the theme of death is palpable in all four movements of the quartet.

The quartet was first played in 1826 in a private home, and was not published until 1831, three years after Schubert’s death. Yet, passed over in his lifetime, the quartet has become a staple of the quartet repertoire. The theme of the song is a death knell that accompanies the song about the terror and the comfort of Death. Here is a description of each movement:

1. “The first movement runs a relentless race through terror, pain and resignation, ending with a dying D minor chord.”

2. “The second movement is a theme and five variations. The theme is like a death march in G minor, ending on a G major chord. Throughout the movement, Schubert does not deviate from the basic harmonic and sentence structure of the 24-measure theme. But each variation expresses a profoundly different emotion. In the first variation, a lilting violin descant floats above the theme, played in pulsing triplets in the second violin and viola that recall the triplets of the first movement. In the second variation, the cello carries the theme, with the first violin playing the pulsating role – this time in sixteenth notes. After two relaxed variations, the third variation returns to the Sturm und Drang character of the overall piece: a galloping fortissimo figure breaks off suddenly into piano; the violin plays a variant of the theme in a high register, while the inner voices continue the gallop. The fourth variation is again lyrical, with the viola carrying the melody under a long violin line in triplets. This is the only variation in a major key – G major. In the fifth variation, the second violin takes up the theme, while the first violin plays a sixteenth-note arpeggiated motif, with the cello playing the triplets in the bass. The variation grows from pianissimo to fortissimo, then again fades and slows in pace, finally returning to a restatement of the theme – this time in G major.”

3. “The scherzo is designed as a classical minuet: two strains in 3/4 time, repeated, in D minor, followed by a contrasting trio section in D major, at a slower tempo, and ending with a recapitulation of the opening strains. The trio section is the only real respite from the compelling pace of the whole quartet: a typically Schubertesque melody, with the first violin playing a dancing descant above the melody line in the lower voices.”

4. “The finale of the quartet is a tarantella in rondo-sonata form, in D minor. The tarantella is a breakneck Italian dance in 6/8 time, that, according to tradition, was a treatment for madness and convulsions brought on by the bite of a tarantula spider. The movement opens with the main section of the rondo in unison, with a theme based on a dotted figure.The theme develops characteristically, with sudden lurches from loud to soft and running triplets, leading to the second section of the rondo: a broad, chorale-like theme. A crescendo leads to the Prestissimo coda of the movement and of the piece. The coda begins in D major, suggesting a triumphant end – a device common in classical and romantic quartets. But in this case, the coda suddenly returns to D minor, for a tumultuous and tragic conclusion.”

Written by kitsilanoca


Franz Schubert Quotes:

“Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife.”

“Nobody understands another’s sorrow, and nobody another’s joy. People imagine they can reach each other, but in reality they only pass each other by.”

“There are two contrary impulses which govern this man’s brain – the one sane and the other eccentric. They alternate at regular intervals.”

“I try to decorate my imagination as much as I can.”

“Easy mind, light heart. A mind that is too easy hides a heart that is too heavy.”

“When I wished to sing of love, it turned to sorrow. And when I wished to sing of sorrow, it was transformed for me into love.”

“There are eight girls in the house in which I am living, and practically all of them are good looking. You can realize that I am kept busy.”

“I never force myself to be devout except when I feel so inspired, and never compose hymns of prayers unless I feel within me real and true devotion.”

“One bites into the brass mouthpiece of his wooden cudgel, and the other blows his cheeks out on a French horn. Do you call that Art?”

“Above all things, I must not get angry. If I do get angry I knock all the teeth out of the mouth of the poor wretch who has angered me.”

“Approval or blame will follow in the world to come.”

“If only your pure and clean mind could touch me, dear Haydn, nobody has a greater reverence for you than I have.”

“Why does God endow us with compassion?”

This link takes you to a series of interviews with Schubert lovers who are conductors and orchestra musicians – and one actor, Simon Callow who as in A Room With a View as the Vicar. They discuss what they love about Schubert’s music.

A Listener’s Guide to Die Schone Mullerin (You can listen to this session on NPR directly online – it’s about 40 minutes long.)

Paul Lewis (pianist) talks about Schubert’s torment after finding out he had contracted Typhus and Syphilis and would die. “Confronting Schubert’s Nightmare” is the title of this session.

Schubert’s Fairy Tales set to Music: Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, Death and the Maiden, and The Miller and the Brook.


To learn more about Charlotte Mason’s living educational principles and how to apply them to music study, I hope you will consider purchasing my book, A Touch of the Infinite.