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.