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Ken Smith
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Whilst doing the ironing this morning I’ve just been watching and listening to a young pianist I’d never heard of Daniil Trifonov playing Chopin on the Sky Arts Channel. The 29 year old Russian born in Nizhny Novgorod was absolutely sensational in his rendition of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1. It’s a particular favourite of mine anyway, but I just had to stop ironing to watch the dexterity of his playing, without sheet music of course. I was spellbound by his quickness on the keyboard especially during the First Movement. He was absolutely bewitching, smiling throughout and with perspiration running down his face, he was obviously enjoying himself. His wizardry with his fingers was as good as Paul Daniels or Adama Traore at his best. This was faultless and a standard ovation and several encores was no more than he deserved.

 


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Ken Smith
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What is classical music? There’s a misconception that only music composed centuries ago can be classed as classical music. My conception is that any music that stands the test of time written before this century that people still relate to falls into that category whether it be symphonic, opera, ballet, stage or film music, brass or military band, jazz, ragtime, folk, or popular (pop) music. What does stand out though is the volume of music that some of the great composers churned out be it Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Sullivan or indeed Gershwin, Cole Porter or Andrew Lloyd Webber. Some of the music has been used as theme music for the film industry such as part of Rachmaninov‘s Piano Concerto in Brief Encounter, or used as theme music for television adverts. It doesn’t have to be for stuff shirts, as much of it was written for the populace of the time and still enjoyed by the masses today. 

The BBC has long presented the Promenade Concerts which end this coming weekend, but Sky Arts Channel has also supported outdoor concerts. It’s a shame that the Coronavirus pandemic has curtailed live music, but I recently watched a recording of Andre Rieu’s Wonderful World which has been established now for 25 years. The most recent one I viewed was in the beautiful Dutch city of Maastricht with about 5,000 people from all over Europe not only enjoying the music but participating in the singing of some of the songs such as Volare, etc. as well as other contemporary music. 

So don’t be put off by the term classical music. If time permits I hope to write pen pictures of some of the World’s great composers from Vivaldi to Lloyd Webber. It might turn out to be a long list, but it all depends on how much time I have left on this Earth. It might seem incongruous to do this on a football forum, but it will be found on this section of Classical Music hoping that Werdermouth has no objections. But I notice there is also a Film section  so why not Music whether deemed Classical or not?

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Ken Smith
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ANTONIO VIVALDI 1675/1741

During the first four decades of the 18th century, an important phase in the development of the concerto, Vivaldi worked in Venice as teacher, director of the orchestra and composer at the conservatory of La Pieta, a hospital orphanage. As was normal in those times being employed as a teacher, he was commissioned to write music also and, although suffering from some form of asthma for much of his life he is said to have written something like 500 concertos during his lifetime. His style was innovative and well loved by Venetians as Venice was noted at that time for its music as people sang and played instruments in the streets, on gondolas and in barges. Also there were many orchestras playing in St Mark’s Square and all of them played some of Vivaldi’s music. He wrote many concertos for mandolins, violins, guitars and even organs. In later life he composed several operas which became popular all over Europe especially France, but towards the latter stages of the 18th century became less so as popular tastes in music began to change and are rarely performed today. However several pieces of his chamber music are occasionally performed today, although he is probably remembered more for his composition of The Four Seasons made up of separate concertos for each of the seasons of the year, with especially Spring being one of the most popular.


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Ken Smith
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GEORGE FRIDERIC HÄNDEL 1685/1759

I’m writing short pen pictures of ‘classical’  composers in chronological order to their birth, so my second composer is Händel who was born in Magdeburg then part of Prussia, and although he was generally thought of as a composer of religious music his most famous work  being Messiah which he composed in 1742, he had already composed over 40 operas several of which were performed as stage dramas in his adopted city of London. Most of these were comic operettas rarely performed today, but very popular in London at the time and in some ways similar to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan over a hundred years later. Of course his Messiah is probably known as his most famous oratorio and frequently performed by the famous Huddersfield Male Voice Choir around Christmas time. The stand out rendition is arguably the Hallelujah Chorus, which has also been performed by the Teesside Apollo Male Voice Choir at Middlesbrough Town Hall several years ago. Yet Händel didn’t consider it to be merely a piece of sacred music, but as theatre entertainment. 

He was a devout Christian but unaffiliated to any particular religious sect, though his oratorios were not particularly based on his own religious experiences. In fact there is no stylistic differences between his sacred and secular oratorios. Also several of the choruses from Messiah were originally composed as chamber duets or keyboard fugues. Although he wrote relatively little orchestral music, his operas and chamber music was melodious and set him apart from other composers of his time. The Water Music Suite is another fine work of his plus the range of ‘See, the conquering hero comes!’ from his opera Judas Maccabaeus to the tranquility of his Largo from Xerxes and ‘Where e’er you walk’ a popular song at the time and still is today, demonstrate the versatility of the man.

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JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH 1685/1759

Another great composer of the Baroque period Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, the same year as Handel. He became an orphan at the age of 10 and was brought up by an older brother. He was married twice and had 7 children to his first wife and another 13 to his second wife, several who became composers as well. He synthesised all the major influences of music that prevailed throughout Europe in his time. Although he spent most of his life as a church musician his music expressed humanity. As well as being an organist, he also played other keyboard instruments and even learned to play the violin. He was principal organist in churches in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen, and eventually became organist and director of music at two churches in Leipzig which he retained until his death.

His compositions number well over 1,000 both church and secular, the most famous arguably being his Brandenburg Concertos, Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier. He also wrote many fugues, the most famous being Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but also more quieter compositions such as ‘Sleepers awake’ and ‘Air on the G string’ which has been used on many television commercials, but also given words by John Donne and sung delightfully by Katherine Jenkins.

Bach died in Leipzig 9 days before his 74th birthday.


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Ken Smith
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JOSEPH HAYDN 1732/1809

Joseph Haydn was born in the village of Rohrau in Austria, close to the Hungarian border and began his career as a scholar in Hainburg where he was not well cared for and often went hungry with malnutrition, and eventually his face became disfigured with pox marks. However he learned to play the harpsichord and violin before settling in Vienna as a chorister at the age of eight. He struggled as a freelancer but eventually became a composer of more than 1,300 pieces of music including 108 symphonies, 83 string quartets, 63 string trios, 52 keyboard concertos, 45 piano trios, 13 operas, and 11 marches but it was the title of ‘Father of the Symphony’ and the ‘Father of the String Quartet’ for which he will be remembered. He became a friend and mentor of Mozart, and a tutor of Beethoven as well as being responsible for the development of chamber music. A central characteristic of his music is the development of large structures out of very short and simple motifs.

He was a practical joker, and that sometimes could be heard in his symphonies especially his 94th where the first movement ends with a surprise loud chord, thus being entitled the Surprise Symphony. Likewise his 101st Symphony was entitled the Clock Symphony because of its tick-tock theme. He visited England in 1794/95 where he wrote 4 further symphonies given the respective names of Military, Drumroll, London and Oxford. It is doubtful that any musical composer was as inventive and versatile as Joseph Haydn.


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Ken Smith
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WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART 1756/1791

Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria and from a very early age showed prodigious musical ability even at the age of 6 years old, and even at that age he travelled throughout Europe where he was hailed as the greatest prodigy that human nature had produced. Not only could he play the harpsichord, violin and organ but he could sing and compose music. One might describe him as the pop star of the mid 18th century. He ended his prodigy years when 17 years old already having composed over 150 works of incredible variety. He was only 35 when he died having completed over 500 works of classical compositions.

His greatest operas ‘Don Giovanni’ and ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ still hold the stage in all of the world’s capital cities, but he also wrote ‘The Magic Flute’ which doesn’t seem to have the same acclaim today. His symphonies and concertos are the backbone of orchestral repertoires, and the most recorded of all composers. One of his most famous works was ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’. The Andante from his 21st Piano Concerto was used as the theme music of the 1967 film ‘Elvira Madigan’ the true story of the famous tightrope walker. But for all of his artistic success, Mozart endured financial insecurity in his adult life. At the age of 35 Mozart became bedridden and was nursed by his wife through his illness before dying in December 1791 and was buried in a common grave, the exact location of which remains unknown. Even the cause of his death was subject to conjecture. There were several theories from rheumatic fever, mercury poisoning, kidney failure to influenza, but that’s all they were, just unestablished theories.

Joseph Haydn endowed with the title of ‘Father of the Symphony’ and a mentor to Mozart described him as the greatest composer of his time. Though of course that was before a certain Ludwig van Beethoven had completed all his works.


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Ken Smith
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LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN 1770/1827

Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany and I make no apologies for stating that I consider him to be my favourite composer and the greatest composer of all time. I have twice visited his former home now a museum in Bonn. For those who lived through the Second World War they will remember the First 4 notes of his 5th Symphony as the introduction to BBC radio news programmes and of course the 4th Movement of his 9th Symphony became the anthem for the reunification of Europe. It became even more popular after Friedrich Schiller composed words to it as a classical work of ‘Ode to Joy’. 

Strangely though his music like his life could be described as both simple and complex, two words that say it all about the art and creator who burst upon the scene at the end of the 18th century. As a man he was disarmingly simple and maddeningly complex. He could be described as an ugly man with a red face full of pockmarks with a short neck but with broad shoulders and a large round head. He was probably not a pleasant man being self-obsessed, rude and cruelty cynical, yet later in life he was extolled as the superman of music. At the age of 21 he moved to Vienna and composed his First Symphony there, the first of his 9 symphonies. He also wrote 5 piano concertos and 32 piano sonatas, the most popular being the Moonlight Sonata but the Appassionata and Patethique were also very popular. In all he wrote 772 pieces of music including the Egmont and Leonore Overtures and one Opera entitled Fidelio.

As imperious and forbidding as he was at times Beethoven could still inspire great love. One of the most touching of all moments occurred at the premiere performance of the aforementioned 9th Symphony in Vienna. He shared the podium with the conductor with his back to the audience and there was wild acclaim at the end, but Beethoven was completely unaware of the applause as by then he was completely deaf and remained standing with his back to the audience. However one of the singers had the presence of mind to turn him round to face his public so he could at least see the cheering crowd throwing hats in the air or waving handkerchiefs. He acknowledged his gratitude with a bow which then set off an almost unprecedented volley of jubilant applause which lasted for almost half an hour as the joyful listeners sought to express their gratitude for the pleasure they had just been granted. Sadly he died four years later with a combination of breathing difficulties, fever, jaundice and dropsy.

On a personal note in Las Ramblas in Barcelona there are many street performers one of which was a Lionel Messi lookalike performing his football talents, and also a Beethoven store where I purchased a large print of Beethoven which I had framed and now hangs in my hallway. When I purchased the print I remarked to the shopkeeper in my limited Spanish that Beethoven was better than Messi. He smiled with a knowing look as if he agreed with me. That’s how much I rate the man, he was to music what Oscar Wilde was to drama; I can’t pay him a greater compliment than that.

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GIOACHINO ROSSINI 1792/1868

Rossini was born in Pesaro on Italy’s Adriatic coast. His father was the town crier who blew a trumpet instead of ringing a bell and was also an inspector of public slaughterhouses, whilst his mother was a professional singer. He was a very mischievous child even though he started composing several sonatas by the age of 12 years old after he and his parents had moved to Bologna where he attended the Musical Lyceum. His first opera The Bill of Marriage was composed when he was 18 years old for a commission of 200 lira, but during the the next 12 years his operas made him a household word not only throughout Italy, but throughout Europe as well. He actually wrote some 40 brilliant operas, most of  them in only a few weeks. He was reported to have said “Give me a laundry list and I will set it to music”. In fact one of his famous arias ‘Di tanti palpiti’ became known as the ‘rice aria’ as he dashed it off in the time that it took his cook to prepare the rice for his dinner. It was even reported that when in bed with a cold but nevertheless still having just completed the manuscript of a duet that had fluttered to the floor, instead of retrieving it he took a fresh piece of paper and wrote a different duet in its place. 

Rossini’s most famous opera was ‘The Barber of Seville‘ and apart from the overture which was initially written for a different opera, the rest of the score was written in just two weeks. By the time he was 30 years old, 23 of his operas were gracing the opera stages of countries around the World. Other famous operas were ‘La Gazza Ladra’ (The Thieving Magpie) and of course ‘William Tell’ which is rarely performed today because of its length and taxing vocal roles, although the overture is regularly played in its own right. William Tell was in fact the last opera he ever wrote as it became a toll on his health and his creativity. So he chose to retire from writing any more operas in the final 40 years of his life which he spent in Paris, although he did write a couple of religious works and some 200 brief songs and piano pieces. After the death of his first wife, the world famous soprano Isabella Colbran, he married his mistress who lovingly devoted herself to him until his death. He died at the age of 68 in November 1868 a rich and happy man.

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Powmill-Naemore
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Thank you for writing and sharing these Ken. I am enjoying reading these which are interesting and informative.

I understand your motivation for writing these, but admire that you continue to show us all how important it is to have a purpose. Keep writing my friend, if you don't object to that presumption.

You know, I recall my Dad back in the 70s subscribing to a monthly publication called something like The Great Composers. Each edition was richly illustrated and gave a biography of the composer, along with an attempt to explain the style. Also, each edition came with a 10" record of some of their works.

Every Sunday mum and dad would escape to the front room, from which we were all banished, to listen to their music. Dad was with you about Beethoven, but mum's favourite was a lesser known composer  called Cesar Franck. I have to be honest and confess I wouldn't recognise  any of his work if I heard it now.

So, there we are, I've just set myself a task to sit and listen to Franck!

 


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Ken Smith
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FRANZ SCHUBERT 1797/1828

Schubert was born in a lowly suburb of Vienna where his father taught him to play the violin whilst his elder brother taught him to play the piano. His life was one of perpetual hardship and poverty, though no deprivation could stem the flow of his music. At the age of 11 he became a pupil of the Stadtkonvikt Schools where he studied and learned the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He was a little man of only 5ft 1inch when he died from typhus at the early age of 31. Nevertheless he still produced a staggering range of music including 7 complete symphonies, as well as the 8th Unfinished Symphony which only included two movements instead of the usual four. In fact Schubert may well be renowned as the most ‘posthumous’ composer of all time as many of his prodigious compositions were not discovered until decades after his death. In fact one of his manuscripts entitled the Grazer Piano sonata was not discovered until 1968 in the city of Graz 140 years after his demise.

In all Schubert composed over 600 pieces of choral secular music, the opera Fierrabras (which unfortunately was not a success), the Rosamunde ballet, several pieces of chamber music for string quartets, and Marches Militaires as a piano duet generated by the Napoleonic period that had brought much suffering to his native Vienna in the early part of the century. Perhaps the most famous of Schubert’s songs is ‘Ave Maria’ and as an orchestral piece ‘Serenade’. Sadly though much of his work was only appreciated in Vienna until after his death. Thereafter his piano compositions were much admired by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms. He may have been a little man, but a giant in the world of Western classical music.

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HECTOR BERLIOZ 1803/1869

Berlioz was born in Isere in south eastern France and as his father was a doctor it was expected that the medical profession would be his calling. Indeed he enrolled at a Parisian medical college before eventually defying his father’s wishes to chose music as his profession. Whilst he had what could be described as a tempestuous personality, he was a romantic and was twice married. Whilst his music personified not only his rages and despairs, but also his triumphs, he was certainly a free creative spirit and evolved his own personal system of harmony which resulted in unique chordal progression. He also utilised long non-repeating melodies with a strong rhythmic pulse, and could be described as the father of the modern symphony orchestra.

His Rakoczy March is arguably one of the finest marches written at the time and was part of his concert-opera ‘The Damnation of Faust’ based on Goethe’s drama. However the first performance in Paris was poorly attended and a financial disaster for the composer who had paid for the production out of his own pocket. However his Roman Carnival Overture is still today part of any orchestra’s repertoire. His ‘March to the Scaffold’ from his Fantastic Symphony is based on the dream of a poet who has been betrayed by his lover and subsequently kills her and is sentenced to death. It maybe macabre but is a haunting repetitive piece of music in some ways like Ravel’s Bolero as it reaches its climax.

His Roméo and Juliet symphony is a dramatic piece for solo voices, chorus and orchestra based on Shakespeare’s tragedy, whilst his Requiem which Berlioz considered to be his masterpiece of horrifying grandeur scored for gigantic forces including tenors, orchestra and four brass bands is his individualistic view of the Acocalypse and all rather heavy for my taste. Nevertheless I do like his ‘Rakoczy March’ and ‘March to the Scaffold’ with its repetitive haunting melody, and if only for those two pieces of work deserves to be classed as one of the finest composers.

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Ken Smith
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JACOB LUDWIG FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY 1809/1847

Felix Mendelssohn (to give him his shortened name) was born in Berlin, the second of four children to banker/businessman Abraham Mendelssohn and enjoyed all the advantages that wealth and status afforded at the time. He received a private education by tutors at his home in subjects considered appropriate for someone born into a rich Jewish family such as literature, languages, drawing and of course music. At the age of 4 years old his mother gave him piano lessons and later he had violin lessons from a private tutor. His first public appearance was at the age of 10 of one of his own compositions. As a composer, performer and conductor he was acclaimed by the people and treated like royalty. His ideal family life with lack of conflict was often cited as the reason that he never seemed to reach some of the artistic heights of less fortunatate composers, though his music was perhaps less dramatic than other composers of his time. 

Most of his works were beautiful serene melodies such as short piano pieces like his Spinning Song, Spring Song, May Breezes and On Wings of Song, but he also wrote the music for my favourite Christmas hymn ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’. He also wrote a beautiful Violin Concerto and incidental music to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ the 4th movement of which is the Wedding March which most people married in church choose for their exit after the service prior to wedding photographs outside. Mendelssohn’s Italian and Scottish Symphonies are two of the finest symphonies ever written, but I have to confess that my favourite Mendelssohn piece of music is his Hebrides Overture sometimes entitled Fingal’s Cave Overture.

I have one particular reason for that, as when children’s Saturday cinema matinees were started after the Second World War the programme ended with a cowboy serial called ‘Riders of Death Valley’ starring Johnny Mack Brown (I doubt if anyone has ever heard of this cowboy actor, as most publicity at the time centred around Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey and Tex Ritter because they were also singers). Anyhow Fingal’s Cave was the theme tune to this Western cinema serial and was the first classical LP that I ever bought.

Back to Mendelssohn though; despite his serene and happy life, after an exhausting tour of Britain and several strokes he died in Leipzig aged only 38. During the Second World War despite being German the playing of his music in the fatherland was banned because of his Jewish faith.

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Ken Smith
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FREDERIC CHOPIN 1810/1849

Surely everyone loves the music of Chopin, but sadly he was another composer who died so young at the age of only 39. Chopin was born near Warsaw and was often described as to music what Byron, Keats and Shelley were to poetry. His father was French and earned his living as a French teacher whilst his mother was Polish and worked as a housekeeper for a local countess. Young Frédéric was taught to play the piano by his older sister but within a year had outgrown her instruction and graduated under the private tutelage of an expert musician. Chopin was a childhood prodigy and by the time he was 8 years old had composed his first piece of music. He soon advanced as a performer from local concert halls to princely halls. At the age of 20 he left Poland and after a series of concerts in Munich and Vienna, he established residence in Paris where his fame spread rather slowly at first so he earned his living by giving piano lessons. However eventually he made a name for himself and performed in most of the major music halls in Europe. In 1836 he was introduced to Baroness Dudevant who wrote novels under the name of George Sand, and to whom he had a stormy love affair until 1847. He had suffered chronic respiratory ailments for many years and lived with George Sand for part of the time in the Majorcan village of Valldemossa. However after a concert tour of England he became seriously ill and died from tuberculosis on his return to Paris in 1849.

All of Chopin’s compositions were written for the piano and included dance music of waltzes and mazurkas, but many other types of piano music such as  preludes, etudes, nocturnes and polonaises. His Military Polonaise number 1 is quite in contrast to much of his music as is his Grande Valse Brillante, but he also wrote two piano concertos in keeping with his Romantic style. He also wrote two piano sonatas, but although they were both acclaimed by the public they brought criticism from his contemporary Richard Schumann who was reported as saying that Chopin hadn’t seemed to grasp sonata compositions. Whether that was because sonatas were usually composed in three movements whereas Chopin had added an extra movement called the funeral march between the second and fourth movement of his Second Sonata is maybe open to conjecture. However the funeral march was played at Chopin’s own funeral. Perhaps it was inserted as he was aware of his own impending death!


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John Richardson
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@ken

It's Mendelssohn's Octet for me, absolutely wonderful piece of work.

Stay safe,

John

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ROBERT SCHUMANN 1810/1856

Schumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony and another composer of the Romantic era although he initially studied law but decided instead to become a virtuoso pianist under the tutelage of Friedrich Wieck. Unfortunately a hand injury put a stop to that so he decided to become a composer. He became attracted to Wieck’s daughter Clara and started a romance with her. However Wieck was concerned that his daughter should become romantically with an impecunious composer so sent his daughter off to Dresden to study theory hoping to break up Clara’s courtship. It seemed to work as Schumann eventually became engaged to Clara’s friend Ernestine but not for long, as he realised that he needed someone of a stronger temperament than himself and much to Wieck’s chagrin he married Clara after a stormy three year engagement. Schumann suffered from moods of depression most of his life and was eventually admitted to a mental institution in Endenich near Bonn after having survived a suicide attempt. He was diagnosed with psychotic melancholia but died of pneumonia aged 46.

His compositions included a fine Piano Concerto of breathtaking music of joy and is vibrant and forcefully rhythmical. He also turned his hand at writing four symphonies, the most famous of which were his First Symphony entitled the Spring Symphony, but arguably more popular was his Third Symphony entitled the Rhenish Symphony with a fine finale. This was written in little over a month after having spent a short holiday with his wife in Cologne. Generally speaking though most of his work was for the piano where he wrote a piece of his ‘Scenes from Childhood‘ one of which is the endearing Traumerai (Dreaming), and a collection of Carnaval selections. 

In 1944 a German film was made of his life aptly entitled ‘Dreaming’ though I confess that I’ve never seen, nor heard of the actors Mathias Wieman (Schumann), Hilde Krahl (Clara), Ullrich Haupt (Johannes Brahms) and Emil Lohkamp (Franz Liszt).


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Ken Smith
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FRANZ LISZT 1811/1886

Franz Liszt was born in Doborjon, Hungary and was the next of the Romance composers and first performed publicly as a pianist at the age of 9 years. After a brief stay in Vienna, during which he studied piano music and composition, he proceeded in 1823 to Paris where as a foreigner he was refused admission to the Conservatoire. However, undaunted he continued his studies privately and soon launched a concert career. During the next twenty years or so he became a virtuoso performer dazzling audiences all over Europe as he made his home in Paris where he occasionally became acquainted with Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann and Brahms. He also became romantically involved with the Countess d’Agoult by whom he had three children, one of which eventually married Richard Wagner. After several affairs with ladies of social prominence he suddenly changed his lifestyle to religious matters and in 1879 was allowed to take holy orders on a minor scale and thereafter devoted himself to the furthering of church music. He also became one of the originators of the tone poem, although this particular type of music was first identified in overtures composed by the likes of Mendelssohn, but it was Liszt who bought the conception to fruition with ‘Les Preludes’ in particular.

His piano music were largely artistic short rhapsodic pieces both lyrical and sentimental as apparent in his composition of ‘Liebestraum’ (Dream of Love) and his Etudes especially ‘La Campanella’. Some of his longer pieces were the ‘Memphisto Waltz’ and his ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies‘ displaying romantic gypsy czardas content for violins and full orchestra. His ‘Hungarian Fantasia’ for piano and full orchestra was another of his longer pieces of music as were his two organ works written between 1850 and 1855. In 1866 he was even commissioned to write the music for the coronation of Franz Joseph of Austria and Elisabeth of Bavaria in Matthias Church in Buda. 

As well as the prolific composer of many piano works and other keyboard instruments, Liszt was a philanthropist to many charities and never charged for giving piano lessons. He died of congestive heart failure in Beyrueth, Germany in 1886 aged 74. 


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Ken Smith
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RICHARD WAGNER 1813/1883

Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Saxony and from an early age had ambitions to be a playwright and at the age of 13 he wrote a play that featured so many sudden deaths that his Uncle Adolf reacted with shock. His first opera was so gory that his sister persuaded him to destroy the manuscript. In time of course having been inspired by the symphonies of Beethoven, his artistic excesses were transformed into the great symphonic opera-dramas that created a whole new category of musical art. For originality and boldness of execution and intensity of expression and power his handful of  operatic masterpieces may not quite have reformed opera exactly, but nevertheless produced a new art form of musical drama. Although he married the actress Minna Planer in 1836, he had many dalliances  with the wives of his many benefactors and friends and after Minna’s death he married Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt, who bore him three children.

The writing of Tannhäuser was severely criticised at the time because it was novel, and is rarely played today because much of it is too strident, but some of its content such as the Festmarch and the Pilgrims Chorus are played as separate pieces. His opera Lohengrin of course contains the Bridal Chorus which is universally known as ‘Here comes the bride’ but forbidden at Catholic weddings because it’s deemed inappropriate because of its pagan inspirations. The Ride of the Valkyries is a favourite piece of music as is Liebestod from ‘Tristan and Isolde’ , a love story in the same mould as Romeo and Juliet. However the Prelude to ‘Die Meistersinger’ is arguably Wagner’s most famous and favourite composition, although obviously not for the poor wretches who were led into the gas chambers by the Nazis during the Second World War.


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Ken Smith
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GIUSEPPE FORTUTINO FRANCESCO VERDI 1813/1901

Giuseppe Verdi was born in the small village of Le Roncole, near Busseto, Italy and from the age of 4 years old was privately taught Latin before starting his education at the Busseto school, and by the age of 8 had not only learned to play the organ but amazingly was appointed the official paid organist at his local church in Le Roncole. However it soon became apparent that he had a talent for writing cantatas and serenades during his teenage years. The next step was to compose operas, 25 in total beginning with ‘Oberto’, a two act opera which was premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1839. By then Gioachino Rossini had stopped writing, Vicenza Bellini had died, and Gaetano Donizetti was only to be active for less than ten more years, so he had the field to himself as it were, certainly in Milan and La Scala. The Italian audience was ripe too for a more passionate type of music, and this they certainly got it in ‘‘Nabucco’’, the third of his opera’s which made him famous at the age of 29.

Arguably the next of his famous operas was ‘‘Rigoletto’’ containing the aria ‘La Donna e Mobile’, the libretto written by Francesco Maria Piave which was first performed in Venice in 1851. Next up was “Il Trovatore” with its famous ‘Anvil Chorus’ premiered in Rome two years later and in the same year “La Traviata” first performed in Venice.

“Aida” has been described as the best grand opera ever written with its general colour and exoticism, it’s bountiful melodies, harmonies and orchestrations. It was commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt for the new Cairo Opera House to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. It is still an opera well suited for outside viewing especially in the coliseum in Verona with the ‘Grand March’ performance with a choir particularly spectacular. Another famous choral piece is ‘Lord, hear our prayer‘ with the libretto having been written by Arrigo Borgo for “Othello” which was his penultimate opera to be premiered at La Scala in 1887 when Verdi was in his seventies.

Shortly before writing “Aida” Verdi agreed to take part in a composite setting of the Requim Mass in memory of Rossini to be composed by various other distinguished Italian composers. However the plan came to nothing, but not before Verdi had composed his part of the Requiem, the final ‘Libera Me’. He died on the 27th January 1901 aged 87 following a stroke.

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This post was modified 8 months ago by Ken Smith

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BEDRICH SMETANA 1824/1884

Bedrich Smetana was christened Friedrich in Litomysl, east of Prague on the border of Bohemia and Moravia which was a turbulent period in the history of the Habsburg Empire where the official language was German. He came from a large family, his father having had 8 children from two former marriages, whilst 10 more children were born in his father’s third marriage of which 7 reached adulthood . Young Friedrich learned to play the piano at a very early age and gave his first concert at the age of 6 years. However his father wasn’t able to financially support Friedrich’s desired musical career and he was sent to a boarding school in Jihlava where he found it difficult to fit in and where he became homesick. He was then sent to complete his studies in Prague but often skipped lessons and was mocked by the local scholars for his country manners and his inability to speak much Czech as German had been his natural tongue.  He started to miss lessons and instead, attended concerts given by Franz Liszt, but when his father discovered his son’s truancy he was sent to live with his uncle in the city where he formed a romantic attachment to his cousin Louisa. When his father found out, young Friedrich was removed from the Czech capital as his father considered a musical career was a diversion rather than a career move. But Friedrich eventually got his own way, changed his name to Bedrich and after composing and playing a few small piano and violin pieces dedicated one of his early polkas to his cousin Louisa simply called ‘Louisa’s Polka’ and is the first of his earliest works to still be popular today.

However his fondness with Louisa didn’t end in marriage, as Bedrich finished his schooling in Pizen and after several more romances, became captivated with the pianist Katerina Kolorova who he had known in his adolescent years, and they married in 1849. By then Bedrich had achieved his ambition of becoming a concert pianist, but had also become an activist in the proposed break up of Bohemia and the eventual restoration of Prague as the capital of the new country of Czechoslovakia, but of course that never happened in his lifetime; it took the end of the First World War to resolve that.

His life was full of tragedy though, losing two of his four daughters to tuberculosis and his youngest daughter to scarlet fever. His tour to Gothenburg to promote his music was not a success, and on his return to Prague found his wife ailing with tuberculosis from which she finally died in Dresden shortly afterwards. He himself became completely deaf and finished his life in an asylum where he died from senile dementia aged 60. Also much of his music is rarely remembered nor played outside of the Czech Republic today, with the exception of his Triumphal Symphony and his comic opera ‘The Bartered Bride’ the overture of which is a very popular piece of music played not only by symphony orchestras, but also by brass bands. For that alone Smetana deserves to be classed as one of the great if not prolific composers of the 19th century.

 

 

This post was modified 8 months ago 4 times by Ken Smith

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Powmill-Naemore
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@ken

Ever since studying for my O Level in music under John Potter, himself a very talented jazz pianist, at The College in the 70s,  Smetana's symphonic poem Vltava has been one of my favourite and most listened to pieces.

It is the second in a cycle of 6 symphonic poems known as Má Vlast, which translates to My Country. To the Czechs this is their most celebrated piece of music and is featured every year at the Prague Music Festival. Smetana went deaf while composing this and actually completed the work in an asylum. You can feel the tension in him build in the last of the two poems.

Vltava itself is the story of the River that flows through Bohemia into Prague. There are so many beautiful themes in this short piece.

While Dvorák is the most celebrated Czech composer outside his own country, it is Smetana who is the considered by the Czech people to be their greatest ever composer.


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@ken

Ever since studying for my O Level in music under John Potter, himself a very talented jazz pianist, at The College in the 70s,  Smetana's symphonic poem Vltava has been one of my favourite and most listened to pieces.

It is the second in a cycle of 6 symphonic poems known as Má Vlast, which translates to My Country. To the Czechs this is their most celebrated piece of music and is featured every year at the Prague Music Festival. Smetana went deaf while composing this and actually completed the work in an asylum. You can feel the tension in him build in the last of the two poems.

Vltava itself is the story of the River that flows through Bohemia into Prague. There are so many beautiful themes in this short piece.

While Dvorák is the most celebrated Czech composer outside his own country, it is Smetana who is the considered by the Czech people to be their greatest ever composer.

Thanks for that information. Although familiar with the political situation about Bohemia through my hobby of philately in my youth and the involvement of Smetana in the political uprising, he is one of a few composers that I don’t actually possess an LP or CD of. I’ll have to check on YouTube to improve my knowledge of his work, though I did realise that the Czech people did and still do consider him as their jewel in the crown from my two holiday visits to Prague. When my wife was alive we went on an evening cruise on the Vitava river and they played a lot of beautiful music which might well have been composed by Smetana but we were not familiar with at the time.

This post was modified 8 months ago 2 times by Ken Smith

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JOHANN BAPTIST STRAUSS 1825/1899

Johann Baptist Strauss commonly known as Johann Strauss II was the son of Johann Strauss I and born in St Ulrich near the Austrian capital of Vienna in 1825. He and his brothers Josef and Eduard as well as his father were all composers, but Johann II was by far the most prolific of the Strauss dynasty having composed more than 500 compositions of music. His father wanted him to be a banker and apparently one day heard Johann secretly playing the violin and gave him a severe beating stating that he wanted to beat the music out of the boy, as he wanted to spare his so the rigours of a musician’s life.

However Johann became known as “The Waltz King” and popularised the Waltz  throughout Vienna, although he didn’t invent the waltz  as it was introduced into society some 50 years before Johann was born. The most famous of his 143 waltzes of course is ‘The Blue Danube Waltz’ although I must say that on my first visit to Austria the River Danube was anything but blue, but more of a grey colour. However my favourite is ‘The Emperor Waltz’ originally entitled ‘Hand in Hand’ as a toast from Emperor Franz Josef of Austria to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany as a toast of friendship by Austria and Hungary to the German Empire. Another popular waltz is ‘Tales from the Vienna Woods’ based on the recollections of folk who lived in the woods within Vienna. Other popular waltzes are ‘Vienna Blood’, ‘Wine, Women and Song’, ‘Roses from the South’ and ‘Artists Life’.

Amongst Johann’s 65 polkas perhaps the most famous ones are the two ‘Pizzicato Polkas’ involving the plucking of string instruments, ‘Tritsch-Tratsch Polka‘, ‘Explosions Polka’ and ‘Thunder and Lightning Polka’, the latter two particularly being dramatic. He also wrote 46 marches, one of which is simply called ‘Austria’ but not be confused with Josef Hayden’s composition of the same simple name which is of course the National Anthem of Germany but with the words written by John Newton is known in Britain as the hymn ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’ (Incidentally amongst Newton’s other works are the words of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’).

Strauss also wrote 15 Quadrilles, several mazurkas, lieders, the Ballet Cinderella, and 18 Operettas and comic Operas including ‘Die Fledermaus’ which is full of many fine tunes and the librettos provided by Karl Haffner and Richard Genée. Basically it could well have been one of the Whitehall farces produced in the 1950s and 60s which starred the late Brian Rix, or even one of the ‘Carry on ——-‘ series of films.

Strauss died of pleuropneumonia aged 74 in 1899 whilst still writing the music for another ballet, but he left a legacy of over 500 compositions which even today never fail to charm, refresh and restore faith in beauty especially at the New Year’s Day Concert in Vienna.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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JOHANNES BRAHMS 1833/1897

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833 and his ambition was to be a composer in the mould of Beethoven, but his parents tried to dissuade him. They wanted him to be a pianist and though he gave his first public performance at the age of 10 years old he hadn’t composed anything of much significance at that time. Whether or not that was due to the conflict with his father’s wishes is open to conjecture, but Brahms was in his forties before he wrote his first symphony. But he was a perfectionist and that might have been another factor in his late development. He did compose some music of an intimate nature, secular and religious, vocal and instrumental. However, whilst most of his colleagues were innovative in certain areas, Brahms introduced no new ideas. Whereas Schubert and Schumann marked the beginning of a new fusion of poetry and music in their songs, Chopin and Liszt realised fresh possibilities in technique and sonority, Berlioz reached new heights in sophisticated orchestration, Verdi and Wagner raised opera to new dramatic heights, and Beethoven broadened the scope of the symphony, it seemed as if Brahms had an inferiority complex. Although he had written some piano music, chamber music even choral music, as late as 1880 he asked for all the manuscripts to be returned to him so that they could be destroyed.

He strongly opposed the Romantic philosophy of his time that stressed the subjective and emotional possibilities of music and denigrated formal structure. Although his music is expressive and moving, he never allowed his music to to deviate from the strict form he had imposed on his works. He wrote well over 200 pieces of music of arrangements of folk songs and dance tunes including Hungarian Czardas while his choral music varied from lilting melodies to the severe majesty of his ‘German Requiem’ but his first performance of his First Piano Concerto in Hamburg provoked loud hissing from some of the audience. 

It was his ‘Lullaby’ and symphonies for which Brahms will be remembered most, but my favourite is the climax to his ‘Academic Festival Overture’ for which Sigmund Romberg added the lyrics in ‘The Student Prince’ and beautifully sung by Mario Lanza in Latin as he graduated :-

Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus,
Post jucundam juventutem
Post molestam senectutem 
Nos habebit humus.

Vivat academia!
Vivant professores!
Vivat membrum quodlibet
Vivat membra quaelibet
Semper sint in flore.

This was also the school song of goodbye at Sir William Turner’s Grammar School in Redcar which Paul Daniels and I attended.

Finally, just to add that Johannes Brahms died of liver cancer aged 64 in 1897.


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ALEXANDER BORODIN 1833/1887

Alexander Borodin was born in St Petersburg in 1833 as an illegitimate son of a 62 year old Georgian nobleman called Luka Gedevanishvili and a 25 year old married woman called Evdokia Antonova, and to keep the birth a secret he was registered as the son of Porfiry Borodin, one of the nobleman’s serfs, and as a result of his registration both Alexander and Porfiry were officially serfs of Borodin’s biological father Luka who emancipated Alexander from his serfdom when he reached the age of 7 years, and provided housing and money for Alexander and his mother although young Borodin referred to his mother as Aunt Evdokia.

Borodin had a good education by private tutors and in his late teens was enrolled in the Medical Surgery Department of the St Petersburg Academy. He later qualified as a chemist and became a leading light in that field. Throughout his studies he’d always been fond of music but had little time to explore the avenues of becoming a composer until in his early thirties when he wrote his First Symphony which was first performed in 1869 with his Second Symphony written in the same year but not a success on its debut performance in 1877, though Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov helped to improve the symphony with some minor re-orchestrations to it whence it became a fine symphony when repeated two years later.

The reason for the debut performance not being a success at first was probably because Borodin was also writing an opera at the same time. The opera was called ‘Prince Igor’ which included several Polovetsian Dances. The true storytale of ‘Prince Igor’ tells the story of the capture of Igor and his son by the chief of the Polovetsi, Khan Konchak, but instead of killing his captives, entertains them with a lavish banquet during which the Polovetsian Dances with their distinctive Eastern melodies and exoticism are performed. Sadly Borodin died before completing his opera, but the film musical ‘Kismet’ included some of the music from the opera with lyrics by Robert Wright. Three  of those songs ‘And this is my beloved’,’Baubles, Bangles and Beads’ and the showstopper ‘Stranger in Paradise’ and were hit songs from the film.

Borodin died before completing his Third Symphony but it was completed by Alexander Glazunov, and in 1954 Borodin was posthumously awarded a Tony Award for ‘Kismet’.


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CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS 1835/1921

Camille Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in 1835, his father being a French Ministry official who died of tuberculosis within two months of Camille’s christening. The young babe was thus moved to the country for the sake of his health where he lived with a nurse at Corbeil for the first two years of his life. On return to Paris he was brought up by his mother and an aunt, was taught to play the piano before he was 5 years old but also loved opera and was so overcome with emotion to be given the orchestral score of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni‘ as a present on his 6th birthday. At the age of 11 years he gave his first solo piano recital to an astonished Parisian audience, and although his mother acknowledging his talent she didn’t want him to become a child prodigy, that is what in fact he had become. He was also scholaristically clever from a young age in literature, mathematics, divinity, Greek and Latin, but music was to be his calling. After studying at the Conservatoire de Paris where he composed his First Symphony, he made several attempts to win recognition through operatic works, but eventually turned more towards strictly instrumental compositions where his extraordinary skill of orchestration could be fully exercised. He eventually became the organist at La Madeleine in Paris, and later a school teacher of budding young organists. 

His most famous compositions were the witty zoological fantasy of  ‘The Carnival of the Animals’, his opera ‘Samson and Delilah’, the dark and demonic tone poem ‘Danse Macabre’ and the Marche Militaire Francaise’ from his ‘Suite Algerienne’. He was a man of many interests and had a prodigious talent of expression, and truly a master of his art. He was so loved by his countrymen, receiving the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1868 and was awarded La Grand-Croix in 1913. He also became a member of the Institut de France in 1881. He crossed the Atlantic to give concerts in aid of the war effort despite the danger from German warships, and afterwards in 1921 set sail to spend the winter in Algiers as was his wont, but died of a surprise heart attack at he age of 86 whilst there. His body was brought back to Paris and buried in Montparnasse following a state funeral at La Madeleine.

 

 

 

 


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Powmill-Naemore
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Posted by: @ken

JOHANNES BRAHMS 1833/1897

...but my favourite is the climax to his ‘Academic Festival Overture’ for which Sigmund Romberg added the lyrics in ‘The Student Prince’ and beautifully sung by Mario Lanza in Latin as he graduated :-

Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus,
Post jucundam juventutem
Post molestam senectutem 
Nos habebit humus.

Vivat academia!
Vivant professores!
Vivat membrum quodlibet
Vivat membra quaelibet
Semper sint in flore.

This was also the school song of goodbye at Sir William Turner’s Grammar School in Redcar which Paul Daniels and I attended.

Finally, just to add that Johannes Brahms died of liver cancer aged 64 in 1897.

That brings back a memory Ken. I know the music from The Student Prince, my parents had the LP of the film sound track. I did love that particular song too, but I had no idea that it was written to music by Brahms.


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Allan in Bahrain
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@ken

My favourite from the animals is the Swan.


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Allan in Bahrain
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@ken

 

… though for me the most popular piece was in fact the theme tune for Zoo time I think, or Whipsnade Park or Jonny Morrison? if that was his name with the talking animals. The Hunter theme from the Animals.


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