Composer: Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy
Date of Birth: 03 February 1809
Date of Death: 04 November 1847
Period/Era/Style: Early Romantic
Contribution(s): Mendelssohn was a German composer, pianist, organist and conductor of the early romantic period. Mendelssohn wrote symphonies, concertos, oratorios, piano music and chamber music. His best-known works include his Overture and incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Italian Symphony, the Scottish Symphony, the overture The Hebrides, his mature Violin Concerto, and his String Octet. His Songs Without Words are his most famous solo piano compositions. After a long period of relative denigration due to changing musical tastes and antisemitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his creative originality has been re-evaluated. He is now among the most popular composers of the romantic era.
A grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn was born into a prominent Jewish family. He was brought up without religion until the age of seven, when he was baptised as a Reformed Christian. Felix was recognised early as a musical prodigy, but his parents were cautious and did not seek to capitalise on his talent.
Mendelssohn enjoyed early success in Germany, and revived interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, notably with his performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829. He became well received in his travels throughout Europe as a composer, conductor and soloist; his ten visits to Britain – during which many of his major works were premiered – form an important part of his adult career. His essentially conservative musical tastes set him apart from more adventurous musical contemporaries such as Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Charles-Valentin Alkan and Hector Berlioz. The Leipzig Conservatoire, which he founded, became a bastion of this anti-radical outlook.
Composer: François Couperin
Date of Birth: 10 November 1668
Date of Death: 11 September 1733
Period/Era/Style: Late Baroque
Contribution(s): Couperin, F. was a French Baroque composer, organist and harpsichordist. He was known as Couperin le Grand (“Couperin the Great”) to distinguish him from other members of the musically talented Couperin family.
Biography: Couperin was born into one of the best known musical families of Europe. His father Charles was organist at Church Saint-Gervais in Paris, a position previously occupied by Charles’ brother Louis Couperin, a highly regarded keyboard virtuoso and composer whose career was cut short by an early death. As a boy, François must have received his first music lessons from his father. Unfortunately, Charles died in 1679. The church council at Saint-Gervais hired Michel Richard Delalandeto serve as new organist, with the condition that François would replace him at age 18. Meanwhile, the boy was taken care of and taught by organist Jacques-Denis Thomelin, who served both at the court and at the famous church of St Jacques-de-la-Boucherie. According to a biography by Évrard Titon du Tillet, Thomelin treated the boy extremely well and became “a second father” to him. François’s talent must have manifested itself quite early, since already by 1685 the church council agreed to provide him with a regular salary even though he had no formal contract.
Couperin’s mother Marie (née Guérin) died in 1690, but otherwise his life and career were accompanied by good fortune. In 1689 he married one Marie-Anne Ansault, daughter of a prosperous well-connected family. The next year saw the publication of Couperin’s Pieces d’orgue, a collection of organ masses that was praised by Delalande (who may have assisted with both composition and publication). In three more years Couperin succeeded his former teacher Thomelin at the court. The new appointment was extremely prestigious and brought Couperin in contact with some of the finest composers of his time, as well as numerous members of the aristocracy. His earliest chamber music dates from around that time. The numerous duties Couperin carried out at the court were accompanied by duties as organist at Saint Gervais, and also by the composition and publication of new music. He obtained a 20-year royal privilege to publish in 1713 and used it immediately to issue the first volume (out of four) of his harpsichord works, Pieces de clavecin. A harpsichord playing manual followed in 1716, as well as other collections of keyboard and chamber music. In 1717 Couperin succeeded one of his most eminent colleagues, Jean-Baptiste-Henry d’Anglebert, as ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du roi pour le clavecin, one of the highest possible appointments for a court musician. However, his involvement in the musical activities at the court may have lessened after Louis XIV’s death in 1715.
Couperin’s health declined steadily throughout the 1720s. The services of a cousin were required by 1723 at Saint Gervais, and in 1730 Couperin’s position as court harpsichordist was taken up by his daughter Marguerite-Antoinette. Couperin’s final publications were Pièces de violes (1728) and the fourth volume of harpsichord pieces (1730). The composer died in 1733. The building where Couperin and his family lived since 1724 still stands and is located at the corner of the rue Radziwill and the rue des Petits Champs. The composer was survived by at least three of his children: Marguerite-Antoinette, who continued working as court harpsichordist until 1741, Marie-Madeleine (Marie-Cécile), who became a nun and may have worked as organist at the Maubuisson Abbey, and François-Laurent, who according to contemporary sources left the family after François died.
Composer: John Philip Sousa
Date of Birth: November 6, 1854
Date of Death: March 6, 1932
Period/Era/Style: Late Romantic
Contribution(s): Sousa was an American composer and conductor of the late Romantic era, known primarily for American military and patriotic marches. Because of his mastery of march composition, he is known as “The March King”, or the “American March King” due to his British counterpart Kenneth J. Alford also being known by the former nickname. Among his best-known marches are “The Stars and Stripes Forever” (National March of the United States of America), “Semper Fidelis” (Official March of the United States Marine Corps), “The Liberty Bell” (used as the theme for Monty Python’s Flying Circus), “The Thunderer” and “The Washington Post”.
Sousa began his career playing violin and studying music theory and composition under John Esputa and George Felix Benkert. His father enlisted him in the United States Marine Band as an apprentice in 1868. After departing the band in 1875, Sousa learned to conduct. From 1880 until his death, he focused exclusively on conducting and the writing of music. He eventually rejoined the Marine Band and served there for 12 years as director. On leaving the Marine Band, Sousa organized his own band. Sousa aided in the development of the sousaphone, a large brass instrument similar to the helicon and tuba. At the outbreak of World War I, Sousa was commissioned as a lieutenant commander and led the Naval Reserve Band in Illinois. Following his tenure, he returned to conduct the Sousa Band until his death in 1932. In the 1920s he was promoted to lieutenant commander in the naval reserve, but never saw active service again.
Composer: Roger Cuthbert Quilter
Date of Birth: 1 November 1877
Date of Death: 21 September 1953
Period/Era/Style: 20th Century
Contribution(s): Quilter was an English composer, known particularly for his songs. Born at Hove, Sussex (a commemorative blue plaque is on the house at 4 Brunswick Square), Quilter was a younger son of Sir William Quilter, 1st Baronet, a wealthy noted landowner, politician and art collector.
Biography: Roger Quilter was educated first in the preparatory school at Farnborough. He then moved to Eton College and later became a fellow-student of Percy Grainger, Cyril Scott and H. Balfour Gardiner at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where he studied for almost five years under the guidance of the German professor of composition Iwan Knorr. Quilter belonged to the Frankfurt Group, a circle of composers who studied at the Hoch Conservatory in the late 1890s. His reputation in England rests largely on his songs and on his light music for orchestra, such as his Children’s Overture, with its interwoven nursery rhyme tunes, and a suite of music for the play Where the Rainbow Ends. He is noted as an influence on several English composers, including Peter Warlock.
In November 1936, Quilter’s opera Julia was presented at Covent Garden by the British Music Drama Opera Company under the direction of Vladimir Rosing.
Quilter enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with the tenor Gervase Elwes until the latter’s death in 1921. As a homosexual, he found it difficult to cope with some of the pressures which he felt were imposed upon him, and eventually deteriorated into mental illness after the loss of his nephew Arnold Guy Vivian during the Second World War.
He died at his home in St John’s Wood, London, a few months after celebrations to mark his 75th birthday, and was buried in the family vault at St Mary’s Church, Bawdsey, Suffolk.
Roger Quilter’s output of songs, more than one hundred in total, added to the canon of English art song that is still sung today. Among the most popular are “Love’s Philosophy”, “Fair House of Joy”, “Come Away Death”, “Go, Lovely Rose”, “Weep You No More”, “By the Sea”, and his setting of “O Mistress Mine”. Quilter’s setting of verses from the Tennyson poem “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” is one of his earliest songs but is nonetheless characteristic of the later, mature style.
He also published the Arnold Book of Old Songs, a collection of 16 folk and traditional songs to new accompaniments, dedicated to his nephew Arnold Guy Vivian.
Composer: Niccolò (or Nicolò) Paganini Date of Birth: 27 October 1782 Date of Death: 27 May 1840 Nationality: Italian Period/Era/Style:Classical era/Romantic transition
Contribution(s): Paganini was an Italian violinist, violist, guitarist, and composer. He was the most celebrated violin virtuoso of his time, and left his mark as one of the pillars of modern violin technique. His 24 Caprices for Solo Violin Op. 1 are among the best known of his compositions, and have served as an inspiration for many prominent composers.
Niccolò Paganini was born in Genoa, then capital of the Republic of Genoa, the third of the six children of Antonio and Teresa (née Bocciardo) Paganini. Paganini’s father was an unsuccessful trader, but he managed to supplement his income through playing music on the mandolin. At the age of five, Paganini started learning the mandolin from his father, and moved to the violin by the age of seven. His musical talents were quickly recognized, earning him numerous scholarships for violin lessons. The young Paganini studied under various local violinists, including Giovanni Servetto and Giacomo Costa, but his progress quickly outpaced their abilities. Paganini and his father then traveled to Parma to seek further guidance from Alessandro Rolla. But upon listening to Paganini’s playing, Rolla immediately referred him to his own teacher, Ferdinando Paer and, later, Paer’s own teacher, Gasparo Ghiretti. Though Paganini did not stay long with Paer or Ghiretti, the two had considerable influence on his composition style.
Composer: Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti (aka Domenico Scarlatti (DS), not to be confused by Giuseppe Scarlatti [GS] in which it is still uncertain whether GS was the nephew of Alessandro (AS) born 18 June 1723 or the nephew of Domenico (DS) born in 1718) Date of Birth: 26 October 1685 Date of Death: 23 July 1757 Nationality: Italian Period/Era/Style: Late Baroque Contribution(s): Scarlatti was an Italian composer who spent much of his life in the service of the Portuguese and Spanish royal families. He is classified primarily as a Baroque composer chronologically, although his music was influential in the development of the Classical style and he was one of the few Baroque composers to transition into the classical period. Like his renowned father Alessandro Scarlatti, he composed in a variety of musical forms, although today he is known mainly for his 555 keyboard sonatas.
Life and career:Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples, Kingdom of Naples, belonging to the Spanish Crown, in 1685, the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. He was the sixth of ten children of the composer and teacher Alessandro Scarlatti. Domenico’s older brother Pietro Filippo was also a musician.
He probably first studied music under his father. Other composers who may have been his early teachers include Gaetano Greco, Francesco Gasparini, and Bernardo Pasquini, all of whom may have influenced his musical style. He was appointed as composer and organist at the royal chapel in Naples in 1701. In 1704, he revised Carlo Francesco Pollarolo’s opera Irene for performance at Naples. Soon afterwards, his father sent him to Venice. After this, nothing is known of Scarlatti’s life until 1709, when he went to Rome in the service of the exiled Polish queen Marie Casimire. He met Thomas Roseingrave there. Scarlatti was already an eminent harpsichordist: there is a story of a trial of skill with George Frideric Handel at the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome where he was judged possibly superior to Handel on that instrument, although inferior on the organ. Later in life, he was known to cross himself in veneration when speaking of Handel’s skill. In Rome, Scarlatti composed several operas for Queen Casimire’s private theatre. He was Maestro Di Cappella at St. Peter’s from 1715 to 1719. In 1719 he travelled to London to direct his opera Narciso at the King’s Theatre.
According to Vicente Bicchi (Papal Nuncio at the time), Domenico Scarlatti arrived in Lisbon on 29 November 1719. There he taught music to the Portuguese princess Maria Magdalena Barbara. He left Lisbon on 28 January 1727 for Rome, where he married Maria Caterina Gentili on 6 May 1728. In 1729 he moved to Seville, staying for four years. In 1733 he went to Madrid as music master to Princess Maria Barbara, who had married into the Spanish royal house. The Princess later became Queen of Spain. Scarlatti remained in the country for the remaining twenty-five years of his life, and had five children there. After the death of his first wife in 1742, he married a Spaniard, Anastasia Maxarti Ximenes. Among his compositions during his time in Madrid were a number of the 555 keyboard sonatas for which he is best known.
Scarlatti befriended the castrato singer Farinelli, a fellow Neapolitan also enjoying royal patronage in Madrid. The musicologist and harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick commented that Farinelli’s correspondence provides “most of the direct information about Scarlatti that has transmitted itself to our day”. Domenico Scarlatti died in Madrid, at the age of 71. His residence on Calle Leganitos is designated with a historical plaque, and his descendants still live in Madrid. He was buried at a convent there, in Madrid, but his grave no longer exists.
Music: Only a small fraction of Scarlatti’s compositions were published during his lifetime; Scarlatti himself seems to have overseen the publication in 1738 of the most famous collection, his 30 Essercizi (“Exercises”). These were well received throughout Europe, and were championed by the foremost English writer on music of the eighteenth century, Charles Burney.
The many sonatas that were unpublished during Scarlatti’s lifetime have appeared in print irregularly in the two and a half centuries since. Scarlatti has attracted notable admirers, including Béla Bartók, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Johannes Brahms, Frédéric Chopin, Emil Gilels, Enrique Granados, Marc-André Hamelin, Vladimir Horowitz, Franz Liszt, Ivo Pogorelić, Heinrich Schenker and Dmitri Shostakovich.
Scarlatti’s 555 keyboard sonatas are single movements, mostly in binary form, and some in early sonata form, and mostly written for the harpsichord or the earliest pianofortes. (There are four for organ, and a few for small instrumental group). Some of them display harmonic audacity in their use of discords, and also unconventional modulations to remote keys.
Other distinctive attributes of Scarlatti’s style are the following:
The influence of Iberian (Portuguese and Spanish) folk music. An example is Scarlatti’s use of the Phrygian mode and other tonal inflections more or less alien to European art music. Many of Scarlatti’s figurations and dissonances are suggestive of the guitar.
A formal device in which each half of a sonata leads to a pivotal point, which Kirkpatrick termed “the crux”, and which is sometimes underlined by a pause or fermata. Before the crux, Scarlatti sonatas often contain their main thematic variety, and after the crux the music makes more use of repetitive figurations as it modulates away from the home key (in the first half) or back to the home key (in the second half).
Kirkpatrick produced an edition of the sonatas in 1953, and the numbering from this edition is now nearly always used – the Kk. or K. number. Previously, the numbering commonly used was from the 1906 edition compiled by the Neapolitan pianist Alessandro Longo (L. numbers). Kirkpatrick’s numbering is chronological, while Longo’s ordering is a result of his grouping the sonatas into “suites”. In 1967 the Italian musicologist Giorgio Pestelli published a revised catalog (using P. numbers), which corrected what he considered to be some anachronisms.
Aside from his many sonatas, Scarlatti composed a number of operas and cantatas, symphonias, and liturgical pieces. Well-known works include the Stabat Mater of 1715 and the Salve Regina of 1757, which is thought to be his last composition.
Composer: Georges Bizet
Date of Birth: 25 October 1838
Date of Death: 3 June 1875
Period/Era/Style: Middle Romantic-era
Contribution(s): Bizet registered at birth as Alexandre César Léopold Bizet, was a French composer of the romantic era. Best known for his operas in a career cut short by his early death, Bizet achieved few successes before his final work, Carmen, which has become one of the most popular and frequently performed works in the entire opera repertoire.
Biography: During a brilliant student career at the Conservatoire de Paris, Bizet won many prizes, including the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1857. He was recognised as an outstanding pianist, though he chose not to capitalise on this skill and rarely performed in public. Returning to Paris after almost three years in Italy, he found that the main Parisian opera theatres preferred the established classical repertoire to the works of newcomers. His keyboard and orchestral compositions were likewise largely ignored; as a result, his career stalled, and he earned his living mainly by arranging and transcribing the music of others. Restless for success, he began many theatrical projects during the 1860s, most of which were abandoned. Neither of his two operas that reached the stage in this time—Les pêcheurs de perles and La jolie fille de Perth—were immediately successful.
After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, during which Bizet served in the National Guard, he had little success with his one-act opera Djamileh, though an orchestral suite derived from his incidental music to Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne was instantly popular. The production of Bizet’s final opera, Carmen, was delayed because of fears that its themes of betrayal and murder would offend audiences. After its premiere on 3 March 1875, Bizet was convinced that the work was a failure; he died of a heart attack three months later, unaware that it would prove a spectacular and enduring success.
Bizet’s marriage to Geneviève Halévy was intermittently happy and produced one son. After his death, his work, apart from Carmen, was generally neglected. Manuscripts were given away or lost, and published versions of his works were frequently revised and adapted by other hands. He founded no school and had no obvious disciples or successors. After years of neglect, his works began to be performed more frequently in the 20th century. Later commentators have acclaimed him as a composer of brilliance and originality whose premature death was a significant loss to French musical theatre.
Composer: Johann Strauss II (Johann Baptist Strauss) aka Johann Strauss Jr., the Younger or the Son.
Date of Birth: October 25, 1825
Date of Death: June 3, 1899
Period/Era/Style: Middle Romantic era
Contribution(s): Composer known as “The Waltz King”, son of Austrian dance music composer Johann Strauss I and elder brother of Josef Strauss and Eduard Strauss, best known for Blue Danube Waltz and his opera, Die Fledermaus.
Biography: Strauss II was an Austrian composer of light music, particularly dance music and operettas. He composed over 500 waltzes, polkas, quadrilles, and other types of dance music, as well as several operettas and a ballet. In his lifetime, he was known as “The Waltz King”, and was largely then responsible for the popularity of the waltz in Vienna during the 19th century.
Strauss had two younger brothers, Josef and Eduard Strauss, who became composers of light music as well, although they were never as well known as their elder brother. Some of Johann Strauss’ most famous works include “The Blue Danube”, “Kaiser-Walzer” (Emperor Waltz), “Tales from the Vienna Woods”, and the “Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka”. Among his operettas, Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron are the best known.
Composer: Ferdinand (von) Hiller
Date of Birth: 24 October 1811
Date of Death: 11 May 1885
Period/Era/Style: Early Romantic-era
Contribution(s): Hiller was a German composer, conductor, writer and music-director.
Biography: Ferdinand Hiller was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Frankfurt am Main, where his father Justus (originally Isaac Hildesheim, a name that he changed late in the 18th century to conceal his Jewish origins) was a merchant in English textiles – a business eventually continued by Ferdinand’s brother Joseph. Hiller’s talent was discovered early and he was taught piano by the leading Frankfurt musician Alois Schmitt, violin by Jörg Hofmann, and harmony and counterpoint by Georg Jacob Vollweiler; at 10 he performed a Mozart concerto in public; and two years later, he produced his first composition.
In 1822, the 13-year-old Felix Mendelssohn entered his life. The Mendelssohn family was at that time staying briefly in Frankfurt and the young Hiller visited them where he was immensely impressed by the playing of Felix (and even more so by that of his sister Fanny Mendelssohn). When their acquaintance was renewed in 1825 the two boys found an immediate close friendship, which was to last until 1843. Hiller tactfully describes their falling out as arising from “social, and not from personal susceptibilities.” But in fact it seems to have been more to do with Hiller’s succession to Mendelssohn as director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1843.
From 1825 to 1827, Hiller was a pupil of Johann Nepomuk Hummel in Weimar; while he was with Hummel at Beethoven’s deathbed, Hiller secured a lock of Beethoven’s hair. This lock is now at the San Jose State University, after having been sold at Sotheby’s in 1994. While in Vienna for Beethoven’s obsequies, Hiller and Hummel heard Johann Michael Vogl and Franz Schubert perform Schubert’s Winterreise. Hiller wrote that his master was so moved that tears fell from his eyes.
From 1828 to 1835, Hiller based himself in Paris, where he was engaged as teacher of composition at Choron’s School of Music. He eventually gave up his position so that he might better equip himself as a pianist and composer. He spent time in Italy, hoping that this would assist him to write a successful opera (a hope which was never fulfilled). In 1836, he was in Frankfurt devoting himself to composition. His abilities were recognized, and although but 25, he was asked to act as conductor of the Cäcilienverein during the illness of its conductor Schelble.
In addition to Mendelssohn, he attracted the attention of Rossini who assisted him to launch his first opera, Romilda (which was a failure), at Milan. Mendelssohn obtained for Hiller an entrée to the Gewandhaus, and afforded an opportunity for the public presentation of Hiller’s oratorio Die Zerstörung Jerusalems (The Destruction of Jerusalem, 1840). After a year of study in Church music at Rome, Hiller returned to Leipzig, and during the season of 1843-44 conducted the Gewandhaus concerts. By this time his position in the musical world was established, and honors and appointments were showered upon him. In 1845 Robert Schumann dedicated to Hiller his piano concerto. Hiller became municipal kapellmeister of Düsseldorf in 1847, and in 1850 received a similar appointment at Cologne, where he founded Cologne Conservatoire that year and remained as Kapellmeister until 1884. During this time, he was twelve times festival director of the Lower Rhenish Music Festival, and conducted the Gürzenichconcerts. He worked in Dresden as well. Thus he played a leading part in Germany’s musical life. And he was conductor at the Italian Opera in Paris during the season of 1852-53.
During Hiller’s long reign in Cologne, which earned him a ‘von’ to precede his surname, his star pupil was Max Bruch, the composer of the cello elegy Kol Nidrei, based on the synagogue hymn sung at Yom Kippur. Bruch was not Jewish; his knowledge of the theme of Kol Nidrei came through Hiller, who introduced him to the Berlin chazan, Lichtenstein. Hiller’s regime at Cologne was strongly marked by his conservative tastes, which he attempted to prolong by recommending, as his successor in 1884, either Brahms or Bruch. The appointment went however to a “modernist”, Franz Wüllner, who, according to Grove “initiated his term […] with concerts of works by Wagner, Liszt and Richard Strauss, all of whom Hiller had avoided.”
Hiller was elected a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1849, and in 1868 received the title of doctor from the University of Bonn. He died in Cologne.
Composer: Jean Absil
Date of Birth: 23 October 1893
Date of Death: 2 February 1974
Period/Era/Style: 20th Century
Contribution(s): Absil was a Belgian composer, organist, and professor at the Brussels Conservatoire.
Biography: Absil was born in Bonsecours, Hainaut, Belgium. His teacher there was Alphonse Oeyen, organist at the basilica of Bonsecours. From 1913 he studied organ and harmony at the Brussels Conservatoire, but upon graduating, decided to concentrate on composition instead.
In 1922 Absil won the Belgian Prix de Rome and in 1934 the Prix Rubens, which allowed him to travel to Paris. Here, he met fellow contemporary composers Ibert, Milhaud, and Honegger. Absil gained international prominence with the premiere of his first piano concerto (op. 30).
From 1930 onwards, Absil taught harmony at the Brussels Conservatoire, becoming a professor of counterpoint there six years later. Amongst his Conservatoire pupils was Paul Danblon. He also taught at Chapelle Musicale Reine Elisabeth and the Etterbeek Music School. From 1955 he served as a member of Belgium’s Royal Academy. He died in Brussels at the age of 80.