December 28, 2010

Bendřich Smetana 1824-1884

This great composer, Bendřich Smetana, was son of a beer brewer.  Born in Litomyšl, Bohemia, he was his father’s eleventh child and the first son to survive infancy.  His father, an amateur violinist and great admirer of music, made Bendřich Smetana’s musical education a priority. Therefore, young Smetana had started learning piano and violin at the early age of four with great aspiration. After only two years of lessons, he had his first piano recital and was already playing in a string quartet. At the age of eight, he started composing.

His love for music greatly intensified throughout the years. It was his first passion and, despite his great interest for philosophy and literature, came before anything else. His greatest wish was to one day become a truly great composer.

At the age of nineteen, he formally settled in Prague earning a living as a tutor to a family of aristocrats.  Up until this point, he clearly lacked a formal musical education.  In order to make his dream of one day becoming a composer a reality, he continued his composition and piano studies.  His eventual friendship with Franz Liszt proved to be of great importance throughout his musical career.

Two of his greatest works were The Bartered Bride and Má Vlast. After having taken part in the fighting during the nationalist uprising in 1848 and gaining a name amongst Czech nationalists, moving to Sweden to further his musical career, and then eventually returning to Prague, The Bartered Bride had been first performed in 1866, the very same year Smetana got the opportunity of a lifetime…  He was named principal conductor of the Prague Provisional Theater Orchestra, a position he held for eight years. To give you an idea of what a great orchestra this was, it must be said that Anton Dvořák was the first chair violinist.

Má Vlast, translated as “My Fatherland” was completed in 1879. Its composition took Bendřich Smetana seven years to complete. In its 6 cycles, this symphonic poem is symbolic of the Czech nationalist movement representing their political and cultural oppression.

The pieces of this great composer have been performed throughout Europe and America in the great concert halls of yesteryear and today; it goes without saying why this great composer, Bendřich Smetana, became known as “Father of Czech Classical Music”.

To listen to music by this great composer click here.

December 18, 2010

Sir Edward Elgar 1857-1934

Now, we come to composer whose name is not necessarily recognized off the bat like those of Mozart or Beethoven, yet anyone whose has graduated high school or college knows his music. – I will get to that later.

 Born on the countryside in Worcestershire, England, this composer was the son of a musician. Sir Edward Elgar’s father was a violinist, the organist at a local church and even owned a music shop. Growing up in a music shop contributed a lot to Sir Edward’s interest for music. In fact, due to the unlimited access had to sheet music in his father’s shop, it enticed him on to learn composition. To great amazement, except for taking violin lessons locally, his composition skills were completely self-taught.

After leaving school in 1872 at a very early age, he managed to find work at a lawyer’s office, but his true aspiration was to be a freelance musician.  He worked very hard to play wherever he could. This entailed learning to play several instruments. Among the instruments he learned in addition to the violin were double bass, piano, bassoon, trombone and the cello. He had working knowledge on all of these instruments and took work performing on them. Among the work he had taken on, he took up the position of violinist in an orchestra in Birmingham conducted by a man by the name of W.C. Stockley. It was during this time that Sir Edward saw a few of his compositions performed and made some experience conducting.

Three years into his musical career, he ended up taking over his father’s position as organist at the local church.  Along with performing, he was also active as a teacher. One of his most important students was an author by the name of Caroline Alice Roberts.  Another three years went by and the two of them got married in 1889. Caroline Alice Roberts was very supportive to her husband, being there during bouts of depression which he very often suffered from.   Additionally, the relationship helped his musical career immensely on account of the fact that Caroline Alice Roberts came from a very influential family. The two of them went to live in London for a while, but unfortunately, it didn’t really work out for them financially, so they came back to Worcestershire where Sir Edgar Elgar began to teach for a living once again. He hated it but it was a necessary must to continue his work and support himself as a composer.

His first true success was in 1899 when his Variations on an Original Theme (also known as Enigma) were performed in London and made him renowned throughout England as a composer. This piece is really quite interesting. Each variation was based upon one of his friends. Sir Edward claimed that he tried to write each variation as if his friends might have written them if they have been endowed with knowledge of composition. In addition to this, Sir Edward claimed that there was an ‘enigma’ or puzzle built into the piece. Along with the variations upon the original theme, there is a mystery tune upon which the entire piece is based upon, overshadowing the entire work.  Some say it was based upon “God Save the Queen”, but it is something that is still augmented for Sir Edward never revealed the answer.

This composer had written a great deal of works and he is without a shadow of doubt one of England’s greatest composers, but as mentioned before, anyone who has graduated high school or college knows his music. His most famous work, “Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1”, was written in 1904, a song which, without a doubt, rings in the minds of many on that very special graduation day.  

If you would like to hear some music by this great composer, click here.

June 20, 2010

Arcangelo Corelli 1653 - 1713


 This composer was born in Fusignano, Italy and was the youngest of five children. His family was quite wealthy and owned a lot of land. This was quite fortunate on account of the fact that his father, who Arcangelo Corelli had been named after, had died a month before he was born, leaving his wife to raise the entire family practically on her own. 

Although he received his first musical education quite early in his life from a priest in Faenza, it was not until the age of thirteen that his true musical education began. He went to Bologna to study the violin. Having proved to be a quite promising musician, he was accepted at the Accademia filarmonica at the age of seventeen. This institution has been an important provider of musical education to many great composers thoughout the centuries. It exists to this very day.

In the following years, having taken the position of one of the best violinists in Italy, his musical career led him to Rome where he played at a great deal of places. It was here that he made the acquaintance of Queen Christina of Sweden who had a residence there and was a leading patron of Rome's musical scene at the time. He began composing for her and even dedicated his Opus 1 collection of trio sonatas to her in 1681.

His fame caught the attention of Cardinal Benedetto Pamfili who Corelli began to work for in1687, taking up residence in his palace and becoming music director along with giving instrumental performances. This step of Corelli's life was of great importance because Pamfili's palace and the performances had been considered to be one of the musical epicenters of Rome. Corelli's Opus 2 chamber works were dedicated to Pamfili.

After a while, Pamfili left to Bologna and Cardinal Ottoboni took a liking to Corelli's music, somewhat adopting his services. He worked for him for a period of ten years directing concerts as well as operatic performances. His Opus 4 chamber trios were dedicated to Otooboni.

Having reached the climax of his career, he was appointed leader of the instrumental section of the Congregazione dei Virtuosi di Santa Cecilia (* Congregation of Santa Cecilia's Virtuosos) and was also accepted by the Accademia di Arcadia (*Arcadian Academy), two very important musical institutions at the time which brought him into contact with the most famous and best musical personalities of the time including the great composer Friedrich Händel. Corelli was quite active in the performances of Händel's works.

Arcangelo Corelli made it his life's goal to present the best of the violin to the world. His masterpiece, Concerti grossi, Opus 6 - a collection of 12 pieces, having been written over a great many years and completed just before his death - certainly achieved this. These pieces along with Corelli's achievements had played a great role in development of solo concerto and the violin technique we know this very day. A mere year after Corelli had been buried in Rome's great Pantheon, were the Concerti grossi actually published.

To listen to music by this great composer click here.

October 11, 2009

Ruggero Leoncavallo 1857-1919

 Here is a great composer that had a really difficult life. Although he was quite a great musician and an accomplished composer, he never really received the recognition he deserved. Originally from the city of Naples, Italy, he started at the conservatory (Conservatorio San Pietro a Majella) at the age of 9 and studied for a period of ten years before moving on to the University of Bologna to broaden his education. This is where he spent two years to get a degree in literature.

At the age of 19, Leocavallo held his very first opera, Chatterton. The work was intended to be of great financial gain for him. It certainly would have been, if the person organising the event had not run off with the money. For a period of five years, Ruggero Leoncavallo lived in poverty, making his living by playing piano in cafés and travelling all over Europe.

Despite his lack of money and his travels, it did not stop him from writing another opera, known as I Pagliacci (The Clowns). After writing it, Leoncavallo took it directly to a publisher who arranged for its performance to be held at the Teatro del Verme in Milan on May 21st, 1892. It remains a success to this very day.

Concerning this very famous work, I Pagliacci, it is very interesting that Leoncavallo had been brought to court for plagiarism on account of the fact that there had been a very similar work written in 1887 called La Femme de Tabarin written by Catulle Mendès. La Femme de Tabarin shared many themes with Leoncavallo's opera.

Facing deep criticism, Leoncavallo denied all allegations against him, explaining that the story had been made up based upon a childhood experience. A servant had supposedly taken him to a theatre in which the events of the opera actually took place. He also claimed that his father, a police magistrate, had actually led the criminal investigation, impressing upon the many documents to prove this. These documents never appeared and there are many that believe to this day that he had really taken the theme from Mendès.

Around 1900, the phonograph record had begun to revolutionize music. Leonvavallo was one of the first composers to make use of this wonderful invention. Not only did he record one of his best known songs, Mattinata, but was the very first composer to record an entire opera on record, namely his most noted opera, I Pagliacci. To this very day, the work is often staged and remains one of the most popular operatic works in North America.

His very last work, Edipo Re, after the orchestration had been completed by Giovanni Pennacchio, was performed in 1920 in Chicago, Illinois, a year after Leoncavallo's death in 1919.

To listen to music by this great composer click here.

October 04, 2009

Georg Philipp Telemann 1681-1767

Born in Magdeburg, Germany, this composer managed to learn to play four instruments(flute, keyboard, zither and violin) by the time he was ten and wrote his first opera at ten years old. Nonetheless, his family, not coming from a musical background at all, were not at all impressed. In fact, his mother took away all of his instruments away and sent him to school. Luckily for Georg Telemann, the superintendant of that very school was a music theorist and supported Telemann's passion for music. The young boy was able to learn composition for an entire four years along with studying his normal subjects to please his family.

After entering high school(*German: Gymnasium), he was once again fortunate to find another teacher that supported his interest in music, encouraging him to compose works for school events, dramas, and even got him involved with the local Catholic church.

His time at high school soon camed to an end and he went to Leipzig to study law. Although he was most probably complying with his mother's wishes, his studies did not last very long. His will to be a musician was far too strong. Having settled in Leipzig, he decided to concentrate on composition. Having written a musical psalm setting that was perfomed at a church (the Thomaskirche). The city's mayor liked it so much, he invited Telemann to compose a cantata for Sunday mass every two weeks. The cantor of the church did not much like Telemann's increasing influence at his church, but could not do anything about it. His works were requested for every Sunday soon after.

At the age of 21, Georg Telemann founded the Collegium Musicum, a musical ensemble for which he organized concerts regularly. Shortly afterwards, he was appointed director of the Leipzig Opera and started to compose operas and giving the roles to his own music students.

After leaving Leipzip in 1705, he took up employment composing and directing in various places all over Germany and what is now Poland including Count Erdmann II of Promnitz in Sorau, the Eisenach Court where he made the aquantance of Johann Sebastian Bach, and finally a post in Frankfurt where he married the daugher of a Frankfurt council clerk and had ten children.

At the age of fourty, Teleman moved to Hamburg where he was made Cantor of the Hamburg Johanneum(*German name: Gelehrtenschule des Johanneums.) It is the oldest highschool in Hamburg. Since the school had been founded in 1529, its cantor was not only the director of the school, but also responsible for the music played in Hamburgs five main churches. This position soon led Telemann to become the music director of the Hamburg Opera. It was here that he was closer to his good friend, the musician Georg Frideric Handel, for whom he arranged a lot of concerts.

Along with staging vast musical events for the city, Telmann was known quite well for his composition of Tafelmusik(table music). The pieces were meant to be played at banquets in circles of nobility and the middle class, always beginning with a French-style overture and a series of melodic pieces that were to be played in any which order.

Living over a span of eighty-six years, Georg Philipp Telemann wrote six hundred Italian overtures, fourty-seven concertos(concerts for solo insturmentalists and orchestra), six oratorios including the famed Tag des Gerichts (Judgement Day) and fourty operas, this great composer will live on in our hearts as one of the most prolific of all time, having given a gift to humanity that has and will always endure throughout the centuries.

To listen to music by this great composer click here.

August 01, 2009

Frederick Delius 1862 – 1934

Frederick Delius was an English composer born into a family of fourteen children. He grew up in Bradford located in the north of England, but his parents, who were wool-merchants, were actually German. His musical training during his youth consisted of piano and violin lessons, although it has to be said that his music at that time was considered more of a hobby at an amateur level. Nonetheless, he showed a lot of musical promise and wanted to be a musician. His father was dead-set against it, having impressed upon Frederick Delius that a future in the wool business had been where his destiny lay.

After finishing grammar school, he decided to enter into the family business, giving in to his father's wishes. This did not last very long, for he proved not to be a very talented businessman. Yet, having had to go on many business trips abroad to Paris and Norway during that time did spark a great interest for travel and led him to the United States. Little did he know at that time, his travels to Paris and Norway would be important to his musical career in the future.

At the age of twenty-two, he persuaded his father to help him set up as a grower of citrus fruit in Florida. During his stay, he negleted his work as a farmer and was finally able to dedicate himself to his true passion, music. He ended up meeting Thomas Ward, a local musician, who became his teacher in composition. It was here on the desolate plantation in subtropical weather where his first compositions were written. Following this, he moved to Virginia for several months, earning his keep by playing the organ, singing and giving music lessons.

In 1886, two years after his arrival in America, Frederick Delius ended up returning to Europe. His father finally gave in to his wishes and granted him the support he needed to study for a while at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany. The academic training at the conservatory did very little to benefit his very instinctive talent, yet he met a person that would change his whole life, namely the Norwegian composer Edward Grieg. Grieg not only became a life-long friend who encouraged his music, but also persuaded Delius's father to fully support his son's ambitions as a composer.

After eventually moving to Paris, Delius started composing a great deal of works and became known in artistic circles by many of the greats. It was not until 1896 that he met his wife-to-be, a young artist named Jelka Rosen, marrying her only a year after they had met. The two of them settled down in a little French village named Grez-sur-Loing.

Continuing to devout his life to music, he wrote his first true masterpieces between the age of thirty-seven and fourty - Paris and A Village Romeo and Juliet – two compositions that are truly representative of his style and musical ability. He composed many works after that such as Sea Drift, Appalachia, Brigg Fair, A Mass of Life, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, among many others. Due to his acquaintanceship with Thomas Beecham, a famous English conductor who advocated Delius's music, he not only became famous in Germany, but also in his fatherland, England, and the rest of the English-speaking world.

In 1918, Deilius contracted syphilis and eventually stopped composing due to becoming blind and paralyzed. It was not until a man by the name of Eric Fenby, a composer, teacher and great fan of Delius, offered his services as a scribe (as an amanuensis) that Delius was able to dictate his final works over a period of six years. Frederick Delius, aided by Fenby, painstakingly composed some of his most noted works, among which were A Song of Summer and Songs of Farewell.

To listen to music by this great composer, click here.