Opera in my Pyjamas: Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes posterThe accusation that opera is utterly unrealistic is hard to apply to Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) 1945 work ‘Peter Grimes’. Loosely based on a narrative poem by George Crabbe (1754-1832) it’s a tale of small-town gossip and prejudice and its devastating effect on the life of the social outcast Peter Grimes. Continue reading “Opera in my Pyjamas: Peter Grimes”

Composer Profile: Frederic (Fryderyk) Chopin (1810-1849)

Chopin at 25 by his then fiancee Maria Wodzinska
Chopin at 25 by his then-fiancée Maria Wodzinska

The unquestionable musical genius of Frederic Chopin is perhaps most remarkable for the extreme narrowness of its focus: he composed almost exclusively for the piano, and none of his music fails to feature the instrument. Continue reading “Composer Profile: Frederic (Fryderyk) Chopin (1810-1849)”

Composer Profile: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

swan lake image.jpg

Seldom in the history of classical music has a name been linked so thoroughly in people’s minds with a particular style of music than the way Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s name has been linked with ballet. Ask any layperson to name a ballet and the odds are fairly good that their answer will be one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous compositions – ‘Swan Lake’ (this link is to ‘The Dance of the Little Swans’, which is amazing) or ‘The Nutcracker’. Continue reading “Composer Profile: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)”

Composer Profile: Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

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Richard Wagner, 1871

Quite possibly there has never been another composer in the history of classical music as controversial as Richard Wagner. He had a habit of running up debts, running out on debts, and running around with other men’s wives. And that’s before we even begin to talk about his music. Continue reading “Composer Profile: Richard Wagner (1813-1883)”

Composer Profile: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

JohannesBrahms
Johannes Brahms

A recent concert in Whanganui featuring Brahms’ Piano Concerto Number 2 inspired me to find out more about ‘the last of the great Romantics’, a man most famous for his eponymous Lullaby. He was born in Hamburg, Germany, to a struggling (to the point of impoverishment) musician, Johann Jakob Brahms, and his much older wife, Johanna. Brahms’ talent was recognisable from an early age although his father refused to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Mozart and Mendelssohn by taking his child prodigy on tour. Instead, by the age of 13, Brahms was supplementing the family income with money earned by playing the piano in taverns, restaurants, and the like. Continue reading “Composer Profile: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)”

Composer Profile: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Ralph Vaughan Williams 1
Ralph Vaughan Williams in later life.

Unlike the musical wunderkinds Mozart and Mendelssohn, Ralph (‘Rafe’) Vaughan Williams was a slow and steady developer musically. The son of an Anglican vicar, Arthur, he was descended on his mother Margaret’s side from the manufacturing and philanthropic Wedgwood family. From the age of five he had piano lessons with his aunt Sophy Wedgwood, but preferred the violin, which he began to study a year later. Although his family doubted that he had the talent required to succeed as a professional composer and musician they were staunch in their support, enabling him to study at the Royal College of Music and Cambridge. He also spent several months in 1907-08 studying with Ravel in Paris. It’s fair to say that, regardless of their doubts, ultimately his family’s faith was not misplaced. Continue reading “Composer Profile: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)”

Composer Profile: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Felix-Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn

Perhaps the greatest of the Romantic composers, Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy never lost the respectable middle-class sensibilities with which he was raised. Not for him the crass showmanship of Liszt, or the drug-induced excesses of Berlioz. In this he was likely the product of his upbringing: his parents were Jewish and his father, Abraham, was a banker and the son of the noted German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His mother, too, was an educated and cultured woman (she spoke several languages, and could ‘read Homer in the original [Greek]’). The Mendelssohn household was a place filled with music and intellectual life, but also with a careful avoidance of religious commitment. Felix was not circumcised, and received the name Jakob only when he was baptised as a reformed Protestant at the age of seven. His parents had begun using the German surname Bartholdy, adopted from Lea Mendelssohn’s brother, in 1812 and were baptised in 1822. Continue reading “Composer Profile: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)”

Composer Profile: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

“Through uninterrupted diligence you will receive Mozart’s spirit through Haydn’s hands.”
– Count Waldstein’s farewell note to Beethoven, 1792

Although his talent had been obvious since childhood, and developed (often with what would today be regarded as excessive harshness) from his early years, Beethoven’s career didn’t really get started until 1792, when he left his hometown of Bonn in Cologne to study with Haydn in Vienna. By that time Mozart was already dead, and those who were familiar with his work viewed Beethoven as his natural successor. Although Beethoven certainly honoured this expectation stylistically in the early part of his career, it is clear that he was possessed of a confidence and determination unknown to his more self-effacing predecessor. Beethoven knew his worth and was unwilling to accept anything less than his due. Continue reading “Composer Profile: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)”

Composer Profile: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Salzburg, Austria, one winter’s night,
Saw the birth by candlelight,
Of a child whose name would stand,
His music know throughout the land.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
Soon the world will hear such joy,
Music of the wonder-boy.

Mozart as a child 1763 possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a child, possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni, 1763

1991 marked the two hundredth anniversary of the great Classical composer’s tragically early death, and in tribute the children at my primary school (or at least, in my class – it’s been a while, so I’m a little hazy on the details) learned a number of songs which told the story of his life. The words above comprise the first verse and chorus of the first song, which is about all I can remember now. Continue reading “Composer Profile: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)”

Composer Profile: George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Handel by Balthasar Denner c1726
Portrait of Handel by Balthasar Denner, c.1726

Born in the same year as J. S. Bach and outliving him by nine years, Handel, who was something of a bon vivant, was in many ways the opposite of his somewhat ascetic countryman.

Relatively little is known of Handel’s personal life: he was born in Halle, Germany, and his father, a barber-surgeon of advanced years and considerable reputation, was determined that he should study law. The young Handel was thus forbidden from pursuing his passion for music, but continued to do so on the sly. He did begin studying law at the University of Halle in 1702 but also obtained a position as organist in the local reformed church (previously the cathedral). It seems he never looked back: in 1703 he joined the orchestra in Hamburg, and his first two operas were produced in 1705. Continue reading “Composer Profile: George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)”