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)”→
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)”→
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)”→
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)”→
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.
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)”→
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)”→
Bach, J. S. (to distinguish him from the many other composers in a ridiculously talented lineage that included two of his own sons) is today recognised as one of the greatest composers in history, having produced music in every genre of the Baroque with the sole exception of opera. For many years, however, he was something of a composer’s composer, his Well-Tempered Clavier a foundational necessity for anyone intending to master any of the keyboard instruments, but much of the rest of his repertoire sadly neglected. Continue reading “Composer Profile: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)”→
A Roman Catholic in fiercely Protestant England; the son of a tradesman pursuing upper-middle-class interests in a determinedly class-based society; a self-taught composer at a time when formal musical education was considered essential; and a composer in the Romantic and Nationalist traditions as the 20th century turned its musical ear towards Atonality, Minimalism, and the many and varied forms of ‘Popular’ music – Edward Elgar seems to have lived much of his life as an outsider.
Yet it was Elgar who, in spite of his relatively meagre output (around fifty works, including only two symphonies), brought English classical music back onto the world stage after some two hundred years spent languishing in the shadow of the great Continental composers. Continue reading “Composer Profile: Edward Elgar (1857-1934)”→
Some of you may remember that back before Christmas I was blown away by a live performance of Handel’s Messiah featuring local choir Schola Sacra. This month they were back, performing with the Palmerston North-based Renaissance Singers. Although both groups were formed in the 1970s this was the first time they had performed together, and I went along to check it out.
As their name would suggest, Schola Sacra place a particular emphasis on the performance of sacred music, with a repertoire that stretches back to medieval plainsong, although they also perform a considerable number of secular works. The Renaissance singers meanwhile place particular emphasis on the music, both sacred and secular, of the 16th to 18th centuries, although again they are by no means limited only to this music. Continue reading “Local Sound: Whanganui’s Schola Sacra Choir with the Renaissance Singers”→