Gioachino Rossini is a name well-known in opera circles. Although the Italian composer did write many songs, chamber works, and piano pieces, his 39 operas are what propelled him to fame during his time and what keeps his name alive in concert programs around the world. He is the man behind The Barber of Seville and William Tell – both of which have parts that are often heard in movies, TV shows, and cartoons (the famous ending of the William Tell Overture is the Lone Ranger theme). In fact, we’re performing “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville at our concert on May 3 because it can be heard in such films as “Jumanji” (1995) and “Citizen Kane”.
Despite them being his claim to fame, however, there’s more to Rossini than his 39 operas. Here are just 10 other cool facts about Rossini that you can use to impress your opera-loving friends.
1. He was a leap-year baby. Rossini was born February 29, 1792. A few months before he died, he celebrated his 19th “actual” birthday.
2. He wrote the bulk of his operas in only 10 years. Rossini composed 30 of his 39 operas between 1812 and 1822. His last and one of his most famous operas, however, was written in 1829 – Guillaume Tell (William Tell).
3. He loved fine food. His biographers noted that when he was a child, Rossini worked as an altar boy just so he could drink the sacramental wine left over after mass. When we moved to Paris, he became close friends with a chef who dedicated recipes to Rossini and, in turn, the composer wrote piano pieces dedicated to entrees and desserts. He also once linked coffee and operas noting that the effect of caffeine on the body diminished quickly. He reportedly said, “Coffee is a matter of fifteen or twenty days: luckily the time to make an opera”. Learn more about coffee and classical music.
4. His operas are among the most performed in the world. Rossini is right up there along with Verdi, Mozart, and Puccini in terms of how often their operas are performed. Interestingly, although William Tell was one of the grandest operas of its time, it is rarely performed today (outside of the Overture). It was reported that in 2017/2018, there were only 32 productions of it in the world. Compare that to 889 of La Traviata and 760 of Carmen.
5. Although he was said to be rather jovial, he actually suffered from neurasthenia and depression. Neither condition was recognized at the time. Specifically after his semi-retirement at the age of 37 (semi because he retired from opera, but continued to write smaller pieces), he would experience long periods of deep depression and insomnia. He also became obese and began to have suicidal thoughts. It is said that the death of his mother also led him to resent the remaining living woman in his life – his second wife Olympe. After he returned to Paris in 1855, it is said his musical spirits were once again lifted.
6. After his death, his wealth was used to set up a home for retired opera singers. When Rossini passed away in 1868, his second wife, Olympe, inherited a large sum, which, when she passed, was used to establish a conservatory of music in Pesaro, Italy (his birthplace) and a home for retired opera singers in Paris.
7. He was a man of great wit who loved to entertain. Later in his life, Rossini was said to have been a witty conversationalist and he enjoyed entertaining friends (which goes hand in hand with his love for fine food). He was wealthy and in-demand socially. He also reportedly said or wrote some very interesting things. Here are just a handful of Rossini quotes:
Give me the laundress’ bill and I will set to music even that.
Monsieur Wagner has good moments, but awful quarters of an hour!
Wait until the evening before opening night. Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair. In my time, all the impresarios in Italy were bald at thirty.
8. His tomb in Paris is empty. Rossini died in Paris and was buried at the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery (where you can find other notable names like Chopin, Molière, Jim Morrison, and Oscar Wilde). His tomb is absolutely impressive with huge wrought iron doors and a stone surround. However, it is also empty. At his wife Olympe’s request, his remains were relocated to the church of Sta Croce in Florence.
9. He wrote The Barber of Seville in less than three weeks. Rossini allegedly wrote his most famous opera in less than three weeks (he claimed 12 days). While it is well-loved today, it was unsuccessful when it premiered in Rome. This is, perhaps, because the audience preferred an earlier adaptation of the play it was based on – a version by another composer named Giovanni Paisiello. It is said that Paisiello himself provoked the audience to openly voice their dislike.
10. He was nicknamed “Monsieur Crescendo”. This wasn’t a term of endearment, however. His nickname came from his perceived overuse of crescendo for dramatic effect. “The Crescendo degenerated into a mere mannerism with Rossini, in whose works it is used with wearisome iteration,” reads the Crescendo entry of Grove’s dictionary of Music and Musicians.
If you haven’t heard of the composer Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, there’s a very good reason. Despite writing numerous operas, orchestral works, pieces for ensembles, and songs, most of his music is rarely heard today. The exception? His Caucasian Sketches.
Caucasian Sketches is a pair of orchestral suites with a rich and colorful sound written in 1894 and 1896. After spending years as a conductor and director of a music school in what is now Tbilisi, Georgia, Ippolitov-Ivanov developed an interest in the Caucasus area’s folk music and was inspired to write a work celebrating the sounds of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Georgia. The basic style of the piece draws heavily on the music of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, but Ippolitov-Ivanov builds upon that with skillful scene painting that transports the listener straight to the mountainous region (particularly the first suite “In a Mountain Pass”).
The most famous section of the suites is the end of the first suite – “Procession of the Sardar”. It is most often performed as a standalone piece in pops concerts. With a noble yet march-like feel, it’s not difficult to imagine the Sardar (a Persian military dignitary) marching in all his regalia with numerous followers. Hear it for yourself on May 3 at our final concert of the season.
So if Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Caucasian Sketches is so admired, why are his other works forgotten? Part of the reason may be that his music has been unfairly labeled as Soviet-approved, meeting all the criteria of the Communist authorities. But with one look at the dates of most of his works, it’s obvious that he developed his style long before the Bolsheviks. It is also said that politically he remained fairly independent, not engaging in quarrels with musicians who sought to develop new music or foster proletarian art.
Another reason the composer’s other pieces like his Armenian Rhapsody were seldom performed after the mid-20th century could be that they are not particularly remarkable according to some critics who note that Ippolitov-Ivanov’s style is too similar to Rimsky-Korsakov’s. However, Tchaikovsky saw something in the composer, helping promote his music in Moscow and Saint Petersburg until his death. Or perhaps it’s because some of his works require daunting instrumentation like his Turkish Fragments which is exotically scored for a large orchestra.
Still, unlike some composers whose works are completely lost to history, at least Ippolitov-Ivanov is remembered for one beautifully evocative piece that can be heard in movies like “The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb” (1964) and Kurosawa’s 1990 film “Dreams”.
Like many modern composers, Marjan Mozetich isn’t exactly a household name, particularly in the US. However, he is certainly a composer of the 20th and 21st century who has been making a name for himself with his symphonic works, chamber music, and solo pieces. He has been called “one of the most important composers of our time” (Kingston Whig-Standard) and his music has been described as “compellingly beautiful”.
Mozetich was born in Italy in 1948 to Slovenian parents but moved to Ontario Canada in 1952. His early musical training included studying piano and he worked toward becoming a concert pianist. He gave up on that idea and entered college studying psychology. He shifted toward music again, however, and pursued studying composition at the University of Toronto. After that, he continued his musical studies in Rome, Siena, and London.
Mozetich’s early influences included romantic composers like Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff as well as what he describes as “super-modern pieces” he first heard on the radio. So it’s no surprise much of his music blends lyricism and romantic harmony with what are decidedly modern elements. Since the 1980s and well into the 1990s and beyond, he has developed a style of post-modern romantic music in which he strives to express beauty, sensuousness, and emotion – things that give him and his audiences pleasure. And on one occasion, he certainly achieved what he set out to do. When the CBC Radio broadcast a concert performance of his violin concerto Affairs of the Heart, the switchboards lit up from coast to coast. There were numerous reports that listeners were so captivated by the music that they remained in their cars, listening to the end even though they had arrived at their destination. The so-called “driveway experience”.
Another piece that captures his signature style, comprising beautiful, spiritual, introspective, and meditative qualities is his The Passion of Angels. Written in 1995 and premiered in 1996, The Passion of Angels is a lush work featuring two solo harps and orchestra. It explores three degrees of passion: longing, desire, and ecstasy. The opening horn solo with accompanying harps announces the essential thematic material and throughout the work, the harps keep the orchestra moving through an emotional voyage.
Mozetich continues to compose to this day and has received numerous awards and recognition including the 2010 Juno Award for Best Classical Composition of the Year and the SOCAN Matejcek Concert Music Prize awarded to the most performed and broadcast composer in Canada (2002 and 2006). Learn more about Marjan Mozetich.
Who is Peter Warlock? The name is probably not familiar to you, even if you are a self-proclaimed classical music buff. The short answer is Peter Warlock is Philip Heseltine.
Born in London in 1894, Heseltine was a music critic (and a combative one at that), editor, and founder of the musical journal The Sackbut. His critical writings were all listed with his given name, but he took on the pseudonym Peter Warlock for his music compositions.
Keep reading and you’ll also see, this wasn’t his only pseudonym!
Why the name Peter Warlock?
As a music critic, Heseltine had become known as a controversial figure, regarded with suspicion and hostility in the London music circle. So in 1918 when he sent seven recently composed songs to a publisher, he used the pseudonym Peter Warlock. The name is said to have originated from his involvement and interest in the occult.
Peter Warlock’s Music
Unlike many well-known composers, Peter Warlock was not formally trained in the area of music composition. He was largely self-taught, but he received encouragement from fellow English composers like Frederick Delius. His body of work consists mainly of songs for solo voice and piano and song cycles (150 of them) like The Curlew and Candlelight, but his Capriol Suite, in particular, stands out and remains his most popular composition.
The Capriol Suite is a set of dances originally written for piano duet. Warlock later scored it for both string and full orchestras. Written in 1926, it was based on tunes in Renaissance dances and in today’s world would be recognized as a sort of “throwback” piece with a few modern harmonies incorporated. It isn’t surprising that he would be inspired to write in an early English music form. Over his lifetime, he made well over 500 transcriptions of early works including compositions from Henry Purcell, John Dowland, and Thomas Ravenscroft. Though the work has six movements, it only takes about 10 minutes to perform. Be sure to check out our performance of it on February 23!
Warlock’s music generally well-received by the public and critics. Ralph Vaughan Williams was reportedly “delighted” with the reception of Warlock’s Three Carols which Vaughan Williams conductor in 1923. Heseltine/Warlock conducted a performance of the Capriol Suite in August 1929 – the only public conducting engagement of his life. The audience recalled him four times after that performance.
Peter Warlock’s Legend
The legend of Peter Warlock is surrounded by controversy and rumor. In addition to his combative and argumentative nature and his interest in the occult, he was said to have experimented with a variety of unconventional practices including cannabis tincture and flagellation. He was also said to enjoy composing obscene limericks and he even edited an anthology in praise of drinking under a new pseudonym, “Rab Noolas” which is “Saloon Bar” backwards.
Although the early 1920’s, particularly 1925-1929, were a fruitful time for Warlock, he found his creativity waning in 1929. Life became even bleaker in 1930 when there was little demand for his songs and he turned to music criticism and transcription again to support himself. He suffered from severe depression and in December 1930, he was found dead in his flat from gas poisoning. The coroner determined that there was insufficient evidence on whether it was suicide or an accident.
His life has inspired numerous characters in both literature and film. D.H. Lawrence based his character, Julius Halliday, on Warlock in the novel Women in Love. Warlock also inspired characters in Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay and Jean Rhys’ short story “Till September Petronella”. His life was depicted in the films Voices From a Locked Room and Peter Warlock, Some Little Joy, although it was highly fictionalized in the former.
In 1963, the Peter Warlock Society was created and interest in his works began to increase. While some music experts acknowledge that his music today is often regarded as “programme filler” and encore items, his Capriol Suite is still performed frequently to this day. In fact, you can hear the Parker Symphony Orchestra perform it on February 23.
Chances are you’ve never heard the name Kalinnikov. Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov…of course. But Kalinnikov’s name should be among these other Russian giants. It is estimated that had he lived longer, he most certainly would have had a very successful career and, as a result, would be more well-known internationally today. Unfortunately, he died at a very young age from tuberculosis and we’ll never know what amazing music could have been. Still, he left the classical music world with some beautiful melodic pieces, including two symphonies with obvious Russian character and several piano, vocal, choir, and orchestral pieces.
Kalinnikov was born in 1866 in Voina to a police officer. His father, who played the guitar and sang in the local choir, encouraged him to pursue music. He started violin lessons at an early age. The family moved to Oryol and thanks to his family’s ecclesiastic ties, he attended seminary, becoming the director of the seminary choir at the age of 14.
Though he entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1884, he was forced to quit after a few months due to his inability to pay tuition. However, he did win a scholarship as a bassoon player for the Moscow Philharmonic Music School where he studied bassoon and composition.
Poverty throughout his life caused Kalinnikov to find work as much as he could. He played violin, bassoon, and timpani with theater orchestras. He also worked as a copyist and his teacher, Kruglikov, also provided financial help.
His talent, however, did not go unnoticed. Tchaikovsky recognized his potential and in 1892, recommended him as conductor for the Maly Theater and, later, the Moscow Italian Theater. Unfortunately, his health took a turn for the worse just a year later in 1893 and he had to resign. He had contracted tuberculosis.
Kalinnikov moved to the warmth of South Crimea in search for a cure and it was there that he completed both of his symphonies and a variety of instrumental works. Through his music, he strove to portray rural Russian life and its scenery. He created colorful orchestrations and relied on melodies and rhythm to evoke traditional folk songs. His symphonies, in particular, show influence of the Russian masters like Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, but his Second Symphony also includes sudden and obscure modulations reminiscent of Borodin.
The Symphony No. 1 (written between 1894-1895) was dedicated to Kruglikov, his teacher who also helped him financially. Kruglikov was thoroughly impressed by the score and sent it to leading conductors in Russia. The work was premiered at the Russian Musical Society in Kiev in 1897 to an audience that gave both the second and third movements an encore. If you’re curious why, come hear the Parker Symphony Orchestra perform the second movement in February!
Unfortunately, Kalinnikov would spend his remaining days in Crimea. He received some financial relief from Rachmaninoff who visited and saw his poor living conditions. Rachmaninoff also contacted his publisher who paid for three of Kalinnikov’s songs and offered to publish the Second Symphony. Rachmaninoff also arranged for the publication of the piano arrangement of his First Symphony.
Sadly, Kalinnikov died before he was able to benefit from most of these arrangements, around the time of his 35th birthday. The publisher offered Kalinnikov’s widow an unexpectedly high payment for the remaining manuscripts because the composer’s death multiplied the value of his works by ten.
In Russia, his First Symphony remains in the repertory and his place in Russian musical history is secure. And hopefully with more performances in the US and elsewhere, his name will become more familiar with music fans worldwide.
If you’re like me, when you heard the name Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, you thought, “Isn’t that the guy who wrote Rime of the Ancient Mariner? The English poet?” Nope, that’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge. However, Coleridge-Taylor’s mother did name him after the famous poet (he was born only 41 years after the poet died).
No, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer of numerous works including his most celebrated cantata, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, a piano quintet, a symphony, a once missing opera named Thelma, and his festive Christmas Overture which we performed in December 2017.
Here are some other interesting facts about this British composer:
1. He earned the nickname the “African Mahler”. Coleridge-Taylor’s mother was English and his father was Dr. Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, a Creole from Sierra Leone. His father descended from African-American slaves who were freed by the British and evacuated from the colonies at the end of the Revolutionary War.
2. He met President Theodore Roosevelt. On his first tour of the US, the composer was received by President Roosevelt at the White House which was a rare event for anyone of African descent.
3. He died young. Coleridge-Taylor was only 37 when he died from pneumonia. King George V granted his widow an annual pension which was considered evidence that he held the composer in high regard.
4. He wrote a work inspired by his near-namesake. Coleridge-Taylor wrote a piece called The Legend of Kubla Khan after the poem “Kubla Khan, Or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment”.
5. He almost didn’t attend college. The Royal College of Music hesitated over Coleridge-Taylor’s race, apparently worried that other students might object. Ultimately, he did admit Samuel at age 15 as a violin student. After 2 years, Samuel swapped violin for composition.
6. He was a pioneer in integrating African music in his music. He sought to do what Brahms had done with Hungarian music and Dvorak with Bohemian music by integrating African and traditions of the African diaspora into his compositions. Examples of this include his Four African Dances, Concert Overture, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the Symphonic Variations on an African Air.
7. His Christmas Overture appeared posthumously. In 1925, Sydney Baynes arranged the work which features “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “Good King Wenceslaus”, and “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” and is thought to have been derived from Coleridge-Taylor’s The Forest of Wild Thyme, a fairy drama for children.
8. Both of his children also had distinguished careers as conductors and composers. His son, Hiawatha, adapted his father’s works. His daughter, Gwendolyn, became a conductor and composer using the professional name Avril Coleridge-Taylor.
Depending on the instrument you play or your passion for classical music, you may have heard the works of one or a few female composers. Pianists, for example, may know of or even have played Clara Schumann. However, the vast majority of the world has never heard of the likes of Amy Beach, Fanny Mendelssohn, or Florence Price, and that is quite unfortunate.
Women have actually made significant contributions to the classical music world. However, they remain on unequal footing with their male counterparts. So for International Women’s Day, here’s a look at some notable and some forgotten women composers throughout history.
Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was not only the wife of composer Robert Schumann, but also one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era. Her career began at a young age. At age 11, she went on a concert tour of various European cities and gave her first solo concert in Leipzig. Later, during her marriage to Robert, she met Johannes Brahms and not only helped encourage his career, but also was the first to perform publicly any Brahms work. She premiered several of his works during her career including the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel.
She also began composing at a young age. In fact, she wrote her piano concerto when she was just fourteen and performed it at age sixteen (with Mendelssohn conducting). As she grew older and focused on other responsibilities, she found it difficult to find time to compose. Her output decreased greatly when she reached 36 years old. Her works include piano pieces, the aforementioned piano concerto, a piano trio, choral pieces, songs, and three Romances for violin and piano.
Like Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) was a pianist and composer. She was Felix Mendelssohn’s sister and the pair shared a deep love of music. Felix arranged to have some of Fanny’s songs published under his name, due to prevailing attitudes toward women publishing music, which actually led to an embarrassing moment. Queen Victoria received Felix at Buckingham Palace and expressed her intention of singing her favorite of his songs. He confessed it was actually by Fanny.
Fanny Mendelssohn was very prolific. She composed over 460 pieces including a piano trio, books of piano solo pieces and songs, and a cycle of pieces depicting the months of the year titled Das Jahr. This last work was written on colored sheets of paper with illustrations by her husband, Wilhelm.
Fanny passed away after suffering a stroke while rehearsing one of her brother Felix’s oratorios. Felix completed his String Quartet No. 6 in F minor in memory of her.
Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) is undoubtedly France’s first female composer. Born into a family of sculptors, she showed early talent in music and studied under such masters as Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Hummel. She married a flute student and together they gave concerts throughout France. The couple opened a publishing house together, Éditions Farrenc, which became one of France’s leading music publishers for 40 years.
Like other female composers around her time, she was a pianist from a young age and wrote many works for the instrument. However, while she wrote exclusively for piano until 1830, she expanded her range and wrote works for orchestra starting in 1834. She wrote 3 symphonies, a wind sextet, vocal works, choral works, and chamber music in addition to music for piano. Unlike Schumann and Mendelssohn, Farrenc’s works remained largely forgotten until the late 20th century during a surge in interest in women composers. In December 2013, Farrenc was the subject of the BBC Radio Three “Composer of the Week” program.
Rachel Portman (1960-present) is best known as a composer of film scores and, unlike our previous composers, is still writing today. She was born in Surrey, England and became interested in music at a young age. She started composing at the age of 14 and subsequently studied music at Worcester College, Oxford. During her time in school, she started experimenting with writing music for student films and theater productions. After that, she wrote music for drama in BBC and Channel 4 films.
Since then, she has written over 100 scores for film, TV, and theater including The Legend of Bagger Vance, Mona Lisa Smile, Emma, Benny and Joon, The Lake House, Oliver Twist, and The Duchess. Her most famous soundtrack compositions are for the movies Chocolat and The Cider House Rules which was used in the Pure Michigan commercials.
Rachel Portman was the first female composer to win an Academy Award for Best Musical or Comedy Score. She won for Emma in 1996. She has also won a Primetime Emmy Award for her work on Bessie.
Florence Price (1887-1953) was not only a female composer, but also the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, her mother was a music teacher who guided her early musical training. She had her first piano performance at the age of four and published her first composition at the age of 11. After graduating high school at 14, she enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music. She graduated with honors in 1906.
After college, she moved back to Little Rock and was married. They moved to Chicago after a series of racial incidents. It was in Chicago where Florence entered her most fulfilling period of composition. She studied composition, orchestration, and organ with leading teachers and published four pieces for piano. Unfortunately, financial struggles led to a divorce and Florence became a single mother. To pay the bills, she worked as an organist for silent films and composed songs for radio ads (under a pen name). She submitted compositions for Wanamaker Foundation Awards and won first prize with her Symphony in E minor. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered the symphony in 1933, making it the first composition by an African-American woman to be played by a major orchestra.
Florence Price’s music incorporates elements of African-American spirituals, Southern themes, and inspiration from blues, African-American church music, and modern urban sounds.
Amy Beach (1867-1944) was also a pianist as well as a composer. She is considered the first successful American female composer of art music. She was born a prodigy, able to sing 40 songs accurately by age one. She learned to sing counter-melody to her mother’s singing at age 2 and by age 3, she was reading. She composed simple waltzes at age 5. At age 14, Amy received a year of formal training in composition.
Her performance debut was when she was 16. She played until she was married at which time she agreed to limit her performance to two public recitals per year. She devoted herself to composition. However, her husband disapproved of her studying composition with a teacher. So other than her one year of formal training at 14, she was a self-taught composer. She collected every book she could find on theory, composition, and orchestration.
Her first success as a composer came with the performance of her Mass in E-flat major by the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra. It was the first piece the group performed composed by a woman. After that, she wrote many other works including her Piano Concerto, which she premiered as soloist with the Boston Symphony, and the Gaelic Symphony. Her compositions include symphonic works, choral works, chamber music, solo piano music, and songs (of which she wrote about 150).
Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) was a female composer in France whose music was largely financially successful. Born in Paris, she studied music with her mother at first and then piano, violin, and music composition later with other notable names. She began composing at a young age and when she was eight years old, she played some of her music for Georges Bizet who was impressed.
Cécile wrote character pieces for piano and salon songs – all of which were published. Many of her piano compositions received good reviews from critics and were favorites in Europe and America. In fact, when she traveled to the United States in 1908, she discovered that her Scarf Dance and the Ballet No. 1 were in the music libraries of many piano music lovers. Other notable compositions include her Concertstück in C sharp minor for piano and orchestra, ballet music for Callirhoë, and her Flute Concertino in D major. The latter remains one of the most popular of her works performed today.
In 1913, she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, a first for a female composer.
Dame Ethel Mary Smyth (1858-1944) was the first female composer to be awarded a damehood. In spite of her father’s protests, she studied composition at Leipzig Conservatory where she met notable other composers like Dvořák, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Clara Schumann, and Brahms. She went on to composer 6 operas and numerous choral and orchestral works and songs. Unfortunately, her composing career was cut short by hearing loss. She was completely deaf after 1913.
Recognition for Smyth came late. Her opera The Wreckers, though considered the “most important English opera composed during the period between Purcell and Britten”, wasn’t even performed in the US until 2007. Contemporary critics noted that her music was too masculine for a “lady composer”, as critics called her. Still, she received damehood in 1922 and several honorary doctorates for her composing.
Deafness didn’t stop Smyth completely. Although she stopped composing, she joined the suffrage movement and published ten highly successful, mostly autobiographical, books.
Jennifer Higdon (1962-present) is an American composer of classical music. She is also probably the most award-winning composer on this list. In 2010, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her Violin Concerto with the note that it is “a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity”. She has two Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Classical Composition – one for her Percussion Concerto and the second for her Viola Concerto. An album of her music, Higdon: All Things Majestic, Viola Concerto, and Oboe Concerto, won the 2018 Grammy for Best Classical Compendium.
Higdon has received commissions from major symphonies including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, and the Atlanta Symphony among others. Her works to date include an opera Cold Mountain premiered by The Santa Fe Opera, numerous chamber works for a variety of instruments, vocal compositions, and orchestral pieces including blue cathedral featured below. blue cathedral was commissioned by the Curtis Institute of Music in 1999 and is one of her most performed works.
We realize there are many other women we could list here. Follow the links below for more information on these and other women composers.
His family name is often misspelled as “Boulogne”. He is sometimes referred to as “The Black Mozart”.
Born: December 25, 1745
Occupations: Composer, champion fencer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of the Concert des Amateurs, a leading symphony in Paris. Was also a colonel in the French Revolution.
Other Interests: Dancing and ladies. He was a fine dancer, being invited to numerous balls and salons (and boudoirs) of highborn ladies.
Compositions: 3 sets of string quartets, 2 symphonies, 8 symphonie-concertantes, 6 operas comiques, three violin sonatas, 14 violin concertos, a sonata for harp and flute, a bassoon concerto, a clarinet concerto, a cello concerto, six violin duos, and a number of songs.
He is best remembered as the first classical composer of African ancestry. His father was a wealthy planter on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and his mother was an African slave. He was born on the island and moved to France as an early teenager.
Upon graduation from the Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de ‘l’équitation (fencing and horsemanship), he was made an officer of the king’s bodyguard which is where he acquired the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
He was such an amazing fencer that he was called “the god of arms”. At the age of 19, he had only suffered one defeat in a serious fencing match.
Not much is known of his early music training although several works were dedicated to or written for him including two Lolli concertos and Gossec’s six string trios. His first composition is a set of six string quartets inspired by Haydn.
He was a skilled violinist, but he also played the harpsichord.
He was an early Black Mason. He conducted the Concert des Amateurs, a top Paris orchestra, for years, but after the American Revolution, the organization suffered financial losses. The Masons helped him revive the orchestra as part of the Loge Olympique, renamed Le Concert Olympique, which was an exclusive Freemason Lodge.
He became fascinated by the stage, abandoning writing instrumental music in favor of opera around 1776. However, he suffered a serious setback when his nomination to be the next director of the Paris Opera was halted by a petition from three of its leading ladies. To avoid embarrassing the Queen, Marie-Antoinette, he withdrew his name. He went on to write operas and direct the Marquise de Montesson’s prestigious musical theater instead.
He volunteered to serve during the French Revolution. He joined the Garde Nationale, but even his duties couldn’t prevent him from giving concerts. He built an orchestra and reportedly gave concerts every week.
In 1794, he became colonel of the first cavalry brigade of “men of color” – the St. Georges’ Legion – which was also the first all black regiment in Europe. He lead 1,000 volunteers of color and halted what became known as “The Treason of Dumouriez”.
He was wrongfully imprisoned for 11 months and threatened with execution after returning from military duties in Sant-Domingue (now Haiti). He was released and lived in semi-retirement, unfortunately with health problems. He did, however, become even more devoted to his violin during this time saying, “Never before did I play it so well”. He died in 1799 in Paris aged 53.
President John Adams called him, “the most accomplished man in Europe”.
Below are some of his compositions you can listen to today.
When it comes to classical music, William Grant Still isn’t exactly a household name and that’s quite unfortunate because his music is truly captivating. I vividly remember the first time I heard his works. I had turned on CPR Classical one night a few years ago so my oldest daughter and I could play and listen to some good music.
Although I intended it to be in the background, I found myself really listening and wondering who wrote this amazing stuff. I could place the era – 20th century with some interesting jazz rhythms and influences – but I just couldn’t put my finger on the composer.
One check of the CPR site gave me the answer – Still.
And after further reading, I discovered there is much more to William Grant Still. He is much more than just a 20th century composer. He is also a man of many firsts who broke barriers.
He was the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra – the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936.
He conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra in 1955 becoming the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the deep south.
His Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American” was the first symphony written by an African American for a leading US orchestra. It was first performed by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931. Hear the PSO perform it in February.
His opera Troubled Island was the first by an African American that was performed by a major company – the New York City Opera
He was the first African American to have an opera performed on national US Television. His A Bayou Legend premiered on PBS in 1981.
Still was prolific, writing 8 operas and numerous symphonies and ballets. He worked as an arranger for W.C. Handy’s band and later as an arranger of music for radio and film including movies like Pennies from Heaven and Lost Horizon. When looking at his body of work, it’s not hard to see how he earned the nickname “Dean of Afro-American Composers”.
Despite the fact that he is not as well known as say Beethoven, his works live on in performances by everyone from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra to the Parker Symphony Orchestra.
You may know Antonín Dvořák as the composer of the much-loved and often-played Symphony No.9 ‘From the New World’ (aka the New World Symphony), but there is more to the man than just his most famous work. Although his time in America is well-known thanks to the aforementioned symphony, he was actually born in a small village north of Prague and was very passionate about his homeland and its music, infusing the sounds in pieces like his Slavonic Dances.
Here are 10 others things you may not know about Dvořák.
1. He Apprenticed As a Butcher: Dvořák was the oldest of 14 children (8 who survived infancy). His father was a zither player, an innkeeper, and also a butcher. A young Antonin not only joined his father in the local band, but also in his business as an apprentice butcher. At the age of 13, he was inducted into the Butcher’s Guild of Zlonice.
2. His Grandmother Had a Pet Name For Him: Dvořák’s grandmother called him, “my little toothy” because he apparently had good teeth.
3. His First Compositions Went Unnoticed: Dvořák’s first compositions received no critical reception and no public performance. In fact, it wasn’t until Johannes Brahms’ efforts to boost his career that any of his music began to attract interest. It is said that Dvořák was so critical of himself that he burned his early works.
4. Sheet Music For The First Slavonic Dances Sold Out: In 1874, Brahms sat on a jury to award financial support to talented composers in need. It is then that he encountered Dvořák and was “visibly overcome” by his “mastery and talent”. Brahms recommended that his publisher, Simrock, publish a set of Slavonic Dances for piano duet. The sheet music for the 8 dances sold out in one day.
5. Dvořák Loved Trains: The composer was known to spend hours at the Franz Josef railway station in Prague, watching trains. He knew the timetable by heart and even asked his students to describe train journeys they had made. Later, when he visited America, he also took up pigeon raising and watching steamboats.
6. He Stole Pencils: In an effort to help calm Czech speakers in Austria who were upset over the banning of their language, Dvořák was appointed a member of the Austrian Senate. He came the first day in 1901, accepted the honor, stole all of the pencils at his desk because they were perfect for composing, and never showed up again.
7. He Was An Early Riser: Dvořák and his wife got up very early in the morning. When they stayed in Cambridge with composer and organist Charles Villiers Stanford, the host was surprised to find couple sitting under a tree in the garden at 6 AM.
8. A Ship Is Named For Dvořák: In 1943, an American Liberty ship in the U.S. Navy was named the USNS Antonín Dvořák in the composer’s honor.
9. There Is A Mural In His Honor In Iowa: Dvořák spent a few weeks living in Spillville, IA. It was a town of mostly Czech speaking immigrants at the time. It is there that he wrote his “American” String Quartet. Today, a mural is there in his honor.
10. He Is The Second Czech Composer To Achieve Worldwide Recognition: Dvořák is not the only Czech composer of note. Bedřich Smetana, of Má vlast and its The Moldau movement fame, first established a nationalist example during the 1848 Prague uprising.