COMPOSER OF THE MONTH

ROBERT SCHUMANN

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Robert Schumann (8 June 1810 – 29 July 1856) was a German composer and influential music critic. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. Schumann left the study of law, intending to pursue a career as a virtuoso pianist. He had been assured by his teacher Friedrich Wieck that he could become the finest pianist in Europe, but a hand injury ended this dream. Schumann then focused his musical energies on composing.

Schumann's published compositions were written exclusively for the piano until 1840; he later composed works for piano and orchestra; many Lieder  (songs for voice and piano); four symphonies ; an opera; and other orchestral, choral, and chamber works. Works such as CarnavalSymphonic StudiesKinderszenenKreisleriana, and the Fantasie in C are among his most famous. His writings about music appeared mostly in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music), a Leipzig-based publication which he jointly founded.

In 1840, Schumann married Friedrich Wieck's daughter Clara, against the wishes of her father, following a long and acrimonious legal battle, which found in favor of Clara and Robert. Clara also composed music and had a considerable concert career as a pianist, the earnings from which, before her marriage, formed a substantial part of her father's fortune.

Schumann suffered from a mental disorder, first manifesting itself in 1833 as a severe melancholic depressive episode, which recurred several times alternating with phases of ‘exaltation’ and increasingly also delusional ideas of being poisoned or threatened with metallic items. After a suicide attempt in 1854, Schumann was admitted to a mental asylum at his own request. Diagnosed with "psychotic melancholia.  Schumann died two years later in 1856 without having recovered from his mental illness.


Schumann was born in Zwickau, in the Kingdom of Saxony, the fifth and last child of Johanna Christiane (Schnabel) and August Schumann.  He began to compose before the age of seven, but his boyhood was spent in the cultivation of literature as much as music – undoubtedly influenced by his father, a bookseller, publisher, and novelist.

Schumann began receiving general musical and piano instruction at the age of seven from Johann Gottfried Kuntzsch, a teacher at the Zwickau high school. The boy immediately developed a love of music and worked at creating musical compositions himself, without the aid of Kuntzsch. Even though he often disregarded the principles of musical composition, he created works regarded as admirable for his age. The Universal Journal of Music 1850 supplement included a biographical sketch of Schumann that noted, "It has been related that Schumann, as a child, possessed rare taste and talent for portraying feelings and characteristic traits in melody,—ay, he could sketch the different dispositions of his intimate friends by certain figures and passages on the piano so exactly and comically that everyone burst into loud laughter at the similitude of the portrait." (W.J. von Wasielewski 17–19)

At age 14, Schumann wrote an essay on the aesthetics of music and also contributed to a volume, edited by his father, titled Portraits of Famous Men. While still at school in Zwickau, he read the works of the German poet-philosophers Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as well as Byron and the Greek tragedians. His most powerful and permanent literary inspiration was Jean Paul, a German writer whose influence is seen in Schumann's youthful novels Juniusabende, completed in 1826, and Selene.


Schumann's interest in music was sparked by seeing a performance of Ignaz Moscheles playing at Karlsbad, and he later developed an interest in the works of Ludwig van BeethovenFranz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn. His father, who had encouraged the boy's musical aspirations, died in 1826 when Schumann was 16. Neither his mother nor his guardian thereafter encouraged a career in music. In 1828 Schumann left school, and after a tour during which he met Heinrich Heine in Munich, he went to Leipzig to study law (to meet the terms of his inheritance). In 1829 his law studies continued in Heidelberg, where he became a lifelong member of Corps Saxo-Borussia Heidelberg


1830–1834
During 1830 Schumann heard the Italian violinist, violist, guitarist, and composer Niccolò Paganini play in Frankfurt. In July he wrote to his mother, "My whole life has been a struggle between Poetry and Prose, or call it Music and Law." By Christmas he was back in Leipzig, at age 20 taking piano lessons from his old master Friedrich Wieck, who assured him that he would be a successful concert pianist after a few years' study with him.

During his studies with Wieck, it has been claimed that Schumann permanently injured a finger on his right hand. Wieck claimed that Schumann damaged his finger by the use of a mechanical device designed to strengthen the weakest fingers, a device which held back one finger while he exercised the others.  This claim has been discredited by Clara Schmann, who said that the disability was not due to a mechanical device, and Robert Schumann himself refers to it as "an affliction of the whole hand". Some have argued that, as the disability appeared to have been chronic and have affected the hand, and not just a finger, it was unlikely to have been caused by a finger strengthening device.

Schumann abandoned the idea of a concert career and devoted himself instead to composition. To this end he began a study of music theory under the  conductor of the Leipzig Opera. 

The fusion of literary ideas with musical ones – known as program music – may be said to have first taken shape in Papillons, Op. 2 (Butterflies), a musical portrayal of events in Jean Paul's novel Die Flegeljahre. In a letter from Leipzig dated April 1832, Schumann bids his brothers "read the last scene in Jean Paul's Flegeljahre as soon as possible, because the Papillons are intended as a musical representation of that masquerade." This inspiration is foreshadowed to some extent in his first written criticism, an 1831 essay on Frederic Chopin's variations on a theme from Mozart's Don Giovanni, published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. Here Chopin's work is discussed by imaginary characters created by Schumann himself: Florestan (the embodiment of Schumann's passionate, voluble side) and Eusebius (his dreamy, introspective side) – the counterparts of Vult and Walt in Flegeljahre. A third, Meister Raro, is called upon for his opinion. Raro may represent either the composer himself, Wieck's daughter Clara,  or the combination of the two (Clara + Robert).

On 30 September 1853, the 20-year-old composer Johannes Brahms arrived unannounced at the door of the Schumanns carrying a letter of introduction from violinist Joseph Joachim.  Brahms amazed Clara and Robert with his music, stayed with them for several weeks, and became a close family friend. (He later worked closely with Clara to popularize Schumann's compositions during her long widowhood.)

During this time Schumann, Brahms and Schumann's pupil Albert Dietrich collaborated on the composition of the F-A-E Sonata for Joachim; Schumann also published an article, "Neue Bahnen" ("New Paths") in the Neue Zeitschrift (his first article in many years), hailing the unknown young Brahms from Hamburg, a man who had published nothing, as "the Chosen One" who "was destined to give ideal expression to the times." It was an extraordinary way to present Brahms to the musical world, setting up great expectations which he did not fulfill for many years.  

Schumann returned to Düsseldorf and began to edit his complete works and make an anthology on the subject of music. He suffered a renewal of the symptoms that had threatened him earlier. Besides the single note sounding in his ear (possibly evidence of tinnitus), he imagined that voices sounded in his ear and he heard angelic music. One night he suddenly left his bed, having dreamt or imagined that a ghost (purportedly the spirit of either Schubert or Mendelssohn) had dictated a "spirit theme" to him. The theme was one he had used several times before: in his Second String Quartet, again in his Lieder-Album für die Jugend, and finally in the slow movement of his Violin Concerto. In the days leading up to his suicide attempt, Schumann wrote five variations on this theme for the piano, his last published work, today known as the Ghost Variations). Brahms published it in a supplementary volume to the complete edition of Schumann's piano music. In 1861 Brahms published his Variations for Piano Four Hands, Op. 23, based on this theme.

Final illness and death
In late February 1854, Schumann's symptoms increased, the angelic visions sometimes being replaced by demonic visions. He warned Clara that he feared he might do her harm. On 27 February 1854, he attempted suicide by throwing himself from a bridge into the Rhine River (his elder sister Emilie had committed suicide in 1825, possibly by drowning herself). Rescued by boatmen and taken home, he asked to be taken to an asylum for the insane. He entered Dr. Franz Richarz's sanatorium in Bonn, and remained there until he died on 29 July 1856 at the age of 46. During his confinement, he was not allowed to see Clara, although Brahms was free to visit him. Clara finally visited him two days before his death. He appeared to recognize her, but was able to speak only a few words.

Given his reported symptoms, one modern view is that his death was a result of syphilis which he may have contracted during his student days, and which would have remained latent during most of his marriage.  According to studies by the musicologist and literary scholar Eric Sams, Schumann's symptoms during his terminal illness and death appear consistent with those of mercury poisoning, mercury at this time being a common treatment for syphilis and other conditions.  It has also been hypothesized that he may have suffered from either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.   Other sources have supported a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, citing his mood swings and changes in productivity. Schumann did indeed hear an "A" at the end of his life. It was a form of tinnitus, or perhaps an auditory hallucination related to his major depressive episode. At times, he had musical hallucinations which were longer than just the single "A", but his diaries include comments from him about hearing that annoying single note. However, he didn't go mad from hearing it; he was suffering from a major depressive episode and he experienced problems with his mental health long before he mentioned the tinnitus.

After Robert's death, Clara continued her successful career as a concert pianist, which served to support the family. From mid-career on she mainly performed music by leading composers. A hired cook and housekeeper tended to the children while she traveled. In 1856, she first visited England. The critics received Robert's music coolly. Critics such as Henry Fothergill Chorley were particularly harsh in their disapproval. She returned to London in 1865 and made regular appearances there in later years, often performing chamber music with the violinist Joseph Joachim and others. She became the authoritative editor of her husband's works for Breitkopf & Härtel. It was rumoured that she and Brahms destroyed many of Schumann's later works, which they thought to be tainted by his madness. However, only the Five Pieces for Cello and Piano are known to have been destroyed. Most of Schumann's late works, particularly the Violin Concerto, the Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra and the Violin Sonata No. 3, all from 1853, have entered the repertoire.

 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

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Composer and pianist Ludwig Van Beethoven, widely considered the greatest composer of all time, was born on or about December 16, 1770 in the city of Bonn in the Electorate of Cologne, a principality of the Holy Roman Empire. Although his exact date of birth is uncertain, Beethoven was baptized on December 17, 1770.

Beethoven himself mistakenly believed that he was born two years later, in 1772, and he stubbornly insisted on the incorrect date even when presented with official papers that proved beyond any reasonable doubt that 1770 was his true birth year.

Sometime between the births of his two younger brothers, Beethoven's father began teaching him music with an extraordinary rigor and brutality that affected him for the rest of his life. Neighbors provided accounts of the small boy weeping while he played the clavier, standing atop a footstool to reach the keys, his father beating him for each hesitation or mistake.

On a near daily basis, Beethoven was flogged, locked in the cellar and deprived of sleep for extra hours of practice. He studied the violin and clavier with his father as well as taking additional lessons from organists around town. Whether in spite of or because of his father's draconian methods, Beethoven was a prodigiously talented musician from his earliest days and displayed flashes of the creative imagination that would eventually reach farther than any composer's before or since.

Hoping that his young son would be recognized as a musical prodigy à la Mozart, Beethoven's father arranged his first public recital at age seven.  Beethoven played impressively but his recital received no press whatsoever. About this performance, a  classmate said, "Not a sign was to be discovered of that spark of genius which glowed so brilliantly in him afterwards."

Beethoven, who struggled with math and spelling his entire life, was at best an average student, and some biographers have hypothesized that he may have had mild dyslexia. As he put it himself, "Music comes to me more readily than words." In 1781, at the age of 10, Beethoven withdrew from school to study music full time with Christian Gottlob Neefe, the newly appointed Court Organist. Neefe introduced Beethoven to Bach, and at the age of twelve Beethoven published his first composition.

By 1784, his alcoholism worsening and his voice decaying, Beethoven's father was no longer able to support his family, and Ludwig van Beethoven formally requested an official appointment as Assistant Court Organist. Despite his youth, his request was accepted, and Beethoven was put on the court payroll with a modest annual salary.

In an effort to facilitate his musical development,  the court decided to send Beethoven to Vienna, Europe’s capital of culture and music, where he hoped to study with Mozart. There is only speculation and inconclusive evidence that Beethoven ever met with Mozart, let alone studied with him. Tradition has it that, upon hearing Beethoven, Mozart was to have said, "Keep your eyes on him; some day he will give the world something to talk about.” In any case, after only a few weeks in Vienna, Beethoven learned that his mother had fallen ill and he returned home to Bonn. Remaining in there, Beethoven continued to carve out his reputation as the city's most promising young court musician. 

As the new century progressed, Beethoven composed piece after piece that marked him as a masterful composer reaching his musical maturity.  In 1804, only weeks after Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, Beethoven debuted his Symphony No. 3 in Napoleon's honor. Later renamed the "Eroica Symphony" because Beethoven grew disillusioned with Napoleon, it was his grandest and most original work to date -- so unlike anything heard before that through weeks of rehearsal, the musicians could not figure out how to play it. A prominent reviewer proclaimed Eroica, "one of the most original, most sublime, and most profound products that the entire genre of music has ever exhibited."  


At the same time as he was composing these great and immortal works, Beethoven was struggling to come to terms with a shocking and terrible fact, one that he tried desperately to conceal. He was going deaf. By the turn of the century, Beethoven struggled to make out the words spoken to him in conversation.

Beethoven revealed in a heart-wrenching 1801 letter to his friend Franz Wegeler, "I must confess that I lead a miserable life. For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession, I might be able to cope with my infirmity; but in my profession it is a terrible handicap." At times driven to extremes of melancholy by his affliction, Beethoven described his despair in a long and poignant note that he concealed his entire life.

Dated October 6, 1802 and referred to as "The Heiligenstadt Testament," it reads in part, "O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you and I would have ended my life -- it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me."

Almost miraculously, despite his rapidly progressing deafness, Beethoven continued to compose at a furious pace. From 1803-1812, what is known as his "middle" or "heroic" period, he composed an opera, six symphonies, four solo concerti, five string quartets, six string sonatas, seven piano sonatas, five sets of piano variations, four overtures, four trios, two sextets and 72 songs. The most famous among these were symphonies No. 3-8, the "Moonlight Sonata," the "Kreutzer" violin sonata and Fidelio, his only opera. In terms of the astonishing output of superlatively complex, original and beautiful music, this period in Beethoven's life is unrivaled by any of any other composer in history.

Despite his extraordinary output of beautiful music, Beethoven was lonely and frequently miserable throughout his adult life. Short-tempered, absent-minded, greedy and suspicious to the point of paranoia, Beethoven feuded with his brothers, his publishers, his housekeepers, his pupils and his patrons. In one illustrative incident, Beethoven attempted to break a chair over the head of Prince Lichnowsky, one of his closest friends and most loyal patrons. Another time he stood in the doorway of Prince Lobkowitz's palace shouting for all to hear, "Lobkowitz is a donkey!"

For a variety of reasons that included his crippling shyness and unfortunate physical appearance, Beethoven never married or had children. He was, however, desperately in love with a married woman named Antonie Brentano. Over the course of two days in July of 1812, Beethoven wrote her a long and beautiful love letter that he never sent. Addressed "to you, my Immortal Beloved," the letter said in part, "My heart is full of so many things to say to you -- ah -- there are moments when I feel that speech amounts to nothing at all ."

Somehow, despite his tumultuous personal life, physical infirmity and complete deafness, Beethoven composed his greatest music -- perhaps the greatest music ever composed -- near the end of his life. His greatest late works include Missa Solemnis, a mass that debuted in 1824 and is considered among his finest achievements, and String Quartet No. 14, which contains seven linked movements played without a break.

Beethoven's Ninth and final symphony, completed in 1824, remains the illustrious composer's most towering achievement. The symphony's famous choral finale, with four vocal soloists and a chorus singing the words of Friedrich Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy," is perhaps the most famous piece of music in history.


Summing up his life and imminent death during his last days, Beethoven, who was never as eloquent with words as he was with music, borrowed a tag line that concluded many Latin plays at the time. "Plaudite, amici, comoedia finita est," he said. "Applaud friends, the comedy is over."

 

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF

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HOW TO SAY THE NAME:  ‘Rachmaninoff’ is said like Rack-man-ni-noff.’Sergei’ is said like ‘Sir-gay’.

BORN:  1st April 1873 in Semyonovo (near Novgorod), Russia.

Rachmaninoff’s grave in New York

DIED:  28th March 1943 in Beverly Hills, California, USA.

BURIED:  Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York (he wanted to be buried at his estate, Villa Senar, in Switzerland, but World War Two was happening which made that impossible).

TYPE OF MUSIC:  Romantic classical music.

SOME FAMOUS PIECES:

  • Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2 (for piano). (See below for a video of Rachmaninoff himself playing this.)
  • 18th Variation from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (for piano and orchestra).
  • Vocalise (Op. 34, No. 14, a song without words)

SOME GREAT PIECES:

  • Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3. (See below for a video of No. 2.)
  • Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
  • Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3.
  • Symphonic Dances.
  • Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (for choir).
  • All Night Vigil (or Vespers)—for choir.
  • The Bells (a symphony for choir and orchestra).
  • Lots of pieces for the piano (especially his Preludes, Variations on a Theme of Chopin, and Variations on a Theme of Corelli).
  • Many songs (including the Vocalise).

SOME INTERESTING FACTS:

  • He was one of the best piano players who ever lived!
  • Much of his best music was written for the piano. This music can be very, very difficult to play.
  • His music is very romantic, even when most other composers at the time were composing modernclassical music. In fact, Rachmaninoff was one of the last well-known romantic composers.
  • He became so unhappy when people didn’t like his first Symphony that he wasn’t able to compose anything for three years!
  • Much of his music has very beautiful tunes!
  • A lot of his music has the sound of Russian bells.
  • His ‘Liturgy of St John Chrysostom’ and ‘All Night Vigil’ were written for the Russian Orthodox Church. They sound very different to music written for Western churches (but they sounded too Western for the Russians!).
  • He had to leave Russia during the Russian Revolution (1917). He crossed the border into Finland on a sledge, taking with him only a very few things.
  • He didn’t compose much once he had left Russia.
  • He spent most of the rest of his life in America. He earned his living there by playing the piano and conducting.
  • Everywhere he went, people wanted him to play his famous Prelude in C-sharp minor.