Archive pour la catégorie ‘Composers’ biographies’

Mozart and Schumann: bound by literature

7 April 2015

Purists may hesitate to utter the names of Mozart and Schumann in the same breath. Representing completely different periods and two unique musical languages, these composers nonetheless shared two great passions: one for music, the other for the written word. If the number of works composed by Mozart seems astonishing (over 600), we too-often forget that he was also a fervent correspondent. Over the course of his short life, Mozart wrote more than a thousand letters to his parents, his wife and his friends, driven by an urgent need to to document his life without ever fully disclosing himself; his music would fulfill that rôle.

Reading Mozart’s letters — much as his great works — one may smile, giggle, or even laugh out loud. We delight in the gossip and stories about his contemporaries (certain critics were more than blunt!). We succumb in tenderness to the heartfelt letters to Constanze, we recognize ourselves in his fear of death, or in the perpetual struggle to gain acceptance from his father. “Dear Father, I cannot write in verse, for I am no poet. I cannot arrange parts of speech with such art as to produce effects of light and shade, for I am no painter. Even by signs and gestures I cannot express my thoughts and feelings, for I am no dancer. But I can do so by means of sounds, for I am a musician.”

 Schumann too had an almost visceral love of the written word. The son of an editor and a voracious reader, he briefly considered entering the world of literature over music. Ultimately he united his two passions through his work as a music critic and as the founder of a music journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (which remains in print to this day). His articles — many of which have since become classics of the music literature canon — were written with great finesse; analytical but never demagogic. This talent for writing also found expression in his letters, describing daily mundanities next to deep philosophical questions with the same finely honed expression, most notably in pleading his case to his future father-in-law Friedrich Wieck. Literature comes to the fore in a number of Schumann’s pieces, in which loved ones become musical characters, these personalities (Eusebius the dreamer, Florestan the passionate, Raro the wise) inhabiting the pages of music by turn.

 His personal diary (shared with Clara for a few years) is also particularly revealing. This entry, dated 1833 when Schumann was 23, is enough to inspire chills: “During the night of 17 to 18 October, I was suddenly struck by the most horrifying thought a man could have, and the most terrible punishment that Heaven could inflict: THE THOUGHT THAT I MIGHT LOSE MY MIND…” What an incredible prescience of that which would eventually come to pass…

 Always doubting himself, Schumann may not have guessed that his music would transcend the ages and changing fashions. Yet his music, like Mozart’s, remains pure, unalterable, essential, like life itself.

Einaudi: a fascinating journey

17 March 2015

As Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà’s latest album devoted to the music of Ludovico Einaudi continues to raise to the top of the charts, one may wonder how the composer became a real Internet sensation. But actually, his popularity didn’t only come from that medium.


Born in Turin, he trained as a classical composer and pianist at the Milan Conservatorio before continuing his studies with Luciano Berio, one of the most important composers of the twentieth century avant-garde. His career began with a series of prestigious commissions for institutions such as the USA’s Tanglewood Festival, Paris’ IRCAM and recently the National Center of Performing Arts of Beijing, but he decided to follow his own path and that meant mixing in one appealing sound his numerous influences. It all paid off when was premiered his electric harp suite Stanze (1997) on BBC Radio. People went wild with enthusiasm and even jammed the switchboard! The story repeated itself with Le onde (1998), to this day one of his most popular pieces, originally for piano. (He performed it himself.) Once again, the listeners were completely hooked and the piece became a permanent fixture atop the Classic FM charts. Le onde also led Ludovico Einaudi to film and TV music and that brought new fans who couldn’t get enough of that particular sound. Amongst his greateast soundtrack, once finds Doctor Zhivago (2002), Sotto falso nome (2004), This Is England (2006) and its television sequel This Is England ‘86 (2010), and of course Intouchables by Olivier Nakache and Eric Soledano. The film has been voted as the cultural event of 2011 in France and it has been submitted for the 85th Academy Award.

He nows travels extensively to reach out to audiences on all continents (his take on African traditional music is most interesting) and his star continues to shine bright.

Go on the Analekta website to listen and download the album. (Only there can you access some bonus tracks, not available on the CD itself.)

Dvořák the master

10 February 2015

Antonín Dvořák was born in a small village in Bohemia (then part of the Austrian Empire), the eldest in a family of eight children. His father, an innkeeper, was an amateur musician; he played the zither, and Dvořák’s two uncles played the violin and the trumpet. From the age of five, Antonín played the violin in the family’s inn and was also a member of the village orchestra. In 1859, Dvořák joined the orchestra of Karel Komzák as a violist. To supplement his income, he gave music lessons and began to dedicate himself more fully to composition, essentially teaching himself his craft.

In 1875, he was awarded an Austrian state grant for “young, talented, and poor artists” on the strength of his Third Symphony. Word of Dvořák’s talents reached Johannes Brahms, who recommended the young composer to his editor. It marked the beginning of an international success that continued unabated and a loyal friendship between the two composers that only ended with Brahms’ death.  

Dvořák’s major works, which were often infused with Czech folk idioms, include nine symphonies (including his “New World”); operas (such as Rusalka); choral, profane, and sacred works; chamber music; and concertos.

You can hear and download his Thirtheenth String Quartet, one of his most achieved works, composed in just a few short weeks, as performed by the Cecilia String Quartet here…

Beethoven: a few biographical elements

5 December 2014

Beethoven is regarded as one of the greatest composers in the history of music and was considered a genius during his lifetime. He was celebrated for his concertos, symphonies, and chamber music. In addition to those works, he also penned thirty-two piano sonatas.

Beethoven was born on December 16 or 17 in Bonn, Germany. He showed an interest in music at a very early age, and received his first piano lessons from his father. He composed his first piece at the age of twelve and, two years later, was appointed as organist of the court of the Prince Elector of Cologne, a town not far from Bonn.

In 1787, he paid his first visit to Vienna, Austria, to further his musical education under a thirty-one-year-old Mozart. However, due to his mother’s deteriorating health, he had to return home. Five years later, Beethoven met Joseph Haydn, another composer, who suggested he return to Vienna to study under him. Mozart had died in 1791, and Count Waldstein wrote him a letter, in which he said: “Dear Beethoven, you are going to Vienna to realize a long-desired wish: the genius of Mozart is still in mourning and weeps for the death of its disciple. In the inexhaustible Haydn, it has found a refuge, but no occupation. By incessant application, receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

In 1800, Beethoven wrote his First Symphony, which would be followed by eight others, which are still played today by orchestras around the world. Around this time, he would begin to lose his hearing, but it did not discourage him and he continued to compose music, even when he became profoundly deaf. He would hear the notes in his head and transcribe them onto paper.

On December 22, 1808, Viennese audiences had the chance to hear one of the most spectacular concerts ever, consisting exclusively of works by Beethoven. That night, they heard the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the Piano Concerto No. 4, and the Choral Fantasy, as well as assorted vocal works. It was a remarkable program of music!

Beethoven died on March 26, 1827 in Vienna. In a final tribute to the great composer, more than 10,000 people attended his funeral. At one point in the proceedings, his coffin had to be closed because too many people wanted to snip off a lock of his hair as a keepsake. It is, in fact, thanks to one of these preserved samples that, a few years ago, researchers were able to discover that a genetic inability to eliminate lead from his body had been to blame for his deafness and some of his illnesses.

The poet Franz Grillparzer wrote in his funeral oration: “He withdrew from mankind after he had given them his all and received nothing in return. He dwelt alone, because he found no second Self. But to the end his heart beat warm for all men.” 

You can listen to the complete Beethoven symphonies as performed by the OSM under Kent Nagano here…

Mozart: what a life!

9 September 2014

Even if you don’t know anything about classical music, you’ve surely heard of Mozart. Why? Well, perhaps it’s because he wrote music in just about all genres: 41 symphonies, 18 operas, more than 30 concertos, sacred works (including the famous Requiem), chamber music, and 19 piano sonatas. In total: he wrote more than 600 different works in a very short space of time, because, sadly, he died when he was only 35.

Mozart’s music has a universal quality that appeals not only to North Americans but also to Europeans, Asians, and even African tribes, as was discovered a few years ago! And his prodigious childhood continues to be a source of fascination to both young and old.

Some key dates

January 27, 1756: Born in Salzburg. Wolfgang was the son of the musician Leopold Mozart and Anna Maria Pertl. Only two of their seven children would survive infancy: Wolfgang and his sister Maria Anna, nicknamed Nannerl.

1762-1766: The two Mozart children both showed a precocious talent for the violin and harpsichord, and they were soon performing in the great cities of Europe. They could be heard in Vienna, Munich, Paris, London, Brussels, Geneva, Amsterdam, as well as several smaller towns. Wherever he went, people celebrated the child Wolfgang’s gift. He had absolute pitch—the ability to identify any note—and an extraordinary memory that allowed him to play entire pieces of music after hearing them only once. In addition, he had already composed several short pieces and could improvise on any theme.

1767: Mozart wrote his first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus, at the age of 11. The following year, he wrote the opera buffa La finta semplice in three months, and a comic opera, Bastien und Bastienne.

1773-1777: No longer a child, Mozart set out to look for a job. He entered into the service of Archbishop Colloredo, for whom he would compose much church music and a few concertos. But he quickly wearied of the rigid constraints imposed on him by Colloredo, and left his employment in 1777.

1778: Mozart fell in love with the singer Aloysia Weber, but she did not reciprocate. Mozart would marry her sister Constanze on August 4, 1782.

Early 1780s: The composer met with great success. It was during this time that he wrote some of his best known operas, including The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Marriage of Figaro, whose overture you will hear during this concert.

Unfortunately, from 1787, success eluded Mozart, and he would be largely forgotten. The fortune built by the Mozart family soon dried up, and he had to resort to borrowing money from his friends.

1791: Mozart worked on what would be his last opera, The Magic Flute, which met with great acclaim. Sadly, the composer would die on December 5, 1791, and would not be able to reap the benefits of his rediscovered success. He was buried two days later in a common grave.

You want to listen to Mozart? The offer is huge! Chamber music? Vocal music? Concertos? Get inspired here…


2 September 2014

Shostakovich is often considered the ‘”Beethoven of the 20th century”. He wrote 15 monumental symphonies, considered true songs of the Soviet people, in which he seemed to salute the regime (for example by using military songs and rhythms) but made fun of it in a disguised manner (for example by adding dissonances to the songs). Even though he was rewarded several times with the State Prize and the Lenin Prize (in 1954, he was even named “artist of the Soviet people”), he constantly felt torn between his “official” work, praised by the heads of the regime (and the pressure he felt to be able to write them) and his intimate works, filled with freedom, for example his chamber music, especially his 15 string quartets. “When you listen to my music, you will discover the truth about me, the man and the artist,” he stated.

“Most of my symphonies are funeral monuments,” once said Shostakovich. “Too many people have perished God knows where in this country, and no one knows where they are burried. Even their loved ones don’t know. Where could we erect a monument? Music alone can do it. I dedicate all my music to them.”

You can also discover the composer with his Piano Trios, as played by the Gryphon Trio. “The capacity to create music that transforms the listener, having heard it, into a different person,” writes scholar Laurel Fay, “…was, in Shostakovich’s view, the loftiest aspiration any composer could harbour.”


Born in August: Nicolo Porpora

19 August 2014

The Italian composer was born in August 1686 (experts are unsure if it is on the 10th or the 19th), 328 years ago. If one may now remember Porpora as one of the two opponents in the War of operas – the other being Handel -, we too often forget that he had a stellar reputation when alive. First he was choir master for prince Philip of Hesse- Darmstadt in Naples, then for the ambassador of Portugal, was a music teacher for many famous vocalists, including Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli, Uberti (il Porporino), Senesimo, la Molteni, J. A. Hasse and his first librettist Metastasio. He was considered the greatest castrati teacher of the century and the singers would visit him regularly, even when their career was in full swing. He was also famous as a composition teacher. He taught Joseph Haydn (who lived at Porpora’s house and, in exchange for lessons, worked as valet and accompanist) and he stated that with him he learned “the true fundamentals of composition”. From 1718 on, his works (about 50 operas upon his death) were performed on every stage in Italy, as well as in Vienna, Munich and Dresden. He was admired for the fluency of his recitatives.

After he left London in 1736, we lost his trace up until 1744, when he premiered his opera Le nozze di Ercole ed Ebe and a Stabat Mater the following year. In 1748, he was named Kapellmeister of the prince of Saxony and was very close to princess  Marie Antonia Walpurga, the wife of Frederick IV. She took lessons in voice as well as in composition. After a few years in Vienna, he came back to Naples and died ther on March 3, 1768.

You can listen to excerpt of some of his operas on the album Handel and Porpora: The London Years






11 July 2014


On this day, 77 years ago, George Gershwin passed away, not even 40.

Son of Russian Jewish immigrants, little George learned the piano early and listened with passion t0 jazz and ragtime tunes of the day. At 16, he got a job as presenter of new songs at JH Remick, a music publisher in Manhattan. He himself wrote melodies and, in 1919, found himself a millionaire thanks to Swanee, sung by the famous Al Jolson in the film Sinbad, one of the first talkies. Hundreds of thousands of copies of the disc would be sold in a few months.

Gifted with a talent for melody and a genius for rhythmic invention, Gershwin would then write many musicals (from 1924, almost exclusively his brother Ira’s librettos) in which he mixes in an original and ingenious way popular jazz formulas.

Ninety years after its very successful premiere, classical musicians as well as jazzmen continues to put Rhapsody in Blue on their programs. Gershwin had always wanted to integrate the fashionable tunes of his day with the more serious classical repertoire. Luck smiled down on him when Paul Whiteman asked for a work of symphonic jazz. On the train to Boston, while attending the premiere of his musical Sweet Little Devil, melodic ideas started flowing. “I often hear music in the very heart of the noise”, he wrote a few years later. “And, suddenly, I heard – and even saw on paper – the entire structure of Rhapsody, from beginning to end”. He wanted it to be “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” 

The now famous clarinet solo that opens the work was in fact something for which Ross Gorman was famous. Gershwin had thought, with reason, that this element would plunge instantly he listener into the unusual atmosphere of the Rhapsody. It begins with a slow trill in the lower register of the clarinet and then the glissando gives an impression of siren, which propels us into the first jazzy theme. Once it presented, it is quickly chased by another one, and yet another and another, as if inspired by the previous one. In the middle of the work, a lyrical theme that would have made Tchaikovsky proud (with the exception of course of the jazzy horns comment) arises. The work ends in a whirlwind of themes presented with virtuosity.

You cam listen to the work, as performed by Alain Lefèvre and the OSM (the team played it a couple of weeks back at the Jazz Festival) here…


Happy birthday Franz

30 January 2014

Born on January 31, 1797, Schubert would have been 217 ans tomorrow. He took the lied and and brought it to new heights, more than 600 times over. Three of his cycles remain untouchable masterpieces: Die schöne Müllerin, his Schwanengesang (Swan Song) and his Winterreise (Winter Journey), certainly a very appropriate work to listen to in this cold season.

He disappeared much too early, at only 31, but remains a gifted manipulator of sonority,  blessed with great sensitivity and imbued each work with an allegory or subtext that is not immediately obvious, whether he is depicting a landscape, the intensity of an instant or the depth of an emotion. Three themes anchor his work: nature, love and death.

 Schubert long suffered from stereotypes that tainted the perception of his work. Today, we imagine a frail but flamboyant man who could dash off delightfully frivolous waltzes and lieder at will. But his Viennese contemporaries ignored him and underestimated the depth and undisputable originality of his body of work. Only Schumann, who would become Schubert’s ardent defender, seems to have grasped the scope of his genius.  “As manifold as are man’ poetic dreams and aspirations, so variously expressive is Schubert’s music. What is eye sees, his hand touches, turns to music,” wrote Schumann in 1835. Indeed it was Brahms, Schumann’s protégé, who would publish for the first time, forty years after Schubert’s death, the gems entitled Klavierstücke (pieces for piano).



8 July 2013

He was born almot 134 years ago, on July 9, 1879, in Bologna. One may smile when reading his first name (Ottorino), but mainly remembers what a master of colour he is, his wonderful gifts as orchestrator and how he can transmit in music powerful imagery. The composer knows how to create a unique atmosphere that makes the ensembles, whether large or small, shine. Interestingly, while some of this fellow composers insisted on the necessity to shatter the music of their predecessors, Respighi was exactly on the opposite page. He even signed in 1932 with a few composers a manifesto against modernism in music.

“We are against art that doesn’t have or can’t have human substance and is only a mecanical demonstration of a cerebral puzzle. A logical chain ties past and futur: the Romantism of yesterday will become once more the Romanticism of tomorrow.

You can listen to Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà in his First suite of Anciant Airs and Dances, a free reading of four pieces by Italian composers: Ballo detto Il Conde Orlando by Simone Mollinaro (c1565-1615), Gagliarda by Vincenzo Galilei (end of 1520s-1591) and Villanella and Passo mezzo e mascherada (unknown authors).