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Bach, Beethoven & the Boys
Transcript of Bach, Beethoven & the Boys
Why does it
sound like that?
Music has existed as long as there have been people.
The Greeks were very into it.
Plato wrote about music in his book "The Republic," speaking at length about music's use and how beauty must be its aim at all times. Aristotle and Socrates spoke of music's role in shaping the morality of a culture and communicates emotion.
Plato wanted to ban any musical innovation since it would obviously endanger the entire state.
He had views.
The Notre Dame Organum
Western music history has to start somewhere. Let's start in the 9th century with Pope Gregory. Seems logical.
Pope Gregory the Great (Pope from 590-604) is credited as having created the chants set down by the Catholic Church at this time, codifying the music to be used in Masses.
As the story goes, a dove came down from heaven and whispered all of the chants directly into Gregory's ear. At least, that's what he told everybody.
There were three types of chants:
Syllabic: one syllable per note
Neumatic: two or three notes per syllable
Melismatic: did you forget the words?
Guido of Arezzo (9th c.)
Devised the first staff lines
"Temporibus nostris super omnes homines fatui sunt cantores." *
Devised what became know as the "Guidonian Hand" to help memorization of modes.**
** Modes are pretty much scales.
* "Singers are the stupid men of our time."
Sounds more polite in Latin.
The system of Gregorian Chant gave specific chants for specific times and occasions. These are called Hours or sometimes Offices. Monks would perform these everyday.
a Chant sung by two monks in Perfect 4ths or 5ths.
No Girls Allowed!
Only men sang the chants. Ladies, you can blame St. Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul said "Mulieres in ecclesiis taceant."*** Meanie.
*** "Let your women keep silent in the churches."
Perotin & Leonin (12th c.):
Wrote the "Magnus Liber" *
Complex Organums mixed with
rhythmic modes that still puzzle
* Literally "Big Book"
In 1910 two French musicologists got into a duel
over an argument about the almost 800 year old
rhythmic modes. Beck and Aubry were their names.
Beck won and Aubry was killed. True story.
We know what we know
about the Notre Dame (Paris, btw, not South Bend) Organum thanks to an English writer named Anonymous IV. No one knows anything about Anonymous I-III.
Troubadours and Trouveres
Travelling musicians wandered many countries playing popular tunes about love and loss, singing about how lovely her hair or eyes are and how you were fated to be together if only you didn't have a husband.
Troubadours and Trouveres are interchangable. Trouveres started in the North of France and wandered South while Troubadours started in the South and went North. That's pretty much the only difference.
Josquin des Prez was born around
1440 in Picardy, Italy. He most likely studied under the composer Okeghem. We pay more attention to Josquin these days. C'est la vie.
Wait, what's a motet?
Josquin was headstrong and not known as the easiest person to work with. The Duke of Ferrera wanted to hire Josquin, but the Duke's secretary suggested another composer who was better tempered, cheaper and faster. He was all of those things, but Josquin was better. It's good to be the Duke.
Josquin wasn't really subtle either. He got tired of waiting for a promised raise from King Louis XII of France when working in the Parisian court. His next motet was based around the lyrics "Remember thy word unto thy servant." Louis got the hint and paid the man. The next motet was "Lord, thou has dealt graciously with thy servant." It was like a musical memo.
According to a 13th century historian a motet is music in several parts with words. Helpful.
Medeival and Rennaisance motets generally had religious texts and were used in prayer, but not usually in Masses.
It was quite popular in the Medieval era to compose motets or even entire Masses around a single melody. Sometimes it was taken from a chant melody or even a pop tune. Imagine writing an entire Mass based on a Justin Bieber song. But, usually it was better than that.
Josquin used one of the most popular cantus firmus tunes of the day, "L'Homme arme" and composed not one, but two Masses from the song.
Palestrina isn't a person, it's a place. No, really. Giovanni Pierluigi was from Palestrina. He was also known as Joannes Petrus-Aloysius Praenestinus, Joannes Praenestinus, Giovanni da Penestrina, Geo Pietro Luigi da Pallestrina, Gianetti Palestina, Gianetto del Palestino, Gio Petralosis Prenestrino and Gianetto Palestrina. Yeah, let's go with just Palestrina.
After getting his first gig as an organist at home, Palestrina got married and soon moved to Rome. His home bishop, Giovanni Maria del Monte became Pope Julius III. Palestrina was hired to conduct St. Peter's Choir. Friends in high places, right?
After Julius III died, Pope Marcellus II took over and reigned for three weeks. He died of certainly not poison. Palestrina dedicated his great Missa Papae Marcelli to him.
Many of the stuffier Cardinals in Rome thought that polyphony in church music was out of control and vulgar. The Pope Marcellus Mass was Palestrina's way to show them that polyphony could be respectable.
Contemporaries of Palestrina
Orlando di Lasso
Wrote 2,000 pieces
Voice so good he was kidnapped 3 times by rival choirs as a child
Tremendously popular and made a lot of money travelling Europe on other people's dime
Tomas Luis de Victoria
Always threatened to quit composing and study a higher calling
Admired Palestrina and even trimmed his beard the same way
Palestrina was so well-loved, he was buried in St. Peter's cemetary after he died in 1594. His grave has been lost in the centuries of renovation and change.
Now We're Getting
William Bird spent his childhood in
Lincolnshire, becoming the organist at the Lincoln Cathedral at the age of 20.
After 10 years of playing in Lincolnshire,
Byrd moved to London. He and his teacher, Tallis, were granted exclusive music publishing rights for any music in any language in England. They were also the only people allowed to publish manuscript paper.
Byrd was well known for composing madrigals. He printed his madrigals with each part facing a different side of the paper so that party guests could stand around a table and all read their own part. What rockin' parties they had in Elizabethan England.
Madrigals became popular in 1588 after the publication of the "Musica Transalpina," an Italian book of parlor madrigals.
True fact: Byrd wrote a madrigal entitled "Suzanna Fayre Sometime
Assaulted Was By Two Old Men Desiring of Her Cause." It's about
exactly what you think.
Clarke was a contemporary of Henry Purcell.
He wrote the Trumpet Voluntary, which is played at weddings and events still today. Clarke thought the song was too good to say he wrote it, so he attributed it to Purcell.
After a disappointing love affair, Clarke decided to commit suicide. He flipped a coin to decide how: one side drowning, the other, hanging. The coin landed on its side in the mud and he went home and shot himself.
Purcell was born in 1659.* His father, Thomas,
and his uncle, Henry, were musicians, as was his
brother, Daniel. Purcell joined the Chapel Royal**
choir as a boy, which was led by a man named
Cooke hard a hard gig since music had been banned under Oliver Cromwell. To get better singers, Cooke raided other choirs around the country.
* Probably. Records are pretty unclear
around that time.
** He got to wear a "cloak of bastard scarlett lyned with velvett." This is not what you might think it is.
*** Not that Captain Cook. This was a different one.
After a few years, Purcell got the job of "keeper, maker, mender, repayrer and tuner of the regalls, organs, virginalls*, flutes and recorders and all other kind of wind instruments whatsoever." This was after his voice broke. Later he was named composer for the king's violins and organist at Westminster Abbey.
* Seriously, also not what you think. These were a kind of piano.
Purcell performed various duties for the king,
including composing music for coronations,
weddings, birthdays, Departing & Returning
In fact, he composed a bunch of Birthday Odes
for Queen Mary, including one famous one called
"Come, Ye Sons of Art." He also wrote the Funeral
Music for Queen Mary. A year later it was played at
Purcell's own funeral, but was not renamed.
Legend has it that Purcell died of pneumonia
after an evening of drinking when his wife
wouldn't let him in the house. This is not true.
Maurice Greene, another composer, died this way.
The November that Purcell died was pretty mild.
Way to spoil the fun, musicologists.
Claudio Montiverdi was a leader in the changes from the old style to the new. Born in 1567 in Cremona, Italy, Montiverdi most likely learned music in the church choir and published his first book of motets at age 15. By age 20, he published five more books of motets and madrigals.
Montiverdi left Cremona and headed off the the cosmopolitan
city of Mantua where he became a composer in the court of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga. Vincenzo was a gambler and a womanizer who divorced his first wife because she was "deformed" and - when his
virility was questioned by her family - offered to test himself with any
virgin girl in Venice. At least he liked good music. Montiverdi composed music for a concert each Friday. He even followed Vincenzo over the Alps to fight the Turks.
Montiverdi's new style of music had its critics.
In 1600 Giovanni Artusi published a book attacking
modern music for breaking established rules and
sounding incomprehensible. It didn't name names,
but the sequel did, calling out Montiverdi for his
work in modern music.
The criticism didn't bother Montiverdi much. He was working on the first
actual oper, "Orfeo" (1607). A few years later, he got a cushy job at the
Cathedral San Marco in Venice. He was paid 300 ducats a year, more
money than he had ever had. While it kept him busy, he also had the freedom
to write on his own. He was offered his old job back in Mantua but politely
turned it down. Good thing, too. Soon after the Imperial army got into a fight
with the Gonzagas, sacked the city and infected everybody with plague.
Antonio Vivaldi is one of the most celebrated Baroque composers. Born in Venice, Vivaldi first studied to be a priest. His health problems, which he had since birth, were often blamed for his rarely celebrating Mass. His red hair earned him the nickname "Il prete rosa" or "the red priest."
Vivaldi worked for most of his life teaching violin and the Osedale della Pieta, a school for orphaned girls. These girls were often illegitimate children of the wealthy and powerful. They performed weekly in the chapel to packed houses.*
*No applause was allowed in church so people showed appreciation by coughing or blowing their noses loudly.
Vivaldi wrote many operas during his career, one in as little as five days. His manuscripts were full of shortcuts including one section of figured bass circled for the performer to repeat. It was marked "for the dimwits."
Vivaldi's most famous work is not an opera or church music. His symphony "The Four Seasons" is a piece that is immediately recognizable, even to those who don't like "classical" music.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born into an incredibly musical family. His great-great-great grandfather Veit Bach played his lute while his millstones ground flour. The other thing the Bach's liked was the name Johann. Seriously. JS Bach's father, Johann Ambrosuis had a twin brother named Johann Cristoph. Even their wives had trouble telling them apart. JA Bach had three sons: Johann Cristoph, Johann Jakob and Johann Sebastian.
JS was an apt pupil and, after his father and mother died while he was young, he was sent to live with his brother JC who worked as an organist and studied under another Johann: Johann Pachelbel.*
* Yes, that Pachelbel. Wrote the Canon in D. That's the only mention it's getting.
As a young man, JS studied violin, viola and organ after his voice changed. His work as a copyist also aided in his music training. He would hand copy the music of his predecessors, absorbing the styles of the composers. Bach's first real job as the choirmaster of St. Bonifacius in Arnstadt did not go well for the ill-tempered composer. He got into a fist fight with a choir member who called JS a "dirty dog." To be fair, Bach had called the boy a "nanny-goat bassoonist."*
* This probably sounds better in German.
A trip to Lubeck to see the organist Deitrich Buxtehude took Bach
200 miles from home and into a new world of music. While spending
4 months there (after only being allowed 4 weeks vacation), Bach brought
bach to Arnstadt a new way of ornamenting music to make it even fancier.
Buxtehude tried to keep Bach in Lubeck by offering to make his successor
when he retired. The job came with a marraige to Buxtehude's daughter as
a side benefit. Bach, like 2 others before him (one of who was George Frideric
Handel), turned down the offer. Bach had a sweetheart at home. Like, really
close to home. He married his second cousin Maria Barbara Bach and the two
moved to Muhlhausen and a new church gig. This one came with a few extra
* "85 gulden a year, 3 measures of corn, 2 trusses of wood, one of beech, one of oak or aspen and 6 trusses of stick bundles, delivered at his door in lieu of arable."
Muhlhausen didn't work out for the Bachs. After a year, JS took a gig with "His Ducal and Serene Highness of Saxe-Weimar," Wilhelm Ernst. Bach's resignation letter began with this epic title: "Your Magnificence, Honored and Noble Sirs, Honored and Learned Sirsm Honored and Wise Sirs, Most Gracious Patrons and Gentlemen." It got worse after that.
Bach's skill at organ won him acclaim and even gifts from the nobility. The Crown Prince of Cassel gave bach a ring off of his own finger after hearing one of Bach's wicked pedal solos.
Bach, ever humble, never took a compliment. When his playing skill was remarked upon he replied "There's nothing to it. You only have to hit the right notes at the right time and the instrument plays itself." Apparantly, Bach also used a stick held in his mouth to hit keys he couldn't reach.
After 10 years at Weimar, Bach moved on. Of course, he spent a month in prison before leaving for "too obstinately requesting his dismissal." At his new job, he wrote furiously. The city bookbinders asked him to slow down so they could catch up.
While in Cothen, at his new position, Bach's first wife Maria passed away. They had seven children together.*
Bach later married a woman 17 years younger than he and they had 13 children together, six of whom survived into adulthood. After his patron, Prince Leopold, got married to a woman who thought music was a waste of time, the family up and moved to Leipzig.
* If you wanted to, you could think of their children as his second cousins once removed. But that's probably not a good idea.
Bach's work in Leipzig was at a stoic school for boys. He was expected to teach Latin along with music, but hired that job out to someone else. His salary was low for someone of his reputation, but funerals paid extra.*
* He once complained in a letter to a friend that people in Leipzig weren't dying fast enough for him to make a decent living.
Bach's career at the school continued its downhill trend and Bach travelled, playing around Europe. In his final years, Bach was going blind, but still managed to write the most complicated fugue ever written. An English doctor tried to restore his sight, but the operation failed and Bach was left totally blind. Miraculously, Bach's sight was restored on July 18, 1750. Unfortunately, he had a stroke and died 10 days later. His wife struggled on a meager pension and died a bag lady in the streets of Leipzig. Two of his sons, Wilhelm Friedmann and Carl Philipp Emanuel both became well-known musicians in their own right, but the Bach blood "ceased to flow in mortal veins" by 1871.
George Frideric Handel was born in 1685 in the town of Halle in Germany.
In Halle, there is a house with a plaque reading "Handel's Birthplace." Handel
was born next door. George's father Georg was 62 when his son was born. The
son of the town's official bread weigher and a barber-surgeon in his own right,
Georg had no interest in music and wanted his son to become a lawyer. George's
mother Dorothea was more tolerant and snuck a small, quiet clavichord into the
house so little George could practice in the attic while his father was asleep.*
* At least, that's what Handel says happened. <shrug>
On a visit to the palace of the duke with his father, the nine-year
old Handel forgot his manners and played a few bars on the duke's chapel organ. The duke was impressed and made Georg promise to
get his son music lessons. At 17, Handel enrolled in the University of
Halle to study law. While his father had died the year before, he wanted to honor his memory. Soon after, however, he took over the organ duties at the Halle cathedral. Handel had filled in for the regular organist who often showed up too drunk to play.
Handel and his close friend Johann Matheson later travelled to Lubeck and met the great Danish organist Dietrich Buxtehude. He offered each of them his job and his daughter. Both said they would think about it and got out of town quick.
Handel and Matheson got into a big fight once and decided to settle it with a rapier duel, like you did in those days. Handel was stabbed, but Matheson's sword was stopped by a button in Handel's coat. The two made up after the near miss.
Handel was very interested in composing operas. If you wanted to go big time in opera, you went to Italy. So, in 1706, he headed south. Handel spent almost an entire year in Rome even though the Pope had outlawed opera for being offensive and sacrilegious.* Handel met a lot of famous Italian composers. He and Domenico Scarlatti, son of the much more well-known Alessandro, had a contest to see who was the better player. Domenico was the clear winner on harpsichord, but Handel took the prize in organ, so they called it a draw.
In Handel's three years in Italy he wrote several operas (they were allowed in Venice), about 100 cantatas and some church music. And, like everybody should, he had a great time in Italy.
* He'd get into a snit every so often and it was best to humor him.
In 1710, Handel took a position in Hanover in Germany. During that time, however, he traveled to Londan, England. The English loved Handel and recieved his first opera, "Rinaldo" extremely well. He didn't tell them that it was mostly bits of his first big Italian opera, "Agrippina."*
"Rinaldo" also used recorders to represent fluttering birds. Just in case it wasn't clear, he released live sparrows at every performance. In a later opera, he used live bears. Not to represent birds. To represent bears. Moving on.
* Handel borrowed from himself a lot. It's not as bad as when he started borrowing from other people too.
Handel had to return to Hanover and his boring court life under the Elector of Hanover. After a year or so he convinced his boss to let him go back to London for a visit. This one lasted 50 years. In 1714, Queen Anne died and the next in line for the throne became King George I. His previous job was Elector of Hanover. Surprise! George didn't speak any English, but that really didn't matter much. He wasn't even mad at Handel for running off to England. In fact, George gave him a raise. Handel composed his famous "Water Music" for King George, playing it while the King took a voyage down the Thames river. Handel and the other 50 musicians floated alongside on a barge while playing.
In 1719, a group of noblemen set up the Royal Academy of Music and asked Handel to be music director. Handel set about scouring Europe for great singers for his upcoming operas.
18th Century Opera
People didn't go to opera in the 18th century to listen to the music. They went to socialize, be seen in public, eat and flirt. Singers didn't help matters. They would bring their own favorite arias to stick in wherever they felt like, even if it was in the wrong opera.
The leading female part was usually a soprano (called a prima donna) and the leading male part was sung by a castrato, usually from Italy. He was called the primo uomo, among other things. Castrati were very popular in the 1720s and 1730s. Tenors were rarely used and never for important parts. Basses were and still are often used for comic roles.
Handel's recruitment of singers for his operas and his personal attitude caused quite a scandal in London. A tenor once threatened to jump on Handel's harpsichord. The composer responded: "Tell me when and I will advertise. More people will come to see you jump than to hear you sing." That shut him up.
Cuzzoni was a soprano brought in from Italy. She was described as "short and squat" but had a lovely voice. She disagreed with Handel once on how she should sing an aria. He held her out of a window until she saw things his way. To bring in bigger crowds, the Royal Academy brought in another soprano, named Faustina. The rivalry between the two was as absurd as it was epic. In one opera, Handel had to write the same number of arias for each with exactly the same number of notes in each so neither would feel slighted.
During a 1727 performance, different factions of the audience cheered for their favorite singer. A fight broke out in the audience and spilled onto the stage where the women went at it tooth and nail.
Handel's most popular work today is, of course, The Messiah. The oratorio was written in less than three weeks. It's premiere in Dublin, Ireland was so anticipated that the house asked patrons to wear skirts without hoops and to leave swords at home. 700 people crammed into a space built for 600 and adored the work. Legend has it that, at the London premiere, King George II was so moved by the Hallelujah Chorus that he stood during it. Of course, when the King stands, so does everyone else. To this day, it is traditional to stand during the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus, all because George II's foot might have fallen asleep.
Last things on Handel: his "Royal Fireworks Music" was written to coincide with a big royal party including fireworks. The platform with the fireworks caught fire and exploded. Then it rained. Two people were killed and hundreds were injured. But, the music is pretty good.
Handel was losing his eyesight late in life and went to the same doctor that Bach saw. John Taylor has the distinction of blinding the two greatest composers of the Baroque era. Good job.
Handel died in 1759 and is buried in Westminster Abbey. None of his music was played at his own funeral.
* Now kids fake playing guitar with expensive pieces of plastic. How times have changed.
** Pavlov would be proud.
* "The Crooked Devil"
* Nissen's tombstone reads "Here lies Mozart's widow's second husband."
Those Romantic Types
Ludwig van Beethoven was born on December 16, 1770 in Bonn, Germany. He grew up to be one of the greatest composers the world has known. He was brooding, moody, bad-tempered, arrogant, insulting, a prankster and liked bad puns. He could also be warm, affectionate and good-humored if you caught him on the right day.
By 16, Beethoven was playing and writing for the Elector of Bonn. At 22, he moved to Vienna, taking lessons from Haydn and Salieri. He was extremely stubborn and another composer corrected his assignments before they were turned in to Haydn.
Beethoven did not behave in a "proper" manner for the Viennese aristocrats. He once told off his patron, Prince Lichnowsky, "There are and there will be thousands of pronces. There is only on Beethoven."
Beethoven didn't get along with servants or landlords either. He hired and fired servants at will and moved every few months. One landlord was quite happy about it. After Beethoven left he auctioned off the window shutters, which were covered in musical notation.
Beethoven may have been a boor and a slob, but he was also a great composer.
His many works include 9 symphonies, numeros concertos and chamber music,
two Masses and 1 opera (with four overtures) and an Obbligato duet for two
eyeglasses: One for him and one for his cellist.
He never married but was known as a constant flirt.* He was refused in his one
marraige proposal to singer Magdalene Willman because "he was so ugly and half-
* He also didn't have an cousins to marry like Bach, Grieg or Stravinsky, among others.
** It was probably for the best. Bach had syphilis...and chronic constipation alternating with diarrhea, typhus and dropsy.
The biggest tragedy of Beethoven's life, of course, was his growing deafness. He
began to notice his hearing loss at age 30 and by 50 was stone deaf. As the years
went on he continually broke piano strings, pounding the keys trying to hear the
notes. By the end, he had sawed the legs off of his piano, placing it flat on the floor
so that he could feel the vibrations. By the time he composed his most famous
Ninth Symphony, Beethoven had long since lost all of his hearing.
The rehearsal process for the premiere was short and difficult, boding ill for the performance. Beethoven himself assisted the conductor by giving tempos to the orchestra throughout. The performance itself was flawless. Reportedly, everyone, including the orchestra and chorus, was moved, some to tears. Beethoven had crafted the first true choral symphony with such emotion and triumph that it is still one of the most beloved pieces of music in the repertoire. At the end of the performance, Beethoven continued counting the tempo several measures after the work was over. The audience leapt to their feet applauding wildly. Beethoven had no idea. Contralto soloist, Caroline Ungher, told the great composer to turn. He did and a wave of sympathy and admiration rose in the crowd. They haved their hands and hankerchiefs to show their appreciation to Beethoven who never heard their applause. He was given 5 ovations for the performance. Traditionally, princes were given three ovations by audiences. The love of the people for Beethoven showed that day.
Beethoven died in 1827. His funeral was attended by over 20,000 people. Fellow
composers Schubert and Hummel were among his pall bearers. Anselm Huttenbrenner, a friend of many composers, was at Beethoven's bed when he died. In true style, Huttenbrenner claimed that Beethoven roused from his coma, shook his fist at the stormy heavens and, at a vicious clap of thunder, died.
[I feel I most quote an entire paragraph from our book directly here.]
Either you like Wagner's music or you don't. For some people, Wagnerian opera represents the highest form of art as a synthesis of music and drama. For others, it's just fat people shouting at each other in German for what seems like a eternity. Personally, I'm inclined to agree with Rossini, who said that "Wagner has good moments, but bad quarter-hours."
Born in 1813, Wilhelm Richard Wagner was a troublesome child in a troubled home.
He was born to Johanna and Carl Fredrich Wagner in Leipzig. Carl Fredrich died when the baby was only six months old. Johanna remarried a family friend, actor Ludwig Geyer.* Young Richard - he dropped the Wilhelm pretty quick - hated school and skipped class often. At one point, he had missed almost six months straight.
* He was a really good "family friend." Wagner looked a bit like him, too.
Hearing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony when he was what convinced Wagner to become a composer. His first work was a disaster. To keep parts straight on the page he used different color inks when writing.
Wagner's time at the University of Leipzig was a complete failure. He spent his time drinking and gambling, challenging people to duels and not going to class. Despite the failure of his first concerto and the fact that he didn't play any instruments well at all, Wagner got a job conducting a small opera company where he met and married a singer, Minna Planer.
Wagner's first opera was, as you might guess, a disaster. There were only nearly two performances of it. The lead tenor didn't know his lines and before the second performance, the lead soprano's jealous husband came backstage and hit the second tenor, thinking the two were having an affair. When she tried to stop him, he hit her too. Deeply in debt and a local failure, Wagner and his wife fled to Paris.
Wagner spent time as an anti-capitalist ranter and wrote essays and
letters on many topics of which he had no clue. He went from being
a socialist to quickly writing about the "vulgar egotism" of the masses.
He wrote about the thickness of Beethoven's skull being the reason for
his greatness and hurled some truly awful insults at Jews.* He also
thought that vegetarianism was the way to make the world a better place.
He claimed that vegetarian panthers and tigers wandered the lake shores
in the North of Canada.
* Wagner was Hitler's favorite composer.
Does that tell you anything?
Despite everything about his personality, Wagner did make significant contributions to the development of opera. He created a unified sense of music and drama called "Gesamtkuntswerk," German for "total art work." He also reveled in the idea of art taking inspiration from pre-Christian mythology. These ideas culminated in his masterwork, "Der Ring des Nibelungen" or "The Ring of the Nibelungs." We'll go into the plot of this opera-cycle in a moment. The Ring Cycle is actually 4 seperate operas taking a total of approximately 22 hours to perform.
Another siginificant thing Wagner gave to the musical world is the leitmotiv. Wagner's concept of "endless melody." Even his incidental music needed a tune. The lietmotiv was, essentially, a theme song for every important character and even significant props. There are 90 in all during the Ring Cycle. It's really handy when you can't see what's going on on stage. Claude Debussy hated the idea, saying: "The leitmotiv system suggests a world of harmelss lunatics who present thier visiting cards and shout their name in song." We know leitmotivs quite well today: we call them theme songs.
A bit more of Wagner's personal life: he got much of his money later in life from Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. You know this guy even if you've never heard his name. The lonely mountain castle he built, called Neuschwanstein, was the model for Disney's Cinderella's Castle. Ludwig's social life was a tale full of gossip and chatter. He gave a ton of money to Wagner and gave him free reign to spend as he saw fit.
Wagner had a theater built called Bayreuth where each seat was placed
to Wagner's own specifications. The orchestra was located in a recessed
space under the stage. The conductor and orchestra are completely invisible to the audience, hidden by a giant hood. This is ideal for
Wagner, but not for many conductors.
Wagner spent his life getting what he wanted, whatever it took. His relationships were ones built more of desire than much else. There was plenty of gossip concerning Wagner's relationship with King Ludwig, but no documented eveidence that the two had anything more than a dear friendship. Wagner's marraige was unimportant to him and he spent plenty of time in the arms of other women. He spent time with the wife of an early patron, a young woman almost 40 years younger than he and, finally, Cosima Liszt (oh, and her older sister, Blandine). Cosima was the third (illegitimate) child of Franz List and Marie d'Agoult. She was married to renowned conductor and Wagner fan, Klaus von Bulow. Klaus tolerated the obvious relationship until the birth of Wagner and Cosima's second child, Eva. In all, the couple had three children, all named for characters in Wagner's operas.
Wagner spent his latter years in luxury. Much of his last opera, "Parsifal," was written after he soaked in a perfume-filled hot tub. He had a fondness for silk, satin and fur trims, often in a "pale and delicate" shade of pink.
Our last word on Wagner is from philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche:
"Is Wagner a human being at all? Is he not rather, a disease?"
Johannes Brahms was born in 1833 in Hamburg, Germany to Jakob and Christine Brahms. Jakob
was a double-bass player (he wasn't very good) and young Johannes got his musical training from him. Money was always tight when Brahms was young, so he began playing piano at seedy bars at a young age to help his family income.
Throughout his life, Brahms was scornful towards women. While we mostly think of him as a bushy-bearded old man, he was quite handsome in his youth. All those years of seedy sailors' bars must have had its impact, however. Some sources say that having his voice not break until he was 24 didn't help matters. Brahms was engaged once, but broke it off, saying: "I love you but I cannot wear fetters." From then on, Brahms was a confirmed bachelor.
Brahms was a creature of habit. After moving to Vienna, he lived in the same apartment for 26 years. He also regularly visited his local pub, the "Red Hedgehog." This had more to do with his habits than with his incredible beard. In Vienna, he met Robert and Clara Schumann, both famous composers in their own right. Robert wrote an essay gushing about the brilliance of Brahms' work. Brahms, in return, fell madly in love with Clara.
Brahms was dismissed by many of his contemporaries as too old-fashioned to be relevant. They derided his lack of innovation, saying he should be more like Wagner. Brahms always thought that if it was good enough for Beethoven, it was good enough for him. It seems as if one of the only people to truly appreciate Brahms' music in his lifetime was conductor Klaus von Bulow (of Wagner-wife-stealing fame). He named Brahms one of the 3 B's (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms). We still speak of his work in the same way.
Missa Pange Lingua
Funeral March for Queen Mary
The Four Seasons - Spring
Toccata and Fugue in D minor
Hallelujah Chorus - The Messiah
Symphony No. 9 - Ode to Joy
Ride of the Valkyries - Die Walkurie