About this Recording
NA242212 - HENLEY, D.: More Famous Composers (Alsop, USA) (Unabridged)

Darren Henley
More Famous Composers


Each of these Famous Composers creates a unique sound world. In the first volume you listened to the stories of six composers, and considered what is meant by ‘classical music’. Here in volume two we discover a further six, beginning in the eighteenth century and reaching right up to the present day with the music from Harry Potter!

What makes a composer famous? Is it simply musical genius alone? Perhaps not, since we know there were brilliant composers whose work has been put to the bottom of the pile. Perhaps fame has something to do with the purpose for which the music was composed: Haydn held a prestigious musical job with the Esterházy family and therefore composed extensively. Maybe luck also plays a part: Mendelssohn had the benefit of a family who encouraged him musically and provided him with an orchestra.

Fashions for music change with time and yet there remains what we now call a ‘canon’ of Western classical music. Once a composer is in this special ‘list’, he is likely to stay there for hundreds of years, partly because people tend to follow what their ancestors considered to be the best music.

But it is the music itself that has to withstand the test of time—after all, we are still performing and listening to Handel’s work even though he has been dead for over 200 years. Will future generations list John Williams among the ‘great composers’? The only way to judge music is to listen to it yourself and form your own opinion. You may not like every piece by the same composer—as you will hear, a composer’s style can change even within his or her lifetime. Here, you can judge for yourself some of the biggest names in classical music—and remember, your opinion cannot be wrong!

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) was a strong-willed, vigorous man who pursued a highly successful career in music despite his parents’ disapproval. It is unusual for such an early composer that his parents were not musicians: his father was a barber-surgeon! Handel was, however, a brilliant performer and started composing music at the age of nine. He travelled in Europe and wrote music for spectacular royal occasions in England. Quite the businessman, Handel would also arrange his singers to perform whole seasons of opera; and if they threw a tantrum, he would simply threaten to bundle them out of the window to calm them down! Sadly, at the end of his life Handel became blind, but he was still able to play the organ brilliantly.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) had a wicked sense of humour and enjoyed making musical ‘jokes’ in his pieces. As a young boy he had a beautiful singing voice, so when he was eight his parents sent him to Vienna to be a choirboy in St Stephen’s Cathedral. Later, Haydn spent thirty years in a job that would have been any composer’s dream: he was Kapellmeister for Prince Esterházy. He wrote music for the prince’s chapel, but also for his private opera house and his puppet theatre. Haydn therefore wrote a huge amount of music—including 104 symphonies! He also spent a lot of time in the musical capital Vienna, where he played with Mozart in a string quartet in the 1780s. During Haydn’s lifetime the growth of public concerts meant that his music was heard in many cities and countries.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) came from a privileged and wealthy background. His Jewish family were bankers whose home was a meeting place for intellectuals and artists. Felix and his older sister Fanny, also a composer, were brought up surrounded by music. By the time he was fifteen, Felix conducted the family orchestra playing music he had composed! Can you imagine having a family orchestra? He pursued a highly successful musical career as a composer, pianist, organist and conductor. He even founded the Leipzig Conservatory of Music, ensuring good music education for future generations.

Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849), a brilliant pianist, was born in Poland but lived later in Paris. There he became a fashionable piano teacher and also published some of his music. Nearly all his compositions are for the piano. He played with a delicate, Romantic touch that his contemporaries had not heard before. He was, however, a frail and fastidious personality who did not like giving public concerts. Instead he preferred playing in the intimate setting of friends’ houses, where he would improvise entire concerts for small groups of acquaintances who would listen in awe. His ten-year romance with the famous novelist known as George Sand ended sadly, and Chopin’s sprits and his health declined with the relationship. He died at the tragically young age of thirty-nine from tuberculosis—a major killer at the time. Imagine how many more wonderful pieces he could have written had he lived an average lifespan!

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943) was one of the most important pianists of the twentieth century. He could play very complicated music on just one hearing. This was perhaps helped by the size of his hands—he could reach the interval of a sixteenth, which is the hand-span of about 15 inches! Rachmaninov was also a conductor and composer. Like Mendelssohn, he came from a wealthy background where music was encouraged. His reputation as a composer, however, has not always been so strong. In the 1950s his music was labelled by some critics as ‘monotonous’—they even predicted that it wouldn’t stand the test of time!

John Williams (born in 1932) is the most successful living composer of film music. Today he lives in Hollywood. As of 2006, he has received an incredible 45 Academy Award nominations. Williams has not always been a composer for films. Between 1952 and 1954 he conducted and arranged music for United States Air Force bands. He also worked as a jazz pianist. But when he was discharged from the Air Force he returned to New York, where he attended the prestigious Juilliard School—one of the best performing arts conservatories in the world. Williams also composed concert works, but he is undoubtedly most famous for his film scores, which include such well-known tunes such as the ‘Harry Potter’ theme.

Throughout the story of these Famous Composers, spanning 300 years, we see how the purpose of composition can be very varied. Starting in the eighteenth century, we find Handel composing music for royal occasions. By the time we reach the twenty-first century, with John Williams, music is being composed for films. So classical music fulfils many functions besides concert-hall entertainment, and composers are able to adapt their skills to these different needs.

Notes by Katherine Walters

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