Thursday, February 23, 2017

J.S. Bach and Anna Magdalena

During this month of composer love stories, let’s not forget about Johann Sebastian Bach and his lovely second wife! Anna Magdalena served as not only the composer’s helpmate, but as the mother of thirteen of his children and a professional musician. The couple married in 1721 during Bach’s time in Cöthen.

While in Cöthen, Bach did not have duties as a church musician so scholars assume he took advantage of the extra time in his schedule to write secular court music and pedagogical works. The Little Keyboard Books, two of which were given to Anna Magdalena, served as music teaching and recreation books for his family. The first of these books (1722) was a wedding gift and contains the earliest source of his French Suites. The second book (1725) contains famous minuets and other pieces used for teaching purposes.

While Bach certainly contributed to these volumes, the second edition in particular contains many pieces by other composers of the time as well as little works by Anna and the children. It was quite rare during this time for a woman to compose, however Anna added quite a few works to her book up until the 1740s!

Anna Magdalena Bach
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Monday, February 20, 2017

Giuseppe Verdi: Sweet and Scandalous!

Giuseppe Verdi’s first love was rather sweet, but his second began as a scandal. This month Clef Notes is looking at composer love stories. While some are sweet and romantic, others are just plain dirty and complicated.

Giuseppe Verdi
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When Verdi was just 18, he went to live with a merchant and patron of the arts by the name of Antonio Barezzi. This man would later finance the young composer so that he could further his studies in Milan. Following his studies, Verdi secured a position teaching lessons at a music school and conducting the philharmonic society concerts in Busseto. At this point, he married his young love Margherita, Barezzi’s oldest daughter.

Margherita Barezzi
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Margherita loved her husband and supported his work. She bore him two children, Virginia Maria Luigia and Icilio Romano Carlo Antonio. Sadly, both of the children and Margherita died within a couple-year span, leaving Verdi devastated. At the same time, he had an opera fail and vowed to quit composing forever. Good thing he didn’t stick to his claim!

After a period of mourning, Verdi came back to the arena with a huge success in his opera Nabucco. It was around this same time that he became acquainted with soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who sang the role of Abigaille during Nabucco’s premiere. Strepponi had a bit of a reputation, having two illegitimate children. Their paths crossed again in 1847 after Strepponi had retired from the stage and was making a living as a teacher. The two fell in love and soon moved in together. At this point in time, an unwed couple residing together was considered a scandal, and Verdi’s father-in-law, Barezzi, was at first enraged by the ordeal. He eventually came to accept Strepponi as a daughter and the couple finally married in 1859. It is unknown why the couple waited so long, or why they finally chose to marry after so many years.

Giuseppina Strepponi
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Strepponi believed that she didn’t deserve Verdi. She spent the remainder of her life loving and supporting him, helping him to find a good balance between his work and leisure.

Next time, let’s travel back in time a bit further, and look at another sweet love story between J.S. Bach and Anna Magdalena. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Musical Love Triangle

Robert and Clara Schumann are probably the most well-known couple in music history, Robert known for his compositions, and Clara for her piano virtuosity. Robert studied piano with Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck, until a hand injury turned his focus to that of a music critic and composer. Though Wieck strongly resented the union of his daughter with Schumann, the two took the matter to the court to override his disapproval in 1840. Schumann composed many love songs during that same year, expressing his deep passion for the young Clara while also hoping it would be lucrative in order to help support his new family.

Clara Schumann
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Robert Schumann
Courtesy of

The couple worked together musically for a number of years before meeting Johannes Brahms in 1853. Robert and Johannes quickly became each other’s advocates, Robert publishing positive remarks regarding Brahms’ work, thus launching the young composer’s career. It is a known fact that Brahms admired Clara, who was fourteen years his senior. This explains why he quickly stepped in to assist her when Robert’s health began to fail, eventually leading to admittance into an insane asylum in 1854 following an attempt at suicide. Prone to depression, Robert’s behavior became bizarre and unstable. Two years after arriving at the asylum, Robert Schumann passed away. During this difficult time for Clara, Brahms never ceased pitching in and offering his comfort and support, many times caring for her family so that she could travel and perform. Was this the behavior of a friend or a lover? Was Brahms trying to catch Clara’s eye during a weak moment or did he respect Robert too much to attempt such actions? What do you think?