Monday, February 27, 2017

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

This month Clef Notes is taking a look at composer love stories. Benjamin Britten’s life and work was greatly affected by his own love story. Britten met tenor Peter Pears in 1936 and they ended up living together until his death in 1976. Pears inspired much of Britten’s operatic roles and song cycles and the two collaborated regularly in performance.

Britten and Pears carried on a homosexual relationship during a time in history when this was looked down upon by society. This perhaps explains thematic undertones of his famous opera Peter Grimes, during which a fisherman is driven to suicide by the community around him. This opera became the first major English opera since the days of Henry Purcell.

Homosexuality is another theme found in some of Britten’s work. One such example is his opera Death in Venice, based on the work by Thomas Mann. The plot revolves around a writer who becomes infatuated with a young boy. Britten perhaps felt a certain connection to Mann’s work, as he also experienced attraction to the innocence of youth. Death in Venice was his last opera. Pears performed the leading role, however Britten was unable to attend the premiere due to the illness that would eventually take his life. 

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
Courtesy of 

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
Courtesy of

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?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Franz Liszt and the Countess Marie d'Agoult

All month long, Clef Notes looks at famous love stories among classical composers. Last time, we discussed Frederic Chopin’s relationship with novelist George Sand. The couple received their introduction from good friends Franz Liszt and the Countess Marie d’Agoult.

Franz Liszt
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Franz Liszt was known to attract women. A piano virtuoso, people flocked to his recitals like fans flock to rock concerts today. While he had numerous affairs throughout his life, today we will focus on his relations with the Countess Marie d’Agoult. The couple first met in 1834 and it wasn’t long after this that the countess made the decision to leave her husband, Col. Charles d’Agoult, who was very much her senior. She bore three children for Liszt, including the famous Cosima who later married Richard Wagner. 

Countess Marie d'Agoult
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Liszt and the Countess remained a couple for several years. In 1839, Liszt’s frequent travels as a virtuoso began to take its toll on their relationship. In 1844, the couple separated permanently.

Next week, it’s Valentine’s Day! Check out a special playlist that’s all about love and then learn about one of the most famous love stories in music history!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Chopin's Relationship with George Sand

Some are sweet while others are scandalous – this month Clef Notes looks at famous love stories among classical composers. Also be sure to check out a Valentine’s Day playlist that will post on February 14!

Frederic Chopin was known to be a very proper man. It’s likely that this is the reason he was initially turned off by Aurore Dudevant’s pursuits in 1836. Known by her pen name, George Sand, Dudevant was a strong woman who was known to smoke cigars, sleep around, and dress in more masculine attire (something not commonly accepted in the nineteenth century). George Sand was persuasive, however, as the pair were lovers no more than two years following their initial meeting.

George Sand
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Chopin and Sand spent nine years together, a period that many may consider to be the peak of the composer’s career. The affair ended as Sand’s two children grew up. The exact reasons are unclear, but it’s likely that tensions existed between Sand, Chopin, and the children due to the dysfunctional nature of the home. Chopin did what he could to love and support the children and when he refused to accept Sand’s mistreatment of her daughter, the relationship was broken off. Just a few years later, he died from the tubercular symptoms he’d been battling for years. It is said that Sand didn’t bother showing up for the funeral.

Frederic Chopin
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Next time, join me as we look at the famous affair between Franz Liszt and Countess Marie d’Agoult. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Unfinished Masterpieces

This month we explored several examples of great classical compositions that were never finished. There are many more examples of works that fit this description. What is your favorite?