Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Living in Beethoven's Shadow

Continuing on with our jealousy theme, this week I would like to ponder the relationship between two great Romantic composers: Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert. Twenty-seven years Beethoven’s minor, Schubert grew up in Vienna with obvious knowledge of the elder composer’s great success and contribution to the music world. Establishing an eternal legacy in his ability to reach new heights in composition, Beethoven created somewhat of a “shadow” for those composers to follow in coming years. Like many, Schubert believed that in order to be successful, he must attempt to say something new within the forms Beethoven had already established. The young composer visited Beethoven on several occasions, requesting that this gifted man give him advice related to his work.

Though we may look at Schubert as a pillar in our musical canon, during his lifetime, he never quite saw the extent of his success that really blossomed many years following his death. Even the poet Goethe, whom Schubert held in high regard, ignored the poor composer’s settings of his poetry until after he had passed away.

On March 26, 1827, Schubert’s works were performed in a private concert. Though people seemed to enjoy his work, the great Beethoven breathed his last that very day, most likely turning many eyes away from the aspiring composer. Schubert was then asked to bear a torch at Beethoven’s funeral. Did Schubert perhaps feel tinges of jealousy toward Beethoven? Or did he simply aspire to learn from his greatness and carve his own musical path? This we do not know for certain but it does seem evident that Schubert suffered a rather unfortunate life, never living to see how great his work would become.

Schubert died only two years following Beethoven at the young age of 31. Ironically, he was laid to rest beside Beethoven in a Vienna graveyard. Does this signify Schubert as Beethoven’s equal? Or perhaps as a means of reminding him that he will forever remain in the shadows?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Mozart, Salieri, and Pop Culture

The Mozart/Salieri rivalry mentioned last time and the false rumors that Salieri poisoned Mozart inspired many creative works in years to come, thus causing more people to believe the over-exaggerated story. One example includes Alexander Pushkin’s 1830 play, Mozart and Salieri. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote an opera based on this play in 1897.

The more popular influence from these historical rumors occurred in the 1984 film Amadeus. The film begins with the elderly Salieri housed in an insane asylum, confessing his sins in relation to the deceased Mozart. The story is a tale of jealousy and hatred, again over-exaggerating the rivalry for which historians do not have a strong foundation.

Can you think of other occurrences of the Mozart/Salieri relationship within pop culture? 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Mozart/Salieri Rivalry

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri: Two superb 18th-century composers based in Vienna. Most people know Mozart’s name, but what about Salieri? His name has been clouded over time by rumors related to his competitive relationship with Mozart. Is there truth amongst these rumors? Or has history exaggerated the story, thus harming Salieri’s reputation?

Similar to artists today, Mozart and Salieri were competitors within the music realm. Salieri worked as the Kapellmeister for Emperor Joseph II. Believing he was better qualified for the post, Mozart applied for the job following the emperor’s death. He was astounded when they turned him away. As to be expected, the two men’s paths crossed as they composed in similar mediums vying for public approval. Though Salieri admitted to close friends in confidence that he did not like his competitor or his work, he never wanted to make his sentiments known as to avoid attracting attention. Historians also note that Salieri grew bitter toward Mozart with age as his works continued to gain fame following his premature death. Despite these supposed negative reactions toward Mozart, did Salieri perhaps have a deeper respect for his rival’s talents? Following Mozart’s death, Franz Xaver Niemetschek quoted Salieri in his Mozart biography: “It is indeed sad, the loss of so great a genius; but well for us that he is dead. For had he lived longer, verily, the world would not have given us another bit of bread for our compositions!” Perhaps Salieri revered Mozart but feared his ability would soon drown out his contemporaries’ work in the public eye.

What seems a relatively harmless rivalry between Mozart and Salieri started what became a gruesome rumor that many people still believe today. Not long after Mozart’s death, people began to gossip that Salieri killed Mozart with poison due to jealousy. Historians now know that evidence proves that the great composer actually died at a young age as a result of acute rheumatic fever, an ailment he suffered multiple times throughout his life before it ultimately proved fatal. Despite the inaccuracy of the rumors, most people remember Salieri as Mozart’s enemy rather than associating him with his own work.

Do you tend to have less interest when Salieri comes on the radio because of these exaggerated stories passed through history?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique

Last time we discussed Berlioz’s failed love affair with Camille Marie Moke. The young composer also had eyes for the actress Harriet Smithson, whom he first saw perform in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Again, he allowed his emotions to get the best of him, only this time his passion turned into what became a symphonic work still enjoyed by audiences today.

Despite his numerous love letters to Harriet, the actress seemed uninterested, likely due to the fact that they had never met. Desperate for attention, Berlioz poured his emotion into a new composition using Harriet as the inspiration. Symphonie fantastique contains a theme referred to as the idee fixe that represents the object of Berlioz’s love: Harriet Smithson. Throughout this five-movement work, this theme transforms in various ways in order to best express the various feelings the composer felt toward the young girl.

The first movement contains the idee fixe surrounded by musical figures that depict the beating of Berlioz’s heart as he notices his lover. The second movement transforms the idee fixe into a waltz as the composer goes to a ball and watches his love from afar. The third movement, “In the Country,” continues the story of Berlioz’s obsession as he walks through the country dreaming of the woman for whom he longs. After the composer realizes that his love is not returned, he dreams of his own execution during the fourth movement. Only the opening of the idee fixe appears before he is guillotined and the audience can hear his head drop to the ground. The final movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” distorts the idee fixe and combines it with the Dies irae theme from the Mass for the Dead as the composer dreams that his beloved appears at his funeral as a witch.

The best part of this fun piece is that it won over Berlioz’s beloved actress. Smithson joined Berlioz in marriage in 1833. Though happy at first, the marriage quickly declined and the couple eventually separated.

Listen here to Symphonie fantastique and let me know how your affections are moved after hearing this story and listening to Berlioz’s famous piece.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Passionate Love of Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz: a man who loved passionately but failed miserably when it came to his choice in women. In honor of Valentine’s Day, let’s spend this week looking at the crazy love affairs of this famous, romantic composer.
One of my favorite stories from Berlioz’s life comes from his memoirs. While working as a guitar teacher at a girl’s boarding school, Berlioz met a young piano teacher named Camille Marie Moke, who worked at the same school. Miss Moke offered herself as a lovely distraction to Berlioz as he attempted to move on from a woman who refused to pay him notice. In his memoirs Berlioz describes the relationship in his usual passionate language:

“If I were to describe the whole affair and the incredible incidents of every kind that it gave rise to, the reader would no doubt be entertained in an unexpected and interesting fashion. But, as I have stated before, I am not writing confessions. Suffice it to say that Mlle M--- set my senses on fire till all the devils of hell danced in my veins.”
Not long after this, Berlioz became the distinguished winner of the Prix de Rome, requiring his presence in Italy for designated period. Berlioz requested Camille’s hand in marriage the evening before his departure and she gladly accepted.

After spending some time in Rome, Berlioz began to wonder why he never received letters from his lover. When he discovered that she married the piano maker, Camille Pleyel, he became overcome by rage and passion. Disguising himself as a female maid, he plotted to travel to Paris where he would kill the newlyweds. Prior to reaching his destination, the composer realized the impracticality of his plan, knowing that it would only be successful if he in turn took his own life following the homicide. Discouraged and heartbroken, he returned to Italy.

People do crazy things when they are in love. Our friend Berlioz felt passionate toward multiple ladies. His passion toward another woman, Harriet Smithson, would lead to the creation of one of his most sought-after works. Next time we’ll discuss the love affair behind Symphonie fantastique.   

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Brahms' Correspondence with Clara Schumann

Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann: lovers? What do you think? Though historians do not have solid evidence revealing the nature of their relationship, it seems obvious that the two nineteenth-century composers did care for each other. Countless correspondences show Brahms’ overwhelming passion for Clara, who often times gave him gifts such as a watch chain, coffee set, and her husband’s piano! Brahms was known to be zealous when writing letters, so do his words to Clara have any deeper meaning? Here are a few quotes from his surviving correspondences:

“I love you [Clara] better than myself or than anyone or anything in the world.”
“…through our letters you can make me forget for a little while that you are far away.”
“With all my love and devotion…”
“Ever lovely, lofty Lady…”
“Love me well, as I do you.”
“I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you, and give you as much kindness and goodness as I wish for you. You are so infinitely dear to me that I can’t begin to tell you. I constantly want to call you darling and all kinds of other things, without becoming tired of adoring you. If this goes on, I will eventually have to keep you under glass, or save money to have you gilded.”
“I wish I could be there. And also here. And also have my Clara here.”

Unfortunately many of Clara’s responses no longer exist, leaving a gap in the mystery.
We do have a surviving diary entry written as a letter to her children following Brahms’ departure from the German town where her family resided. In the letter she stated that Brahms meant very much to her and they all would forever be indebted to him for serving their family during Robert’s illness and following his death.

Johannes Brahms remained a bachelor his entire life, admitting that Clara was his best friend following her death in 1896. He died a year later.

Did Johannes and Clara love each other as close friends and musical companions, or did their feelings go deeper? Brahms’ intense enthusiasm cooled a bit following Robert’s death, perhaps because he felt guilty for pursuing his unfortunate friend’s beloved wife. The reality of the relationship, however, will forever remain a mystery.

How does your interest in the music of Johannes Brahms increase after hearing more of his story?

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Pursuit of Clara Schumann

This month I’d like to explore the topic “Behind the Scenes: Jealousy throughout Music History.” Everyone experiences jealousy at some point in life, even our favorite composers. But how did they deal with their jealousy and how does our knowledge of their little “secrets” affect how we listen to their music?

With Valentine’s Day being right around the corner, I thought it would be fun to spend the next few weeks exploring two of my favorite romantic dramas in music history. This week, let’s look at what I like to call “The Clara Schumann Love Affair.”

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.

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? Historians do not know the truth about their relationship but many surviving correspondences do provide interesting details. Join me next time to read excerpts from these letters.