5 great stories about great composers

Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert. Detail from a watercolor portrait (1825) by Wilhelm August Rieder. Public domain.

It is quite possible to enjoy or appreciate music, or any other artform, without knowing anything about the person who created it. But in whatever form, art is a human creation.

Real people composed classical music. Real people have personalities, and knowing something about those personalities can put a human face on the music and rescue it from being a mere object.

Enjoy these glimpses into moments in the lives of the people whose music brings so much pleasure.

Franz Schubert

Between March 1811 and October 1828, Schubert wrote more than 600 songs, not to mention symphonies, church music, operas, chamber music, and piano pieces. He averaged 35 songs every year, which amounts to two or three every month. How could he keep track of all that music? He didn’t.

Once he delivered several songs to his friend Michael Vogl. Vogl liked one of them especially, but it was too high for his voice. He transposed it into a more comfortable key and had a professional copyist make a new manuscript.

About two weeks later, when Vogl and Schubert were making music together, Vogl got out his transposed manuscript and sang it to Schubert’s accompaniment. Schubert exclaimed, “That’s a good song. Who wrote it?”

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Wolfgang Mozart

Has anyone else ever been able to compose in a social setting with music and conversation going on around him? On one occasion he was perhaps too dependent on his ability to compose quickly and under pressure.

His Don Giovanni received its first performance in Prague. When Mozart arrived to supervise the rehearsals, he had not yet written the overture. By the end of the dress rehearsal, the night before the premiere, he still hadn’t written it. So he decided to stay up all night and asked his wife Constanza to stay up with him and entertain him.

She made him some punch and told him stories from Arabian Nights and other common story collections. Unfortunately, the punch made him even more tired than he would have ordinarily been at that time of night.

Whenever his wife stopped talking, he began to doze off. Even Mozart could not write music in his sleep. Finally, she suggested that he take a nap and promised to wake him in an hour.

He slept so soundly that she didn’t have the heart to keep her promise. She let him sleep for two hours.  By that time, it was five o’clock in the morning. He finished composing at seven and delivered the score to the copyists.

By the time the copyists finished writing out the parts and passed them out, there was no time for the orchestra to rehearse the overture. So they sight-read it. They must have played it pretty well. One of the members of the orchestra later wrote that the overture roused the audience to great enthusiasm. Mozart turned to the orchestra and said, “Bravo, bravo, gentlemen. That was excellent.”

Gioacchino Rossini

I’ll not follow that story with any of Rossini’s legendary procrastination about writing overtures.

Rossini detested Wagner’s music. He commented at one point that Wagner had lovely moments but dreadful quarter-hours. On another occasion he observed, politely enough, ” One cannot judge Lohengrin from a first hearing, and I certainly do not intend to hear it a second time.”

But what did he really feel about it? In one conversation with a singer, he decided that words were not sufficient to express them. Opening a piano, he sat heavily on the keyboard and said, “There! That’s the music of the future.”

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Anton Bruckner

Bruckner, on the other hand, became incensed if anyone suggested that Wagner was not the greatest living composer. Some of his students hailed Bruckner himself as the greatest, and even that offended him. But they had prepared a joke on him and replied that even his dog knew that Bruckner’s music was better than Wagner’s.

While he had been out to lunch, one of them had played a piece by Wagner while the others chased the dog around the room and treated him roughly. But while the one student played a passage from Bruckner’s Te Deum, they gave the dog treats.

So naturally when they told him the dog liked his music better than Wagner’s, the dog howled and ran from the room at the sound of Wagner, but bounded back in and pawed expectantly at the student’s sleeves as soon as it heard the Te Deum. Surely it didn’t take Bruckner long to figure out what his students had done, but he found the demonstration very gratifying nonetheless.

Gustav Mahler

One day one of Mahler’s friends noticed that he looked sad. Mahler said he had just learned that his father was ill. The next day, the friend saw Mahler running down the street sobbing loudly. The friend wondered if something had happened to his father. The distraught Mahler sobbed, “Worse, worse, much worse. The very worst has happened. The Master has died.” News of Richard Wagner’s death had just reached Vienna.

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I hope you find reading about composers enjoyable, but probably the only reason you care is that you love listening to their music even more.

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