Category Archives: Composer Corner

Composer Corner: Schumann

Robert Schumann (Joseph Kriehuber/Wikimedia Commons)

June’s composer of the month is Robert Schumann.


Born: June 8, 1810

Died: July 29, 1856


Five facts:

• Schumann’s first known work was a piece for piano, written in 1830.
• In an effort to be a better piano player, he built a device from a cigar box and wire that was meant to strengthen his fingers. Instead, he permanently damaged two fingers on his right hand.
• Schumann married Clara Wieck — also a composer — in 1840.
• The year he and Clara were married was also his most prolific, by far. Most of his known work for solo voice (nearly 168 songs!) was composed between February and December of 1840.
• In 1854, he tried to take his own life, and spent his last two years in an institution.


Three important works:
• Carnaval (1835)
• Dichterliebe (1840)
• Symphony No. 1 in B-flat (1841)


Audio Backpack playlist: Robert Schumann

Composer Corner: Brahms

May’s composer of the month is Johannes Brahms.


Born: May 7, 1833

Died: April 3, 1897


Five facts:

• As a young man, Brahms was required to play piano in area dance halls, inns, and brothels to make money for his family, as they were very poor.
• The composer began writing his First Symphony in 1854, but it wasn’t premiered until November of 1876.
• When Robert Schumann died in 1856, Brahms went to be with Schumann’s wife, Clara. It’s unclear what sort of relationship they had (though apparently, they destroyed a number of letters to each other, possibly hiding any evidence of a romantic relationship). While Brahms was engaged for a short time, he never married.
• Brahms attempted to retire from composing in 1890. It didn’t take. He went on to write a clarinet trio, a clarinet quintet, two clarinet sonatas, a number of song cycles for piano, and the Eleven Chorale Preludes for Organ.
• The last time Brahms appeared in public was March 3, 1897, at a performance of his Fourth Symphony (the piece received a standing ovation after each movement). He died exactly one month later at the age of 63.


Three important works:
• Variations on a Theme by Haydn (1873)
• Symphony No. 3 (1883)
• Clarinet Quintet (1891)


Audio Backpack playlist: Johannes Brahms

Composer Corner: Prokofiev

April’s composer of the month is Sergei Prokofiev.


Born: April 23, 1891

Died: March 5, 1953


Five facts:

• Prokofiev was a child prodigy, composing his first piano piece at age five and his first opera at nine.
• He was an accomplished chess player, beating future world champion José Raúl Capablanca in 1914 (and later defeating fellow composer Maurice Ravel).
• In 1917, he composed his first symphony, the “Classical” Symphony, written (according to Prokofiev) “in the style that Haydn would have used if he had been alive.”
• He wrote Peter and the Wolf for the Moscow Children’s Musical Theater, and did so in less than two weeks.
• Prokofiev died on March 5, 1953, the same day that the death Joseph Stalin was announced. For three days, it was impossible to remove Prokofiev’s body from his home because of the throngs of people gathering to mourn Stalin.


Three important works:
• Symphony No. 1 in D major (1917)
• Piano Concerto No. 3 (1921)
• Peter and the Wolf (1936)


Audio Backpack playlist: Sergei Prokofiev

Composer Corner: Chopin

March’s composer of the month is Frédéric Chopin.


Born: March 1, 1810

Died: Oct. 17, 1849


Five facts:

• Chopin was already composing at age six, and performed his first concerto at age eight.
• As a child, he would play in the dark, blowing out the candles before sitting down to play. Even later in life, when playing at parties he would often ask that the lights be extinguished.
• When he was 15, Chopin played piano for the Tzar of Russia. The Tzar was so impressed, he gave the young Chopin a diamond ring.
• The pianist/composer arrived in Paris in 1831, never returning to Poland. While he was there he made friends with composers like Liszt, Berlioz, and Mendelssohn.
• Chopin’s body is buried in Paris, but his heart is buried in Warsaw.


Three important works:
• Nocturne No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 (1831)
• Prelude Op. 28, No. 15 in D-flat Major (1838)
• Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35 (1839)


Audio Backpack playlist: Frédéric Chopin

Composer Corner: Adams

February’s composer of the month is John Adams.


Born: Feb. 15, 1947


Five facts:

• Adams is widely considered to be the most-performed living American composer.
• Now and then, you can find Adams — a baseball fan — attending an Oakland A’s game.
• His 1985 work Harmonielehre was inspired by a dream of an oil tanker leaving San Francisco Bay, and by a theory-of-harmony book written by Arnold Schoenberg.
• The composer’s Chamber Symphony draws inspiration from Schoenberg, as well as Ren & Stimpy cartoons.
• He won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003 for his work, On the Transmigration of Souls, which commemorated the attacks of September 11.


Three important works:

• Harmonielehre (1985)
• Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986)
• Nixon in China (1987)


Audio Backpack playlist: John Adams

Composer Corner: Poulenc

January’s composer of the month is Francois Poulenc.


Born: Jan 7, 1899

Died: Jan 30, 1963


Five facts:

• Poulenc was born into a rich family of pharmaceutical manufacturers.
• At a time when he was relatively unknown as a composer, he was asked to write “Les Biches” by the great Serge Diaghilev.
• Along with Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, and Darius Milhaud, Poulenc was a member of “Les Six” — a group of six French composers who worked in Paris in the 20th century.
• Poulenc was also an acclaimed pianist, and became an accompanist for Frenchman Pierre Bernac (for whom he also composed a number of songs).
• In 1950, a critic named Claude Rostand referred to Poulenc as “half monk, half thug” — a phrase often used to describe the composer.


Three important works:

• Mouvements perpétuels (1918)
• Les Biches (1924)
• Sextet (1931-32)


Audio Backpack playlist: Francois Poulenc

Composer Corner: Berlioz

December’s composer of the month is Hector Berlioz


Born: Dec. 11, 1803

Died: Mar. 8, 1869


Five facts:

• The composer’s father (a respected physician) wanted Hector to study medicine. He studied for a couple years but hated it — much to his father’s dismay — and began to study music. One of the final “straws that broke the camel’s back” was an anatomy class during which Hector decided he’d had enough and leapt out a window.
• It is believed that Berlioz composed Symphony fantastique (at least a part of it) under the influence of opium. Leonard Bernstein once said, “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”
• Niccolo Paganini commissioned a viola concerto from Berlioz, but the initial sketches weren’t difficult enough (and there were too many resting measures) for the violist. Those sketches eventually became Harold en Italie.
• Fellow French composers had strong opinions on Berlioz. Ravel said he was “a musician of great genius and little talent,” while Debussy called him “a monster.”
• His Grande Messe des morts (Requiem) is scored for a huge collection of over 400 performers, including singers and four brass bands. In the score, he noted, “if space permits, the chorus may be doubled or tripled, and the orchestra be proportionally increased.”


Three important works:

• Symphonie fantastique (1830)
• Grande Messe des morts (1837)
• Le carnaval romain (1844)


Audio Backpack playlist: Hector Berlioz

Composer Corner: von Bingen

November’s composer of the month is Hildegard von Bingen.


Born: 1098

Died: Sept. 17, 1179


Five facts:

• Von Bingen was born the 10th child to a noble family. As was custom at the time, she was dedicated to the church at birth. She became a nun at age 18.
• She was known for having visions, claiming that she first saw “The Shade of the Living Light” at age three.
• Hildegard was incredibly prolific. In her life, she wrote nine books, 70 poems, 72 songs, and even a play.
• Von Bingen was sick for much of her life (it was believed she suffered from severe migraines), but she lived to the age of 81.
• She was formally declared a saint by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. Her feast day is celebrated on Sept. 17.


Three important works:

• Laus Trinitati
• O viridissima virga
• O ignee spiritus


Audio Backpack playlist: Hildegard von Bingen

Composer Corner: Reich

October’s composer of the month is Steve Reich.


Born: October 3, 1936


Five facts:

• Reich’s music was not well-received initially, and he had to work as a taxi driver and social worker to earn a living.
• In 1967, Reich formed a collective ensemble with fellow composer Philip Glass. They also formed a moving company — Chelsea Light Moving.
• Reich was inspired to visit Ghana in 1970 to study with master drummer Gideon Alorwoyie, resulting in his 90-minute work, Drumming.
• Critic Kyle Gann has stated that Reich may be considered “America’s greatest living composer.”
• Steve Reich won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for his Double Sextet.


Three important works:

• Piano Phase (1967)
• Clapping Music (1972)
• Music  for 18 Musicians (1974-76)


Audio Backpack playlist: Steve Reich

Composer Corner: Schoenberg

September’s composer of the month is Arnold Schoenberg.


Born: September 13, 1874

Died: July 13, 1951


Five facts:

• Schoenberg is most famous for ‘discovering’ the 12-tone method of composition, which involved taking the 12 notes of the musical scale and arranging them in a pre-determined order.
• Composer Richard Strauss once said of Schoenberg, “He’d be better off shoveling snow than scribbling on manuscript paper.”
• In the 1930s, Schoenberg fled Nazi Germany for a teaching job in Los Angeles, where he spent the rest of his life.
• The composer suffered from triskaidekaphobia — fear of the number 13. Ironically, he died on Friday the 13th, 1951.
• Before dying, his last words were “Harmony! Harmony! Harmony!”

Three important works:

• String Quartet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 7 (1905)
• Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11 (1909)
• Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912)

Audio Backpack playlist: Arnold Schoenberg