Category Archives: Composers

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

Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ and why you should listen to it

One of the most familiar pieces of early 18th century music (and perhaps classical music in general) is Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

But what makes it so memorable and significant? As teacher Betsy Schwarm notes in the Ted-Ed video “Why should you listen to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’?”, part of its allure and importance lies in its use of programmatic elements.

Schwarm points out a few of the components of musical imagery that Vivaldi portrays in the piece:

• Spring — birds welcome spring with a happy song,  a thunderstorm, followed by more birds (wet and frightened from the rain).
• Summer — a singing turtledove and a hailstorm.
• Autumn — hunters dashing about in search of prey.
• Winter — teeth-chattering cold, taking refuge by a crackling fire, and back out into the storm.

Watch the Ted-Ed video below to learn more about the underlying musical narrative in “The Four Seasons,” and see the entire lesson on Ted-Ed’s website.

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

Composer Corner: Copland

July’s composer of the month is Aaron Copland.


Born: November 14, 1900

Died: December 2, 1990


Five facts:

• Copland’s first piano teacher was his older sister, Laurine.
• When the composer was 11 years old, he wrote his first melody — seven bars of an opera called Zenatello.
• He was awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for his ballet, Appalachian Spring.
• Copland was also a respected film composer, scoring titles such as The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men, and The Heiress (which earned him the 1950 Academy Award for Best Music).
• In 1921, Copland sailed to France and studied with renowned composition teacher, Nadia Boulanger. He was initially skeptical of studying with a woman, but over time he developed a tremendous amount of respect for her, calling her an “intellectual Amazon” and describing his introduction to Boulanger as “the most important musical event of his life.”


Three important works:

• Rodeo (1942)
• Fanfare of the Common Man (1942)
• Appalachian Spring (1944)


Audio Backpack playlist: Aaron Copland

Composer Corner: Wagner

May’s composer of the month is Richard Wagner.


Born: May 22, 1813

Died: February 13, 1883


Five facts:

• As a child, Wagner had little interest or aptitude for music, and was the only one of his siblings to not take piano lessons.
• Wagner’s first completed opera, Die Feen, wasn’t premiered until 1888 — five years after the composer’s death.
• Wagner popularized the concept of leitmotifs — themes associated with a particular person, place or idea — which later became the foundation of film scores.
• Wagner has a controversial reputation as a composer, primarily due to his association with Nazism. It is alleged that Hitler once said, “Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner.”
• The composer had a love of animals (he was particularly devoted to his dogs) and swore off eating meat toward the end of his life.


Three important works:

• Die Walküre (1854)
• Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1867)
• Götterdämmerung (1869)


Audio Backpack playlist: Richard Wagner

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Life in Three Minutes

Johann Sebastian Bach at the organ (Wikimedia Commons)
Johann Sebastian Bach at the organ (Wikimedia Commons)

On this date (March 21) in 1685, in Eisenach, Thuringia, Germany, one of the greatest Western composers of all time was born — Johann Sebastian Bach.

In this ‘mini-biography’ courtesy of Biography, you can learn a lot about the famous Baroque master in just three minutes!

Watch the video below, and for further learning, visit Ted-Ed for a brief lesson on Bach.

Related Links

Audio Backpack playlist — Bach Keyboard Works

The curiously elusive date of Bach’s birthday

Collaboration between Mozart and Salieri discovered

Mozart and Salieri
Mozart and Salieri

Milos Forman’s Academy Award-winning film Amadeus (based on the Peter Schaffer play) depicts Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri as fierce rivals. It even suggests that Salieri may have played a role in Mozart’s early death at 35.

Scholars have long dismissed stories of the two composers being archenemies — and the discovery of a long-lost 1785 composition demonstrates that they even collaborated.

“We all know the picture drawn by the movie, Amadeus. It is false,” said Ulrich Leisinger of the Mozarteum Foundation Salzburg. “Salieri did not poison Mozart, but they both worked in Vienna and were competitors.”

The work was discovered in November by German composer and musicologist Timo Jouko Herrmann, who found it in the catalog of the Czech Museum of Music while searching for pieces by Salieri’s students. It’s titled Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia (For the recovered health of Ophelia), and celebrates English soprano Nancy Storace, who performed works by both composers.

“Here we have a short, not great, piece by Mozart, but at least something that really sheds new light on his daily life as an opera composer in Vienna,” Leisinger said.

It was performed earlier today at the museum, and it’s unclear whether or not the piece has ever been performed publicly.

“To hear a joint piece by Mozart and Salieri … lost for more than 200 years, is an amazing experience,” Czech National Museum director, Michal Lukes, said.

The video below is edited from the film, Amadeus:

Teaching Kids to Compose

Sculpture of Mozart in Salzburg (Viator | Flickr)
Sculpture of Mozart in Salzburg (Viator | Flickr Creative Commons)

Music composition can be one of the most inspirational and enjoyable activities to teach, but it is often neglected in music classes. With the pressure of preparing students for performances, those standards that aren’t on display to the public can become a lower priority. Personally, I also struggle with feeling less qualified to teach composition than the other standards. I’ve taken countless instrument lessons, I perform regularly, and I’ve taken classes to learn the history of the music that I play and how to analyze it. Yet, like most of us who chose any musical path other than a composition major, I managed to get through my many years of music education writing almost no music myself. Despite and because of this flaw in my own training, I’m doing what I can to make composition accessible to even my youngest students. Here is some of what I’ve learned through teaching my elementary students to write music.

Composing at All Levels

Composition can and should be taught at all levels. Even students who haven’t started reading yet can use graphic notation to communicate their musical ideas. Primary students’ compositions might include only a single musical element, such as a curving line to indicate pitch, while older students with more extensive training could write music in standard notation that includes pitch, rhythm, and expression markings.

Exploring Composition Tools

Guide students to explore the tools of composition — pitch, rhythm, dynamics, tempo, etc. — through improvisation before they start writing down their ideas. For example, my third graders have been improvising on bells to familiarize themselves with a pentatonic scale before using it in their compositions. Students can quickly begin to hear the relationships between notes and identify what sounds “good.” The same kind of exploration can be used to gain familiarity with rhythms, chord progressions, etc.

Composing in Many Ways

When I’ve asked composer friends what they would recommend to my young music students, they give a variety of answers. Many stress the importance of learning harmonic progressions to drive composition. Others recommend starting with a melody. When teaching composition in standard notation, I often have students begin with a rhythm as a simple way to start writing. I find it useful to guide young first-time composers by using a step-by-step method that adds only one or two musical elements at a time, building their confidence by not overwhelming them. The wider the variety of approaches to composition that we can teach, the better.

Making Meaningful Musical Decisions

It’s not hard to write a bunch of notes and rhythms on a staff, but students need to be taught to make purposeful and musical decisions in their composing. They need to have an understanding of what melody notes sound good with a V chord, why the tonic makes a good ending note, where it’s appropriate to add a crescendo. A technical understanding of music and notation is useful for a composer, but the musical understanding is what makes creative expression possible.

Writing Small Compositions

Small compositions can be used to enrich content being taught in any music curriculum. Using short composition exercises focusing on the specific concepts being studied can ease students into writing music. If students are using composition to show their understanding of concepts, it won’t be difficult to move to using those concepts to write compositions.

Learning about Composers

It takes years of practice and study to build a repertoire of compositional tools. In the meantime, young students can learn about more complex composition by studying a variety of composers. My students have been studying a few composers in depth this school year. After learning about these composers’ works, students are able to reflect on specific compositional techniques, their purposes, and their effectiveness. Students are also able to form their own opinions about what they like and dislike in the music music they’ve studied, helping them make their own compositional decisions.

Meeting Composers

Be sure to remind students that not all composers are dead! I find opportunities to invite composers to be a part of my music classes, through commissioning new pieces for my students to perform, emailing students’ questions to composers, or inviting composers to visit our classroom. It’s easy to think of writing music as something elite, unattainable, and in the past if kids only see composers who wear powdered wigs and funny, old-fashioned clothes. It’s important for students to meet composers who are regular, living people of all different backgrounds, just like them.

Just like performance, composition is a skill that should be accessible to all students, no matter what their age, level, or background. Writing music can enrich any music curriculum and might be the spark that motivates students to continue creating music outside of our classrooms.

Maia Hamann currently teaches music at Holdingford Elementary, grades K-5. You can read all of her blog posts here. View our entire portfolio of educational resources on our Music for Learning page.