The close relationships of well known composers
If playing music conjures up images of isolation, whether in the practice room or on stage, then the enjoyment of music evokes companionship. Thus, it is hardly surprising that many musicians and composers have developed close relationships. Some composers saw each other on a regular basis. Joseph Haydn, for example, composer of over one hundred symphonies and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, creator of many divine piano concertos, enjoyed a deep and lasting friendship despite their age difference. The flamboyant Franz Liszt and the more reserved Frédéric Chopin met on a number of occasions. Liszt was also a fervent admirer of Richard Wagner (composer of the Siegfried Idyll) and the two spent many hours together. Their graves lie side by side.
A web of influences
Sometimes friendship leads to love and marriage, as in the case of Robert and Clara Schumann – both composers, though Clara really made her name as a concert pianist. In their joint diary, they shared both emotional and musical thoughts. More than a century later, Canadian composer R.Murray Schafer, in his composition Adieu Robert Schumann, portrayed Robert’s tragic descent into madness as if the process were being recounted by Clara. Among the composers who moved in the Schumann’s circle were Felix Mendelssohn, godfather to one of Schumann’s children and composer of the Scottish Symphony (No. 3), and Johannes Brahms, whose First Symphony was so highly regarded that it was dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth.”
Further back in time we find other musical associations. Georg Philipp Telemann (composer of a Viola Concerto) and George Frideric Handel (Music for the Royal Fireworks) were friends. In 1704, the former founded the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. Years later (1729-1739), it was directed by Johann Sebastian Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No. 5). Members of this informal group of amateur musicians met each week either outdoors or at one of the city’s coffee houses, especially Zimmermann’s.
Franz Schubert also frequented cafés of his native Vienna and heard his works played by the musicians he met there. Within an environment that approaches that of today’s jam sessions (well-known to jazz musicians) twenty or so participants convened at Schubertiades to read through the composer’s latest works, which were chosen more or less on the basis of whatever singers and instrumentalists happened to be on hand at the moment. It was likely under such circumstances that the Rondo in A Major for violin and strings was first heard.
Using already-existing themes
Musical associations sometimes transcend centuries. Composers may pay tribute to the past by using themes written long ago in newly-composed works. In most cases, a theme is presented in its original form, then subjected to a series of variations in which the theme is modified or transformed in various ways. The melodic outline, rhythm, tempo, key, choice of instruments or harmony (the chordal accompaniment) may be altered. The finale of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (No. 3) provides a fine example of how theme-and-variation form works. Paul Hindemith did something similar in his Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, where he truly “metamorphosed” a different theme in each of the four movements right from the beginning and in ways that made it difficult to recognize those themes.
Some composers have even used their own names or those of friends to create themes. Bach was perhaps the first to do this, using the four letters of his family name (B – A – C – H) to impart a unique touch to some of his compositions, notably in some of the cantatas and in The Art of Fugue. (Note that our letter “B” corresponds to B-flat in German while “H” corresponds to B-natural.)
In the Classroom...