Jay Althouse

By Jay Althouse

We sometimes forget that the great composers, whose music we know and love, were living, breathing people who led normal lives beyond their music. Well sometimes, as in the case of Beethoven, not so normal. After all, it’s difficult to be normal when you’re a genius. But just like the rest of us, composers had parents, went to school, grew up, sometimes married, and sometimes had children. (Bach had more than 20!) Their lives were filled sometimes with joy and sometimes with sorrow. Some, such as Giuseppe Verdi, achieved great financial success musically, while others, such as Charles Ives, rarely heard their music performed during their lifetimes.

For example, did you know that . . .

  • Hector Berlioz studied to become a doctor. Igor Stravinsky and George Frideric Handel studied law.
  • Charles Ives was a very successful insurance agent, and Antonio Vivaldi was a Catholic priest.
  • After studying music in college and in Europe, Aaron Copland worked as a piano player at a resort hotel.
  • As a teenager, Duke Ellington received a scholarship to study art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
  • Franz Liszt was the first to use the word recital to describe a musical performance.
  • Much of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was largely forgotten until it was revived, in the 1830s, by Felix Mendelssohn.
  • Giocomo Puccini’s hobbies were fast motorboats and faster cars.
  • Gioacchino Rossini virtually abandoned composing at the age of thirty-seven. He wrote only a few pieces for the last forty years of his life. Franz Schubert, on the other hand, spent so much time composing music that he neglected his health, and lived only until the age of thirty-one.
  • Clara Schumann’s father violently opposed her marriage to Robert Schumann, and at one point threatened to kill Robert!
  • Richard Wagner formed his own fan clubs, which he called “Wagner societies.” Now that’s an ego!

It’s important for students to understand that the great composers were, for the most part, normal people with extraordinary talents. As a teacher, you should take every opportunity to humanize the great composers your students study.

Alfred has two fully reproducible publications (One-Page Composer Bios and Accent on Composers) designed to teach your students about the lives of the great composers. Both books feature one-page biographies and are filled with musical and personal facts about the great composers your students should know. They’re excellent classroom resources for any music teacher.