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, Edward Elgar, and George Frideric Handel studied law.
- Charles Ives was a very successful insurance agent.
- Antonio Vivaldi was a Catholic priest.
- As a teenager, Duke Ellington received a scholarship to study art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
- 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.
- Felix Mendelssohn was an excellent painter, artist, and author.
- After the death of Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms fell in love, though never married.
- After graduating from preparatory school, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky became a clerk in the Russian Ministry of Justice.
- Richard Wagner authored several books, including an autobiography. He even formed his own fan clubs, which he called “Wagner Societies.” Now that’s an ego!
- In addition to composing music and directing a band, John Philip Sousa wrote three novels, and autobiography, a music instruction book, and hundreds of magazine articles.
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 Music 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!
As a composer of choral music, Jay Althouse has over 600 works in print for choirs of all levels. He is a member of ASCAP and is a recipient of the ASCAP Special Award for his compositions in the area of standard music. Jay has also co-written several songbooks, musicals, and cantatas with his wife, Sally K. Albrecht, and also compiled and arranged a number of highly regarded vocal solo collections.
Thank you for a wonderful insight into the lives of composers who were trying to determine their career goals. I, personally, wanted to become a mathematics teacher, but I came to realize that I was not too good at that subject. In my early twenties, I began to work on my musical training as piano teacher and organist, and achieved success in these professions.