Leonard Bernstein

“Two things are necessary for great achievement: a plan and not quite enough time.” – Leonard Bernstein

Best known for the musical West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein won seven Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards and sixteen Grammy Awards. He wrote many genres of music, including symphonic, orchestral, ballet, film and theatre music and was the first American-born conductor to lead a major American symphony orchestra. Aside from these achievements, Bernstein was a lifelong humanitarian. He supported civil rights, raised money for HIV and AIDS research, campaigned against the Vietnam War, and more.

Leonard Bernstein was born in Massachusetts on 25th August 1918 to Ukrainian-Jewish parents Jennie and Samuel Bernstein. His birth certificate states his name as Louis, which was his grandmother’s choice, but his parents preferred to call him Leonard. Bernstein legally changed his name to Leonard when he reached adulthood.

Bernstein began learning to play the piano at the age of 10. Whilst he showed considerable talent, Bernstein’s father tried to curb his enthusiasm for the piano by refusing to pay for music lessons. Undeterred, Bernstein began teaching basic piano techniques to other children to earn money to pay for his more advanced studies. Eventually, Bernstein’s father relented and started supporting his son’s music education.

In 1935, Bernstein enrolled on a music course at Harvard University, where he wrote his first voice and piano composition, Psalm 148. Based on the 148th Psalm in the Bible, which begins “Praise ye the Lord from the heavens”, Bernstein was inspired by the music he heard at the synagogue. He also wrote a dissertation called The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music, which demonstrated his support of civil rights. Bernstein graduated from Harvard in 1939.

After finishing his studies at Harvard, Bernstein enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied conducting, piano, orchestration, counterpoint and score reading. During the summer of 1940, Bernstein studied conducting with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director, Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951). Koussevitzky considered Bernstein one of his protégés and gave him a pair of cufflinks that Bernstein allegedly wore at every concert he conducted.

On completing his post-graduate studies, Bernstein moved to New York City, where he taught piano and singing lessons. He also played the piano for dance classes at Carnegie Hall. For extra income, Bernstein transcribed jazz and pop music under the pseudonym “Leonard Amber”. He chose this name because Bernstein is the German word for “amber”.

In 1942, Bernstein produced his first published work, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Bernstein conducted the piece, which lasts about ten minutes, at the Institute of Modern Art in Boston, where critics preferred the piano part over the clarinet. Following these reviews, Bernstein stopped writing for the clarinet for the next seven years.

Bernstein’s first major success in the music world came unexpectedly on 14th November 1943, when he stood in for Bruno Walter as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. With not much time to prepare, Bernstein conducted the orchestra through pieces by Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss and Robert Schumann and found himself on the front page of The New York Times the following day. The editorial declared, “It’s a good American success story. The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread far over the air waves,” and Bernstein’s fame quickly spread across the country. For the next two years, Bernstein became one of the most sought after conductors in the United States and Canada.

In January 1944, Bernstein premiered his first symphony, Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Following the story of the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, the symphony features verses from the Book of Lamentations sung by a mezzo-soprano. It was rated the best American work of 1944 by the New York Music Critics’ Circle.

A few months after the premiere of Jeremiah, Bernstein’s first ballet collaboration, Fancy Free, was shown at the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Bernstein wrote the score, and Jerome Robbins (1918-98) choreographed the dances to tell the story of three American sailors on a 24-hour leave in New York City during the Second World War. Following its success, Bernstein and Robbins chose to develop it into a musical called On the Town. It first appeared on Broadway in 1944 and became a film in 1949, starring Gene Kelly (1912-96), Frank Sinatra (1915-98), and Jules Munshin (1915-70) as the three sailors.

Bernstein flourished as a conductor during the latter half of the 1940s. From 1945 to 1947, Bernstein was the music director of the New York City Symphony orchestra. He also conducted performances abroad, such as the Czech Philharmonic in Prague and the 1946 European premiere of Fancy Free with the Ballet Theatre at the Royal Opera House in London.

In 1947, Bernstein flew to Israel to conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Tel Aviv. He returned several times during his career for concerts, including recordings of his symphonies. In 1949, back in the United States, Bernstein made his first television debut as the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall for the first anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Bernstein completed his second symphony in 1949, titled The Age of Anxiety after W. H. Auden’s (1907-73) poem of the same name. Rather than conducting the premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bernstein played the solo piano sections. The music has since been used for three ballets, the first choreographed by Jerome Robbins.

The 1950s were, without doubt, the busiest period of Bernstein’s career. In 1950, he composed music for a Broadway production of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and the following year composed the opera Trouble in Tahiti. Bernstein wrote the music and libretto while on his honeymoon with Felicia Montealegre (1922-78), who he married on 10th September 1951 and had three children, Jamie, Alexander and Nina.

In 1953, Bernstein wrote the music for Wonderful Town, a musical based on My Sister Eileen, a set of autobiographical short stories by Ruth McKenney (1911-72). The show won the Tony Award for Best Musical.

Bernstein’s next work was the operetta-style musical Candide, based on the 1759 novella of the same name by Voltaire (1694-1778). Bernstein wrote the lyrics to a couple of songs, but the others were written by a selection of lyricists, including Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) and Lillian Hellman (1905-84). Bernstein also worked with Sondheim on his next project, West Side Story.

Sondheim and Bernstein worked alongside Jerome Robbins, who won the 1958 Tony Award for choreography, on a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in the 1950s. Robbins initially had the idea for a story in 1949 about a conflict between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Unfortunately, the project, titled East Side Story, merely echoed similar anti-Semitic plays, so the musical was put on hold.

Arthur Laurents (1917-2011), who worked on the book for East Side Story, met with Bernstein a few years later and discussed taking another look at the musical. Bernstein suggested changing the families to Mexicans and Californians, but Laurents admitted he knew more about the rivalry between Puerto Ricans and New Yorkers. So, the musical was renamed West Side Story and moved to Harlem, New York. After persuading Sondheim and Robbins to come back on board, the production was soon underway.

On 26th September 1957, West Side Story premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. The Seattle Times noted Bernstein’s score blended “jazz, Latin rhythms, symphonic sweep and musical-comedy conventions in groundbreaking ways for Broadway.” Several popular songs feature in the musical, including Maria, Tonight, America, I Feel Pretty and Somewhere. In 1961, Jerome Robbin rechoreographed the dances for the film version, which won 10 Academy Awards, the most any musical film has won to date. In December 2021, a remake by Steven Spielberg (b. 1946) was released, starring Ansel Elgort (b.1994) and Rachel Zegler (b.2001) as the leading characters.

Whilst working on Candide and West Side Story, Bernstein simultaneously worked on other projects, including the score to the film On The Waterfront (1954). He also became the first American to appear at La Scala in Milan, where he conducted the likes of Maria Callas (1923-77) in the comic-opera Médée by Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842).

In 1957, Bernstein became the music director of the New York Philharmonic, a position he kept until 1969 when he was appointed “Laureate Conductor”. During his time as director, Bernstein brought the Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic onto television screens for the first time. The concerts date to 1885 when conductor Theodore Thomas (1835-1905) established family-friendly weekend matinees. Bernstein made the concerts accessible to many more people by televising the concerts. The first concert aired on 18th January 1958 and continued until 1972.

Throughout the 1960s, Bernstein focused on working with the New York Philharmonic. He introduced lesser-played composers, particularly Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), an Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer. In 1960, Bernstein made the first commercial recording of Mahler’s 4th symphony and started giving a combination of concert performances and television talks about the composer. About Mahler’s work, Bernstein said he “showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equalled since.” Mahler’s widow, Alma (1879-1964), occasionally attended the rehearsals, much to Bernstein’s delight.

In 1961, Bernstein conducted at President John F. Kennedy’s (1917-63) pre-inaugural gala. Unfortunately, he also conducted a memorial concert following the President’s assassination in 1963. At the latter, the orchestra performed Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, which has since become part of the Philharmonic’s repertoire for national mourning.

Following JFK’s assassination, Bernstein composed his third symphony, Kaddish, and dedicated it to the late president. A Kaddish is a prayer that features in Jewish services for the dead. The symphony begins with an Aramaic recitation of the Kaddish before becoming a powerful narrative that confronts God, expresses anger and grief, and eventually starts to come to terms with the situation.

Realising he wanted more time to concentrate on composing music, Bernstein made the difficult decision to step down as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, although he continued to conduct and tour with the orchestra. The decision gave Bernstein the opportunity to work with other orchestras, such as the Vienna Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra.

In 1970, Bernstein wrote and narrated Beethoven’s Birthday: A Celebration in Vienna, an Emmy-winning television show to celebrate the composer’s 200th birthday. The show included brief performances of the opera Fidelio, Bernstein playing Beethoven’s 1st piano concerto, and Bernstein conducting the Ninth Symphony.

Bernstein’s composition work during the 1970s included a Mass commissioned by Jackie Kennedy (1929-94) and the score for the ballet Dybbuk. The Mass combined elements of musical theatre, jazz, gospel, folk, rock, and symphonic music. The libretto featured religious liturgy and Hebrew prayers, which the Catholic church criticised for having an anti-Vietnam War message.

In 1978, Bernstein’s wife passed away from lung cancer, prompting him to establish the Felicia Montealegre Bernstein Fund of Amnesty International USA. Two years earlier, Bernstein took part in an Amnesty International Benefit Concert in Munich, which fuelled in him a passion to help human rights activists. The fund helped raise money to help activists with limited access to resources.

Thirty-two years after the premiere of Bernstein’s opera Trouble in Tahiti, he produced its sequel, A Quiet Place. Although it did not receive as many accolades, Bernstein’s international fame prevented it from being a flop. By the 1980s, Bernstein was a celebrated composer and conductor and received invitations to attend and partake in concerts all over the world. On Christmas day in 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in East Berlin’s Schauspielhaus in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He reworded the lyrics of the Ode to Joy (An die Freude) chorus to Ode to Freedom (An die Freiheit), believing “Beethoven would have given us his blessing.”

In 1990, Bernstein founded the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan, with the conductor and pianist Michael Tilson Thomas (b. 1944). The festival aimed to educate people in the Pacific about classical music. By this time, Bernstein had developed lung cancer and knew he did not have long to live. He wanted to devote the remainder of his life to education. After receiving the Praemium Imperiale, a prize awarded by the Japan Arts Association for lifetime achievement in the arts, Bernstein used the prize money to establish The Bernstein Education Through the Arts (BETA) Fund, Inc.

Bernstein conducted his final concert on 19th August 1990 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, a music venue he often frequented during his career. His poor health was evident from the coughing fits he suffered on stage, yet he persevered to the very end before leaving during the standing ovation. Whilst this was Bernstein’s last concert, he did not officially retire from conducting until 9th October.

Five days after announcing his retirement, Bernstein passed away after suffering a heart attack brought on by the severity of his lung cancer. Years of smoking had caught up with him, and the United States mourned the loss of the 72-year-old man and his talents. Bernstein was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York, next to his wife. A copy of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, opened to the Adagietto, was placed on his chest.

Whilst Bernstein’s musical achievements are widely known, particularly due to remakes of West Side Story, his political and social actions are often forgotten. His opera, Trouble in Tahiti, criticised upper-class American lifestyles, and he made it his mission to reveal that “American” music was a blend of many foreign influences.

During the 1940s, Bernstein joined various left-wing organisations, earning him a black mark against his name by the US State Department. Fortunately, this did not ruin his career, but many others involved suffered greatly. In the 1950s, Bernstein was accused of being a Communist, yet his musical talents surpassed these accusations, whether true or false.

Bernstein and his wife made the headlines in the 1970s when they hosted an event to raise money for the defence of several members of the Black Panther Party. The BPP was a Marxist-Leninist Black Power political that challenged police brutality, which ironically resulted in physical fights and deaths. Bernstein supported the BPP because it aimed to establish community health clinics for the treatment of diseases, such as sickle cell anaemia, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, the public ridiculed Bernstein’s support of a working-class organisation because he lived in a wealthy neighbourhood.

Whilst Bernstein and his wife appeared to have a happy life with their three children, letters published after Bernstein’s death reveal he was homosexual. Felicia wrote a letter to her husband saying, “You are a homosexual and may never change—you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?” Bernstein’s friends confirmed he conducted affairs with men, but Felicia appeared to accept this. When questioned, Arthur Laurents said Bernstein was “a gay man who got married. He wasn’t conflicted about it at all. He was just gay.”

Bernstein loved his wife and family despite his sexuality. He only left Felicia once to live with another man but returned immediately after hearing about her lung cancer diagnosis. Bernstein nursed and cared for his wife until she passed away on 16th June 1978. He reportedly felt very guilty about her death, and his lifestyle became more excessive, but none of this showed in his professional life.

During his career, Bernstein wrote music for three ballets, three operas, nine musicals, and many orchestral, choral, vocal and piano pieces. He won a total of 16 Grammys, including Best Orchestral Performance (Mahler’s Symphony No. 9), Best Classical Album (Candide) and Best Contemporary Composition. In 1985, Bernstein won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

Bernstein tutored many composers, including John Mauceri (b. 1945), Marin Alsop (b. 1956) and Michael Tilson Thomas, who have worked with orchestras across the world. Unfortunately, he did not take on any students as composers, so his blends of jazz, Jewish music and theatre music remain unique to Bernstein.


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Papa Haydn

Papa Haydn’s dead and gone
  but his memory lingers on.
When his mood was one of bliss
  he wrote jolly tunes like this.

“Papa Haydn” was the affectionate name bestowed on Franz Joseph Haydn, the father of the symphony and the string quartet, by musicians who worked for him. The nickname caught on, and people far and wide adopted the term for the older composer, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). But who was Haydn, other than the composer of over 100 symphonies and over 80 string quartets?

Franz Joseph Haydn, born on 31st March 1732, grew up in the Austrian village Rohrau, where his father, Mathias Haydn (1699-1763) served as Marktrichter or mayor. In his younger years, Mathias learnt to play the harp by ear, although he never learnt how to read music. Haydn’s mother Maria could not read music either, yet Haydn’s childhood was very musical, often singing with his neighbours. 

Haydn’s younger brother Michael (1737-1806) was also musically gifted, and their parents worried the village of Rohrau was not the right place for them to enhance their skills. When Haydn was only six years old, his parents sent him to a relative and schoolmaster called Johann Matthias Frankh in Hainburg. As Frankh’s apprentice, Haydn trained as a musician and never returned to his parents. Haydn learnt to play the harpsichord and violin under Frankh’s tuition but suffered neglect in other ways, such as nourishment and clothing. Fortunately, his passion for singing was his saving grace.

The people of Hainburg heard Haydn singing the treble parts in the church choir and brought him to the attention of the composer Georg von Reutter (1708-72). Reutter was the director of music at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and was on the lookout for fresh talent. After several months of training, Haydn moved to the Kapellhaus in Vienna with Reutter where he worked as a chorister for nine years. His brother Michael joined him there in 1745.

Joseph, Michael and the other choirboys received an academic education as well as voice, violin, and keyboard lessons. The tuition lacked musical theory and composition, but Haydn picked up some of this knowledge through practice and performance. St. Stephen’s Cathedral was a leading European music centre and attracted large aristocratic audiences for whom Haydn and the other boys performed.

As Haydn got older, his voice changed, making him unsuitable for Reutter’s choir. He also had a reputation as a practical joker and, after going one joke too far, was caned and dismissed from the school in 1745. With the help of a friend, who provided Haydn with accommodation, Haydn started working as a freelance musician. Jobs included working as a music teacher and singing on the streets until 1752 when he found a position as valet-accompanist to the Italian composer Nicola Porpora (1686-1768). With Porpora’s help, Haydn learnt “the true fundamentals of composition”.

Working with Porpora, Haydn realised his education lacked music theory and composition. To rectify this, Haydn worked his way through books by Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) and studied the works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-88). As his skills improved, so did his public reputation, which earned him a commission to write his first opera Der krumme Teufel (The Limping Devil). Whilst it premiered successfully in 1753 critics soon closed it down because of the uncensored “offensive remarks” in the libretto, written by Johann Joseph Felix Kurtz. 

Between 1754 and 56, Haydn returned to freelance work, including for the court in Vienna. He obtained aristocratic patronage, eventually being employed as a Kapellmeister or music director by Count Karl Joseph Morzin. Haydn’s roles included leading the count’s orchestra, for which he composed his first symphonies. In 1760, Haydn had enough money to marry Maria Anna Theresia Keller (1729–1800), the daughter of an organist. Unfortunately, the marriage was an unhappy one.

Count Morzin suffered financial difficulties and had to let Haydn go in 1761. Fortunately, Haydn immediately received a job offer from Prince Paul II Anton Esterházy (1711-62). The Prince employed Haydn as the vice-Kapellmeister of the Esterházy family, although later promoted him to Kapellmeister in 1766. For this position, the family required Haydn to wear livery and accompany them wherever they went, often to cities in Hungary.

As Kapellmeister, Haydn’s tasks included running the orchestra, composing music, performing for patrons and arranging operas. Until 1779, anything Haydn wrote belonged to the Esterházy family, including approximately 90 symphonies, 13 overtures, two dozen string quartets and around 200 works for the baryton. The baryton, a bowed string instrument, was the preferred choice of Prince Nikolaus I Esterházy (1714-1790) who asked Haydn to write compositions for him until 1775 when he switched the baryton for producing operas, many of which were also composed by Haydn.

In 1779, Haydn renegotiated his contract, which allowed him to publish his works and write for other people. Whilst this allowed him to contact and meet with new people, Haydn felt isolated and lonely in the out-of-the-way home of the Esterházy family. He longed to return to Vienna to visit Mozart, who he had the chance to meet in 1784. Haydn was a great admirer of Mozart’s work, and the young composer reciprocated the feeling by dedicating six quartets to Haydn.

After working for the Esterházy family for 30 years, Haydn finally got his wish for freedom after the death of Prince Nikolaus in 1790. Although the prince’s son Anton (1738-94) kept Haydn on, it was at a lower salary, since Anton dismissed most of the court musicians to save money. Having little use for the composer, Anton allowed Haydn to come and go as he pleased.

German violinist Johann Peter Salomon (1745-1815) invited Haydn to join him on a trip to London, which he readily accepted. Despite never having been to England, Haydn’s works were well-known in the British capital, and Haydn was eager to compose and conduct new symphonies with their large orchestras. After a brief visit to Vienna, where Haydn reunited with Mozart, Salomon and Haydn travelled to Calais, France, via Germany, where he met the young Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Haydn promised that on his return, he would take Beethoven with him to Vienna as his student.

Haydn and Salomon crossed the English Channel on New Year’s Day, 1791 and settled in London. Crowds flocked to see Haydn in concerts where he both performed and conducted. One critic remarked, “Haydn himself presided at the piano-forte; and the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever been caused by instrumental music in England.” As well as his well-known works, Haydn performed new symphonies, most notably Surprise (No. 94), Military (No. 100), Drumroll (No. 103) and London (No. 104).

During the visit, Haydn spent some leisure time in the Hertfordshire countryside. He also travelled to Oxford where the prestigious University awarded him an honorary doctorate. At the ceremony, the orchestra played Haydn’s Symphony No.12, which they afterwards renamed the Oxford Symphony, despite it being a commission by the French Count d’Ogny in 1789. 

As promised, Haydn took Beethoven to Vienna on his return from London. Beethoven had already received tuition from several musicians, but it was Haydn’s reputation that gave Beethoven a boost in his career.

In 1794, Haydn made a second tour of London. He was a familiar figure in the concert scene and attracted much attention. Before he returned to Vienna in 1795, London held a benefit concert nicknamed “Dr Haydn’s night”, which Haydn regarded as the peak of his career. Haydn’s biographer Georg August von Griesinger (1769-1845) noted that the days Haydn spent in England were “the happiest of his life. He was everywhere appreciated there; it opened a new world to him”.

On his return to Vienna, Haydn learnt of his employer’s death. Anton’s son, Prince Nicholas II Esterházy (1765-1833), was his successor and wished Haydn to return to the establishment as Kapellmeister. Haydn reluctantly agreed to return on a part-time basis, spending half the year with the Esterházy family and the other half in Vienna.

By now, Haydn’s popularity in Vienna was as great as it was in London. He continued to compose for the Esterházy family, but his most prominent achievements of this period were collaborations with the librettist Gottfried Freiherr van Swieten (1733-1803). Together, they produced two oratorios: The Creation (1798), based on the Book of Genesis, and The Seasons. Haydn also took inspiration from his time in London where he had heard the crowds singing God Save the King. For the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Francis II (1768-1835), Haydn composed the hymn Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser (God save Francis the Emperor). Germany’s national anthem today continues to use this tune. 

By 1800, Haydn faced the typical health problems that came with old age. He composed his final major work in 1802, a mass called Harmoniemesse for the Esterházy family. After this, it became increasingly difficult for Haydn to write music. Haydn frequently suffered bouts of dizziness and had swollen painful legs. Doctors offered no diagnosis at the time, but the symptoms suggest his body was suffering from high cholesterol and bad diet. Yet, whilst his body became uncooperative, Haydn’s mind remained sharp.

“I must have something to do—usually musical ideas are pursuing me, to the point of torture, I cannot escape them, they stand like walls before me. If it’s an allegro that pursues me, my pulse keeps beating faster, I can get no sleep. If it’s an adagio, then I notice my pulse beating slowly. My imagination plays on me as if I were a clavier. I am really just a living clavier.”

Haydn, 1806

Except for a few futile attempts at composing, Haydn retreated from public life. He remained the Kapellmeister for the Esterházy family, but they employed other musicians to take on many of Haydn’s roles. Nonetheless, Haydn continued to receive public honours, such as concerts in his name, which Haydn attended on an armchair carried by his servants. When he felt strong enough, Haydn played his piano, although limited himself to only his “Emperor’s Hymn” Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser. It was this music that he played on the 26th May 1809 before collapsing. A few days later, Haydn passed away on 31st May at the age of 77.

Haydn’s funeral took place on 15th June in Vienna, a small affair including a performance of Mozart’s requiem. Hundsturm cemetery, where they interred his body, is now known as Haydnpark, although the Esterházy family insisted on moving Haydn’s remains to Eisenstadt in 1820. Yet, when they dug up Haydn’s body, they discovered his skull missing.

The furious Prince Nicholas II deduced the stolen skull was the work of Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and Johann Nepomuk Peter. The two men, who had a strong interest in phrenology, a discredited science, believed they could ascertain Haydn’s genius by measuring the bumps and shape of the skull. Whilst Nicholas was correct in his assumption, the men gave the family a different head, secretly keeping Haydn’s for their studies.

When Rosenbaum died, Haydn’s skull passed from person to person until it became the possession of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music). Learning of this, the Esterházy family set out to reunite Haydn’s head with his body, although this took many years to arrange. Eventually, in 1954, 145 years after the composer’s death, they finally restored Haydn’s head. Not knowing what to do with the substitute skull, the family left it in the tomb thus Haydn’s final resting place contains two skulls.

Looking at Haydn’s skull did not tell the world anything about the composer, but studying his works, letters and biographies reveal his mental traits. Growing up in poverty, Haydn knew the importance of money, making him an astute business dealer. “As regards money, Haydn…always attempted to maximize his income, whether by negotiating the right to sell his music outside the Esterházy court, driving hard bargains with publishers or selling his works three and four times over.” Yet, Haydn gave much of his money to charity and friends. He even taught Mozart’s sons for free after their father’s death.

Haydn’s original manuscripts are evidence of his devout Catholicism. Each composition began with the phrase in nomine Domini “in the name of the Lord” and ended Laus Deo (praise be to God). When troubled, Haydn regularly turned his thoughts to God, a practice he usually found effective.

Haydn attributed many of his compositions to God’s presence in his life. When he did not know how to tackle a particular piece, his prayers to God helped him to find the answer. Often, this meant a change in style or mood of the music, making his critics exclaim, “This Haydn is like a child, for there is no knowing what he will do next.”

These changes were not drastic enough to make them unrecognisable as Haydn’s work, but music historians have noticed a distinct development in Haydn’s output after the year 1779. Until then, Haydn wrote compositions at the request of others. After renegotiating his contract with the Esterházy family, Haydn could publish works without the approval of his employer. Critics often describe these pieces as “purer” than his earlier works. Haydn’s trips to England also brought changes to Haydn’s music, resulting in what one critic called his “popular style”.

Haydn produced a considerable number of compositions during his career, but only a few remain recognisable to modern generations. His operas have disappeared from opera houses, but this does not mean Haydn had no talent. He was, after all, the “superstar” of his day. Without Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart’s work would be unrecognisable today. Haydn set the foundations for symphonies and string quartets, which composers have followed ever since. Without Haydn, the history of music would be completely different.


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Beethoven at 250

On 17th December 2020, it will be 250 years since the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven was baptised as a baby in the Catholic Parish of St. Remigius. In those days, it was custom to baptise babies within 24 hours of birth, so let us celebrate the 250th birthday of the composer and reflect upon the genius of his work, which has survived and remains popular in the 21st century.

Beethoven, named after his grandfather, Ludwig van Beethoven (1712-73), a professional singer and music director, was destined to become a musician. His father, Johann (1740-92) was also a singer and musician who performed in the chapel of the Archbishop of Cologne. His mother, Maria Magdalena Keverich (1746-87) was the daughter of the head chef at the court of the Elector of Trier.

Born on 17th December 1770 in Bonn, Germany, Beethoven was the second of seven children of which only three survived infancy. His younger brother Kaspar (1774-1815) experimented with musical composition but never became famous. Beethoven’s youngest brother, Nikolaus Johann (1776-1848), took a different career path and opened a pharmacy in Linz, Austria.

Beethoven’s father taught the boys to play the piano, and possibly the violin, from the age of five. As he got older, Beethoven received lessons from local musicians on various instruments: organ, piano, violin and viola. Although Beethoven showed considerable musical talents, his tutoring sessions were long and hard, and his teachers strict, often reducing the young boy to tears. Tuition took place at any time of day and night and, on occasion, Ludwig was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night for an impromptu piano lesson.

It was not only the tutors that were harsh on Beethoven. His ambitious father was aware of the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) and his sister Nannerl (1751-1829), who were impressing the population of Salzburg, Austria, with their musical talent and youth. When Beethoven made his first public performance at the age of seven, his father claimed he was only six to make his son appear to be as talented as the Mozarts.

At the beginning of the 1780s, Beethoven began studying with the German opera composer and conductor, Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-98). Principally teaching him to play the piano, Neefe was Beethoven’s most influential tutor during his youth. Beethoven became Neefe’s assistant as an unpaid organist in 1782 but two years later had risen to a paid position at the court chapel.

As well as piano technique, Neefe taught Beethoven about composition. At the age of 11 and 12, Beethoven composed his first keyboard works. The three piano sonatas are known as the Kurfürstensonaten (Elector Sonatas), dedicated to Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels (1708-84), the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and the Bishop of Münster. For such a young composer, Beethoven’s compositions were remarkably mature and gave an early glimpse of his Classical piano talent.

Beethoven … a boy of 11 years and most promising talent. He plays the piano very skilfully and with power, reads at sight very well … the chief piece he plays is Das wohltemperierte Klavier of Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe puts into his hands …

Magazin der Musik (1783)

The success of these sonatas gained Beethoven financial support from several people, but between 1785-90 Beethoven disappeared from the limelight. As far as historians are aware, Beethoven did not produce any compositions during this time, most likely as a result of ongoing problems within his family. Beethoven’s mother passed away in 1787 just after he had returned from Vienna where he had heard Mozart play. Being the eldest surviving child, a lot of the family responsibility fell to seventeen-year-old Beethoven.

Complicating things further, Beethoven’s father lost his job due to alcoholism. Although Johann van Beethoven was offered a pension, the money was ordered by the court to be paid directly to Ludwig so that he could look after his younger brothers. This money was not enough to keep the family afloat, so Beethoven had to earn a salary. He achieved this by taking on pupils and playing the viola in the court orchestra. The orchestra played music by several composers, including Mozart, which must have felt like an insult to Beethoven who was brought up to consider Mozart his rival.

Making up for lost time, Beethoven composed several works between 1790 and 1792. Although not published at the time, they show his progression from his first works ten years before. Neefe encouraged Beethoven to take on commissions and introduced him to Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the Austrian composer, who briefly stayed in Bonn for Christmas in 1790. Beethoven much admired the older composer and Haydn was also impressed with Beethoven’s talents. When Haydn returned to Bonn in 1792, Beethoven was earning money by playing the viola in the court orchestra. Haydn, on the other hand, wished to tutor Beethoven personally and invited him to Vienna. One of Beethoven’s financial supporters, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein (1762-1823) encouraged the proposal, stating: “You are going to Vienna in fulfilment of your long-frustrated wishes … With the help of assiduous labour you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

Beethoven arrived in Vienna in November 1792 and devoted himself to study and performance under Haydn’s guidance. He also received tuition from the Austrian violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830) and learnt about composition from the classical composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825).

Using his connection with Haydn to his advantage, Beethoven developed a reputation as a performer and gained the financial support of several Viennese noblemen, including Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz (1772-1816). By 1793, Vienna knew Beethoven as a piano virtuoso, but he was also an up-and-coming composer.

Beethoven’s first public performance in Vienna took place during March 1795, in which he performed a piano concerto he had written. Dedicating it to one of his patrons, Prince Karl Lichnowsky (1761-1814), Beethoven formerly published the music as a set of trios for piano, violin and cello under the name Opus 1. The profits for this publication was enough to cover Beethoven’s living expenses for a year.

Over the next couple of years, Beethoven published and wrote many concertos and sonatas. By 1799, 28-year-old Beethoven published his thirteenth musical work (Op. 13). Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, or Sonata Pathétique as it is more commonly known, is one of Beethoven’s most celebrated works, “surpass[ing] any of his previous compositions, in strength of character, depth of emotion, level of originality, and ingenuity of motivic and tonal manipulation.” (Barry Cooper, Beethoven, 2008)

By 1800, Beethoven was the most talented young composer after Haydn and Mozart. The same year, he published his first symphony, which he dedicated to his patron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803). The premiere took place at the Burgtheater in Vienna alongside performances of works by Haydn and Mozart. The premiere was hailed “the most interesting concert in a long time” by the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (General music newspaper). The next year, Beethoven premiered his first ballet The Creatures of Prometheus at the same location.

Following these successes, Beethoven published his second symphony in 1803. The first performance of Symphony No. 2 in D major (Op. 36) took place at the Theater an der Wien in a concert that also featured Beethoven’s third piano concerto (Op. 37) and his only oratorio Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op.85). The latter, which Beethoven claimed to have written in only two weeks, portrayed the emotional torment Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion. Six years later, the oratorio premiered in the United States where it became Beethoven’s first success in America. 

As well as composing, Beethoven worked as a teacher. Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) and Carl Czerny (1791-1857) are among the more successful of Beethoven’s pupils, but he taught a wide range of students over time, including women. In 1799, Beethoven became the piano tutor of the daughters of Hungarian Countess Anna Brunsvik. During this time, he fell in love with one of the daughters, Josephine (1779-1821), although nothing ever came of the relationship. Nonetheless, letters survive that indicate there may have been a secret romance.

Other letters, however, indicate Beethoven had feelings for another of his students, Countess Julie Guicciardi (1784-1856). Considering himself to be in a lower social class, Beethoven never pursued a relationship, but in 1802 he dedicated his Sonata Op. 27 No. 2 to Julie. After his death, this sonata became better known by the name Moonlight Sonata.

In the early 1800s, Beethoven began to experience hearing loss. At first, he attributed this to a fit he suffered in 1798, after which he struggled with severe tinnitus. From descriptions in letters to his friends and brothers, Beethoven likely had osteosclerosis (abnormal bone growth in the inner ear) and a degenerative auditory nerve.

Beethoven moved to Heiligenstadt on the outskirts of Vienna to come to terms with his diagnosis. Surviving letters suggest Beethoven had mixed feelings about his condition. Mostly, he seemed upbeat, but one letter suggests he once considered suicide. Although Beethoven never became entirely deaf, it became increasingly difficult to play at concerts. As a result, he began to withdraw socially.

Nonetheless, Beethoven did not let his condition prevent him from composing. In a letter to a friend, he stated he would “seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not crush me completely.” Beethoven made no secret of his hearing loss, and he could still hear music and voices until around 1812.

Most likely because of his diagnosis, Beethoven’s music style dramatically changed. On his return to Vienna, he told his pupils, “I am not satisfied with the work I have done so far. From now on I intend to take a new way.” This attitude resulted in his Third Symphony in E flat Op. 55, or the Eroica, in 1804. Beethoven initially wrote the symphony with Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in mind because he admired the ideal of the heroic revolutionary leader. When Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven became disillusioned with the man and renamed the symphony from Intitolata Bonaparte (Titled Bonaparte) to Sinfonia Eroica – composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo (Heroic Symphony – Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man).

Critics noticed the change in Beethoven’s style. They commented on the dramatic nature of the music, particularly his best-known Symphony No.5 in C Major (Op. 67), which the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) claimed “sets in motion terror, fear, horror, pain, and awakens the infinite yearning that is the essence of romanticism.”

Up until Beethoven began to experience hearing loss, his income came from composing, teaching and performing. As the latter area became more difficult, Beethoven relied heavily on the publications of his music. Some of Beethoven’s patrons offered him yearly stipends in addition to commissions, and he took on his most prestigious pupil, Archduke Rudolf of Austria (1788-1831), the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II (1747-92). The Archduke and Beethoven soon became firm friends, and Beethoven dedicated a number of his works to Rudolf, including the Archduke Piano Trio (Op. 97).

In 1807, Beethoven’s work began to be published in England, giving him a larger following. Although he was becoming a popular name across the continent, it was not enough to keep him financially stable. Beethoven had suffered financially. He had fallen out of favour at the Theater an der Wien due to new management. Also, the French occupation of Vienna between 1803 and 1806 hindered his compositions.

In 1808, a benefit concert was held for Beethoven to boost his funds. Although it was under rehearsed and inferior to Beethoven’s previous concerts, it introduced some of Beethoven’s new compositions. As well as a performance of his Symphony No.5, the concert premiered Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” (Op. 68) and the Choral Fantasy “Fantasia” (Op. 80).

The Napoleonic wars limited the number of commissions Beethoven received, but they began to pick up again in 1809 beginning with the incidental music for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749-1832) play Egmont. Pleased with the result, Beethoven set three of Goethe’s poems to music.

Beethoven fell ill in 1811, suffering headaches and high fevers. Nevertheless, he continued to compose music but moved to the spa town of Teplitz (now in the Czech Republic) on the advice of his doctor. While there, Beethoven had the opportunity to meet Goethe, who wrote  “His talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but surely does not make it any more enjoyable … by his attitude.” Whether Beethoven’s illness or deafness affected his personality is unknown, but Goethe certainly found him despicable. Likewise, Beethoven disliked Goethe’s personality but, putting their differences aside, composed the music for Goethe’s Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op.112).

There is an air of mystery surrounding Beethoven’s personal life, which is heightened by an unsent letter he wrote while staying in Teplitz. Addressed to “Unsterbliche Geliebte” (Immortal Beloved), the letter is scrawled over ten pages and expresses his passionate love for the unknown addressee. Not discovered until after his death, most historians believe the intended recipient was Beethoven’s former pupil Josephine Brunsvik, however, there are many other candidates.

The letter suggests the feelings were mutual, and the debate continues as to the identity of the lady. Beethoven had sent love letters to Josephine in the past, particularly after she became a widow in 1804. She soon married again, but the relationship was strained and worsened over time. Suspicions that she had an affair with Beethoven were raised after the birth of her daughter Minona in 1813 who was born nine months after Josephine had separated from her husband.

Other suggestions for the intended recipient of the letter include former pupil Julie Guicciardi and Josephine’s sister, Therese Brunsvik (1775-1861). Several musicians and singers that worked with Beethoven are also up for debate, for example, Therese Malfatti (1792-1851), an Austrian singer for whom he may have written the piano bagatelle Für Elise – the manuscript was found with her belongings after death.

Beethoven’s love life continues to be a mystery, but no love letters or hints of a relationship seem to occur after 1812. Around this time, Beethoven struggled with his mental and emotional health. His compositions were less frequent, and his physical appearance suffered. Some suggest his failings in love triggered this period, but he was also dealing with a few family issues. His brother Johann was in a relationship with a disreputable woman, which Beethoven tried unsuccessfully to end.

In 1815, his other brother Kaspar passed away from tuberculosis. Both Kaspar’s wife Johanna (1786-1869) and Beethoven became the joint guardians of Kaspar’s son Karl (1806-56), which sparked several legal proceedings. Beethoven wished to place Karl in a private school and, although he eventually won sole custody of his nephew, the legal struggles continued until 1820.

Due to the ongoing problems with his nephew Karl, Beethoven’s output was minimal. He also suffered healthwise with what he called “inflammatory fever”. Between 1815 and 1819, Beethoven’s only works of note were his Hammerklavier Sonata (Op.106) and a musical composition set to poems by Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858).

Evidence suggests Beethoven began working on his ninth symphony in 1818, which coincides with an improvement in health. Unfortunately, his hearing was rapidly deteriorating, making it difficult for him to interact with other people. Several notebooks survive that reveal Beethoven conversed with people through writing rather than speaking. Entire conversations about music, business and personal matters were written out by the participants.

Beethoven rallied in 1819 and was invited by Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) to write a piano variation of his waltz. Other composers invited to do the same included Franz Schubert (1791-1828) and the 8-year-old Franz Liszt (1811-86). The idea was to produce one variation, but Beethoven was determined to outdo the others and composed 20 versions by mid-1819. In total, Beethoven composed 33 variations, known collectively as the 33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli (Op. 120) or the Diabelli Variations.

As well as the variations, Beethoven was motivated by the promotion of Archduke Rudolf to Cardinal-Archbishop, which he wished to honour with a mass. The result was the Missa solemnis in D major (Op. 123), performed for the first time in Saint Petersburg in 1824. Later that year another performance took place in Vienna along with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Op. 125).

Symphony No. 9 in D Major is a choral symphony that continues to be one of the most performed symphonies in the world. The final (4th) movement was based on Friedrich Schiller’s (1759-1805) poem Ode to Joy and lasts about 24 minutes. The premiere was a great success and was conducted by Beethoven even though by that time he could not hear the music.

Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.

Joseph Böhm (1795-1876), violinist

Another conductor stood by with a baton to conduct the orchestra and choir properly. As a result, when the music finished, Beethoven was a few bars behind and continued to conduct. The contralto Caroline Unger (1803-77) approached Beethoven and turned him around to face the applauding audience. Although Beethoven could not hear the applause, he could see the standing ovation and the raised hats throughout the audience.

Meanwhile, Beethoven’s health continued to deteriorate, adding rheumatism and jaundice to his list of ailments. Despite this, he continued to compose and publish music. He also reconciled with his brother Johann who became a frequent visitor.

Beethoven continued to receive commissions despite his failing health, including a series of string quartets for Prince Nikolai Galitzin (1794-1866). Beethoven’s favourite was his fourteenth and final string quartet of the series (Op. 131), about which the composers Schubert and Robert Schumann (1810-56) enthused. Schumann said String Quartet No. 14 had a “grandeur … which no words can express,” while Schubert exclaimed, “After this, what is left for us to write?”

Despite being successful in the music world, Beethoven continued to struggle with his family relations. His nephew Karl attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head. Fortunately, he survived and was sent with his uncle to the Austrian village Gneixendorf to recuperate. Whilst there, Beethoven wrote his final major work String Quartet No. 16 in F major (Op. 135), which he dedicated to his patron Johann Wolfmayer.

On his return journey from Gneixendorf in December 1826, Beethoven was taken ill. Doctors noted Beethoven had signs of jaundice, breathing difficulties and severe fluid retention in his limbs. News of his condition spread quickly; he received a large number of visitors, including previous pupils and other composers. Those who could not attend his bedside, for instance, the London Philharmonic Society, sent gifts of money and wine.

On 26th March 1827, Beethoven passed away at the age of 56, leaving his nephew Karl as his sole heir. Anselm Hüttenbrenner (1794-1868), an Austrian composer and friend of Beethoven who was present at his death, reported there was a clap of thunder at 5 pm and “Beethoven opened his eyes, lifted his right hand and looked up for several seconds with his fist clenched … not another breath, not a heartbeat more.” Many people visited Beethoven on his death-bed to pay their respects. An autopsy revealed severe liver damage, likely due to heavy alcohol consumption.

Beethoven’s funeral took place in Vienna on 29th March 1827 and was attended by over 10,000, thus proving how successful he was in life. Franz Schubert was among the torchbearers and, after a requiem mass at the Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Church of the Holy Trinity), they buried Beethoven in the Währing cemetery. His body has since been reinterred in the Vienna Central Cemetery adjacent to Schubert’s grave.

Ludwig van Beethoven continues to rank among the most played classical composers and is one of the most admired musicians in the history of Western music. During his 45 year career, Beethoven wrote over 772 works, including nine symphonies, nine concertos, 16 string quartets, 32 sonatas, and one opera: Fidelio. He lived his life believing “music is a higher revelation than philosophy” and “music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman”. For Beethoven, music was life; he will live on through his compositions forever more.

Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est. (Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over.)

Beethoven on his deathbed

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