Meet the Composers
Meet the Composers
The music that an orchestra performs is written by a composer, who arranges the musical notes in different ways. Click on the button to learn about some of the most famous composers, their music and to download activity sheets, courtesy of Classics for Kids.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, where his father was a town musician. During his lifetime, people thought of Bach as just an ordinary working musician. No one really knew much about his music until 100 years after his death. Bach is now seen as one of the greatest geniuses in music history. He wrote all kinds of music – for organ and other keyboard instruments, orchestras, choirs, and concertos for many different instrumental combinations. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Georges Bizet was born in Paris. Both his parents were musicians, and they actually wanted their son to become a composer when he grew up! Bizet loved music, but he also loved to read books. His parents wound up hiding his books so that he would spend more time on his music. Bizet also composed operas. His most famous opera is Carmen. Bizet was also very good at writing dramatic music. The music he wrote for the play L’Arlesienne (The Girl from Arles) is still enjoyed today. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Frédéric Chopin was one of the greatest pianists of his day. Chopin was born in Poland and his introduced him to the piano. By the time he was six, Chopin played extremely well and was starting to compose. He gave his first concert at the age of eight. When Chopin was 20, he left Poland to seek fame and fortune and when he got to Paris, he decided to stay. Chopin’s heart is in Poland – literally – as it was put in an urn and taken to the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw after his death. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Claude Debussy was born near Paris, and it was his aunt who got him started taking piano lessons. As a child, Debussy was fascinated by visual art, and as he grew up, he loved the new style called Impressionism. Instead of painting realistic, lifelike paintings with hard outlines, Impressionists used thousands of dots, or many different shades of color to create the “impression” of what they wanted to depict. Debussy took that idea and applied it to music, creating Impressionism in music. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
George Gershwin taught himself to play the piano at a friend’s house by following how the keys moved on a player piano. When the Gershwins finally got their own piano, George surprised everyone by sitting down and playing the songs he had learned by himself. George liked to compose both classical and popular music. He composed his most famous work, Rhapsody in Blue, in 1924, the same year he also had a hit show on Broadway and is considered one of the greatest American composers. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Franz Joseph Haydn
Franz Joseph Haydn was the most famous composer of his time. He helped develop new musical forms, like the string quartet and the symphony. In fact, even though he didn’t invent it, Haydn is known as the “Father of the Symphony.” At first, Haydn struggled to earn a living as a composer. Then, he got a job with a rich, powerful family named Esterhazy. Haydn composed symphonies, operas, string quartets, and all kinds of other music for performance at the Esterhazy court. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Felix Mendelssohn was lucky enough to be born into a rich family, with loving parents who encouraged him to be a musician. And he certainly had the right name. Felix is Latin for “happy.” The Mendelssohn family held regular Sunday afternoon concerts at their house, so Felix grew up with music all around him. He was already a terrific pianist as a child, and started composing when he was ten. As a teenager, Mendelssohn had already written some of his greatest music. He was also a wonderful visual artist. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Florence Price was the first African-American woman to have her work performed by a major American orchestra. Her first symphony received its world premiere in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Although this premiere brought recognition and fame, success as a composer was not to be hers. Florence studied at the New England Conservatory and later wrote radio jingles and popular songs in addition to her serious compositions. In 1964, the city of Chicago named an elementary school for her in recognition of her legacy as a composer.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born in Russia and enjoyed listening to Russian folk songs, church music and opera while growing up. After serving in the navy – where he composed his first symphony – Nikolai taught at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which is now named for him. Nikolai wrote operas, choral music, chamber music and works for piano. One of his most famous pieces is the Flight of the Bumblebee, from the opera Tsar Saltan. In the opera, this music is played when a prince disguises himself as bee. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Robert Schumann grew up with books all around him, so he fell in love with books and writing. Robert also fell in love with music. As a kid, he took piano, flute and cello lessons, and also started composing. Even though a hand injury kept Schumann from becoming a concert pianist, there was still a famous pianist in the house – his wife, Clara. She gave the first performance of many of his pieces, including his piano concerto. Robert composed a small album of piano pieces for his daughter that eventually became Album for the Young: 18 pieces for little kids, and 25 more for older ones. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Igor Stravinsky’s father was a famous opera singer, so as a kid, Igor got to hang out at the opera house, where he met all the famous musicians of the day. When he grew up, Igor started studying law and one of his fellow students was the son of composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who agreed to give Stravinsky composition lessons. Law fell by the wayside completely after Stravinsky had a big success with The Firebird, which he composed for Serge Diaghilev, head of the Russian Ballet. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams knew he wanted to be a composer at a young age. He was dedicated to collecting and studying English folk music to preserve it for the future and collected more than 800 of them! Those folk songs had such a big influence on him that many of them ended up in his compositions. Among the pieces Vaughan Williams wrote were nine symphonies, and a number of concertos, including some for instruments you wouldn’t expect to be featured as soloists- harmonica and bass tuba. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany. His father, who was a singer, was his first teacher. While still only a boy, Ludwig became a traveling performer, and soon, he was supporting his family. Beethoven is considered one of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived. He may be most famous for his nine symphonies, but he also wrote many other kinds of music: chamber and choral music, piano music and string quartets, and an opera. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Johannes Brahms’ father was a musician who played several instruments. Brahms loved music, too. By the time he was six, he’d invented his own system for writing notes down on a page. Of course, he took instrument lessons, learning to play cello, horn and piano. For a long time, Brahms didn’t want to write a symphony, because he was afraid his work would not be as good as Beethoven’s. Brahms is now known as one of the 3 B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms – of classical music. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
London-born Anna Clyne is a Grammy-nominated composer of acoustic and electro-acoustic music. Described as “dazzlingly inventive” by Time Out New York, Clyne’s work often includes collaborations with cutting-edge choreographers, visual artists, filmmakers, and musicians worldwide. She has served as a Composer-in-Residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the L’Orchestre national d’Île-de-France, and the Berkeley Symphony.
Antonin Dvorák’s father was a butcher who wanted Antonin to become a butcher, too. But when he saw how musical Antonin was, he made sure he got a good music education, including violin and organ lessons. Dvorák got a job as a church organist, but what he really wanted to do was compose. So he entered his compositions in a government-sponsored contest and won! The last of Dvorák’s nine symphonies was written in the United States, and is nicknamed for the fact that it hails From the New World. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Edvard Grieg’s first music teacher was his mother, who was a wonderful pianist. Many members of the Grieg family were musical, so Edvard’s parents didn’t object when he wanted to be a musician when he grew up. He had an active career as a pianist, giving concerts all over Europe. But every summer, he came back to Norway to compose. He became a great champion of Norwegian music, art and theater, which is why Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen asked Grieg to write music for his play Peer Gynt. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
While Franz Liszt was a composer, conductor, critic and teacher, he was best known as a pianist. He was the first of the virtuoso performers. When Liszt walked onto the stage, he took over the hall, amazing the audience with his incredible technique and his awesome presence. He was a true showman and the man who invented the solo recital. Although some were annoyed by his personality, Liszt was one of the greatest pianists the world has ever known. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a child prodigy. He composed his first piece of music at age five; he had his first piece published when he was seven; and he wrote his first opera when he was 12. By the time Wolfgang was six, he was an excellent pianist and violinist. When he grew up, Mozart moved to Vienna, and tried to earn a living as a pianist and composer. Mozart was only 35 when he died. During his short life, he composed in all different musical forms, including operas, symphonies, concertos, masses, and chamber music. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Russian composer and pianist Sergei Prokofiev showed musical talent at an early age. His mother, who was a very good pianist, encouraged him, and taught him to play the piano. Sergei began composing at the age of five. World War I and the Russian Revolution made living and working in Russia very difficult, so Prokofiev left the country in 1918. Prokofiev was a master at using music to tell a story. One of his most famous musical stories is Peter and the Wolf. In addition to symphonic music, Prokofiev wrote ballets, operas, and music for films. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Gioachino Rossini, the most popular opera composer of his day, learned about music from his parents. Gioachino’s father played the horn and the trumpet, and his mother was an opera singer. He wrote his first opera when he was 18 years old. His most famous opera is The Barber of Seville. After composing the opera William Tell in 1829, when he was 37, he stopped writing operas. After that, Rossini didn’t compose again for years. When he was much older, he wrote some music for the church and small pieces to entertain his friends. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Ethel Smyth was one of the most influential turn-of-the-century composers. She was a respected English composer of her time and known for her chamber music, orchestral works, vocal scores, and opera. Ethel was born into a successful family who didn’t understand why she sought to follow her ambitions to become a composer. At that time, it was uncommon for women to pursue a career in this way. She studied for a period at the Leipzig Conservatory and then left to study privately. Her work met the approval of big-name composers of her time including Brahms, Clara Schumann, Grieg and Tchaikovsky.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a good musician as a kid, but that wasn’t considered an “acceptable” profession, so his parents made him study law instead. But even in law school, Tchaikovsky continued to study music. Eventually, he gave up his legal job and went to the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Tchaikovsky traveled all over Europe for performances of his music. In 1891, he even came to America for the opening of Carnegie Hall, where he was invited to conduct his music. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Giuseppe Verdi showed early talent, so a music-loving grocer paid for his music education. Giuseppe’s music became part of the Italian struggle for independence. Even his name became a political statement. The letters V-E-R-D-I are the first letters of the phrase Vittorio Emanuele, Rei D’Italia, which translates to “Victor Emanuel, King of Italy.” Italy was not yet a united country, and Italians latched onto Verdi’s Chorus of Hebrew Slaves as an unofficial anthem for a nation that wasn’t even born yet. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Leonard Bernstein’s father sold wigs and beauty supplies, and wanted his oldest son to take over the business. But after Leonard composed the class song for his high school graduation, he went on to Harvard and majored in music. He got his big break when he was the 25-year-old assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and was eventually named music director, making him the first American to become permanent conductor of a major American orchestra. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Benjamin Britten was an expert in three different musical fields – conducting, composing and playing the piano. Britten was born in Lowestoft, a town on the English seacoast. From the moment he started playing the piano, Britten knew he wanted to earn his living as a composer. His first paying job was writing music for films. At the end of World War II, the biggest opera company in England held a gala reopening and commissioned Britten to write a new opera for the occasion. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Aaron Copland is one of the most famous American composers of all time. He was born in Brooklyn and went to France as a teenager to study music. Copland wrote music with a very “American” sound. Some of his most famous pieces are his ballets – Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring. Billy the Kid and Rodeo are about the Wild West. Copland also wrote music for movies – Of Mice and Men and Our Town – and his music has become a great part of American history. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Gabriela Lena Frank
Gabriela Lena Frank explores her multicultural heritage most ardently through her compositions. Inspired by the work of Bela Bartók, Alberto Ginastera, and Chou Wen Chung, Gabriela is something of a musical anthropologist. In addition to frequently collaborating with Pulitzer playwright Nilo Cruz on vocal works, Gabriela has written for leading artists such as soprano Dawn Upshaw and cellist Yo Yo Ma, and pre-eminent chamber groups and symphonies. She is currently serving as Composer-in-Residence with the storied Philadelphia Orchestra.
George Frederick Handel
Georg Friedrich Händel was born in Germany, but spent most of his professional life in England, so he is better known as George Frederick Handel. Even though Handel was very interested in music, his father was not. There’s a story that Handel smuggled a clavichord – a quiet instrument – into the house to practice in secret. Handel’s father insisted that his son be a lawyer, until the day that Handel sat down at the keyboard and dazzled a duke, convincing Handel’s father to let his son study music. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Fanny Mendelssohn wrote about 500 musical compositions, including about 120 pieces for piano, many lieder (art songs), and chamber music, cantatas, and oratorios. Fanny took music lessons and performed with her younger brother Felix. Six of her songs were published under Felix’s name in his two sets of Twelve Songs, while the few works published under her own name include several collections of short piano pieces, some lieder, and a piano trio. Stylistically her music is similar to that of her brother.
Modest Mussorgsky’s mother gave him his first piano lessons, and it was clear early on that Mussorgsky was a very good pianist. Mussorgsky had a hard time making a living as a composer, especially after his family lost all its money. So he got a government job, and continued to spend all his spare time composing. In addition to his instrumental music, Mussorgsky wrote songs, and several operas. He was part of a group of five Russian composers known as “The Five,” or the “Mighty Handful.” (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Giacomo Puccini’s father was a choirmaster and organist and it was expected that Giacomo would follow in his footsteps. When his father died, he actually inherited his positions although he was only six years old! Before he could take them on as an adult, however, he went to hear a performance of Verdi’s Aida. From that moment on he knew that what he wanted to do was compose operas. In 1896 he wrote La Bohème, which is probably the most loved opera ever written. Puccini’s genius lay in his ability to write beautiful melodies. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Franz Schubert was born in Austria. In addition to playing several instruments, Franz also sang very well. When he was 10, he was accepted at the Imperial and Royal Seminary, which trained boys for the Court Chapel Choir. That choir still exists today as the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Franz Schubert wrote his first symphonies for his school orchestra, and for friends of the family who used to get together to play. Hee also wrote piano, choral, and chamber music, but he is probably most famous for composing more than 600 songs. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
William Grant Still
William Grant Still grew up listening to his grandmother tell stories about her life as a slave on a plantation in Georgia. And he also grew up hearing her sing spirituals that she learned as a child. Later on, those stories and spirituals found their way into his music. William’s Afro-American Symphony was the first symphony by a black composer to be performed by a major orchestra. And he was the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra. William’s classical compositions include chamber music, operas and ballets. He also wrote music for radio and television. (Click here for an activity sheet.)
Joan Tower is regarded as one of the most important American composers living today. During a career spanning more than 50 years, she has made lasting contributions to musical life in the United States as composer, performer, conductor and educator. She often composes with specific ensembles or soloists in mind, and aims to exploit the strengths of these performers in her composition. Joan’s Made in America has been performed by more than 65 orchestras in all 50 states.
Antonio Vivaldi’s father taught him to play the violin, and the two would often perform together. Antonio continued to study and practice the violin after becoming a priest, and taught at an orphanage for girls where he wrote a lot of music for the girls to play. Many people believe that Vivaldi was the best Italian composer of his time. He wrote concertos, operas, church music and many other compositions. In all, Antonio wrote more than 500 concertos. His most famous set of concertos is The Four Seasons. (Click here for an activity sheet.)