Classical music became an important part of Western culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. It played its role in the Renaissance movement that started in Florence, Italy, a period when much art, architecture, music, and literature took place across Europe. In this case, literature was written in the form of musical art by some of the world’s greatest composers, including Georg Telemann, Johann Sebastian Bach, and the great Ludwig Van Beethoven. Other German composers would become great musicians by writing pieces that developed new theories in music.
Famous German Composers
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach was born with music in his blood. His father was the local director of town musicians, and his older brother was a talented organist. In many respects, his childhood got off to a difficult start: he was an orphan by the age of ten. Fortunately for music lovers, he was then sent to live with his older brother, who taught him about music and composition. By the time that young Bach finished school, he was well-regarded as an organist in his own right. At age eighteen, he became the official organist at the cathedral in Arnstadt, a small town south of Weimar. In recognition of Bach’s role as one of the great German composers, the town has since renamed the church after him.
Bach is most strongly associated with the city of Leipzig, where he was a cantor for decades. It was there that he composed some of his most famous pieces, including The Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach died in 1750. Over the course of his long life, he had fathered twenty children, ten of whom survived into adulthood.
Bach’s Impact on Music
Most classical music that people perform and listen to at concerts take after Bach. His creative and artistic innovations advanced the world of music by applying beautiful rhythms to traditional musical instruments used in symphonies and orchestras. Musicians most often play his music using the flute, organ, French horn and just about any string instrument, including the violin and cello. He was believed to have been a genius by inventing works in different genres, from his Mass in B Minor to The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Though you might not know much about Felix Mendelssohn, you almost certainly know at least one of his songs. The melody for the Christmas Carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was written by Mendelssohn. But his legacy goes much deeper than Christmas carols. In fact, Felix Mendelssohn was not even raised celebrating the holiday that is now associated with his most famous song. He was born into a family that had once been Jewish, but had since converted to Christianity; young Mendelssohn was raised largely without religion.
Born in Hamburg, young Felix was known as a musical talent from his early childhood. His older sister, Fanny, was also pegged as a musical prodigy. With time, though, Felix surpassed his older sister. Felix made his first public musical performance at the tender age of nine. By the time he was fifteen, he had composed a full symphony. And by the time he was 34, he had written one of the most famous pieces of music in the Western world: the Wedding March, traditionally played at the conclusion of a wedding.
Tragically, his career was as brief as it was bright: Felix Mendelssohn passed away in 1847 at the age of 38.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven is almost certainly the most famous of German composers. Like several others of the musicians on this list, Beethoven was born into a musical family. His grandfather was a famous singer and music director in the town of Bonn, and his father was also a singer. Beethoven’s father subjected Beethoven to a rigorous course of musical training from a very young age. Young Beethoven struggled with the lessons at first, but soon discovered that he had a talent for music.
At age thirteen, Beethoven published his first set of piano sonatas. They gave little sign of the intense genius that would characterize Beethoven’s later work. Throughout his later teens and twenties, Beethoven had the opportunity to meet other famous musicians of the age, including Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven greatly admired Mozart, and tried to imitate his musical style.
By the time Beethoven was around 30, he began experiencing problems with his hearing. Over the course of the next decade, his hearing continued to fade away. He withdrew from society as he found it more and more difficult to communicate. However, his popularity continued to explode. When he died in 1827, about 10,000 attended his funeral.
Robert Schumann was born in 1810 in the city of Zwickau. He had a strong long of music from a young age, and spent many hours practicing and composing his own pieces. However, he did not have a great deal of encouragement from his family. They wanted him to go into a more traditional profession. He took their advice, and studied law at the University of Heidelberg. For the rest of his life, Schumann felt torn between the practice of music and the practice of law.
Schumann married Clara Wieck in 1840. In doing so, he set out on one of the most important partnerships of his life. Clara, like Robert, was a musical prodigy. Their shared love of music was an inspiration for them both. Even as Clara became a mother, she continued to go on musical tours and perform publicly. Together, they had eight children.
With time, however, Robert grew uncomfortable in Clara’s shadow. He began experiencing mental health issues. By 1854, Schumann was in the throes of a mental breakdown. He experienced hallucinations and attempted suicide. At that point, he was confined to a mental health institute. He died there two years later.
Born in 1813, Richard Wagner is one of the most influential German composers of all time. He came from humble beginnings in Leipzig, born to a police clerk and a baker’s daughter. Only six months after his birth, his father died. Though he always possessed some latent talent, he developed a passion for opera in particular after witnessing an impassioned stage performance.
Over the next couple of decades, as he continued to compose, he also embroiled himself in a number of scandals. He and his wife struggled constantly with debt, and at one point he had to flee a city to escape his creditors.
Today, Richard Wagner remains influential in the fields of music, politics, and philosophy. He died in Venice in 1883.
Richard Wagner was known for his complex structure in writing musical dramas and operas. Although he was one of the key developers of European classical music through his achievements, he became one of Hitler’s favorite composers because of his political views and antisemitism.
Johann Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833. His father was a musician, who taught his son to play the violin and cello. By age ten, young Brahms was giving private concerts to audiences who were amazed at the skill of the child prodigy. He became a close friend to Robert Schumann and Robert’s wife, Clara.
Brahms spent most of his professional life in Vienna. He became a famous figure about town and was beloved by Viennese society. In his later life, he befriended many of the most famous musical figures of the 19th century. He expended considerable effort to share the fruits of his success with others.
Johannes Brahms was a traditional classical music composer whose talent compares to some of the most well-known music masterminds. Brahms’ technique, much like the way Beethoven and Bach wrote their music, was meant to convey a romantic idiom by innovating affectionate feelings toward one another. As one of the best composers of all time, Brahms’s legacy influenced other musicians to follow him by learning his style and form of art. Many modern-day musicians center their music on a romantic idiom, and Brahms may have started that tradition in classical and other contemporary genres.
Richard Strauss, not to be confused with the Austrian composer Johann Strauss II, had a life that spanned one of the most turbulent periods of history that Germany had ever seen. Strauss was born in 1864, died in 1949, and spent much of the last decade of his life trying to keep his family safe from the Nazi regime.
Strauss was born in Munich and demonstrated a talent for music from a young age. By six, he was writing musical compositions. He became famous largely for his work as a conductor. In 1904, he went on a tour across America, where he was cheered on by audiences in Boston and Chicago.
Later in the 20th century, he struggled to deal with the Nazi regime. His daughter-in-law and grandchildren were Jewish, and he was terrified of what might happen to them. Fortunately, they managed to survive the war.
Strauss’ most famous work is probably Also sprach Zarathustra, used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Georg Philipp Telemann
Georg Philipp Telemann was born in Madgeburg in 1681. He began composing at age ten, and rarely stopped for the rest of his life. He has one of the largest surviving oeuvres of any composer. He is believed to have composed more than 3,000 pieces of music over the course of his life, and most of them still exist. His music is a unique blend of techniques from all over Europe. He was known as an innovator and was highly regarded by all the music critics of his day. Today, he is mainly known as the missing link between the Baroque and Classical eras of music.
Christoph Willibald Gluck
According to Gluck on a document he signed in 1785 in Vienna in the presence of the French ambassador Emmanuel Marie Louis de Noailles, he was born on July 2, 1714.
Gluck was famous for composing Italian and French opera in the early classical period. Instead of using the singer as a fragment to narrate the songs, he emphasized the importance of the music to create more drama within the storylines. After writing more than seven operas, Gluck would influence much of the works by Richard Wagner.
Reformed Classical Music
Classical music became part of the Christian tradition with the Reformation taking place, which was a great awakening that involved theological differences between churches. When Protestant churches became established, classical music would play to celebrate new tenets taught by Martin Luther, the founder of the Reformation, and his successors that helped organize it.
Luther began compulsory schooling to indoctrinate students with his reformed beliefs, and music would also be taught in it with students learning many new instruments and styles. New kinds of music would be written to bring the Reformation into a movement that changed Western civilization. Some of the music that drew people’s attention were pieces composed by George Handel, who helped spark the Reformation through his symphonies, concertos, and hymns.
These composers helped shape Western civilization through their music that would expand across other regions outside of Europe, especially to America — the new world that was founded by pilgrims and Puritans. Once the Protestant Church became established in America, classical music would become a significant part of its tradition. Much of this kind of music would stay in Europe throughout the 18th and 19th centuries with Beethoven’s symphonies. His famous 9th symphony was composed and conducted when he was deaf, but it managed to be a great success in Germany and Austria, throughout most of Europe and America, and the rest of the world.
Modern-day musicians in America would take after them by composing pieces that were similar in tone, from sacred sounds to secular music that opened up other kinds of genres, such as jazz and folk music. As a result of new traditions, classical music would become less popular in American culture but it remains very much alive through its history, its lessons and characteristics.