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Classical Choral Composers

The 19th century was the golden age of classical music and, although much was orchestral, there is plenty of great choral composistions as well.

Composers - Early Music | Classical | 20th Century | Modern

Displaying 1 - 21 of 21 items.


Johann Sebastian Bach

Born into a musical family, Bach received his earliest instruction from his father. After his father's death in 1695, Bach moved to Ohrdruf, where he lived and studied organ with his older brother Johann Christoph. He also received an education at schools in Eisenach, Ohrdruf, and Luneburg. Bach's first permanent positions were as organist in Arnstadt (1703-1707) and Muhlhausen (1707-1708). During these years, he performed, composed taught, and developed an interest in organ building. From 1708-1717 he was employed by Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, first as court organist, and after 1714, as concertmaster. During this period, he composed many of his best organ compositions; in his capacity as concertmaster, he was also expected to produce a cantata each month. In Weimar, Bach's style was influenced by his study of numerous Italian compositions (especially Vivaldi concertos).


William Billings

William Billings, is considered by many to be the foremost representative of early American choral music. Billings was born in Boston on October 7, 1746. Largely self-trained in music, he was a tanner by trade and a friend of such figures of the American Revolution as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. Billings's New England Psalm-Singer (1770), engraved by Revere, was the first collection of music entirely by an American.

Billings often wrote the lyrics for his own compositions. Like the notes, the words are occasionally awkward but always forceful and vivid. He wrote long prefaces to his works in which he explained (often in an endearingly eccentric prose style) the rudiments of music and how his work should be performed. His writings reflect his extensive experience as a singing master, and often include advice that would wisely be heeded by choral singers today.


Johannes Brahms

German pianist and composer Johannes Brahms is ranked among the masters of the Romantic era. Although he showed talent at the piano at an early age, he spent much of his young life performing rather than composing. Brahms's career was given a boost by composer Robert Schumann (1810-56) and his pianist wife Clara (1819-96); his close relationship with Clara, especially after she was widowed, has been the source of much speculation ever since. The pair exchanged passionate letters and went on holiday together, but Brahms opted to leave her behind to pursue his career and a life of bachelorhood. By the end of the 1860s he'd settled in Vienna, where he lived until his death from cancer in 1897. Musically he maintained the Romantic tradition of Ludwig van Beethoven, in opposition to the rise of composers such as Richard Wagner and Brahms's friend, Franz Liszt. His most famous composition is the lullaby, "Lied Wiegenlied" ("Cradle Song"), popularly known as simply "Brahms' Lullaby." His compositions include German Requiem (1866), Violin Concerto in D (1878) and Piano Concertos in B Flat (1878-81).


Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner was born in Ansfelden to a schoolmaster and organist father with whom he first studied music. He worked for a few years as a teacher's assistant, fiddling at village dances at night to supplement his income. He studied at the Augustinian monastery in St. Florian, becoming an organist there in 1851. He continued his studies to the age of 40, under Simon Sechter and Otto Kitzler, the latter introducing him to the music of Richard Wagner, which Bruckner studied extensively from 1863 onwards. He had alrady in 1861 made acquaintance with Liszt who was religious like Bruckner and who first and foremost was a harmonic innovator, initiating the new german school together with Wagner. Soon after Bruckner had ended his studies under Sechter and Kitzler, he wrote his first mature work, the Mass in D Minor. He was a very devout Roman Catholic.


Antonin Dvorak

Dvorak was born in Nelahozeves near Prague where he spent most of his life. He studied music in Prague's Organ School at the end of the 1850s, and through the 1860s played viola in the Bohemian Provisional Theatre Orchestra which was from 1866 conducted by Bedoich Smetana.

From 1892 to 1895, Dvorak was director of the National Conservatory in New York City. The Conservatory was founded by a wealthy socialite, Jeannette Thurber, who wanted a well-known composer as director in order to lend prestige to her institution. She wrote to Dvorak, asking him to accept the position, and he agreed, providing that she were willing to meet his conditions: that talented Native American and African-American students, who could not afford the tuition, must be admitted for free. She agreed to his conditions, and he sailed to America.

It was during his time as director of the Conservatory that Dvorak formed a friendship with Harry Burleigh, who became an important African-American composer. Dvorak taught Burleigh composition, and in return, Burleigh spent hours on end singing traditional American Spirituals to Dvorak. Burleigh went on to compose settings of these Spirituals which compare favorably with European classical composition.


Gabriel Faure

Born in Pamiers, Ariege, Midi-Pyrenees, he studied at the Niedermeyer school of religious music in Paris with several of the greats including Camille Saint-Saens. He eventually became organist at Eglise de la Madeleine.

He became a prolific composer, and among the most noteworthy of his works are his Requiem, an opera; Penelope, an orchestral suite Masques et Bergamasques (based on music for a dramatic entertainment, or divertissement comique), and music for Pelleas et Melisande. He also wrote chamber music and his two piano quartets are particularly well known. Other chamber music includes two piano quintets, two cello sonatas, two violin sonatas, and a number of piano pieces. He is also known for his songs, such as Clair de lune, Apres un reve, Les roses d'Ispahan, En priere, and several song cycles, including La Bonne Chanson with settings of poems by Verlaine.


Alexander Gretchaninov

Gretchaninov started his musical studies rather late because his father, a businessman, had expected the boy to take over the family firm. Gretchaninov himself related that he did not see a piano until he was 14 and began his studies at the Moscow Conservatory in 1881 against his father's wishes and without his knowledge. His main teachers there were Sergei Taneyev and Anton Arensky. In the late 1880s, after a quarrel with Arensky, he moved to St. Petersburg where he studied composition and orchestration with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov until 1893. Rimsky-Korsakov immediately recognized Gretchaninov's extraordinary musical imagination and talent and gave him much extra time as well as considerable financial help. This allowed the young man, whose parents were not supporting him, to survive. Out of this came an important friendship, which only ended in 1908 with Rimsky's death. As such, it is not surprising that Rimsky's influence can be heard in Gretchaninov's early works, such as his String Quartet No.1, a prize-winning composition.

Around 1896, Gretchaninov returned to Moscow and was involved with writing for the theater, the opera, and the Russian Orthodox Church. His works, especially those for voice, achieved considerable success within Russia, while his instrumental works enjoyed even wider acclaim. By 1910, he was considered a composer of such distinction that the Tsar awarded him an annual pension.


Edvard Grieg

Grieg was born in Bergen, and was of partial Scottish descent. His great-grandfather immigrated to Norway around 1770, and settled as a businessman in Bergen. Edvard was brought up in a musical home. His mother, Gesine, became his first piano teacher.

In the summer of 1858, Grieg met the legendary Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, who was a friend of the family and Gesine's brother-in-law. Bull noticed the 15-year-old boy's talent and persuaded his parents to allow him to go to Leipzig to study.

Grieg attained numerous concerts in Leipzig, but disliked the dicipline of the conservatory and found it little inspiring. In the spring of 1860, he caught a life-threatening lounge disease. The year after, he made his debut as a concert pianist, in Karlshamn, Sweden. The next year he finished his studies in Leipzig, and held his first concert in his hometown Bergen.


George Frideric Handel

Handel was born February 24, 1685, in Halle, Germany, to a family of no musical distinction. His own musical talent, however, manifested itself so clearly that before his tenth birthday he began to receive, from a local organist, the only formal musical instruction he would ever have. Although his first job, beginning just after his 17th birthday, was as church organist in Halle, Handel's musical predilections lay elsewhere. Thus, in 1703 he traveled to Hamburg, the operatic center of Germany; here, in 1704, he composed his own first opera, Almira, which achieved great success the following year. Once again, however, Handel soon felt the urge to move on, and his inclinations led him to Italy, the birthplace of operatic style. He stopped first at Florence in the autumn of 1706. In the spring and summer of 1707 and 1708 he traveled to Rome, enjoying the patronage of both the nobility and the clergy, and in the late spring of 1707 he made an additional short trip to Naples. In Italy Handel composed operas, oratorios, and many small secular cantatas; he ended his Italian sojourn with the spectacular success of his fifth opera, Agrippina (1709), in Venice.


Franz Liszt

Liszt was born in the village of Doborjan, near Sopron, Hungary, in what was then the Austrian Empire (Doborjan is now Raiding in Austria after the Treaty of Trianon of 1920). His baptism record is in Latin and lists his first name as Franciscus. The Hungarian variant Ferenc is often used, though Liszt never used this himself. His father, Adam Liszt, was Hungarian and his mother was Austrian-born Anna Liszt, nee Lagen.

Liszt displayed incredible talent at a young age, easily sight-reading multiple staves at once. His father, who worked at the court of Count Esterhazy, gave him his first music lessons when he was six years old. Local aristocrats noticed his talent and enabled him to travel to Vienna and later to Paris with his family. As a result, Liszt never fully learned Hungarian; his later letters and diaries show that he came to regret this deeply. One letter to his mother begins in faltering Hungarian, and after an apology continues in French (his preferred language).


Felix Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn was the son of a banker, Abraham, who was himself the son of the famous Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, and of Lea Salomon, a member od the Itzig family. Abraham sought to renounce the Jewish religion; his children were first brought up without religious education, and were baptised as Lutherans in 1816. (Abraham and his wife were not themselves baptised until 1822). The name Bartholdy was assumed at the suggestion of Lea's brother, Jakob, who had purchased a property of this name and adopted it as his own surname. Abraham was later to explain this decision in a letter to Felix as a means of showing a decisive break with the traditions of his father Moses: 'There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius'. Although Felix continued to sign his letters as 'Mendelssohn Bartholdy' in obedience to his fsther's injunctions, he seems not to have objected to the use of 'Mendelssohn' alone.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Probably the greatest genius in Western musical history, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria, Jan. 27, 1756, the son of Leopold Mozart and his wife, Anna Maria Pertl. Leopold was a successful composer, violinist and assistant concertmaster at the Salzburg court.

Wolfgang began composing minuets at the age of 5 and symphonies at 9. When he was 6, he and his older sister, Maria Anna (who was nicknamed "Nannerl"), performed a series of concerts to Europe's courts and major cities. Both children played the keyboard, but Wolfgang became a violin virtuoso as well.


Carl Nielson

Danish composer. He studied violin and trumpet as a child and began composing by imitating classical models. In 1890 he went to Germany to learn of newer developments and met Johannes Brahms, whose music came to influence his own. His individual style - still following classical forms but using intense chromaticism combined with a lyric, melodic strain - emerged after 1900. The last five of his six symphonies (1902 - 25) are the core of his work, but he also composed many short orchestra pieces, piano and chamber music, concertos for violin, flute, and clarinet, and a wind quintet.


Giacomo Puccini

Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini (December 22, 1858 -November 29, 1924) is regarded as one of the great operatic composers of the late 19th and early 20th century. His operas include including Madame Butterfly and La Boheme.


Sergey Rachmaninov

Sergei Rachmaninov (also spelled Rachmaninoff) was a legendary Russian composer and pianist who emigrated after the Communist revolution of 1917, and became one of the highest paid concert stars of his time, and one of the most influential pianists of the 20th century.

He was born Sergei Vasilevich Rachmaninov on April 2, 1873, on a large estate near Novgorod, Russia. He was the fourth of six children born to a noble family, and lived in a family estate, where he enjoyed a happy childhood. He studied music with his mother from age 4; continued at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and then graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892, winning the Great Gold Medal for his new opera "Aleko."

He was highly praised by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky , who promoted Rachmaninov's opera to the Bolshoi Theater in 1893. But the disastrous premiere of his 1st Symphony, poorly conducted by A. Glazunov, coupled with his distress over the Russian Orthodox Church's pressure against his marriage, caused him to suffer from depression, which interrupted his career for three years until he sought medical help in 1900. He had a three-month treatment by a hypnotherapist, aimed at overcoming his writer's block. Upon his recovery, Rachmaninov composed his brilliant 2nd Piano Concerto, and made a comeback with successful concert performances. From 1904-1906 he was a conductor at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.


Max Reger

The celebrated German composer Reger (Johann Baptist Joseph) Max(imilian) Reger, was the son of a school-teacher and amateur musician, who gave him instruction on the piano organ, and various string instruments. In 1874 the family moved to Weiden, where he studied organ and theory with Adalbert Lindner. He then attended the teacher-training college; after visiting the Bayreuth Festival in 1888, he decided on a career in music. He went to Sondershausen to study with Riemann in 1890, and continued as his pupil in Wiesbaden (1890-1893).

From 1890 to 1896, Max Reger was active as a teacher of piano, organ, and theory. Following military service, he returned to Weiden in 1898 and wrote a number of his finest works for organ. He went to Munich in 1901, first gaining general recognition as a pianist and later as a composer; was professor of counterpoint at the Konigliche Akademie der Tonkunst (1905-1906). Prominent compositions from this period included the Piano Quintet, op. 64 (1901-1902), the Violin Sonata, op. 72 (1903), the String Quartet op. 74 (1903-1904), the Variationen und Fuge uber ein Thema von J.S. Bach for Piano, op. 81 (1904), and the Sinfonietta, op. 90 (1904-1905). He went to Leipzig as music director of the University (1907-1908) and as professor of composition at the Conservatory (from 1907).


Josef Rheinberger

The composer, organist and teacher, Josef (Joseph) Gabriel Rheinberger, was unusully gifted as a child and acquired considerable fame when only 5 years old. He recived at about this time lessons in theory, pianoforte and organ from Sebastian Pohly, a retired schoolmaster at Schlanders (a special pedal-board being made for him. When 7 years old, he already served as organist in his parish church, and at the age of 8 composed a mass for three voices. After enjoying for a short time the instruction of Choir-master Schmutzer in Feldkirch, he attended the conservatory at Munich from 1851 to 1854, and finished his musical education with a course under Franz Lachner.


Gioachino Rossini

Gioachino Antonio Rossini was an Italian composer who wrote 39 operas as well as sacred music, chamber music, songs, and some instrumental and piano pieces. His best-known operas include the Italian comedies Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) and La cenerentola and the French-language epics Moise et Pharaon and Guillaume Tell (William Tell). A tendency for inspired, song-like melodies is evident throughout his scores, which led to the nickname "The Italian Mozart." Until his retirement in 1829, Rossini had been the most popular opera composer in history.


Robert Schumann

Born in Zwickau, Germany in 1810, Robert Schumann started his musical education on the piano. The son of a bookseller, he began to experiment with composition at an early age, and also cultivated a passion for poetry and literature. Although richly talented, he was never considered a prodigy, especially by the standards of the time. At sixteen, after the tragic deaths of his sister and father, he entered the University of Leipzig to study the law; but this didn't last long, and soon he had left the school to pursue music with all his energies.

At the age of twenty, Schumann was studying the piano with Friedrich Wieck in Leipzig; he also boarded with the Wieck family. Although a hand injury prevented him from pursuing a career as a keyboard virtuoso, he found a niche writing music criticism - and composing, an activity, which was starting to focus his considerable talents. In the early 1830s, he published several piano pieces to critical acclaim. In 1834, he founded the New Journal for Music and served as its editor for the next nine years; the publication attacked what Schumann felt were the shallow and inconsequential musical practices of the day. On the positive side, he recognized the brilliance of Chopin and Brahms.


Richard Strauss

(born June 11, 1864, Munich, Ger. - died Sept. 8, 1949, Garmisch-Partenkirchen) German composer and conductor. Son of a horn player, he began composing at age six. Before he was 20, he had already had major premieres of two symphonies and a violin concerto. In 1885 the conductor of the Meiningen Orchestra, Hans von Bulow, made Strauss his successor. Strongly influenced by the work of Richard Wagner, he began to write programmatic orchestral tone poems, including Don Juan (1889), Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks (1894 - 95), and Also sprach Zarathustra (1896). After 1900 he focused on operas; his third such work, Salome (1903 - 05), was a succes de scandale. Elektra (1906 - 08) marked the beginning of a productive collaboration with the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, with whom Strauss wrote his greatest operas, including Der Rosenkavalier (1909 - 10). He remained in Austria through World War II and held a music post in the German government, but he was later cleared of wrongdoing in connection with the Nazi regime. After many years writing lesser works, he produced several remarkable late pieces, including Metamorphosen (1945) and the Four Last Songs (1948).


Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (October 1813 - 27 January 1901) was an Italian Romantic composer, mainly of opera. He was one of the most influential composers of the 19th century. His works are frequently performed in opera houses throughout the world and, transcending the boundaries of the genre, some of his themes have long since taken root in popular culture - such as "La donna e mobile" from Rigoletto, "Va, pensiero" (The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Nabucco, "Libiamo ne' lieti calici" (The Drinking Song) from La traviata and the "Grand March" from Aida. His work has sometimes been criticized for using a generally diatonic rather than a chromatic musical idiom and for being essentially melodrama during his early years.

Verdi's masterworks dominate the standard repertoire a century and a half after their composition.


Choral Composers | Songwriters | Arrangers | Performers