by Matthew Ogden, The Catoctin School of Music
Oftentimes we celebrate the birthdays of some of the most well known composers, such as Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach. But sometimes observing the birthdays of lesser known composers is a fun way to expand our horizons. Below is a list of some notable February birthdays of various composers, some famous and some less well known. Have fun exploring some of the wonderful pieces composed by these February babies, and fall in love with some wonderful music you might never have heard!
February 2: Fritz Kreisler – born in Vienna, Austria, Fritz Kreisler was a composer of Jewish heritage who came to be one of the leading violinists of the first half of the twentieth century. Considered one of the greatest masters of the violin, he composed and performed many of his own pieces for the instrument, including the lovely “Liebeslied” (which means “love song”, perfect for Valentines Day!) — which we are blessed to have recordings of Kreisler himself performing.
February 3: Felix Mendelssohn – born in Hamburg, Germany, Mendelssohn also came from a family of Jewish heritage, whose grandfather was the famous Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. At the age of 25, Mendelssohn was offered the position as director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, where he championed the works of J.S. Bach, who had also lived in Leipzig, and befriended fellow composers Robert and Clara Schumann. Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny was also a skilled and very notable composer. Watch this phenomenal recording of an excerpt from Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto performed by Itzhak Perlman on the Ed Sullivan show at the age of thirteen!
February 8: John Williams – a living American composer, born in Queens, New York, John Williams is considered one of the leading contemporary composers of cinematic music, although he has written numerous other standalone pieces as well such as sonatas, symphonies, and concertos. His soundtracks are widely recognizable, from the music for the “Star Wars” films, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, etc. He has enjoyed a very close relationship with director Stephen Spielberg, out of which collaboration came the unparalleled soundtrack to Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List” and its unforgettable theme, performed here by none other than Itzhak Perlman and Williams himself, together in concert.
February 8: André Grétry – born in Belgium, in the francophone city of Liege (also the birthplace of the great Cesar Franck), where the conservatory of music is named after him. Grétry became known as a prolific composer of comic French operas, his most famous being “Zémire et Azor” based on the plot of a play titled “La Belle et la Bête” which is none other than the story we would know by the title of Beauty and The Beast! Listen to the beautiful aria “La Fauvette” from that opera, sung by the legendary coloratura soprano Lily Pons.
February 12: James Scott – born in Missouri in 1865, the son of former slaves, James Scott is considered one of the most important African-American ragtime composers, along with the renowned Scott Joplin. James Scott met Joplin personally and worked with him, gaining valuable contacts in the publishing industry who went on to print Scott’s own works. Listen to Scott’s piano rag: “Summer Breeze” (much appreciated on a blustery winter’s day!)
February 15: Michael Praetorius – born in Germany, Praetorius was a very prolific early baroque composers and music theorists. Much of his compositions were sacred works for the church in the Lutheran liturgical tradition, although he wrote numerous secular works as well for various combinations of winds and strings. For a wonderful example of the music for brass choir written by Praetorius, which is rich in the polyphonic style of the early baroque, listen to the Passameze and Galliarde from his “Terpsichore” collection of dances.
February 17: Arcangelo Corelli – another very important baroque composer, Corelli was born in Italy, and is credited with the development of the Concerto Grosso form, which greatly influenced later compositions by Bach and Handel (another February baby!) Corelli was also a very successful teacher, whose many students included the great Antonio Vivaldi. Listen to Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto” performed on original instruments.
February 19: Luigi Boccherini – though he was born in Italy ninety years after Corelli, Luigi Boccherini was very much influenced by Corelli’s music. Boccherini excelled in writing string quartets and string quintets, a new genre at the time in which each solo instrument was treated as an equal voice, including the cello. Boccherini himself was a virtuosic cellist and wrote some wonderful solo music for that instrument. Here is the great Pablo Cassals in a recording from 1938 of the first movement, Allegro moderato, from Boccherini’s concerto in Bb Major.
February 21: Charles-Marie Widor – organists will recognize the name Widor, who was born in France. Charles-Marie Widor was descended from a family of well-known organ builders, and he quickly mastered the instrument. He worked as the assistant to Camille Saint-Saëns and succeeded Cesar Franck as the organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire. He wrote ten “organ symphonies” which utilized the full expressive ability of this grand instrument. Here is a 1932 recording of Charles-Marie Widor himself playing the monumental “Toccata” from the conclusion of his Organ Symphony No 5.
February 22: Niels Gade – considered one of the leading Danish composers, Niels Gade worked closely with both Felix Mendelssohn (also born in February!) and also Robert Schumann, who composed a piano piece in his Album for the Young with a bass-line which spells out the melody “G-A-D-E”. Gade succeeded Mendelssohn as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, but unfortunately had to flee Germany shortly thereafter and return to his native Denmark with the outbreak of the Prussian-Danish war. Listen to this beautiful Fantasiestücke, op. 43 No 1, for clarinet and piano
February 23: George Friedrich Handel – one of the most performed and popular pieces in the choral repertoire is Handel’s Messiah. Although this oratorio was written in English, Handel was originally born in Germany. He was born the same year as J.S. Bach, but unlike Bach, who never left Germany, Handel moved to London and ultimately became an English citizen, writing much of his choral work in English. One wonderful oratorio, titled Judas Maccabaeus, tells the story of the victorious Maccabean revolt which is celebrated during Hannukah. The famous “See The Conquering Hero Come” is featured in that oratorio, and is sung today in Israel with the Hebrew words “Hava Narima”. Listen to the sublime voice of contralto Kathleen Ferrier sing “Father of Heaven”, a solemn prayer invoking divine blessings for the festival of light.
February 26: Anton Reicha – born in Prague, Anton Reicha was the nephew of the composer Josef Reicha, who educated him in musical performance. Reicha moved to Bonn, Germany, where he met the young Ludwig van Beethoven, with whom he remained lifelong friends. Beethoven and Reicha both studied composition under a shared teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe, while in Bonn. After moving to Vienna, Reicha maintained his relationship with Beethoven, and then ultimately moved to Paris and became professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, where his students included Charles Gounod and Cesar Franck. Reicha’s oeuvre is extremely rich and varied, with much of his music considered very advanced for its time, including his string quartets which are known to have influenced Beethoven. Here is a recording of the Kreutzer Quartet performing the first movement, Allegro Assai, of Reicha’s quartet in C Minor Op. 49 No 1. Also of interest is this very unique Grand Quintet for bassoon and string quartet, a very rare combination of instruments.
February 27: Morten Lauridsen – born in the United States, Morten Lauridsen is a contemporary living American composer, whose work is mainly centered on choral composition. His series of a cappella sacred motets are performed often by cathedral choirs, including his well-known Christmas motet “O Magnum Myterium”, which employs very tight polyphonic writing for double choir (eight independent voices).
February 29: Gioachino Rossini – born on leap-day, Rossini is celebrated as one of the great Italian operatic composers, and one of the three so-called “bel canto” composers (along with Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti). Bel canto literally means “beautiful singing” and the ideal of bel canto opera is to explore the full expressive capabilities of the human voice. Rossini wrote upwards of forty operas, along with an extraordinary number of cantatas, sacred choral works, and numerous other vocal and instrumental pieces. Since we only get to celebrate Rossini’s birthday every four years, in the meantime you can enjoy this wonderful performance by the legendary Maria Callas of “Una Voce Poco Fa” from The Barber of Seville!