A guide to German classical music composers | Expatica
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Last update on May 14, 2020

From the Three Bs (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms) to the epic operas of Wagner, here are 10 reasons to love German composers.

Germany has provided us with a wealth of composers who have defined the course of Western Art Music. These German masters still occupy an exalted place in the canon of classical music, and remain widely celebrated throughout the world.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681 – 1767)

The vast oeuvre of Telemann is probably one of the largest in musical history (over 3,000 pieces) and the sheer level of his creativity has posed tough questions for music scholars and performers. Considered one of the most important German composers of the Baroque era, his legacy has unfortunately been overshadowed by the popularity of Bach. However, his music was consistently at the forefront of musical innovation, and Telemann became one of the creators of a new German style that amalgamated continental influences. Additionally his music acts as an important link between the late-Baroque and Classical era. Moreover, his publishing activities were equally paramount in the course of western art music, as his innovations of composer rights established the precedent that music was the intellectual property of the composer.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)

The works of Bach are celebrated for their intellectual depth, technical proficiency and artistic beauty, and are still performed in concert halls worldwide today. Bach advanced many Germanic styles through his genius in counterpoint, distortion of equal temperament, and harmonic and motivic control; and influenced rhythms, forms and textures from other European countries such as Italy and France.

His most famous works are The Brandenburg Concertos, Mass in B minor, The Well-Tempered Clavier and his multitude of chorales and organ works. Bach wrote in almost every genre of the time and in each one opened new dimensions in relation to creative and technical innovations. A timeless genius.

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 – 1787)

Opera composer of the early classical period, Gluck wrote a series of radical works in the 1760s, including Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste, that liberated the shape of opera that academics had campaigned for years to achieve. Gluck’s innovations included placing higher importance on the music rather than the notoriety of the singer, and rejecting fragmentation of narrative and action resulting in a more lucid narrative, which eventually influenced the musical dramas of Richard Wagner. Moreover, Gluck designed an amalgam of French and Italian opera, writing eight operas for the Parisian stages. Iphigénie en Tauride is generally considered to be his finest work of this era.

Felix Mendelssohn (1729 – 1786)

A gifted visual artist and expert of literature and philosophy, Mendelssohn was in essence a pure Renaissance man. While Mendelssohn’s name seldom arises in discussion of the musical avant-garde, his importance cannot be neglected. With superior formal refinement, Mendelssohn’s music demonstrates an abundance of energy, jubilance, theatricality and innovation. This is exemplified in his most famous works: A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Symphonies No 3 and 4.

While the exultant nature of Mendelssohn’s work is often misconstrued for a lack of emotional depth, one only has to look at his religious compositions such as Paulus and Elijah to understand the deeply complex spiritualism of his personality and music.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

Arguably the most important pioneer in Western Art Music, Beethoven was crucial in the transition between Classicism and Romanticism. Most scholars divide Beethoven’s oeuvre into three periods: early, middle and late. His early period was dominated by the influence of his predecessors Mozart and Haydn (Symphonies 1 and 2); the middle period is characterised by his impending deafness, and includes epic works that thematically represent heroism and struggle (Symphonies No. 3 to 8); the late period is represented by an intellectual depth, innovations and intense personal expression (Symphony No. 9). However, the quality of Beethoven’s music is in the unification of uncertainty and beauty, profound emotionality and precise intellectualism across a plethora of classical forms; an achievement that may never be eclipsed.

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)

Regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era, Schumann exclusively wrote piano compositions until 1840, after which he composed for piano and orchestra. Among his most famous works are Blumenstück, Kinderszenen, Album für die Jugend and many sonatas. Despite his adoption of more traditionalist composition techniques after his marriage, Schumann still received great critical acclaim. Having left a legacy of compositions in all forms of the day, Schumann’s ideologies and musical language have been widely studied. Schumann suffered from severe depression.

In the last two years of his life he attempted suicide, and was confined to a mental institute at his own request where he eventually died.

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883)

Primarily known for his operas or musical dramas, Wagner represents the epitome of German excess in the Romantic era. Rich harmonies and orchestrations, complex textures, and the ideals of leitmotifs are all key characteristics in the Wagner oeuvre. A radical innovator, Wagner advanced musical theory through his extreme use of chromaticism, which became highly influential in the development of European Classical Music. His opera Tristan und Isolde is considered to be the first example of modern music, with the epic four opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen being his most celebrated work. However, Wagner’s achievements in the musical sphere are sometimes overshadowed by his antagonistic personality and contentious political views; most notably his anti-Semitic essays which lead him to notoriously become Hitler’s favourite composer.

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

Often categorised as one of the three B’s with Beethoven and Bach, Brahms has warranted his reputation and legacy as one of the greatest composers of all time. Often regarded as a traditionalist and innovator, Brahms’ music is firmly rooted in the structures and techniques of Baroque and classical music masters. A guru of counterpoint, Brahms endeavoured to maintain the pure Germanic traditions and advance them into the romantic idiom. Music critics at the time believed his work to be too academic and theoretical, but his perfectionism and diligence in relation to composition have influenced composers ranging from Arnold Schoenberg to Edward Elgar.

A true disciple of the practice of absolute music, Brahms is mostly famous for his symphonic work, most notably Symphony No. 1, which reportedly took Brahms 21 years to complete.

Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949)

Richard Strauss was a leading figure along with Gustav Mahler in initiating the shift towards modernism in the late-Romantic era. Strauss represented the late flowering of Wagnerian romanticism, with increased cacophony, harmonic disruptions and orchestral advancements. Most famous for his operas such as the somewhat dissonant Salome and Der Rosenkavalier, as well as his tone poems such as Also Sprach Zarathustra which featured in Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent 2001: A Space Odyssey. Strauss progressed the ideals of dissonance in his opera Elektra which features the infamous Elektra chord.

Kurt Weill (1900 – 1950)

Active from the 1920s, Weill was a pioneering figure in stage music and is most celebrated for his works with Bertolt Brecht. The most illustrious synthesis of their fruitful collaborations was the musical exposition of Marx’s ideas, The Threepenny Opera. In addition to his collaborations with Brecht, Weill co-wrote with Maxwell Anderson, Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein and wrote a film score for Fritz Lang. Though some consider his Americanised works to be inferior, Weill played a crucial role in the progression of the American musical. An active socialist, Weil wrote music that had political objectives. His works have been covered by artists such as Louis Armstrong, PJ Harvey and Tom Waits.