Everybody knows someone who gets a lot of mileage out of limited knowledge. People with this talent sound like experts and can dominate conversation at a gathering for 10-15 minutes until they have to leave to “refresh their drink” or to “catch up with a friend.” Well, I am here to offer you a chance to be a “ten-minute expert” on some popular classical composers.
Last year, I had a chance to work on a few of Naxos Life and Works of the Great Composers series for the Music Section’s audio collection. I had heard of this biographical series but never had a chance to listen to the recordings from beginning to end. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that these recordings are highly entertaining and educational. Written and narrated by Jeremy Siepmann (1942-2016), a pianist, broadcaster, educator and writer, this series is easy to listen to, requiring no prior knowledge of classical music, just curiosity to learn more about it. Listed below are some elements of this series that greatly appeal to me.
Siepmann always provides the historical context for the music and composer: what was happening politically, socially and culturally in Europe, who the leading cultural figures were, and how they were relevant to the composer’s growth. The historical setting helps listeners see a fuller picture: they become aware of the unique musical style of the period and of the composer, and can better understand the actions and reactions of the people.
In these recordings, Siepmann often uses the accounts of the composers’ contemporaries such as lovers, friends, critics, publishers, and students. Actors portray these characters, playing the part of a person reminiscing an encounter with a celebrity. As with most stories people tell about their brushes with famous people, they are fascinating, and at times outrageous and subjective. Regardless, these are documented comments extracted from personal letters and publications from the composer’s time.
Most importantly, these recordings are full of great musical examples that demonstrate the composer’s development and provide a glimpse of the evolving style of western music. I admit that some of the musical excerpts, such as Bach’s organ compositions, were a little too long for me but overall, the music on these recordings is of high quality and enjoyable to listen to.
Lastly, I loved hearing the tidbits about these great composers that make them seem utterly human – relatable and approachable. For example, Siepman says that the greatest love of Franz Liszt’s life, Princess Wittgenstein, had blackish teeth from incessant cigar smoking and was rather plain. In another recording, Siepmann juxtaposes Chopin’s scathing and venomous characterization of Pleyel, a French publisher and piano manufacturer, with a similarly dated letter addressing Pleyel as “my dearest friend.”
Have I piqued your interest yet? I strongly recommend these Naxos recordings to anyone who would like a quick survey of the classical music literature and composers. As I mentioned earlier, after listening to a couple of these recordings, you will be waxing eloquent on more substantial musical facts, citing musical examples and dropping names of the composer’s famous contemporaries. That is, until you have to refresh your drink.
DBM02893 Life and works of Johann Sebastian Bach
DBM03625 Life and works of Ludwig van Beethoven
DBM03622 Life and works of Johannes Brahms
DBM03626 Life and works of Frederic Chopin
DBM03620 Life and works of Antonin Dvorak
DBM03621 Life and works of Joseph Haydn
DBM03624 Life and works of Franz Liszt
DBM02891 Life and works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
DBM03619 Life and works of Franz Schubert
DBM03623 Life and works of Pyotr Ilʹyich Tchaikovsky
DBM03616 Life and works of Giuseppe Verdi