George T. Ferris.

The Great German Composers online

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Produced by David Widger


By George T. Ferris

Copyright 1878, by D. Appleton and Company


The sketches of composers contained in this volume may seem arbitrary in
the space allotted to them. The special attention given to certain names
has been prompted as much by their association with great art-epochs as
by the consideration of their absolute rank as composers.

The introduction of Chopin, born a Pole, and for a large part of his
life a resident of France, among the German composers, may require
an explanatory word. Chopin's whole early training was in the German
school, and he may be looked on as one of the founders of the latest
school of pianoforte composition, whose highest development is in
contemporary Germany. He represents German music by his affinities
and his influences in art, and bears too close a relation to important
changes in musical form to be omitted from this series.

The authorities to which the author is most indebted for material are:
Schoelcher's "Life of Handel;" Liszt's "Life of Chopin;" Elise
Polko's "Reminiscences;" Lampadius's "Life of Mendelssohn;" Chorley's
"Reminiscences;" Urbino's "Musical Composers;" Franz Heuffner's "Wagner
and the Music of the Future;" Haweis's "Music and Morals;" and articles
in the leading Cyclopædias.








Schubert, Schumann, and Franz. Chopin


Mendelssohn Wagner




The growth and development of German music are eminently noteworthy
facts in the history of the fine arts. In little more than a century
and a half it reached its present high and brilliant place, its progress
being so consecutive and regular that the composers who illustrated
its well-defined epochs might fairly have linked hands in one connected

To Johann Sebastian Bach must be accorded the title of "father of modern
music." All succeeding composers have bowed with reverence before his
name, and acknowledged in him the creative mind which not only placed
music on a deep scientific basis, but perfected the form from Which
have been developed the wonderfully rich and varied phases of orchestral

Handel, who was his contemporary, having been born the same year, spoke
of him with sincere admiration, and called him the giant of music. Haydn
wrote: "Whoever understands me knows that I owe much to Sebastian Bach,
that I have studied him thoroughly and well, and that I acknowledge him
only as my model." Mozart's unceasing research brought to light many of
his unpublished manuscripts, and helped Germany to a full appreciation
of this great master. In like manner have the other luminaries of music
placed on record their sense of obligation to one whose name is obscure
to the general public in comparison with many of his brother composers.

Sebastian Bach was born at Eisenach on the 21st of March, 1685, the son
of one of the court musicians. Left in the care of his elder brother,
who was an organist, his brilliant powers displayed themselves at an
early period. He was the descendant of a race of musicians, and even at
that date the wide-spread branches of the family held annual gatherings
of a musical character. Young Bach mastered for himself, without much
assistance, a thorough musical education at Lüne-burg, where he studied
in the gymnasium and sang in the cathedral choir; and at the age of
eighteen we find him court musician at Weimar, where a few years later
he became organist and director of concerts. He had in the mean time
studied the organ at Lübeck under the celebrated Buxtehude, and made
himself thoroughly a master of the great Italian composers of sacred
music - Palestrina, Lotti, Vivaldi, and others.

At this period Germany was beginning to experience its musical
_renaissance_. The various German courts felt that throb of life and
enthusiasm which had distinguished the Italian principalities in the
preceding century in the direction of painting and sculpture. Every
little capital was a focus of artistic rays, and there was a general
spirit of rivalry among the princes, who aspired to cultivate the arts
of peace as well as those of war. Bach had become known as a gifted
musician, not only by his wonderful powers as an organist, but by two
of his earlier masterpieces - "Gott ist mein König" and "Ich hatte viel
Bektlmmerniss." Under the influence of an atmosphere so artistic, Bach's
ardor for study increased with his success, and his rapid advancement in
musical power met with warm appreciation.

While Bach held the position of director of the chapel of Prince Leopold
of Anhalt-Kothen, which he assumed about the year 1720, he went to
Hamburg on a pilgrimage to see old Reinke, then nearly a centenarian,
whose fame as an organist was national, and had long been the object
of Bach's enthusiasm. The aged man listened while his youthful rival
improvised on the old choral, "Upon the Rivers of Babylon." He shed
tears of joy while he tenderly embraced Bach, and said: "I did think
that this art would die with me; but I see that you will keep it alive."

Our musician rapidly became known far and wide throughout the musical
centres of Germany as a learned and recondite composer, as a brilliant
improviser, and as an organist beyond rivalry. Yet it was in these last
two capacities that his reputation among his contemporaries was the most
marked. It was left to a succeeding generation to fully enlighten the
world in regard to his creative powers as a musical thinker.


Though Bach's life was mostly spent at Weimar and Leipsic, he was at
successive periods chapel-master and concert-director at several of the
German courts, which aspired to shape public taste in matters of musical
culture and enthusiasm. But he was by nature singularly retiring and
unobtrusive, and he recoiled from several brilliant offers which would
have brought him too much in contact with the gay world of fashion,
apparently dreading any diversion from a severe and exclusive art-life;
for within these limits all his hopes, energies, and wishes were
focalized. Yet he was not without that keen spirit of rivalry, that love
of combat, which seems to be native to spirits of the more robust and
energetic type.

In the days of the old Minnesingers, tournaments of music shared the
public taste with tournaments of arms. In Bach's time these public
competitions were still in vogue. One of these was held by Augustus
II., Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, one of the most munificent
art-patrons of Europe, but best known to fame from his intimate part in
the wars of Charles XII. of Sweden and Peter the Great of Russia. Here
Bach's principal rival was a French _virtuoso_, Marchand, who, an exile
from Paris, had delighted the king by the lightness and brilliancy of
his execution. They were both to improvise on the same theme. Marchand
heard Bach's performance, and signalized his own inferiority by
declining to play, and secretly leaving the city of Dresden. Augustus
sent Bach a hundred louis d'or, but this splendid _douceur_ never
reached him, as it was appropriated by one of the court officials.

In Bach's half-century of a studious musical life there is but little
of stirring incident to record. The significance of his career was
interior, not exterior. Twice married, and the father of twenty
children, his income was always small even for that age. Yet, by
frugality, the simple wants of himself and his family never overstepped
the limit of supply; for he seems to have been happily mated with wives
who sympathized with his exclusive devotion to art, and united with this
the virtues of old-fashioned German thrift.

Three years before his death, Bach, who had a son in the service of the
King of Prussia, yielded to the urgent invitation of that monarch to
go to Berlin. Frederick II., the conqueror of Rossbach, and one of the
greatest of modern soldiers, was a passionate lover of literature and
art, and it was his pride to collect at his court all the leading lights
of European culture. He was not only the patron of Voltaire, whose
connection with the Prussian monarch has furnished such rich material
to the anecdote-history of literature, but of all the distinguished
painters, poets, and musicians, whom he could persuade by his
munificent offers (but rarely fulfilled) to suffer the burden of his
eccentricities. Frederick was not content with playing the part of
patron, but must himself also be poet, philosopher, painter, and

On the night of Bach's arrival Frederick was taking part in a concert
at his palace, and, on hearing that the great musician whose name was
in the mouths of all Germany had come, immediately sent for him without
allowing him to don a court dress, interrupting his concert with the
enthusiastic announcement, "Gentlemen, Bach is here." The cordial
hospitality and admiration of Frederick was gratefully acknowledged by
Bach, who dedicated to him a three-part fugue on a theme composed by the
king, known under the name of "A Musical Offering." But he could not be
persuaded to remain long from his Leipsic home.

Shortly before Bach's death, he was seized with blindness, brought on by
incessant labor; and his end was supposed to have been hastened by the
severe inflammation consequent on two operations performed by an English
oculist. He departed this life July 30, 1750, and was buried in St.
John's churchyard, universally mourned by musical Germany, though his
real title to exceptional greatness was not to be read until the next


Sebastian Bach was not only the descendant of a widely-known musical
family, but was himself the direct ancestor of about sixty of the
best-known organists and church composers of Germany. As a master of
organ-playing, tradition tells us that no one has been his equal, with
the possible exception of Handel. He was also an able performer on
various stringed instruments, and his preference for the clavichord *
led him to write a method for that instrument, which has been the basis
of all succeeding methods for the piano. Bach's teachings and influence
may be said to have educated a large number of excellent composers and
organ and piano players, among whom were Emanuel Bach, Cramer, Hummel,
and Clementi; and on his school of theory and practice the best results
in music have been built.

* An old instrument which may be called the nearest
prototype of the modern square piano.

That Bach's glory as a composer should be largely posthumous is probably
the result of his exceeding simplicity and diffidence, for he always
shrank from popular applause; therefore we may believe his compositions
were not placed in the proper light during his life. It was through
Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, that the musical world learned what a
master-spirit had wrought in the person of John Sebastian Bach. The
first time Mozart heard one of Bach's hymns, he said, "Thank God! I
learn something absolutely new." Bach's great compositions include his
"Preludes and Fugues" for the organ, works so difficult and elaborate
as perhaps to be above the average comprehension, but sources of delight
and instruction to all musicians; the "Matthäus Passion," for two
choruses and two orchestras, one of the masterpieces in music, which was
not produced till a century after it was written; the "Oratorio of the
Nativity of Jesus Christ;" and a very large number of masses, anthems,
cantatas, chorals, hymns, etc. These works, from their largeness and
dignity of form, as also from their depth of musical science, have been
to all succeeding composers an art-armory, whence they have derived
and furbished their brightest weapons. In the study of Bach's works the
student finds the deepest and highest reaches in the science of music;
for his mind seems to have grasped all its resources, and to have
embodied them with austere purity and precision of form. As Spenser
is called the poet for poets, and Laplace the mathematician for
mathematicians, so Bach is the musician for musicians. While Handel may
be considered a purely independent and parallel growth, it is not too
much to assert that without Sebastian Bach and his matchless studies
for the piano, organ, and orchestra, we could not have had the varied
musical development in sonata and symphony from such masters as
Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Three of Sebastian Bach's sons became
distinguished musicians, and to Emanuel we owe the artistic development
of the sonata, which in its turn became the foundation of the symphony.



To the modern Englishman Handel is almost a contemporary. Paintings and
busts of this great minstrel are scattered everywhere throughout the
land. He lies in Westminster Abbey among the great poets, warriors, and
statesmen, a giant memory in his noble art. A few hours after death
the sculptor Roubiliac took a cast of his face, which he wrought into
imperishable marble; "moulded in colossal calm," he towers above his
tomb, and accepts the homage of the world benignly like a god. Exeter
Hall and the Foundling Hospital in London are also adorned with marble
statues of him.

There are more than fifty known pictures of Handel, some of them by
distinguished artists. In the best of these pictures Handel is seated in
the gay costume of the period, with sword, shot-silk breeches, and coat
embroidered with gold. The face is noble in its repose. Benevolence
is seated about the finely-shaped mouth, and the face wears the
mellow dignity of years, without weakness or austerity. There are few
collectors of prints in England and America who have not a woodcut or
a lithograph of him. His face and his music are alike familiar to the
English-speaking world.

Handel came to England in the year 1710, at the age of twenty-five. Four
years before he had met, at Naples, Scarlatti, Porpora, and Corelli.
That year had been the turning-point in his life. With one stride he
reached the front rank, and felt that no musician alive could teach him

George Frederick Handel (or Handel, as the name is written in German)
was born at Halle, Lower Saxony, in the year 1685. Like German
literature, German music is a comparatively recent growth. What little
feeling existed for the musical art employed itself in cultivating the
alien flowers of Italian song. Even eighty years after this Mozart and
Haydn were treated like lackeys and vagabonds, just as great actors were
treated in England at the same period. Handel's father looked on music
as an occupation having very little dignity.

Determined that his young son should become a doctor like himself, and
leave the divine art to Italian fiddlers and French buffoons, he did not
allow him to go to a public school even, for fear he should learn the
gamut. But the boy Handel, passionately fond of sweet sounds, had, with
the connivance of his nurse, hidden in the garret a poor spinet, and in
stolen hours taught himself how to play. At last the senior Handel had
a visit to make to another son in the service of the Duke of
Saxe-Weissenfels, and the young George was taken along to the ducal
palace. The boy strayed into the chapel, and was irresistibly drawn to
the organ. His stolen performance was made known to his father and the
duke, and the former was very much enraged at such a direct evidence of
disobedience. The duke, however, being astonished at the performance of
the youthful genius, interceded for him, and recommended that his taste
should be encouraged and cultivated instead of repressed.

From this time forward fortune showered upon him a combination of
conditions highly favorable to rapid development. Severe training,
ardent friendship, the society of the first composers, and incessant
practice were vouchsafed him. As the pupil of the great organist Zachau,
he studied the whole existing mass of German and Italian music, and soon
exacted from his master the admission that he had nothing more to teach
him. Thence he went to Berlin to study the opera-school, where Ariosti
and Bononcini were favorite composers. The first was friendly, but the
latter, who with a first-rate head had a cankered heart, determined
to take the conceit out of the Saxon boy. He challenged him to play at
sight an elaborate piece. Handel played it with perfect precision, and
thenceforward Bononcini, though he hated the youth as a rival, treated
him as an equal.

On the death of his father Handel secured an engagement at the Hamburg
opera-house, where he soon made his mark by the ability with which, on
several occasions, he conducted rehearsals.

At the age of nineteen Handel received the offer of the Lübeck organ, on
condition that he would marry the daughter of the retiring organist. He
went down with his friend Mattheson, who it seems had been offered
the same terms. They both returned, however, in single blessedness to

Though the Lübeck maiden had stirred no bad blood between them, musical
rivalry did. A dispute in the theatre resulted in a duel. The only thing
that saved. Handel's life was a great brass button that shivered his
antagonist's point, when they were parted to become firm friends again.

While at Hamburg Handel's first two operas were composed, "Almira" and
"Nero." Both of these were founded on dark tales of crime and sorrow,
and, in spite of some beautiful airs and clever instrumentation, were
musical failures, as might be expected.

Handel had had enough of manufacturing operas in Germany, and so in
July, 1706, he went to Florence. Here he was cordially received; for
Florence was second to no city in Italy in its passion for encouraging
the arts. Its noble specimens of art creations in architecture,
painting, and sculpture, produced a powerful impression upon the young
musician. In little more than a week's time he composed an opera,
"Rodrigo," for which he obtained one hundred sequins. His next visit
was to Venice, where he arrived at the height of the carnival. Whatever
effect Venice, with its weird and mysterious beauty, with its marble
palaces, façades, pillars, and domes, its magnificent shrines and
frescoes, produced on Handel, he took Venice by storm. Handel's power as
an organist and a harpsichord player was only second to his strength as
a composer, even when, in the full zenith of his maturity, he composed
the "Messiah" and "Judas Maccabæus."

"Il caro Sassone," the dear Saxon, found a formidable opponent as well
as dear friend in the person of Scarlatti. One night at a masked ball,
given by a nobleman, Handel was present in disguise. He sat at the
harpsichord, and astonished the company with his playing; but no one
could tell who it was that ravished the ears of the assembly. Presently
another masquerader came into the room, walked up to the instrument, and
called out: "It is either the devil or the Saxon!" This was Scarlatti,
who afterward had with Handel, in Florence and Rome, friendly contests
of skill, in which it seemed difficult to decide which was victor. To
satisfy the Venetian public, Handel composed the opera "Agrippina,"
which made a _furore_ among all the connoisseurs of the city.

So, having seen the summer in Florence and the carnival in Venice, he
must hurry on to be in time for the great Easter celebrations in Rome.
Here he lived under the patronage of Cardinal Otto-boni, one of the
wealthiest and most liberal of the Sacred College. The cardinal was
a modern representative of the ancient patrician. Living himself in
princely luxury, he endowed hospitals and surgeries for the public. He
distributed alms, patronized men of science and art, and entertained
the public with comedies, operas, oratorios, puppet-shows, and academic
disputes. Under the auspices of this patron, Handel composed three
operas and two oratorios. Even at this early period the young composer
was parting company with the strict old musical traditions, and his
works showed an extraordinary variety and strength of treatment.

From Rome he went to Naples, where he spent his second Italian summer,
and composed the original Italian "Aci e Galatea," which in its English
version, afterward written for the Duke of Chandos, has continued a
marked favorite with the musical world. Thence, after a lingering return
through the sunny land where he had been so warmly welcomed, and which
had taught him most effectually, in convincing him that his musical life
had nothing in common with the traditions of Italian musical art, he
returned to Germany, settling at the court of George of Brunswick,
Elector of Hanover, and afterward King of England. He received
commission in the course of a few months from the elector to visit
England, having been warmly invited thither by some English noblemen. On
his return to Hanover, at the end of six months, he found the dull and
pompous little court unspeakably tiresome after the bustle of London.
So it is not to be marveled at that he took the earliest opportunity of
returning to the land which he afterward adopted. At this period he was
not yet twenty-five years old, but already famous as a performer on the
organ and harpsichord, and as a composer of Italian operas.

When Queen Anne died and Handel's old patron became King of England,
Handel was forbidden to appear before him, as he had not forgotten the
musician's escapade; but his peace was at last made by a little ruse.
Handel had a friend at court, Baron Kilmansegge, from whom he learned
that the king was, on a certain day, going to take an excursion on the
Thames. So he set to work to compose music for the occasion, which he
arranged to have performed on a boat which followed the king's barge.
As the king floated down the river he heard the new and delightful
"Water-Music." He knew that only one man could have composed such music;
so he sent for Handel, and sealed his pardon with a pension of two
hundred pounds a year.


Let us take a glance at the society in which the composer moved in the
heyday of his youth. His greatness was to be perfected in after-years
by bitter rivalries, persecution, alternate oscillations of poverty
and affluence, and a multitude of bitter experiences. But at this time
Handel's life was a serene and delightful one. Rival factions had not
been organized to crush him. Lord Burlington lived much at his mansion,
which was then out of town, although the house is now in the heart of
Piccadilly. The intimate friendship of this nobleman helped to bring the
young musician into contact with many distinguished people.

It is odd to think of the people Handel met daily without knowing that
their names and his would be in a century famous. The following picture
sketches Handel and his friends in a sprightly fashion:

"Yonder heavy, ragged-looking youth standing at the corner of Regent
Street, with a slight and rather more refined-looking companion, is
the obscure Samuel Johnson, quite unknown to fame. He is walking with
Richard Savage. As Signor Handel, 'the composer of Italian music,'
passes by, Savage becomes excited, and nudges his friend, who takes only
a languid interest in the foreigner. Johnson did not care for music; of
many noises he considered it the least disagreeable.

"Toward Charing Cross comes, in shovel-hat and cassock, the renowned
ecclesiastic Dean Swift. He has just nodded patronizingly to Bononcini
in the Strand, and suddenly meets Handel, who cuts him dead. Nothing
disconcerted, the dean moves on, muttering his famous epigram:

'Some say that Signor Bononcini,
Compared to Handel, is a ninny;
While others vow that to him Handel
Is hardly fit to hold a candle.
Strange that such difference should be
'Twixt tweedledum and tweedledee.'

"As Handel enters the 'Turk's Head' at the corner of Regent Street,
a noble coach and four drives up. It is the Duke of Chandos, who is
inquiring for Mr. Pope. Presently a deformed little man, in an iron-gray
suit, and with a face as keen as a razor, hobbles out, makes a low bow
to the burly Handel, who, helping him into the chariot, gets in after
him, and they drive off together to Cannons, the duke's mansion at
Edge-ware. There they meet Mr. Addison, the poet Gay, and the witty
Arbuthnot, who have been asked to luncheon. The last number of the
_Spectator_ is on the table, and a brisk discussion soon arises between
Pope and Addison concerning the merits of the Italian opera, in which
Pope would have the better if he only knew a little more about music,
and could keep his temper. Arbuthnot sides with Pope in favor of Mr.

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