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4 Famous Classical Music Composers from Eastern Europe

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From left to right, Chopin, Liszt, Dvořák, and Bartók.

From left to right, Chopin, Liszt, Dvořák, and Bartók.

Classical Music in Eastern Europe

Composers from eastern Europe brought new melodies and forms of composition to a continent saturated with the work of Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. Their origins made them natural innovators and their success greatly diversified the art. Classical music simply wouldn't be the same without Chopin, Liszt, Dvorak, Bartok, and the folk melodies of eastern Europe.

The Romantic Era

In the early 19th century, the new "Romantic era" of classical music also brought modernization, with musical institutions (e.g., Conservatories) replacing the funding and courts of wealthy aristocrats. In response, a plethora of Polish, Czech, and Hungarian composers took advantage of the opportunities afforded to them across Europe.

These composers brought their national identity with them, incorporating forms such as the Polish "polonaise" and Hungarian folk melodies. As a result, eastern European composers have contributed greatly to the diversity of classical music.

Below are biographies for four of the most famous eastern European composers, with videos to showcase some of their most recognizable and influential music. In this article, "eastern Europe" is defined as to the east of Germany and Austria and to the west of Russia (although definitions vary).

A color-enhanced 1849 photograph of Frédéric Chopin.

A color-enhanced 1849 photograph of Frédéric Chopin.

1. Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

No list of great composers would be complete without Frédéric Chopin. His nocturnes constitute some of the most beautiful and evocative music ever written (see videos below).

Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola in Poland to a father who was a music teacher. His mother also played the piano and she may have given him his first lessons on the instrument that would define his career and legacy.

From the age of six, Chopin's talent meant that he was already receiving lessons in Warsaw from the Czech composer, Wojciech Zwyny. Less than a year later, he was giving public concerts and writing his own compositions. The child prodigy was even invited to play for Russian royalty, and he received a diamond ring from the Tsar.

Chopin was already popular abroad by the time he was 15 due to the commercial success of Rondo Op. 1. He went on to study composition and music theory at the Warsaw Conservatory until he was 19 under the Polish composer Jozef Elsner. After his studies, he set out to explore the continent and settled in Paris shortly after the 1830 Polish Revolution.

Chopin remained in Paris until his death, although he made very few public appearances in this time. He preferred to entertain groups of friends in his apartment or to perform for distinguished aristocrats. Even the annual public concerts he gave were only for a few hundred listeners. Chopin's reputation was largely built on his panoply of published work.

He began a relationship with the French author, George Sand, when he was 28 and she was 34. Chopin had always been of fragile health and, as his situation worsened, she began to think of him more as a child to be cared for. The two frequently quarreled and angrily parted ways after 9 years. One of Chopin's friends commented that she had "poisoned his whole being."

Chopin visited Scotland in the year before his death to see his pupil Jane Sterling. She proposed to him, although he declined citing his ill health. She nonetheless supported him until he died in Paris, aged 39. At his request, his heart was removed and buried in Warsaw.

Chopin wrote over 230 pieces in his lifetime, all of which involved the piano. His main influences were Mozart and Bach, although he incorporated a great deal of native Polish music, including the mazurka, which is a lively Polish folk dance.

A digitally enhanced image of Franz Liszt.

A digitally enhanced image of Franz Liszt.

2. Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Best known for his Hungarian Rhapsodies, Liebestraume, and La Campanella, Franz Liszt was born in Doborjan in Hungary. Like many great composers, his father was a musician who could play a range of instruments. He taught the young Liszt, who began to compose his own work by the age of eight and was performing publicly a year later. These performances brought praise from wealthy sponsors who supported his education.

The Liszt family visited Vienna when he was 11 years old. Here, he was taught by the renowned composers Carl Czerny and Antonio Salieri. He also met Beethoven and Schubert. Within two years, he had been published alongside Beethoven in Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli.

Liszt's early promise was halted by the death of his father. He moved to a small apartment in Paris with his mother where he gave piano lessons to other teenagers and composed almost nothing until he was 19. It took a concert by Niccolo Paganini to inspire his creative side once again, and he became determined to match the great Italian composer's ability.

Liszt entered a relationship with the Countess Marie d'Agoult, and the comfortable life suited him. His musical output greatly increased and, by the time he was 30, he was known across Europe as one of the greatest pianists of the day.

Liszt became extremely wealthy, although he gave much of it to charitable causes. He also supported other composers, including Wagner and Borodin. Under the guidance of his lifelong lover and friend, Princess Carolyne, Liszt turned from pianist to composer at the age of 35. His greatest works followed (see videos).

Liszt fell down some stairs aged 69 and died aged 74 after a number of subsequent illnesses. He was a typical Romantic composer but also a great innovator. He filled his work with great feeling, eccentricity, and evocative, mellifluous transformations. Liszt was heavily influenced by Schubert, Paganini, and Chopin, but he also incorporated traditional Hungarian music into his work (e.g., see video above).

An 1870 photograph of Antonín Dvořák.

An 1870 photograph of Antonín Dvořák.

3. Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

Best known for his New World Symphony, the Slavonic Dances, and Humoresque, Antonín Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves in the Czech Republic. His father played the zither (a wooden board with strings attached), but the young Dvořák learned the violin and displayed enough talent for his teachers to recommend a musical career. His deeply religious family agreed on condition that he become a Church organist.

As an adult, Dvořák joined an orchestra as a viola player but had to supplement his income by providing piano lessons. His first attempts at composition were barely noticed and, being a perfectionist, he threw away some of this earlier work.

Dvořák eventually secured a job as a Church organist, which gave him time to focus on composition. By the age of 26, he had attracted the admiration of his idol, Johannes Brahms.

Dvořák's career took off after his meeting with Brahms and the young Czech toured England, Russia, and the United States. He became a musical director in New York, for which he received a huge salary. Dvořák wrote his best work during his 3 years in the US. He also correctly predicted that the American style would develop on the basis of African-American music.

Dvořák returned to the Czech Republic where he remained for his final nine years before dying from a stroke, aged 62. He was influenced by Wagner, although his work incorporated a vast amount of traditional eastern European forms, including the mazurka, polonaise, and folk music from Moravia and Bohemia. Some of this influence is evident in the Slavonic Dances (see video above).

4. Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós in Hungary. His best known works include the Romanian Dances, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and his 2nd Violin Concerto (see video below).

In his youth, Béla displayed remarkable aptitude for the piano and could play several pieces by the time he was four. His mother started giving him lessons and he made his first concert appearance aged eleven. This early success allowed Bartók to enter a prestigious music school under the tutelage of experienced composers.

His initial influences were Debussy, Brahms, and Strauss, although he showed a great deal of interest in traditional eastern European folk melodies. This culminated in a 1908 journey in which he scoured the Bulgarian, Romanian, and Hungarian countrysides for traditional Magyar music. He successfully incorporated these melodies into the classical tradition.

Bartók became increasingly disenfranchised with the Hungarian administration after they rejected his 1911 opera, Bluebeard's Castle. He wrote very little before his triumphant return in 1914 with the ballet, The Wooden Prince.

Thereafter, Bartók transitioned to writing purely orchestral work, but he continued to discover and integrate folk melodies from around the world (e.g., the Romanian Folk Dances; see video below). This included a visit to Turkey in 1936.

Bartók ended his association with Hungary when they supported the Nazis in WW2 and he spent his last 5 years in America. He found it difficult to compose in unfamiliar surroundings and he wrote little before his death from leukemia, aged 64. Bartók is considered Hungary's greatest composer alongside Franz Liszt.

Discover More European Classical Music

© 2013 Thomas Swan


Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on September 26, 2013:

Thanks fphj48. It was a pleasure to research this subject, so finding the effort was easy enough!

Suzie from Carson City on September 25, 2013:

Thomas.....My parents passed on an appreciation for Classical music...and I am grateful for this. Your Hub is outstanding. I appreciate the effort you took to present this interesting background info on these famous and historical composers. Up ++

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on August 27, 2013:

Thank you Colleen and epbooks for your kind comments.

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on August 26, 2013:

I like this well written and informative hub. Thanks for posting!

Colleen Swan from County Durham on August 26, 2013:

Excellent content nicely presented within a series of articles.