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5 Famous Austrian Composers of Classical Music

Dr. Thomas Swan is a writer and scientist from England with a love for classical music.

From left to right, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, and Mahler.

From left to right, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, and Mahler.

Classical Music in Austria

For a country with a population of fewer than 9 million people, Austria has a long and illustrious musical history that has delivered a panoply of famous composers.

This history was thanks, in part, to the Hapsburg monarchy who helped to make Vienna a cultural center by funding the arts and attracting composers from across Europe (e.g., Beethoven).

Despite the pomp and splendor of the occupation, some of these composers still led difficult or meager lives, and some were never fully appreciated in their own times. Nevertheless, names such as Mozart, Strauss, and Schubert are now instantly recognizable to students from all musical genres.

Presented below are biographies for five of the most famous Austrian composers, with videos to showcase some of their most recognizable and influential work.

1. Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)

Dubbed the "father of the symphony," Joseph Haydn is best known for his String Quartets, the Trumpet Concerto, and his various symphonies.

Haydn was born into a middle class family in Rohrau, Austria. His father was a harpist and the family spent a great deal of time enjoying music and singing with friends. At six years of age, Haydn's father noticed Joseph's gift for music and sent him to study the art in Hamburg. He learned the harpsichord and violin before moving to Vienna to become a choirboy.

Once Haydn became an adult, he was thrown onto the streets to make it as a musician. He quickly turned adversity into success, spending much of his adult life with a family of reclusive and extremely wealthy aristocrats who paid handsomely for his performances.

This relative solitude gave Haydn's work a degree of originality and, three decades later, when he left the remote estate to tour Europe, his music became immensely popular.

In later life, Haydn spent four years imparting his knowledge to a young Beethoven. He also played together with his youthful friend, Mozart. He thus inspired the two greatest musicians to have ever lived.

2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

As the best known Austrian composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a child prodigy who performed as a violinist and keyboardist from the age of five. His father, Leopold, had taught him to play the clavier and was his devoted teacher in many subjects.

As you will see from the videos, much of Mozart's work demonstrated his unparalleled genius and is instantly recognizable today.

Mozart was born in Salzburg, where he eventually received employment as a court musician. However, he wrote much of his best work in Vienna, where he lived from the age of 25.

Despite the success of his operas and concertos, Mozart spent much of his life in financial difficulty. Indeed, in his 30s, Mozart became penniless when the aristocracy began using their wealth to fund wars against the Ottoman Turks. As a result, Mozart was forced to move to cheaper accommodation and he became depressed.

In his final year, Mozart began to recover mentally and financially. Sadly, however, he was struck down by fever and died in 1791. Mozart's modest funeral and grave did not reflect his later reputation. In his short 35 year life, he composed over 600 pieces and, after his death, their popularity grew substantially.

3. Franz Schubert (1797–1828)

Franz Schubert was born in Vienna and, much like Mozart, he died far too young with his work not fully appreciated until after his death. His best known works include his Serenade (see video below), the Trout Quintet, and his Unfinished Symphony.

His father, Theodor, taught him the basics of piano and violin, and the young Schubert was also helped by his older brothers and friends who gave him access to instruments. He composed his first works for his family's string quartet, in which he played viola with his father and older brothers.

Aged 11, Schubert received a scholarship as a choirboy and eventually came to the attention of the great Italian composer, Antonio Salieri, who became his mentor. By the age of 15, Schubert was leading an orchestra and composing ambitious pieces.

Schubert spent his early adulthood as a music teacher, although he continued to receive instruction from Salieri. His close circle of friends and admirers were broken up by the paranoid Austrian police in 1820 and so Schubert decided to write for more public audiences. He struggled at first, writing several failed operas and plays, although he achieved notoriety in his later years.

Schubert had contracted syphilis by 1823, which caused his health to gradually decline. Despite writing some of his greatest works over the next 5 years, he died in 1828 from tertiary syphilis or mercury poisoning (a common treatment for the disease). He requested to listen to Beethoven on his deathbed and he was buried next to his idol.

4. Johann Strauss II (1825–1899)

Known as the "Waltz King," Johann Strauss II was the son of the promiscuous composer, Johann Strauss I. His two brothers would also go on to become minor composers, establishing the Strauss family as a major influence on 19th century classical music. Strauss is best known for The Blue Danube, Tales from the Vienna Woods, and his Emperor Waltz (or "Kaiser-Walzer").

Strauss's father had wanted him to become a banker and, when he found his son secretly playing the violin, he beat the boy. His father wanted him to avoid the difficult and often penurious lifestyle endured by composers of the era.

When his father left home with a mistress, Strauss was finally permitted to practice music. He learned the principles of composition at school and formed his own orchestra. However, Strauss' father continued to oppose his career by asking local venues to bar him from performing.

When the 19-year-old Strauss got his first break at the Dommayer's Casino, his father refused to perform there again. However, the reception of Strauss Junior's music was so good that he received several offers to perform thereafter.

Despite siding with revolutionaries against the monarchy, and despite his father's attempts to destroy his career, Strauss' brilliance was irrepressible. His fame exceeded that of his father, although the demands of his career led to a nervous breakdown in 1853.

Strauss recovered and went on to tour Russia and the United States. He also earned the admiration of German composers, Wagner and Brahms, for his Blue Danube Waltz. After a long life, Strauss died from pneumonia aged 73.

A photograph of Gustav Mahler in 1892.

A photograph of Gustav Mahler in 1892.

5. Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)

Gustav Mahler's best known works include his Adagietto (a love song; see video below) and his various symphonies, such as his Resurrection and Tragic symphonies.

Mahler was born in Kaliste in the Austrian Empire, although the city is now part of the Czech Republic. He was from a relatively poor Jewish family, but he found his grandmother's piano at the age of four and never looked back.

At 10 years of age, Mahler performed in his local theater and, at 15 years, he was accepted into a prestigious Viennese musical school. Unfortunately, much of his work from this era was destroyed by his own hand. Despite the apparent quality, he appeared to be ashamed of what would have been understandable imperfections.

In addition to his musical studies, Mahler learned about philosophy and literature at university. He took various conducting and teaching jobs over the next few decades, each slightly more prestigious than the last.

Mahler only received a moderate response from critics and the public during his life, although his popularity increased with age. Indeed, he was a bit of a trailblazer for the modern era. After his death in 1911, his compositions were also banned by the Nazis in occupied Europe due to his Jewish heritage. However, Mahler's work enjoyed a huge resurgence after the war and is still immensely popular to this day.

Discover More European Classical Music

© 2013 Thomas Swan


Frances Metcalfe from The Limousin, France on January 29, 2018:

I would definitely include the second Viennese school composers. Schoenberg adored Mahler, he, together with Berg and Webern have been pivotal in shaping the sound of classical music in the twentieth century. If you think they are inaccessible listen to Berg's violin concerto - even though it embraces the twelve note system, it is exceptionally harmonic and even quotes Bach. Also you might also include Beethoven and Brahms as honorary Austrians as they spent so much time there!

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on July 12, 2014:

Thanks whyjoker

whyjoker on July 12, 2014:


Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on August 17, 2013:

Thank you randomcreative!

Rose Clearfield from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on August 16, 2013:

Great basic overview! Thanks for the detailed information.