For a country of less than 9 million people, Austria has an illustrious and protracted musical history with a panoply of famous composers. Austrian geniuses such as Mozart and Strauss immortalized themselves through the medium of classical music, such that their names are still recognized by admirers and students of all genres.
Presented below are biographies for five of the most famous Austrian composers. Videos are also provided to showcase some of their best work. Please leave a comment if you think another composer (or composition) deserves to be mentioned.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
Dubbed the "father of the symphony", Joseph 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. However, once he came of age, Haydn was thrown onto the streets to make it as a musician.
Haydn quickly turned adversity into success, and ended up spending much of his adult life living with a family of reclusive and extremely wealthy aristocrats who paid handsomely for his performances. Solitude granted Haydn a degree of originality and, three decades later, when he left the remote estate to tour Europe, his work 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.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
As perhaps the best known Austrian composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a child prodigy who performed as a violinist and keyboardist from the age of five. Mozart's father, Leopold, had taught him to play the clavier, and was his devoted teacher in many subjects.
Mozart was born in Salzburg, where he eventually received employment as a court musician. 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 30's, Mozart became penniless when the aristocracy began using their money to fund wars against the Ottoman Turks. As a result, Mozart was forced to move to cheaper accommodation and became depressed.
In his final year, Mozart began to recover mentally and financially. 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.
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Franz Schubert was born in Vienna and, much like Mozart, his work wasn't fully appreciated until after his death. 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, though 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 Schubert turned to write for more public audiences. He struggled at first, writing a number of failed operas and plays, though he eventually gained some notoriety in his later years.
Schubert had contracted syphilis by 1823, and this 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.
Johann Strauss II (1825–1899)
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 II's father wanted him to become a banker, and when he found his son secretly playing the violin, he beat the boy. It seems that his father had 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 permitted to practice music full time. 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 deny him permission to perform. 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 phenomenally good, and he received 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, though the demands of his career led to a nervous breakdown in 1853. He recovered, and went on to tour Russia and the United States. He also earned the admiration of Wagner and Brahms for his "Blue Danube Waltz". After a long life, Strauss died from pneumonia aged 73.
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Gustav Mahler was born in Kaliste in the Austrian Empire, though the city is now part of the Czech Republic. He was from a relatively poor Jewish family, but found his grandmother's piano at the age of four and never looked back. At 10 years of age, he performed in his local theatre, and at 15 years, he was accepted into a prestigious Viennese musical school. 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.
Mahler studied philosophy and literature at university, though he continued his musical studies. He took various conducting and teaching jobs in the next few decades, each slightly more prestigious than the last.
Mahler received a moderate response from critics during his life, though his popularity increased with age. Indeed, he was a bit of a trailblazer for the modern era. Due to his Jewish heritage, his compositions were banned by the Nazis, though they enjoyed a huge resurgence after the war and are still immensely popular in the present.
Discover More European Classical Music
Famous Austrian Composers
Austria has a remarkable tradition of producing renowned composers. Despite the pomp and splendor of the occupation, many led difficult and meager lives, and some were never properly appreciated in their era. If existence were to continue beyond death, their immortal legacies would no doubt impel tears of joy to match those of their listeners.
© 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:
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.