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6 Famous German Composers of Classical Music

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

From left to right, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, and Brahms.

From left to right, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, and Brahms.

The Influence of German Classical Music

German classical composers come from a musical dynasty that is unmatched in its popularity and influence. From Bach and Beethoven to Wagner and Brahms, their work resonates through the centuries with a ceaseless modernity that attracts listeners of all ages and dispositions. As such, you are likely to recognize many of the pieces that are presented in the videos below.

This popularity is entirely justified. German classical music encompasses a diverse range of styles and temperaments that have influenced composers from around the world. Beyond these technical innovations, German composers have also written some of the finest and most emotive melodies ever heard.

Below are biographies for six of the most famous German composers of classical music, with videos to showcase their most recognizable work.

1. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

Best known for his Brandenburg Concertos, the Goldberg Variations, and his Mass in B Minor, Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most famous and influential composers to have ever lived. Among others, he inspired and earned the admiration of Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin.

Bach was born into a family of musicians in Eisenach. His father was the town's musical director, his uncles were musicians, and his seven older siblings all played as well. Many of the family contributed to Bach's education with the harpsichord, clavichord, and violin.

When his mother and father both died within a year of each other, the 10-year-old Bach moved in with his older brother, Johann Christoph, who was 14 years his senior. Johann continued Bach's education in musical theory until he was accepted into a prestigious school in Luneberg. As a teenager, Bach enjoyed the town's culture and his new aristocratic friends. He sang in the school choir and continued to play the harpsichord and organ.

Bach's early adulthood saw him move between various posts. Often this meant working as a court musician for an aristocrat or being musical director in a Church. Eventually, Bach landed a comfortable position in the court of Prince Leopold, granting him time to focus on his compositions. After 6 years, the 38-year-old Bach moved to Leipzig to become musical director for all of the city's Churches, where he remained until his death, aged 65.

Bach's style was energetic and mellifluous, but with great attention to detail. His studies allowed him to incorporate a diverse range of styles from an international array of musicians. He wrote much of his secular music while working for Prince Leopold, although religious music dominated his repertoire. Indeed, Bach was a devout Lutheran, and choral Church music was in high demand.

George Friedrich Handel.

George Friedrich Handel.

2. George Friedrich Handel (1685–1759)

Known for his works, Messiah, Music for the Royal Fireworks, and Water Music, George Handel was born in Halle in the same year as Bach. His father had intended for him to study law and was distressed by Handel's fervor for music. The young Handel had to play the clavier secretly in the attic while his family were asleep.

When visiting an aristocrat, Handel surprised everyone when he skillfully played the organ. His father was reluctantly convinced to allow him to take music lessons, and at 13 years old, Handel performed for the king of Prussia.

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Despite Handel's early success, his father forced him to study law at university. Naturally, he found his studies underwhelming and soon joined an orchestra. By the time he was 20, he had produced two operas.

In 1712, Handel moved to London to bring Italian opera to the English aristocracy. However, his priorities changed when a stroke caused him to lose the ability to perform. Nevertheless, Handel recovered well and, in the last 20 years of his life, he composed some of his greatest works.

3. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

Frequently named the greatest composer of all time, Ludwig Van Beethoven is known for just about everything he has written. Some of his most recognizable pieces are Moonlight Sonata, Für Elise, Ode to Joy, and his 7th Symphony.

Beethoven was born in Bonn and received training in the piano, violin, and organ. Like many great composers, he was taught by his father from an early age, although other teachers also contributed. Beethoven gave his first public performance aged 7 and received his first job as a court musician aged 14.

When he was 22, Beethoven moved to Vienna to study under his friend, Joseph Haydn. Years earlier, he had unsuccessfully attempted to meet Mozart in the same city. When Haydn left for England two years later, Beethoven had already enhanced his reputation enough to receive financial support from the nobility. He eventually published his first concertos at the age of 23, with great success.

Beethoven's career flourished, even after he began to lose his hearing in 1796 (aged 26). By 1801, he was having problems engaging in conversation and was completely deaf by 1814. The likely cause was tinnitus and a distended inner ear.

After 1811, Beethoven refrained from performing in public, although he continued to compose, writing many famous works in his later years. He remained in Vienna until his death at the age of 67.

Beethoven's musical style reflected his greatest influences, Mozart and Haydn, although his huge collection of work encompassed several genres and instruments. As one of the greatest human beings to have ever lived, two of Beethoven's works were sent into space on the Voyager probe.

4. Robert Schumann (1810–1856)

Known for Kinderszenen (see video below), Blumenstuck, and his piano sonatas, Robert Schumann was born in Saxony to a novelist father. His comfortable childhood was spent immersed in literature and music and, at around 7 years of age, he was already composing his own pieces for the piano.

Schumann's father supported his musical education but, when he died, the 16-year-old Schumann was required to study Law to receive his inheritance. Four years later, his love for music was reignited by a performance from the great Italian composer Niccolo Paganini. He began taking piano lessons from Friedrich Wieck, whose daughter he would later marry.

For unknown reasons, Schumann suffered a debilitating injury to his right hand while studying under Weick, which ended his ambition to become a concert pianist. Some have speculated that he underwent a botched surgical procedure to unbind some of the tendons on his hands for greater dexterity. Other theories suggest a side-effect of syphilis medication (mercury), or over-use of a mechanical finger-strengthening device.

After his injury, Schumann dedicated himself to composition, although he also became a remarkable music critic. He recognized the genius of Chopin and discovered Brahms before the young composer had published a single work.

Schumann composed many of his greatest pieces between 1835 and 1840, including Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana, and Blumenstuck. This coincided with his flourishing romance with Clara Wieck, although her father Friedrich forbade it. They married in 1840 and Friedrich eventually supported the union in order to see his eight grandchildren.

Schumann suffered from a mental illness for the last 23 years of his life that involved severe depression and auditory hallucinations. He died aged 46 after spending his final two years in an insane asylum. Some of his later work was thrown away by his wife and friends for its manic influence.

5. Richard Wagner (1813–1883)

Richard Wagner was one of the most influential musicians of the 19th century. He is best known for his operas Tristan and Isolde and The Ring of the Nibelung.

Wagner's father died shortly after he was born and his mother remarried to a playwright who helped to spark his love of the theater. By the time he was 7, Wagner was playing theater songs by ear, although he struggled to read the music.

Wagner's initial ambition was to become a playwright and he wrote his first play aged 13. His wish for a musical accompaniment led to his parents granting him lessons in composition. Wagner became so inspired by Mozart and Beethoven that he turned his attention from plays to operas. By the time he attended university, Wagner was so talented that his teacher refused to be paid for teaching him.

Wagner's early career was plagued by money problems. His first opera did not reach production and his second opera was only seen once before the theater went bankrupt. Wagner moved to Riga to direct operas for the Russian Empire, but he instead accumulated more debt and fled to London. Stays in Paris and Dresden followed before his involvement in revolutionary activity forced him to flee the German police.

At the age of 36, Wagner finally settled in Zurich where he wrote some of his best work. However, his stay was not without drama after he cheated on his wife and began to espouse antisemitic views.

After 13 years, Wagner was allowed to return to Germany, where his work attracted the attention of the German royal family. The Prince cleared his debts and granted Wagner a comfortable life. Financial stability contributed to a stunning effusion of new operas, including Tristan and Isolde. After 20 happy years, Wagner died from a heart attack, aged 69.

6. Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)

Best known for his Hungarian Dances, The Cradle Song, and A German Requiem, Brahms was born in Hamburg to a musician father and seamstress mother. He grew up in near-poverty, although his father provided early musical training and secured him piano lessons from the age of 7. As a boy, Brahms had to play the piano in dance halls to supplement the family income.

Brahms gave his first public tour at the age of 19. The next year, he took a job accompanying a Hungarian violinist. Their tour of Germany gave him the opportunity to meet several composers, including Franz Liszt.

Brahm's first big break came when he was introduced to Robert Schumann, who heavily complimented him and contributed to his later popularity. Brahms became a friend of the Schumann family and developed an emotional attachment to Robert's wife, Clara. When Robert died, the two may have become romantically involved.

Brahms' style was old-fashioned, although he incorporated some new elements and was still seen as an innovator. He became a rival to Wagner and Liszt, who were more excessive and revolutionary with their work. Much like Gustav Mahler, Brahms was a ruthless perfectionist who threw away much of his earlier work for being insufficient.

At the age of 35, Brahms wrote A German Requiem, which brought him fame across Europe. This acknowledgment of his ability triggered a plethora of new work, which further established his reputation as one of the greatest composers in the years leading up to his death from cancer, aged 63.

Discover More European Classical Music

© 2013 Thomas Swan


Frances Metcalfe from The Limousin, France on February 01, 2017:

Lovely to read your hub. They punch above their weight, the German composers! May I just point a couple of things out about Beethoven - he died at 56 and became totally deaf in his mid forties. He used ear trumpets to hear and later, notebooks to communicate. Hope this is of interest! Shall be interested to read more of your hubs...

Colin Garrow from Inverbervie, Scotland on May 05, 2015:

Fascinating insight into some of the world's greatest composers. Great Hub. Voted up.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on September 02, 2013:

Thanks Jenslibra. Having an early gift seems to be an important element in becoming a famous composer. Having a parent who can teach the basics seems to help; and being exposed to music in the first few years of life has a big effect too. The brain is developing fast at that time, and it can be molded by frequently experienced stimuli.

Jennifer Vasquez from Long Beach, CA on September 02, 2013:

I really appreciate the info you provided in this hub. I studied music as an undergrad in college and became very acquainted with the works of these gifted composers. What continues to amaze me is that a majority of these musicians showed a great fluency in music at such young ages! I really enjoy Beethoven because of the influences of Haydn and Mozart I hear in some of his compositions. Although he's not German, I love Mozart! Great hub!

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on August 28, 2013:

Cheers tastiger04. I'm also a fan of Bach, though I'm less favorable towards Wagner. Still, I can recognize his huge popularity, which is why he's made it in. Thanks for commenting and voting!

tastiger04 on August 27, 2013:

Great hub. I am a huge fan of classical music, especially of Bach and Wagner's work. Good to know there are more people in the world in appreciation of it!! Thanks for the interesting read :) Voted up and interesting

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