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Eastern European Composers of Classical Music
A plethora of Polish, Czech and Hungarian composers emerged in the early 19th century when classical music became established in eastern Europe. They 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. In addition, videos are used to present some of their most popular music. If you would like to suggest another composer or composition, please leave a comment below.
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)
No list of great composers would be complete without Frederic Chopin. His nocturnes constitute some of the most beautiful and evocative music ever written (see videos).
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.
From the age of 6, Chopin was taught by the Czech composer Wojciech Zwyny in Warsaw. In less than a year, he was giving public concerts and writing his own compositions. The child prodigy was even invited to play for Russian royalty, and received a diamond ring from the Tsar. Chopin was already known abroad by the time he was 15 due to the commercial success of Rondo Op. 1.
Chopin studied composition and music theory at the Warsaw Conservatory until he was 19. His teacher was the 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, though he made very few public appearances in this time. Instead he entertained groups of friends in his apartment, or visited distinguished aristocrats. The annual public concerts he gave were only for a few hundred listeners. Thus, Chopin's reputation was almost solely due to his panoply of published work.
Chopin began a relationship with the French author, George Sand, when he was 28 and she was 34. He had always been a fragile man, and as his health worsened, she began to think of him 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, though 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 influences were Mozart and Bach, though he incorporated a great deal of native Polish music, including the mazurka, which is a lively Polish folk dance.
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 8 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 ended with the death of his father. He moved to a small apartment in Paris with his mother, where he gave piano lessons to other teenagers. He composed almost nothing until he was 19, though it took a concert by Niccolo Paganini to inspire his creative side once again. He became determined to match the great 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, Liszt was known across Europe as one of the greatest pianists of the day. He became extremely wealthy, though 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 (see videos) followed.
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.
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)
Best known for his New World Symphony, the Slavonic Dances, and Humoresque, Antonin Dvorak was born in Nelahozeves in the Czech Republic. His father played the zither, which resembles a wooden board with strings attached. The young Dvorak learned the violin, and displayed enough talent for his teachers to recommend him for a career as a musician. His deeply religious family agreed on condition that he become a Church organist.
In his early adulthood, Dvorak 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, as a perfectionist, Dvorak threw away some of this earlier work. He 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.
Dvorak's career took off after his meeting with Brahms, and the young Czech toured England, Russia and the United States. He became a music director in New York, for which he received a huge salary. Dvorak wrote his best work during his 3 years in the States. He also correctly predicted that the American style would develop on the basis of African-American music.
Dvorak 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, though his work incorporated a vast amount of traditional eastern European forms, including the mazurka, polonaise, and folk music from Moravia and Bohemia.
Bela Bartok (1881-1945)
Bela Bartok 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).
Bela displayed remarkable aptitude for the piano and could play several pieces by the time he was four. His mother gave him proper lessons from the age of five, and Bartok made his first concert appearance aged eleven. This early success allowed him to enter a prestigious music school under the tutelage of experienced composers.
His initial influences were Debussy, Brahms and Strauss, though 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.
Bartok became increasingly disenfranchised with the Hungarian administration after they rejected his 1911 opera, Bluebeard's Castle. He wrote very little before his triumphant return with the ballet, `The Wooden Prince' in 1914. Thereafter, Bartok transitioned to writing purely orchestral work, but continued to discover folk melodies from around the world. This included a visit to Turkey in 1936.
Bartok ended his association with Hungary when they supported the Nazis in WW2, and he spent his last 5 years in America. Bartok found it difficult to compose in unfamiliar surroundings, and he wrote little before his death from leukemia aged 64. He is considered Hungary's greatest composer alongside Franz Liszt.
Discover More European Classical Music
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.
© 2013 Thomas Swan