BEAUTY of music | back to school

It’s September. Growing up in the Deep South, September meant relief from the oppressive heat and humidity of August, football (go Vols!), and the return of the familiar patterns of the school year. With the fall semester is now in full swing, let's look back upon the education of the composers of the First Viennese School: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

View of Vienna by Bernardo Bellotto
View of Vienna (around 1759) by Bernardo Bellotto

Many composers come from musical families, and like other trades in the eighteenth century, their earliest education came in the home. Musicians were often versed in voice, piano, and other instruments in addition to composition, which was often considered part of any performer’s craft.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was also born into a musical family, and his father, Leopold, was a minor composer and violinist in the court of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. To supplement his modest income, Leopold taught violin and even published one of the best-known treatises on violin instruction—one that is still used by performers today for its insight into 18th-century string technique. Wolfgang began composing music with his father at the age of four—the son would dictate as his father transcribed. Mozart would also study privately with other prominent teachers.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s earliest musical instruction also came from his father, Johann van Beethoven. His grandfather, also Ludwig, was a well-respected musician, though he died when his grandson was just three years old. Knowing how Leopold Mozart paraded his prodigious son around Europe, Johann saw a financial opportunity in young Ludwig’s talents. Perhaps because young Beethoven wasn’t as charming as young Mozart, the royal audiences were less taken with Ludwig. One can imagine how a son of Johann van Beethoven might develop a cantankerous temperament. At around age ten, Beethoven took up studies with Christian Gottlob Neefe, a minor opera composer and court organist in Bonn, where Beethoven grew up. Beethoven would move to Vienna when he was twenty-two to study with Joseph Haydn. This arrangement lasted only a year as Beethoven became dissatisfied with Haydn’s instruction, even though it is obvious Beethoven learned a great deal from “Papa” Haydn. Beethoven would also study with Antonio Salieri and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, whom, of course, we all know for his famous trombone concerto.

Haydn grew up in a considerably different environment from other major composers. Though neither of his parents were musically literate, casual music-making was a constant in Haydn’s house as a child. His father, who like his father was a wheelwright, played the harp while his mother often sang. Joseph and his brothers would participate in family (and often neighborhood) concerts. Upon hearing young Joseph sing, an older cousin, Johann Mathias Franck, invited him to study at the school where he served as principal. Franck was also a church choir director and oversaw Haydn’s earliest musical education. Here, Haydn would study harpsicord and violin in addition to voice.


Gradus ad Parnassum & The Great Composer as Teacher
Influential books on composition

So how did these composers actually learn their craft? Did Haydn read a book called How to Become the Father of the Symphony? Of course not, but they did all have one text in common, and that was Johan Joseph Fux’s treatise on counterpoint, Gradus ad Parnassum (1725). In Fux’s book, he details the fundamental technique known as counterpoint writing—setting multiple voices against each other and elegantly alternating between dissonant and consonant intervals. Such was the technique of music (particularly a cappella music) of the previous century. Fux’s book was descriptive rather than prescriptive in that it put in writing practices that had existed for centuries, though it was intended to serve as a foundation for future composers.

Musical styles had changed considerably since Fux’s time, but the principles he outlined continued to inform compositional technique in the late eighteenth century and for generations afterward. His book would continue to be influential through the nineteenth century, and even today music students learn the basics of counterpoint that were detailed by Fux. In Alfred Mann’s book, The Great Composer as Teacher and Student: Theory and Practice of Composition, the author describes the process of compositional study. He has even reproduced Beethoven’s studies with Haydn, complete with Haydn’s corrections. Anyone who has studied counterpoint will appreciate Haydn’s corrections, as we have had many of our assignments corrected by our more learned theorists. It is nice to see that even Beethoven made voice-leading “errors.” An annotated copy of Haydn’s copy of Fux still survives, and Haydn lent it to Mozart.

Another common form of learning was transcribing scores of other composers. After Mozart studied the scores of Bach, one can notice him adopting some of the contrapuntal practices of the late master, particularly the fugal finales of the “Spring” String Quartet in G, K. 387:

and his “Jupiter” Symphony in C, K. 551:

and also the overture to The Magic Flute:

Compositional technique was also learned in the most natural ways: by listening to and playing music by other composers, a practice that continues today in popular music (many bands begin by covering music by other groups).

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Antonio Salieri’s contributions to Viennese musical education. Among his students were Beethoven, Franz Liszt, and Franz Schubert. Salieri enjoyed prominent posts in Vienna from 1774 until 1824, a period of enormous transition in music. His influence, particularly in vocal music, is difficult to overstate.

Music is not unlike language in how it is learned. The building blocks are normally taught at a young age, and style is formed by contemporary tastes as each composer builds on the work of those who came before. Just as great writers are well read, great composers are familiar with the work of their peers.

As we begin the new school year, let us reflect on those teachers who influenced us most. For me, it was my high school music teacher who first introduced me to the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven and even the contrapuntal technique of Fux. Without Debbie Burton, you wouldn’t have just finished reading this post!


It is time to school yourself on the canon of classical music! Visit our media library sorted by composer to listen to America's greatest emerging pianists perform works by music's greatest composers.  

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