Arts Blog

Classical Hobbies

In the world of classical music, it’s easy to get lost in the mystique and lore surrounding its musical figures. At All Classical Portland, we strive to connect to the real, living humans behind the music. What better way to get acquainted with these renowned composers than through their hobbies? Perhaps in doing so, we can form an even deeper connection to their music.

Additional editing and research by Rebecca Richardson, All Classical Portland’s Music Researcher & Digital Producer.

Felix Mendelssohn, visual artist

Gewandhaus - a watercolor painting by Felix Mendelssohn
Gewandhaus by Felix Mendelssohn (1836). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Felix Mendelssohn’s artistic achievements were not limited to music. From an early age, Mendelssohn was also inspired to draw and paint with watercolors. Visual art became an essential creative outlet for the composer both during periods of joy and grief. His painting titled “Gewandhaus” was likely created as a memento for a performance he conducted in 1836 in the venue of the same name.

The drawing at the top of this article is also by Mendelssohn, titled “Baumgruppe in Interlaken” (“Group of trees in Interlaken”).

Antonín Dvořák, trainspotter and pigeon fancier

Dvořák sitting with pigeons
Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

The Czech composer of “From the New World” symphony had two notable passions outside of music – trains and pigeons. Dvořák was fascinated by the technological advancement that trains provided. He almost obsessively tracked the records of trains traveling to and from his local station.

At his summer house in Vysoká, Dvořák meticulously maintained a pigeon loft that included birds gifted by Queen Victoria. While he spent time abroad in New York, the composer visited a zoological garden in Central Park every week to see the 200 pigeons housed there.

Gioachino Rossini, gourmand

Gioacchino Rossini by Étienne Carjat (1865). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Gioachino Rossini achieved such an unprecedented level of fame and success from his operas that he was able to retire in his 30s. So how did the Barber of Seville composer spend his time during his decades of freedom? He cultivated his passion for cooking excellent cuisine, drinking fine wine, and hosting lavish parties. Several culinary dishes were named after Rossini, including Tournedos Rossini (filet mignon with foie gras and truffles), Macaroni alla Rossini (a creamy baked pasta dish with truffles), and the Rossini Cocktail (a spin on a Bellini using strawberries in place of peaches).

Sergei Prokofiev, chess player

Image courtesy of ChessBase.

Sergei Prokofiev is known as one of the giants of 20th-century music, but did you know that he was also an avid chess player? Prokofiev’s passion for the game began as a child and evolved into competitive infatuation throughout the rest of his life. Through this hobby, the composer befriended notable world chess champions such as José Raúl Capablanca (even beating him at a match) and Mikhail Botvinnik.

George Butterworth, dancer

Black and white photo of a group of morris dancers, including George Butterworth
Image courtesy of WarComposers.co.uk.

English composer George Butterworth was especially passionate about preserving and promoting English folk music and dance. In fact, he is known to have said, “I’m not a musician. I’m a professional dancer.” Butterworth co-founded the English Folk Dance Society in 1911 and participated in its dance demonstration team. This video showing Butterworth (among others) performing Morris dancing is the earliest known example of English folk dance captured on film.

Video of George Butterworth dancing.

Arnold Schoenberg, painter and game designer

Chess board designed by Arnold Schoenberg
Chess board designed by Schoenberg. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As the “father of modern music”, Arnold Schoenberg is known for fostering new methods of musical composition. While pushing the limits of classical sonority of the time, Schoenberg also occupied himself with several other creative pursuits, including painting self-portraits and designing toys, games, chess sets, and playing cards. Historians speculate that Schoenberg used painting to help process periods of crisis and struggle while the design of games helped the composer harness and expand the creative innovation within his music.    

Alexander Borodin, composer (wait, what?)

Portrait of Alexander Borodin
Alexander Borodin by Ilya Repin (1888). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

You read that heading correctly! The creator of Prince Igor and In the Steppes of Central Asia was a respected researcher and professor of chemistry by day. Borodin considered composing music to be a source of relaxation from his scientific work, so really, composing was Borodin’s hobby. Borodin was a founding member of the Russian Chemical Society in 1868, and in 1872, he started the first medical courses for women in Russia.   

If you enjoyed this article, we have a feeling you’d also enjoy our recent post on musical friendships exploring historical instances of friendship in classical music.


For Further Reading

Buzacott, Martin. “Classically Curious: Pursuing Passions with Dvořák in the Big Apple.” ABC Classic, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 30 July 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/classic/read-and-watch/music-reads/classically-curious-dvorak-big-apple/11363734.

Chilla, Mark. “Side Hustle: Composers with Other Jobs.” Ether Game – Indiana Public Media, https://indianapublicmedia.org/ethergame/side-hustle-composers-with-other-jobs.php.

read, Trivia·5 min, et al. “The Pleasure Found in Pastime: Composers and Their Hobbies.” Mordents.com, 2 Feb. 2022, https://mordents.com/the-pleasure-found-in-pastime-composers-and-their-hobbies/.

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