Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel
Portrait of Johann Christian Bach by Thomas Gainsborough (1776)
Portrait of Carl Friedrich Abel by Thomas Gainsborough (1777)
Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) was the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach and his second wife Anna Magdalena Wülken. J.C. Bach had a lot of older brothers and sisters, but as a young person he also found time to make friends with Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787), the son of his father’s friend. Carl’s father, Christian Ferdinand Abel, worked with J.S. Bach at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, and the dads were such good friends that J.S. Bach stood godfather to Christian Ferdinand Abel’s daughter.
When J.C. Bach moved to London to write opera in 1762, he found his friend Carl Friedrich Abel already established there as a bass viol player. In 1764 the two became roommates, and soon they teamed up professionally as well: in 1765 they began a concert series that became known as the Bach-Abel Concerts. Public, ticketed concerts were still a somewhat new idea at the time (in the Baroque, most music happened at courts, at opera houses, or at places of worship). Bach and Abel shared the duties of directing and performing in a series of ten to fifteen concerts each year, and their series was so successful it ran until 1781.
Felix Mendelssohn & Hector Berlioz
Portrait of Hector Berlioz (1832) by Émile Signor
Portrait of Felix Mendelssohn (1830) by Eckart Kleßmann
If you were searching 1830s Europe for musical friends, you might not expect to find the reserved classicist Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) palling around with a flamboyant, experimental Romantic like Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). However, the two hit it off when they met in Rome in 1831. Soon afterward Berlioz wrote to friends in Paris,
“I have met Mendelssohn. He is a fine fellow, and his execution is on a par with musical genius, which is saying a great deal. All that I have heard of his music has charmed me; I firmly believe that he is one of the greatest musical intellects of the day.”
Berlioz goes on to write of their odd-couple Italian tourism: Mendelssohn showed Berlioz ancient Roman ruins, and Berlioz the modernist was unimpressed; Berlioz poked fun at religion, and the pious Mendelssohn was shocked. Berlioz summed it up thus: “I owe him the only endurable moments I enjoyed during my stay in Rome.”
Berlioz and Mendelssohn saw each other again at a concert in Leipzig in 1843, and Berlioz wrote that Mendelssohn was “charming, attentive, excellent–in a word, a good fellow all round. We exchanged batons in token of friendship.” Felix’s sister, composer Fanny Hensel, described this little exchange in her diary, hilariously demonstrating that the two friends remained as opposite as ever:
“In return for Felix’s pretty light stick of whalebone covered with white leather [Berlioz] sent an enormous cudgel of lime-tree with the bark on.”
Clara Schumann & Josephine Lang
Portrait of Clara Schumann (1840) by J.H. Schramm
Josephine Lang (1815-1880)
Josephine Lang (1815-1880) was a German pianist, singer, and composer, who specialized in art song. She had the attention of many contemporary musicians. Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn both admired her work, and Felix gave her theory lessons. Robert Schumann also praised her work in his music journal, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung.
Lang taught music and composed throughout her life, but her need for work became dire in 1856, when her husband passed away. She was left with only her music career to support her children, while expierencing chronic illness herself. One friend who lent a hand was another bereaved single mother, Clara Schumann (1819-1896). Clara’s husband Robert had died in the same year, leaving her with a large family of children to support. While Clara Schumann was renewing her career as a piano soloist, she found time to arrange a benefit concert for Josephine Lang as well, in which she performed Lang’s compositions, and helped invigorate Lang’s career as a teacher and published composer.
Johannes Brahms & Friends
Johannes Brahms and Johann Strauss Jr., photographed in 1894
Though Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) had a reputation as a rather difficult and cynical fellow, music connected him to quite a few artistic friends over the course of his life. Here he is in 1894, photographed in Bad Ischl, an Austrian spa town, with Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899). The Waltz King had a villa in Bad Ischl, where he often invited Brahms to parties. At one of these occasions Strauss’s stepdaughter asked Brahms to autograph her fan, and on it Brahms wrote the opening bars of Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz, with the inscription, “unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms!”
Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909)
Sometimes musical connection isn’t just helpful, it’s the only language available. In 1888 Brahms met Italian composer Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909) in Bologna, and this time he really needed to connect through music, for Martucci spoke no German and Brahms spoke no Italian. The story goes that the two composers communicated exclusively by singing to each other.
Henry Thacker Burleigh & Antonín Dvořák
Antonín Dvořák, photographed in 1892
Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949)
In 1892, Bohemian composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) came to the United States to teach at a new institution, the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Arts patron Jeannette Thurber had founded the conservatory, and hired Dvořák, because she wanted to encourage the growth of an American musical style. She felt that Dvořák had done so well establishing Czech music that he could also help American composers find their voice.
Dvořák quickly concluded that African-American music was some of the finest material America had to offer. To learn about spirituals, Dvořák turned to Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949), a student at the National Conservatory. Burleigh had learned a vast repertoire of spirituals from his maternal grandmother, who had once been enslaved. He recalled the melodies for Dvořák in his beautiful baritone voice, and Dvořák was inspired to create a theme reminiscent of spirituals in his Symphony No. 9, From the New World. Dvořák encouraged Burleigh to create his own compositions based on spirituals, and Burleigh went on to write a classic library of art-song spiritual arrangements, as well as original songs and chamber works.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, photographed c. 1905
Burleigh continued to build musical bridges throughout his distinguished career. For more than fifty years, he was a soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York, where he overcame initial objections from white congregants to become a beloved and influential musical leader. He also supported the work of English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), accompanying him as a baritone soloist during Coleridge-Taylor’s 1910 tour of the United States.
Tōru Takemitsu and Igor Stravinsky
Tōru Takemitsu, photographed in 1961.
Igor Stravinsky, photographed in 1965.
Composer Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996) was an influential 20th-century modernist, whose music drew on both the Western avant-garde and traditional Japanese music and instruments. One of the works that brought Takemitsu international success was his Requiem for Strings, a work he composed in 1957 in memory of Fumio Hayasaka, composer for Kurosawa’s Rashōmon. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) heard the Requiem for Strings during a 1959 visit to Tokyo, and he was floored. Let’s read the story in Takemitsu’s own words, from a 1989 interview printed in Perspectives in New Music.
Takemitsu explained that Stravinsky heard the Requiem for Strings “by accident because, when he was in Tokyo…he asked to listen to new Japanese music. The radio stations arranged it. My music was not supposed to be played, but by chance someone played some and Stravinsky said, ‘Please, keep going.’ He listened to my music along with many other pieces. After that he had a press conference and he mentioned only my name. Then he invited me to lunch. I was nervous because he is such a great master. Even at that time I didn’t like his music so much, though of course I had great respect for it–and he is such a great orchestrator. Anyway, I met him…For me, it is unforgettable. After that he returned to the United States and perhaps he spoke about my music to Aaron Copland or something, so I got a commission from the Koussevitsky Founation. Then I wrote a piece called Dorian Horizon, which was first performed by Aaron Copland conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.”
Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes
Photograph of Margaret Allison Bonds by Carl van Vechten
Photograph of Langston Hughes by Carl Van Vechten
American composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) discovered the poetry of Langston Hughes (1902-1967) in 1929, while she was a student at Northwestern University. She described the experience in a 1971 interview:
“I was in this prejudiced university, this terribly prejudiced place…. I was looking in the basement of the Evanston Public Library where they had the poetry. I came in contact with this wonderful poem, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers,’ and I’m sure it helped my feelings of security. Because in that poem he tells how great the black man is. And if I had any misgivings, which I would have to have – here you are in a setup where the restaurants won’t serve you and you’re going to college, you’re sacrificing, trying to get through school – and I know that poem helped save me.”
Bonds met Langston Hughes in Chicago in 1936. She recalled, “The first time I saw Langston was at Tony’s house in Chicago, Tony Hill, the ceramicist. Finally he came to my house. My family rolled out the red carpet. We were like brother and sister, like blood relatives.”
Bonds and Hughes would forge a deep artistic connection: throughout their careers, Hughes encouraged Bonds’s composing and performing, sent her texts to set, and collaborated with her on creative projects. More than half of Bonds’s compositions feature texts by Hughes, including musicals like Tropics after Dark, religious works like The Ballad of the Brown King and Simon Bore the Cross, and numerous art songs, including a setting of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the poem that moved Bonds so much in college. Bonds felt that this setting was her best work: in 1967 she said, “I’ve done more complicated things but I don’t think I’ve ever surpassed it.”
For Further Reading
Bernard, Daniel, et al. Life and Letters of Berlioz. United Kingdom: Remington and Company, 1882.
Bowers, Jane M., and Judith Tick, eds. Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Kilgore, Alethea N. “The Life and Solo Vocal Works of Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972).” DMA diss. Florida State University, 2013.
Klingemann, Karl, ed. The Mendelssohn Family (1729-1847) from Letters and Journals. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1882.
Krebs, Harald, and Sharon Krebs. Josephine Lang: Her Life and Songs. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Takemitsu, Tōru, Tania Cronin, and Hilary Tann. “Afterword.” Perspectives of New Music 27, no. 2 (1989): 206-214. Accessed August 28, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/i234538.
Snyder, Jean E. Harry T. Burleigh: From the Spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016.
Walker-Hill, Helen. From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.