Pimsleur Profiles: Four Great German Composers

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The members of the band Kraftwerk are legends in their own right, while the band Faust is a disturbingly compelling purveyor of the musical style known as “Krautrock.” But we want to spirit you back to an era when German composers came armed not with synths and guitars, but quills and harpsichords (oh, and the odd full orchestra). Here are our bite size profiles of four of the greatest composers ever produced by this musical nation.

German Composers - Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach – Image via Wikipedia

Johann Sebastian Bach

March 31, 1685 – July 28, 1750

Why he’s on the list: For musical students, Bach’s mathematical precision can be a nightmare, yet there is undeniable beauty in almost all of what he wrote – so much so that Bach’s music is often said to bring one closer to God. As the philosopher Alain de Botton states, “What I appreciate in Bach is his ability to suggest to me what a belief in God feels like. His music seems to me to be about devotion to a perfect ideal – something purer, better, higher …”
Defining works: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Brandenburg Concertos, St Matthew Passion
Trivia: Like many middle class people of his time, Bach was something of a coffee fiend. He even wrote an ode to the beverage, which was regularly performed at his local haunt, the Zimmermann Coffee House in Leipzig.


German Composers - George Friedrich Handel

George Friedrich Handel - Image via Wikipedia

George Frideric Handel

February 23, 1685 – April 14, 1759

Why he’s on the list: As Beethoven once said, “Handel was the greatest composer that ever lived.  I would uncover my head, and kneel before his tomb.” Here was a composer who became master of every form he turned his hand to; when he tired of Italian opera, oratorio became Bach’s bread and butter, while he produced many commissions for royal patrons with seeming effortlessness.
Defining works: Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, Messiah, Zadok the Priest
Trivia: Though Handel was born in Halle, Germany, the preponderance of his career was spent in London; 36 years in all. Centuries later, Handel’s house on Brook Street acquired a new musical neighbor, a certain Jimi Hendrix. Today both houses are conjoined into a Handel museum, with a special exhibit on the rock star.


German Composers - Beethoven
Beethoven – Image via Wikipedia

Ludwig van Beethoven

December 16, 1770 – March 26, 1827

Why he’s on the list:  Aside from creating some of music’s most memorable refrains, Beethoven was a rule-breaker. While his early piano works were delicate slices of ear candy, as he became embittered by life, his works became dark and angry; and his “couldn’t care less” attitude led to a renegade composition style, such as the introduction of a fifth movement (a big deal back then).
Defining works: Piano Sonata No. 14, Für Elise, Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 9
Trivia: By the time he premiered his Symphony No. 9 in 1824, Beethoven had become completely deaf, yet that didn’t stop him from taking to the podium and conducting the piece. It’s said that as the symphony ended and the audience applauded, Beethoven continued conducting, unaware, and had to be halted by one of the singers.


German Composers - Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner – Image via Wikipedia

Richard Wagner

May 22, 1813 – February 13, 1883

Why he’s on the list:  Wagner may not have been a particularly affable personality, but listening to his music rarely fails to stir some sort of emotion in any human being, whether that be fear, melancholia or ecstasy, and directors persist in using his work in their films to such effect. Of all of Germany’s great composers, Wagner is the most timeless.
Defining works: Ride of the Valkyries, Tristan & Isolde, The Ring of the Nibelung
Trivia: Wagner was a vegetarian, and felt so strongly about this life choice that he wrote essays on it, arguing that humanity was becoming ‘contaminated’ due to its carnivorous habits. These essays later influenced Adolf Hitler in his decision to turn veggie.


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