Paul Dukas: October 1865 – May 1935
Dukas was a French composer, critic, scholar and teacher. A studious man, of retiring personality, he was intensely self-critical, and he abandoned and destroyed many of his compositions. Dukas won several prizes, including the second place in the Paris Conservatory’s most prestigious award, the Prix de Rome, for his cantata Velléda in 1888. Disappointed at his failure to win the top prize, he left the Conservatory in 1889. After compulsory military service he began a dual career as a composer and a music critic. His best known work, composed in 1897, is the orchestral piece The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a scherzo for orchestra. Later in his life he was appointed professor of composition at the Conservatoire de Paris and the École Normale de Musique. Dukas died in Paris in 1935, aged 69. He was cremated and his ashes were placed in the columbarium at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Fun Fact: Born in Paris, Dukas took piano lessons, but showed no unusual musical talent until he was 14 when he began to compose while recovering from an illness.
Amilcare Ponchielli: August 1834 – January 1886
Ponchielli was an Italian opera composer, best known for his opera La Gioconda. Born in Italy, Ponchielli won a scholarship at the age of nine to study music at the Milan Conservatory, writing his first symphony by the time he was ten years old. His early career was disappointing. Maneuvered out of a professorship at the Milan Conservatory that he had won in a competition, he took small-time jobs in small cities, and composed several operas, none successful at first. In spite of his disappointment, he gained much experience as the bandmaster arranging and composing over 200 works for wind band. La Giaconda, composed in 1876, contains the famous ballet Dance of the Hours as the third act finale. It was revised several times and the version that has become popular today was first performed in 1880.
Fun Fact: In 1881, Ponchielli was appointed choirmaster of the Bergamo Cathedral and professor of composition at the Milan Conservatory, where one of his students was Puccini.
George Gershwin: September 1898 – July 1937
Gershwin was an American composer and pianist whose compositions spanned both popular and classical genres. Among his best-known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928), the songs Swanee (1919) and Fascinating Rhythm (1924), the jazz standard I Got Rhythm (1930), and the opera Porgy and Bess (1935) which spawned the hit Summertime. In 1924, Gershwin composed his first major classical work, Rhapsody in Blue, for orchestra and piano. It subsequently went on to be his most popular work, and established Gershwin’s signature style and genius in blending vastly different musical styles in revolutionary ways.
Early in 1937, Gershwin began to complain of blinding headaches and a recurring impression that he smelled burning rubber. On the night of July 9, 1937 Gershwin collapsed then fell into a coma. On the morning of July 11, following surgery removing a large brain tumor, he died, at the age of 38.
Fun Fact: What set Gershwin apart was his ability to manipulate forms of music into his own unique voice. He took the jazz he discovered on Tin Pan Alley into the mainstream by splicing its rhythms and tonality with that of the popular songs of his era. Although George Gershwin would seldom make grand statements about his music, he believed that “true music must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today.”
Ludwig van Beethoven: December 1770 – March 1827
Beethoven was a German composer and pianist. He was a crucial figure in the transition between the classical and romantic eras in classical music and is considered to be one of the greatest composers of all time. Together with Bach and Johannes Brahms, he is referred to as one of the “three B’s” who epitomize that tradition. He was a pivotal figure in the transition from the 18th century musical classicism to 19th century romanticism, and his influence on subsequent generations of composers was profound.
The Symphony No. 5 Op. 67, was written between 1804 and 1808. It is one of the best-known compositions in classical music and one of the most frequently played symphonies, and it is widely considered one of the cornerstones of western music. The symphony, and the four-note opening motif in particular, are known worldwide, with the motif appearing frequently in popular culture, from disco versions to rock and roll covers, to uses in film and television.
Interesting Fact: On the advice of his doctor, he lived in the small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna, from April to October 1802 in an attempt to come to terms with his hearing loss. There he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers, which records his thoughts of suicide due to his growing deafness and records his resolution to continue living for and through his art.