Let's begin by saying very clearly: stay in school, kids. Alright, with that said, our theme this week is all about those people who proved that statement wrong. This week, a look at composers who said “we don’t need no education!” and became “Drop Outs.”
Here's our list:
- George Gershwin (1898–1937) – When George Gershwin’s parents brought home a piano for George’s older brother Ira to learn, it was George (not Ira) who took an interest. The 12-year-old quickly took to piano lessons, and eventually the music scene on New York City’s Lower East Side. By the time he hit 15 years old, the young George dropped out of school to become a song plugger for a Tin Pan Alley music publisher. These song pluggers were musical salesmen, “plugging” the latest songs to performers and theatre producers in hopes of boosting sheet music sales. Before long, George began composing his own songs, leading to a successful career both on Broadway and in the concert hall. Incidentally, George’s older brother Ira was much more studious. Ira graduated high school and enrolled in the City College of New York—that is, before dropping out and later joining his brother in the music business.
- Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) – By the time Stravinsky completed and revised his music for the ballet Petrushka in 1946, he had cultivated a composition style that cherry-picked characteristics of baroque music, but kicked most aspects of traditional classical music to the curb. His rebellious composition style mirrored his general dislike for institutions, a point of his personality that made it difficult for his parents to keep him in school. Stravinsky initially studied law at the direction of his parents, but he attended only fifty lectures over the course of the four-year degree. He chose instead to spend most of his time studying music with composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Due to his lack of attendance and the law school shutting down for a semester during the Russian Revolution, Stravinsky received only half credit towards a law degree. By that point, however, he had already decided to turn his focus to music full time.
- Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788) – Johann Sebastian Bach was the paterfamilias to an entire family of composers, like Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Johann Christian Bach, and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. However, when it came to higher education, the elder Bach insisted that his sons study law, not music! C. P. E. Bach, like his brothers, studied jurisprudence at the University of Leipzig. He didn’t exactly drop out—Carl received his law degree in 1738. However, he immediately dropped out of the law profession upon graduation to pursue music full time. It’s doubtful that J.S. Bach actually intended for his sons to become lawyers. It’s more likely that he wanted to ensure that his sons were treated with respect when they eventually became professional musicians. Johann Sebastian was so often treated as a mere servant. After all, Carl and his brothers didn’t really need a professional music education. They had already received the best music education on the planet: their teacher was J.S. Bach!
- Robert Schumann (1810–1856) – Like C. P. E. Bach, Robert Schumann initially (and perhaps reluctantly) pursued law before pursuing music full time. In order to satisfy the terms of his father’s inheritance, Schumann had to pursue three years of some kind of higher education, so he enrolled as a law student at the University of Leipzig. According to a friend, Schumann never once set foot in a lecture hall. He instead became occupied with the writings of author Jean Paul and private music studies with piano teacher Friedrich Wieck. His musical studies took precedence, possibly because he fell in love with Wieck’s daughter Clara. Within a few years, Schumann dropped out of law school to pursue music full time. Years later, he did earn a doctorate in music, not law. But this degree was mostly a way to prove his worth to Friedrich Wieck, as Robert was pursuing Clara’s hand in marriage.
- Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) – Gaetano Donizetti almost became a music-school dropout, though not because he disliked anything about his education. On the contrary, Donizetti was an admirable student. Coming from a low-income family, he received a scholarship to attend a nine-year intensive program for choir boys under the direction of German composer Simon Mayr, who saw promise in the nine-year-old Donizetti. Halfway through the program, Donizetti’s voice changed, and he was no longer able to sing in the school choir. He was threatened with dismissal, but Mayr convinced the school administrators to allow Donizetti to stay because he was showing promise as a composer. Mayr later also negotiated Donizetti’s acceptance into the Bologna Academy, where he completed his first opera at the age of nineteen.
- Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672) – We really could have focused only on composers who dropped out of law school (or a law practice) to pursue music. Add to this list 17th-century composer Heinrich Schütz. Schütz showed particular skill as a choir boy in Germany, although following his parents' wishes, he pursued a law degree at the University of Marburg in 1608. A year into his study, his former music teacher insisted that Schütz drop out to move to Venice and study music under famed composer Giovanni Gabrieli. He even funded Schütz’s three-year trip to Venice. Schütz complied, learning as much as he could from the elder composer until Gabrieli’s death in 1612. Schütz then moved back to Germany to work as a court composer, never pursuing law again. In addition to Schütz, Stravinsky, C.P.E. Bach, and Schumann, other former law-students-turned-composers include Tchaikovsky, Tartini, Dufay, Chausson, Sibelius, Charpentier, and Handel.
- Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884) – Before Jancek and Dvorak, Bedrich Smetana laid the groundwork for the popularity of Czech classical music. Growing up in the countryside of Bohemia, Smetana had ample opportunity to internalize the Czech folk music that later made his own compositional style so popular and distinctly nationalistic. As a youth, however, his background as a country-dweller also made him the object of bullying. When Smetana left home to study grammar in Prague, which by the 19th century had become the Czech Republic’s largest metropolis, he was made fun of for his rustic heritage. Smetana began skipping classes to escape the bullying, and instead went to concerts, operas and played in a string quartet. When his father found out, he had Smetana immediately removed from the city to complete his education back home. It soon became clear however that Smetana was a brilliant musician, and he eventually returned to Prague to pursue a performance career.
- Kanye West – In the world of popular music, there are many dropouts who became successful musicians: Lady Gaga, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix—all dropped out of school. But producer and rapper Kanye West was one of the only people who made dropping out of school a signature part of his identity. He even named his debut album The College Dropout, leaning into his decision to defy society’s expectations for him. West grew up near Chicago, where his mother taught English at Chicago State University. In 1997, Kanye enrolled at his mother’s college, before dropping out to pursue music full-time. He spent time producing records for Jay-Z and others, before going solo with his 2004 album The College Dropout, which included this Grammy-award-winning single “Jesus Walks.” West continued this “alternative education” theme in his music for several years, naming his subsequent albums Late Registration in 2005 and Graduation in 2007.