According to the United Nations, July 30th is considered the “International Day of Friendship.” It might not be the most prominent holiday, but Ether Game is getting in on the celebration looking at some friendships between classical composers. It’s a show we’re calling “Famous Friendships."
Get ready to pal around in the friend zone with our friendly playlist below:
- Edward Elgar and publisher Augustus Jäger – “Enigma Variations” was the piece that made composer Edward Elgar famous in England in 1899, and it was all thanks to a little help from his friends. Each of these 14 variations on an original theme—the “Enigma” theme—was composed as a musical portrait of one of Elgar’s close friends. He gave each movement the nickname of a friend and then based the variation on either a personality trait or an inside joke between the two. For instance, the famous Adagio movement known as the “Nimrod” variation was named for Elgar’s friend and his music publisher Augustus Jäger. It’s named “Nimrod” because “Nimrod” was the name of a famous mighty hunter in the Bible and “Jäger” is German for the word “hunter.” Other friends musically portrayed in the work include his wife, many of the amateur musicians who supported Elgar during his more meager years, and even a musical self-portrait. It’s always good to be friends with yourself!
- Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann – The music of Johann Sebastian Bach received its first revival in the mid-19th century. Before that, you’d have been more likely to hear a trio sonata like this one by Georg Philipp Telemann rather than Bach. Telemann’s music was extremely popular during his lifetime, and he is still regarded as one of the most prolific German composers, with thousands of trio sonatas, operas, oratorios, and concertos to his name. Though Bach would ultimately surpass Telemann in popularity, the two had a mutual respect for each other’s music and were good friends. Bach even named Telemann as godfather to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, whose middle name is borrowed from Telemann’s own. Fortunately, Telemann was never required to look after the younger Bach. J.S. Bach lived into his mid-60s and produced a giant family of 20 children, many of whom also became composers and musicians.
- Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann – When Johannes Brahms was only 20 years old, he struck up an important friendship with the elder composer Robert Schumann. This was a pivotal moment in Brahms’s life for two reasons: one, Schumann’s praise of Brahms in his music journal jumpstarted the young composer’s career, and two, he also met Clara Schumann, Robert’s wife, famed concert pianist, and later, Brahms’s lifelong friend. When Robert died in 1856, the young Brahms was a comfort to Clara, and the two maintained close correspondence for decades, bordering on love (more so from Brahms than from the recently-widowed Schumann). Several of Brahms’s works were dedicated to or premiered by Clara Schumann. Brahms's Adagio second movement from his first piano concerto, written shortly after Robert’s death, was even written about her. In a letter to Clara, Brahms wrote about this lovely movement, quote, “I am painting a gentle portrait of you.”
- Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler – Some friendships that are borne of mutual respect also tend to border on rivalries. Such is the case of the friendship between Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. The two had a lot in common—both were composers and conductors, writing grand works of musical modernism in the wake of Wagner. But personally, they understood their differences. Mahler once said, quote, “Strauss and I tunnel from opposite sides of the mountain. One day we shall meet.” Their 24-year friendship was full of frustration and conflict, evident in their documented correspondence. But it was also filled with mutual admiration. For instance, Mahler was deeply impressed with Strauss’s opera Salome and tried to organize the Viennese premiere of it. However, Viennese censors blocked him from conducting this controversial show. Likewise, Strauss was devastated after Mahler’s death in 1911. It even inspired him to finally finish an abandoned work, a work that would become his Alpine Symphony.
- Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst – In 1895, when both were still students at London’s Royal College of Music, composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst struck up a friendship. As is usually the case with these schoolyard friendships, the two budding composers learned as much from each other as they did from their teachers. Vaughan Williams once said that he and Holst discussed, quote, “every subject under the sun from the lowest note of the double bassoon to the philosophy of Jude the Obscure.” They also became each other’s biggest critics, in a healthy way, pushing each other to improve their compositions. Holst dedicated his choral work Hymn Of Jesus to Vaughan Williams, and Vaughan Williams, in turn, dedicated his Mass In G Minor to Holst (although neither man was particularly religious). This friendship lasted a lifetime—at least until Holst died at age 59 in 1934, a huge personal blow to Vaughan Williams.
- Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten – The Cold War Era is not often remembered as a time when international friendships were widely cultivated. However, certain composers of the time bucked this trend. English composer Benjamin Britten for example, developed some of his most fruitful relationships with Russian composers and musicians during the 1960s, and toured Russia extensively. It was during one of these tours that Britten met Dmitri Shostakovich, a fellow composer of whom Britten later said “no one composing today has equal influence on me.” The two dedicated pieces to each other as signs of mutual respect. Shostakovich chose his 14th Symphony to dedicate to the other and Britten chose his church opera The Prodigal Son. Both composers continued to send letters until around 1975, before passing away within a couple months of each other.
- Francis Poulenc and members of "Les Six" – French music of the early to mid-20th century is an eclectic blend of many musical styles. In this motet by Francis Poulenc, you can hear elements of Romantic music as well as a sprinkling of jazz and maybe even a pinch of twelve-tone techniques à la Schoenberg. Poulenc was one of six French composers during this period that started garnering recognition for their experimental work, and were given the nickname “Les Six.” Their main claim to fame was writing music that was a reaction against the over-the-top romanticism of Wagner as well as branching away from the Impressionist mold created by Debussy. The term Les Six was more than just a publicity stunt, it also represented a strong friendship between Poulenc, Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud and Tailleferre Alongside appearing in the same programs together, Les Six also lived in the same Parisian neighborhood and met for happy hours at the same local bar—not unlike French versions of the six cast members of the show Friends meeting up at the Central Perk!
- Matthew Locke and his "Several Friends" – Though several historically significant works survive him, little is known about the personal life of English composer Matthew Locke. The “several friends” mentioned in the subtitle of the chamber suite are unknown. It might refer to some of his patrons at the English royal court where he was Composer-in-Residence and Chapel Organist to Charles II. Or the suite might have been written for Locke to play with family friends, such as, most famously, the Purcells. Henry Purcell would succeed Matthew Locke as Composer of the Violins to Charles II, and even composed an ode to his former mentor and friend after Locke’s death in 1677 titled What hope for us remains now he is gone? Locke wrote all kinds of music while at the English court, but his music to the English Masque Cupid and Death is famously the only surviving musical score to a dramatic work from that era.
- John Lennon and Elton John – John Lennon, the reclusive ex-Beatle, and Elton John, the flamboyant pop superstar, struck up an unusual friendship in the mid-1970s. They met in the summer of 1973 in Los Angeles, during an infamously debaucherous time in Lennon’s life often called his “Lost Weekend.” Their friendship morphed into a collaboration. Lennon agreed to sing background vocals (under the pseudonym “Dr. Winston O’Boogie”) on Elton John’s cover of the Beatles song “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” which hit number one thanks to Elton’s meteoric rise. Elton, in turn, agreed to sing background vocals on Lennon’s new hit “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” betting Lennon that if the song hit number one, John would have to join Elton on stage at a concert. Lennon had yet to score a number one hit as a solo artist, unlike his three Beatle brothers. (Yes, even Ringo had a number one hit by this time!) Sure enough, the song topped the charts, and Lennon made good on his promise. He joined Elton on stage on Thanksgiving night 1974. Sadly, this guest appearance would be John Lennon’s final concert performance.