Fathers, and Sons and Daughters
Like father, like son? A Daddy’s Girl? We’re celebrating Father’s Day with the Bachs, the Mozarts, the Liszts, and the Wiecks.
For Mother’s Day a month ago, I wrote about mothers in classical music, focusing on pieces written by the great composers about mothers and motherly love. It’s time to celebrate some of the Dads of classical music now.
Some of the fathers of classical music composers insisted their (mostly) sons “get a real job” and refused to allow them to pursue a musical career. Tchaikovsky, Schumann, and Delius come to mind immediately. Yet others stepped up to teach and encourage their children’s musical careers.
Consider the Bach dynasty. Someone once counted 17 generations of musicians in this family, but for this story we’ll just go back to Johann Ambrosius Bach, Johann Sebastian’s father. He was a court trumpeter and by all accounts a capable violinist, and he had the title of Director of the Town’s Musicians. Of his 8 children, 4 males became musicians, the youngest of whom was Johann Sebastian. Ambrosius taught all his sons violin and harpsichord and encouraged them to continue in the family business.
Johann Sebastian, in turn, fathered 20 children (with 2 wives), including 4 males who followed in his musical footsteps: Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann Christian. Sebastian was their music teacher and taught them all, though the two youngest sons were still in school (Christoph in college and Christian was just a teen) when he died. All four went on to have various levels of success in their music careers.
Leopold Mozart was a composer, conductor, music teacher, and accomplished violinist. And he even wrote a book on playing the instrument which is still referenced today by violinists who are interested in historically accurate performances. Leopold gave keyboard lessons to both of his children who lived past infancy, Maria Anna and the youngest, Wolfgang Amadeus.
Once he realized the children were gifted he pretty much ignored his own career and devoted his life to promoting them as prodigies, performing throughout Europe for both the aristocracy and the public. Leopold did get the reputation of being the ultimate “stage mother,” and deservedly so, but his own career suffered as he was passed over for important positions including the coveted Kapellmeister position in Salzburg because he spent so much time teaching his children and then touring with them.
Adam Liszt worked in the service of Prince Nicolas Esterhazy at his palace in Eisenstadt. He was also an amateur musician, and often played cello in court concerts. When his son Ferenc (later known as Franz) was 5 years old, Adam began giving him piano lessons. His son advanced quickly as both a composer and performer. Ferenc gave his first public concert at age 9, so impressing some wealthy music patrons that they offered to pay for his music lessons for 6 years.
Adam took a leave of absence from his court position and brought his son to Vienna to study piano with Carl Czerny and composition with Antonio Salieri. Franz progressed so rapidly there that, by the age of 12, the whole family left the comforts of home to move to Paris so the aspiring virtuoso could study there. After a couple of years of touring, Liszt admitted to nervous exhaustion and suggested he’d rather stop concertizing to become a priest. His father Adam, once again, put his own work on hold to take his son to Boulogne’s sea baths to improve his health. While Liszt’s health improved, Adam caught typhoid fever there and died.
And finally, Friedrich Wieck was a pianist and piano teacher married to a famous singer of the day. Mariane Wieck began giving piano lessons to their 4-year-old daughter, Clara. Friedrich took over the lessons when he and Mariane divorced the next year. Friedrich got full custody of the child and planned out her musical career, from piano, violin, composing and counterpoint lessons to arranging her concerts around Europe. Friedrich gave his daughter one-hour lessons every day, and she followed that with 2 hours of practice.
Clara was considered a child prodigy and made her public debut at age 9, impressing audiences and established musicians alike. Even the virtuoso violinist, Niccolo Paganini, who was appearing in Paris at the same time as she, offered to perform with her. Friedrich taught her using his own methods from his book Piano and Song: How to Teach, How to Learn, and How to Form a Judgment of Musical Performances.
His refusal to allow her to marry his student Robert Schumann when she was 18 resulted in the couple’s suing him in court to allow the marriage. That was followed by estrangement from her father for at least 3 years. After Clara had given birth to her second child, her father reached out to Robert suggesting a reconciliation, which was welcomed by Clara.
Father and child relationships can be complicated, and even those involved in the beautiful world of music are not immune, but whether biographers paint these fathers as selfless and encouraging or driven and demanding, I’d like to think they just did the best they knew how for their children, preparing them for a future when Dad was no longer around.
CODA: In the Broadway musical Carousel the lead character, a low-life carousel barker Billy Bigelow wonders about his future child. Here’s Gordon MacRae singing “My Boy Bill.”