Composer gallery
Bruckner - Hindemith - Rimsky-Korsakov

I wrote these biographies for the San Francisco Classical Voice composer gallery, but only the Rimsky-Korsakov one was ever published, in an edited edition. Here follow my original submissions, in the SFCV format. - David Bratman

  1. Anton Bruckner
  2. Paul Hindemith
  3. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Anton Bruckner

Biographical Outline

Early life: When Bruckner is born in 1824, in a small village in Upper Austria, Beethoven and Schubert - who will become among his greatest inspirations as a composer - are still alive and working in Vienna. Bruckner trains as a schoolteacher, but his talents as an organist eventually win him a position as cathedral organist in Linz. The resonant acoustics of the cathedral and of the St. Florian monastery church where he had trained leave a deep influence on his music.

Student of Schubert's teacher, 1855: Bruckner begins taking composition lessons from Simon Sechter, a rigorous teacher who had once taught counterpoint to Schubert. For a few years, Bruckner gives up original composition to devote all his attention to his thorough lessons and exercises. No other major composer spends so much of his life practicing his rotes as a music student.

Master of music, 1863: Finally, at the age of 38, Bruckner completes his last exercises, receives his final degrees, and begins his first mature compositions, emerging as a major composer at about the same time as men like Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, some fifteen years his junior. Still, he rejects his first symphony as a student exercise and sets aside another with the whimsical number zero ("Die Nullte" in German) before completing his official Symphony No. 1 in 1866.

To Vienna, 1868: Bruckner accepts a position as harmony and counterpoint professor at the Vienna Conservatory, succeeding his old teacher Sechter. Though he is respected as a teacher, Bruckner's music gets a mixed reception, and his rustic Upper Austrian speech and habits - he once tips a conductor for performing one of his works - earn mockery in Vienna society, leading to a misleading perception of him as a naïve peasant.

Wagnerian, 1873: The scope and instrumental richness of Wagner's operas are an inspiration to Bruckner. In 1873 he pays a visit, embarrassing Wagner with his devotion, and persuading the older composer to accept the dedication of his (Bruckner's) Symphony No. 3, a work embellished with Wagner quotations.

Success and crisis: Bruckner scores his greatest public success with the premiere of his Symphony No. 7 in 1884, conducted by his own pupil, Arthur Nikisch. The conductor Hermann Levi also praises and performs the work. Elated, Bruckner embarks on his Symphony No. 8, only to be crushed on its completion in 1887 when Levi confesses he finds it incomprehensible. In a crisis of self-doubt, Bruckner spends the next several years in a fit of revision, not just of the Eighth but of earlier works. To this day, scholars debate whether these revisions improve the works, and how much came from suggestions by pupils rather than being Bruckner's own inspiration.

The Ninth, 1891-1896: Retired from the Conservatory, Bruckner devotes his last years to completing his Symphony No. 9. He finishes three movements by 1894, but the finale remains in scattered sketches on his death in 1896. Though musicologists have compiled completed versions of the finale, the work is usually still played with three movements only.

Fun Facts

His religious faith: Bruckner was a devout Catholic and an obsessive, almost autistic, counter of things who kept track by tally marks of the number of prayers he said each day. The depth of his faith and the sound of his organ-playing reverberating in St. Florian and Linz are easily detectable in his music.

His love life: Bruckner had a disconcerting habit of falling madly in love with almost every teenaged girl he met, despite what became, over the years, a massive age difference. Most of them gently brushed off his ardent proposals of marriage. He did get engaged at least once, but he never actually married.

His versions and editions: Despite his religious faith, no major composer had less faith in his own compositional integrity than Bruckner. Desperate to get his symphonies performed, he revised them frequently and agreed to let them be published with cuts and simplifications - often now derided as vulgarizations - suggested by his pupils and friends. These early editions are now out of use, but the multiplicity of versions and scholarly disputes over what best represents the composer's intentions has led to a plethora of editions, with some conductors favoring one editor and some another. This can produce some confusion for the average listener.

His conductors: Bruckner is something of a specialty interest. Conductors tend either to avoid his works or specialize in him. Among the specialists are such noted conductors of past and present as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Eugen Jochum, Gunter Wand, Bernard Haitink, and the San Francisco Symphony's own conductor laureate, Herbert Blomstedt.

If you like Mahler ... you might like Bruckner. They both wrote at epic length, with intense emotional expression, and with hairpin twists of mood and character. The differences are as great as the similarities, though. Where Mahler was neurotic and skeptical, Bruckner was devout and secure in his religion. His music has a wholeness (and hence, to some critics, a monotony) that Mahler lacks, and his slow spinning out of ideas takes more patience to listen to. His lighter moments are rustic rather than urbane.

Explore the Music

Aside from a single string quintet, Bruckner's major works fall into two categories: orchestral symphonies and sacred choral music. It's been said that instead of writing nine symphonies, Bruckner wrote the same symphony nine times. It is true that he re-uses ideas (most of his symphonies begin with an expectant tremolo he learned from Beethoven's Ninth) and that his work isn't divisible into distinct periods. Of his symphonies (besides the numbered nine, there are "Die Nullte" and the early Study Symphony, sometimes numbered 00), the "Romantic" No. 4, the lush No. 7, and the epically grand No. 8 particularly stand out. His choral works include masses, a Te Deum, an early Requiem, and numerous brief motets for unaccompanied chorus.


The Essence of Bruckner by Robert Simpson, a composer himself, is technically detailed but highly illuminating on the harmonic shape of Bruckner's symphonies and his struggles to create a distinctive form for his work. However, Simpson's opinions on the best editions of the music have been challenged by more recent scholarship and should be taken with caution.


Eugen Jochum conducting the thrilling ending of the first movement of Bruckner's Symphony No. 6.

Bruckner's motet Locus Iste performed in the unmatchable acoustics of the composer's own church at St. Florian.

Bruckner's Decision, a feature film in German focused on his decision to leave Linz for Vienna. Watchable in full only by taking a subscription.

Authoritative list of the versions and editions of Bruckner's symphonies. Unfortunately the link to the discography is broken; that has moved to here.

Paul Hindemith

Biographical Outline

Early life: Born to a poor family and raised in and around Frankfurt, Germany, Hindemith shows early musical talent that's encouraged by his parents. By the time he turns 20 in 1915, he's a violinist in a professional string quartet and the concertmaster of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra. He spends most of his brief World War I service in a regimental band and playing quartets for music-loving officers.

The hope of young German music, 1919-1927: Writing well-crafted and well-organized, spiky and cheeky compositions in a neo-Baroque style, Hindemith expresses the musical spirit of Weimar Germany. He amazes observers with his productivity, organizes festivals to play new music by many composers, and, when the older composer Richard Strauss complains about his advanced harmonies, he boldly replies, "You make your music and I'll make mine."

The professor, 1927-1933: Hindemith moves to Berlin to teach composition at what is now the Berlin University of the Arts. He travels internationally as a conductor and violist, and expands his interest in music education, writing the entire score for a day's music festival at a school, starting with a morning fanfare from a tower and concluding with an evening concert. His opera Neues vom Tage, one of the last of his cheeky scores, has a notorious scene with a soprano singing naked in the bathtub, which scandalizes an influential opera-lover named Adolf Hitler.

Not in favor, 1933-1938: Hindemith dislikes but doesn't oppose the Nazi government. Though he remains teaching in Berlin, he refuses to give the Nazi salute and sees no reason not to continue working with Jews. The Nazi cultural ministries give him the run-around, repeatedly banning and rehabilitating his music, and continually putting off permission to perform his new opera, Mathis der Maler. It's finally staged in Zurich in 1938. Hindemith escapes from the pressure with international performing tours and several trips to Turkey to organize music education there.

In America, 1940-1951: After a brief idyllic stay in Switzerland, Hindemith and his wife come to America in 1940, where he is invited to teach at Yale University. He settles comfortably in New Haven, and imports his strict German professorial style to the easy-going Yale music school. His students, including future noted composers Lukas Foss and Norman Dello Joio, are challenged but deeply inspired. He even makes Leonard Bernstein, whom he encounters when teaching at Tanglewood, write elementary harmony exercises. During this time, Hindemith composes his most popular orchestral works.

The world master, 1951-1963: Hindemith misses Europe and starts returning for visits after the war, taking a post at the University of Zurich and moving there permanently in 1953. Respected as one of the leading living composers, he now performs mostly as a conductor, touring Europe and America with his own and other modern music, and that of the composer he considers his model, Bach. He dies after a brief illness at the age of 68.

Fun Facts

A patterned musician: Hindemith loved Bach and Baroque music for its intricate patterns and the beauty perceived in contemplating these. His own music follows that aesthetic. His love for the complex and intricate shows in his hobbies. He was a devoted model railroad buff, and he liked to assemble jigsaw puzzles.

A virtuoso performer: Although he performed publicly mostly on viola, Hindemith could play almost any instrument set before him, and he expected his students to be able to do the same. He even liked to see what musical sounds and patterns he could coax from the vacuum cleaner while cleaning his carpet at home.

A practical composer: Hindemith believed music should be well-crafted and useful, and the artistic inspiration will take care of itself. Feeling the absence of music for certain combinations of instruments, he set out to fill them. Instrumentalists are grateful for his series of sonatas for each instrument in the orchestra - down to the double-bass and bass tuba - accompanied by piano.

A composer on the spot: Hindemith was a fast and efficient composer, and up for any challenge. His most famous feat: writing a ten-minute memorial concerto for viola and strings in one day, for a broadcast on the BBC two days after the death of King George V. The piece, Trauermusik, is now one of his most popular works.

Inspired by the stage: Some of Hindemith's most popular concert works were inspired by the stage. Two of his symphonies, Mathis der Maler and Die Harmonie der Welt, are offshoots of operas of the same titles. The Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber and The Four Temperaments both began life as ballet scores.

A lost composition: Hindemith was one of many composers commissioned by the one-armed World War I veteran pianist Paul Wittgenstein to write concertos for left-hand piano and orchestra. Wittgenstein didn't like Hindemith's piece, titled Piano (Left Hand) Music with Orchestra, and he never played it. The score lay buried and unknown in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania for decades after both composer and pianist were dead, and was finally first performed in 2004.

Explore the Music

Hindemith was a prolific composer, whose work from all periods of his career remains popular. From his earliest, experimental music to his late compositions, conservative tonal works in the fermenting context of the 1950s, his music still has a unity of style that marks it as distinctly his. A few of his orchestral works and concertos of the 1930s and 40s are most often heard, and a vast array of his chamber music - especially the sonata for solo instrument and piano, and the Kammermusik series for larger ensembles from the 1920s - is also frequently performed. Some of his operas are still also heard.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Biographical Outline

Early life: Rimsky-Korsakov's family was poor but aristocratic. His mother and grandmother came of peasant stock and he learns his love of Russian folk and religious music from them. But, though he is talented at music, his childhood dream is to follow his elder brother into the navy.

Naval officer, 1862-1865: After training as a cadet, Rimsky-Korsakov is commissioned to a Russian naval clipper and sets off for a three-year cruise. He visits Spain, where he buys a song collection that he'd later put to use in his music, and becomes the first Russian composer to see the U.S. He spends his shore leave in New York attending operas by Meyerbeer and Gounod.

Amateur composer, 1865: Rimsky-Korsakov's desk job on returning home gives him plenty of free time for music. He becomes a leading member of the "Mighty Handful" or "Mighty Five," a group of amateur composers who aim at putting the Russian people's spirit into music. Rimsky's fellows include the army officer Modest Mussorgsky and the chemistry professor Alexander Borodin. Rimsky fills bags with borrowed musical instruments for visits to Borodin's home, and the two teach themselves by spending their weekends trying them out.

Music professor, 1871: Rimsky is appointed professor of composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The directors, impressed by his early work, don't realize how little formal training he actually has. Rimsky races through the textbooks to keep one lesson ahead of his pupils. Eventually he becomes a master of his craft, and writes the definitive textbooks himself.

In memoriam for a friend, 1881: After Mussorgsky dies young, his one-time roommate Rimsky-Korsakov takes on the job of editing and finishing his incomplete and unpolished compositions. Later on, he will do the same for Borodin. Later writers will criticize Rimsky for polishing and "prettying up" his colleagues' music, but his aim is to make practical performing scores to help publicize their genius, and to leave what he calls the "archaeologically exact editions" for future generations.

A burst of creativity, 1887-1888: In almost one swoop, Rimsky composes his three greatest orchestral works. He employs his colorful orchestration to paint musical pictures of exotic lands, from the Arabia of the vast four-movement tone poem Scheherazade to the equally exotic (for a Russian) Spain in the Capriccio Espagnol. And the Russian Easter Overture explores his native Orthodox religious heritage.

The opera composer, 1893-1908: He had written operas before, but Rimsky-Korsakov had never concentrated so much on one genre as he did on opera in his later years. Instead of retiring with age, he became more prolific. From these years date some of his best operas, Sadko, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. Based on Russian folk tales and sometimes folk music, these aren't character-driven like the Italian operas of the day, and should be enjoyed instead for their colorful locales and brilliantly vivid music.

The political liberal, 1905: In the wake of the abortive revolution of that year, Rimsky-Korsakov forcefully supports the students' cause in a strike against the Conservatory. The authorities fire him (temporarily, as it turns out) as a professor. He orchestrates a revolutionary song for a benefit concert.

The great teacher, 1905-1908: Rimsky-Korsakov teaches a generation of younger composers from the 1870s on, including many major figures in Russian music. His prize pupil, though, comes along in his last years: a young man named Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky's Firebird shows his mastery of his teacher's style, and surely would have pleased the old man greatly had he lived to hear it.

Fun Facts

His aristocratic surname: An ancestor of the composer's had traveled to Rome, and was so proud of this that he named his family "the Roman Korsakovs" to distinguish them from all the other Korsakovs. In Russian, "Roman" is "Rimsky," and thus came the appellation by which the composer is commonly known.

His distinguished appearance: Rimsky was a great teacher, and he looked like one, too. He was tall, with a high, scholarly forehead - on which he often kept an extra pair of his thick, blue-tinted, wire-rimmed glasses - a long face, and a full beard which made his face look even longer.

His distinctive handwriting: The notes in Rimsky-Korsakov's manuscript scores all slant evenly to the right. He's been called the only composer to write music entirely in italics.

Not in the catalog: The most famous Rimsky-Korsakov piece that you'll not see on a standard list of his works is that fast-buzzing encore favorite, The Flight of the Bumblebee. It's actually an interlude from his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan.

Prefiguring Amadeus: Among Rimsky's operas is a one-act item called Mozart and Salieri, based on a verse drama by Pushkin. It's done a lot to publicize the legend that Salieri poisoned Mozart.

On the map: The Rimsky-Korsakov Archipelago, in the Sea of Japan near Vladivostok, is named for the composer's brother Voin, a noted naval hydrographer.

Explore the Music

Rimsky-Korsakov was perhaps the most brilliant and colorful orchestrator in the history of classical music, at least after Hector Berlioz. He's steeped in Russian tradition - both folk and liturgical music - and his style is lighter and brighter than that of his fellow nationalists. He's best-known for his operas, a large number of orchestral suites drawn from them, and his orchestral tone poems, some in multiple movements. Some of his chamber music is also worthwhile.

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Last Updated: Feb. 9, 2013
Copyright 2013, David Bratman