Paul Wittgenstein, amputé pendant la guerre, a commandé un concerto auprès de Ravel.
Paul Wittgenstein, amputé pendant la guerre, a commandé un concerto auprès de Ravel.

The seven finest composer/musician pairings

While it is not uncommon to find performers with a passion for a particular composer, the reverse is less frequent. Some composers nevertheless have a preference for certain performers, whether they be singers or instrumentalists. Here are seven of the finest examples of mutual admiration.

Frédéric Chopin and Francis Planté

Many great musicians were known for their performances of Chopin, including Liszt, Rubinstein, Horowitz, Paderewski and Cortot. Francis Planté, however, deserves a special mention. This pianist, born in 1839, was 30 years younger than Chopin and may well have heard the famous composer play in the musical salons. This would make him the only recorded musician to have actually seen the Romantic composer playing the piano.

Francis Planté's talent as a pianist rapidly built him a reputation and he was invited to play in many salons, including that of Princess Czartoryska, a pupil of Chopin. This is where he met people who knew the composer well and were able to give him valuable advice about how to play his music.

Giuseppe Verdi and Teresa Stolz

For one of the greatest Romantic opera composers, the story of Giuseppe Verdi and Teresa Stolz would have made a fascinating plot line: the encounter between a young soprano and one of the nineteenth century's most influential composers. Verdi admired the singer and took her under his wing. But this arrangement was not to the liking of Verdi's wife, Giuseppina Strepponi. Only the newspapers enthusiastically spread the story that Teresa and Verdi were more than just friends - though this was never confirmed. Giuseppina was jealous of the singer's role in her husband's life and resentful of her supposed intrusion in their marriage.

This is without doubt the unhappiest time of my life. Teresa Stolz is arriving today. She is very beautiful. Black, black, there's nothing but black around me... Giuseppina Strepponi

Verdi never missed an opportunity to take the young soprano with him wherever he went. He also gave her the best roles in his repertoire, such as when he asked her to sing Aïda for its European premiere in 1872. 

Jacques Offenbach and Hortense Schneider

She was the original Belle Hélène, though her name was Hortense Schneider. This young French soprano debuted in Offenbach's Le violoneux at the Bouffes-Parisiens, a small theatre managed and renamed by the composer in 1855. Hortense Schneider rapidly rose to fame and became Offenbach's favourite. He created title roles for her, such as La Belle Hélène (The Beautiful Helen) in 1864, followed by La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein) three years later.

She was graceful and elegant, by all accounts at the time. Offenbach was particularly taken with the quality of her voice, her diction and her acting talent, which made her a very popular singer under the Second Empire.

Johannes Brahms and Joseph Joachim

By the age of 12, Joseph Joachim was already a recognised virtuoso violinist . He rapidly worked his way up the ladder and became first violin in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1843. His performances of the Beethoven concertos were considered authoritative, but it was with Brahms that he had a special affinity. They remained friends despite numerous quarrels and the composer dedicated his sole Violin Concerto to him. Joseph Joachim was the first to perform it in public.

The two friends also worked together on composition. Brahms's first piano concerto was written with the help of Joseph Joachim, whose talents also stretched to composition: his best-known work is his Hungarian Concerto for violin and orchestra.

Maurice Ravel and Paul Wittgenstein

The pianist Paul Wittgenstein undoubtedly owes his fame to Maurice Ravel. After losing his right arm on the Russian front in 1914, he commissioned various composers to write works for the left hand. Strauss, Prokofiev, Britten, Hindemith and Korngold, among others, responded to the call, but Wittgenstein was difficult to please and most of the proposals failed to find favour. When he received the score of Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in 1930,  Paul Wittgenstein stopped being fussy and achieved world renown with the piece.

His performance of the concerto (along with a few alterations he felt entitled to make, since he had paid for the piece) did not meet with the approval of the composer, who told him so. This prompted a stormy exchange of correspondence between the two men, whose views differed on a wide range of subjects. Be that as it may, the encounter of the pianist and the composer gave rise to one of the most beautiful and well-known concertos of the twentieth century.

Karol Szymanowski and Paul Kochanski

When the composer Karol Szymanowski played for the first time with the violinist Paul Kochanski, it was also the first time that his violin works had been performed in public. Their meeting and ensuing friendship was a rich source of inspiration for the Polish composer. He subsequently wrote a great many pieces for the violinist, such as the Romance for violin and piano, Myths (which includes the well-known Fountain of Arethusa) and his first two violin concertos.

Together they embarked on an extensive tour in the United States with Arthur Rubinstein. It was only after their return that Szymanowski's reputation in Poland reached its peak and he became one of Poland's most brilliant composers. Other composers also dedicated works to Paul Kochanski: Stravinsky, for example, transcribed three excerpts from his Firebird for him.

Francis Poulenc and Pierre Bernac

No discussion of French song-writing would be complete without a mention of these two names. French baritone Pierre Bernac began his career as a singer late in life. His meeting and subsequent friendship with Francis Poulenc in the 1930s had a decisive influence. The composer wrote several song cycles for the singer, such as Les Cinq poèmes d’Eluard, Tel jour telle nuit, Calligrammes, La Fraîcheur et le feu and Le Travail du peintre.

Their friendship inaugurated a lengthy period of collaboration, during which, for instance, Francis Poulenc accompanied the baritone at the piano on his tours abroad, and Pierre Bernac wrote a book on his friend's music entitled Francis Poulenc : l’Homme et ses mélodies  (published in 1978).

You are listening to :