Classical Dads: Some of Music's Most Influential Father Figures | Nashville Public Radio

Classical Dads: Some of Music's Most Influential Father Figures

Jun 16, 2017

As dads across the country open homemade macaroni cards this Father's Day, take a look at some of the fathers throughout classical history that influenced—for better or for worse—the musical lives of their children. Some are famous composers themselves, others are best remembered for fostering musical talent in their kids. All were probably equipped with at least a few good dad jokes.   

Leopold Mozart

Leopold Mozart is probably best remembered for providing a music education (and extensive tour schedule) for his two prodigy children, Wolfgang Amadeus and Maria Anna (called “Nannerl”). But he was also a composer, violinist and music theorist in his own right. In fact, a year before Wolfgang was born, Leopold became famous in German-speaking music circles with the publication of a treatise on how to teach violin.

Leopold's own musical activities ended when he began taking his children on tour. When Nannerl reached the marriageable age of 18 and it was no longer considered appropriate for her to perform in public, Leopold turned his focus solely on supporting Wolfgang’s increasingly successful career.

An abundance of correspondence between the three survives, and while Wolfgang praises his sister's compositions and encourages her to write more, Leopold never makes mention of her work. None of it, that we know of, survives. Nannerl, however, was the last practicing musician of the three. She survived both her father and younger brother—who died in 1787 and 1791, respectively—by over 30 years, teaching piano lessons until the last few years of her life.


Johann Sebastian Bach

Toby Edward Rosenthal, "Morning prayers in the family of Sebastian Bach," 1870.

Over the course of his life, the Baroque master J.S. Bach had 20 children with his first and second wives, although, as was common in the early 18th century, many of them did not survive him.  Of those that did, quite a few went on to become composers themselves: Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philpp Emanuel, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian all carried on the Bach musical legacy. And while Johann Sebastian might be the most recognizable Bach musician, he wasn’t the first: his father, Johann Ambrosius, was a violinist by trade.

George Ives

One of the biggest musical influences on 20th century American composer Charles Ives was his father, George. As an instrumentalist, teacher and band/choir director, George was able to give his son his first lessons in music. It was George’s love of sound and musical experimentalism, however, that proved to have the most profound influence on Charles. George Ives would often have his boys sing in one key while hey accompanied in another, and once he sent two of his bands marching around a park, playing different tunes, to see what they sounded like when they crossed paths.

While these experiences certainly influenced Charles’s iconoclast approach to music, he also borrowed several techniques directly from his father: In “Putnam’s Camp, Redding Connecticut,” for example, Ives uses melodic layering, polytonality and playing techniques that call to mind the amateur marching band he first heard in his father's musical experiments. 

Ernest Boulanger

Ernest, Nadia and Lili Boulanger
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Sisters Nadia and Lili Boulanger spent their entire lives fully immersed in French musical life at a time when Paris was the center of the classical world. Their father, Ernest Boulanger, was the son of a mezzo-soprano who wrote comic operas and choral music. He also taught at the Paris Conservatory and travelled in a social circle that included Charles Gounod, Gabriel Faure, Jules Massenet and Camille Saint-Saens. Ernest must not have subscribed to the "children must be seen and not heard" philosophy of the day, because it was his friend, Faure, who first discovered Lili had perfect pitch. Boulanger encouraged both daughters' development, bringing them to the Conservatory for lessons when they were still small girls.

Nadia and Lili followed in their father’s footsteps when they set out to win the Grand Prix de Rome in composition: He won the award in 1835 with his cantata "Achille." Nadia caused a scandal when she submitted an instrumental fugue rather than the required vocal fugue in 1908, but earned second place regardless. Lili, who showed an immense talent for music from a young age, made international headlines when she became the first woman to win the prize in 1913.

Lili’s premature death in 1918 profoundly affected her sister Nadia, who stopped composing after the loss. Nadia, however, would go on to become a renowned educator. She taught some of the most important composers and conductors in the twentieth century, including Aaron Copland, Elliot Carter, Daniel Barenboim and Philip Glass.  

Alfred Newman

Newman began his musical life as a piano prodigy, making his debut at age eight and earning a scholarship to study piano performance. However, the financial stress of his family life led him to compose for Broadway theaters and vaudeville instead of  pursuing a career as a concert pianist.

He went on to become one of the most important composers in American film music history. From 1940-1960, he served as the head of the 20th Century-Fox music department. That famous fanfare? Newman composed it. Over the course of his career, he worked on over 230 films, including scores for Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and How the West Was Won. His work earned him nine Academy awards and 45 nominations. 

He is also at the head of a tremendously musical family. His sons David and Thomas Newman have each had highly successful careers as film composers, and his daughter Maria is an award-winning classical composer and musician. The list goes on: Alfred also has brothers, a nephew (Academy Award winner Randy Newman), a grandnephew and a granddaughter who all have careers in the music industry. 

Honorable Mention: “Papa” Haydn

Although Joseph Haydn and his wife Maria Anna had no children (it’s a long story—their unhappy marriage led them both to take other lovers, and it’s rumored that Haydn may have had a child with singer Luigia Polzelli), his affable personality and warmth earned the nickname “Papa” from the musicians he worked with. His significant contributions to music also earned him the epithet “Father of the Symphony”—a well-earned nickname considering Haydn composed over 100 of them.