By: Guest Contributor Judith Krummeck — Evening Drive Host, 91.5 WBJC
What do Robert Schumann, Jean Sibelius, and Igor Stravinsky have in common? Yes, their last names begin with “S,” but it’s more than that. How about Georg Philipp Telemann, Giuseppe Tartini, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky? Again, it’s more than simply a letter thing, or the fact that all six of these men were classical composers. Add to the list George Frideric Handel, Leopold Mozart, and Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons, and it becomes even more interesting. All of them started out studying law. Let’s look at this curious phenomenon chronologically, with a little bit of help from Wikipedia.
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681 –1767) became a composer against his family’s wishes, and he was almost completely self-taught in music. He entered the University of Leipzig to study law, but eventually was able to settle on a career in music. Telemann was, and still is, one of the most prolific composers in history.
George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) was born in Halle to an eminent barber-surgeon who, according to Handel’s first biographer, John Mainwaring, was adamantly opposed to his son pursuing a career in music. However, Handel did receive musical instruction in harpsichord, violin, organ, and oboe, as well as composition. Handel’s father died when his son was a schoolboy of 11. It had been his father’s wish that he would become a lawyer and, perhaps, to fulfill a promise to his father, Handel matriculated at the University of Halle. Although he didn’t enroll in the faculty of law, he almost certainly attended the lectures of the famed jurist, Christian Thomasius. Shortly after starting his university education, Handel accepted the position of organist at the Calvinist Cathedral in Halle, and that marked the beginning of his musical career.
Four of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons became professional musicians, and Bach supervised all of their musical educations. Two of them, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710 – 1784) and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 – 1788) enrolled as law students in Leipzig University. (Some believe that Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732 – 1795) also studied law there, but there is no record of that.) In an age of royal patronage, father and sons alike knew that a university education helped prevent a professional musician from being treated as a servant. Friedemann’s first job was as the organist of the St. Sophia’s Church at Dresden, at which point his musical career began. Carl obtained his degree at the age of 24, but never practiced law, instead turning his attention immediately to music.
Leopold Mozart (1719 – 1787) is best known today as the father and teacher of his son, Wolfgang Amadeus. From an early age, Leopold sang as a choirboy. At school, he appeared in student theatrical productions as an actor and singer, and became a skilled violinist and organist. His parents had planned a career for Leopold as a Catholic priest, but this apparently was not Leopold’s own wish. He enrolled at the University of Salzburg to study philosophy and jurisprudence. He received the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy, but the following year he was expelled from the university for poor attendance. A year later, he began his career as a professional musician.
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. His father, who had encouraged the boy’s musical aspirations, died when Schumann was 16. Neither his mother nor his guardian encouraged a career in music. Schumann went to Leipzig to study law so that he could meet the terms of his inheritance, writing to his mother, “My whole life has been a struggle between Poetry and Prose, or call it Music and Law.” At 20, he left the study of law, intending to pursue a career as a virtuoso pianist, but a hand injury ended that dream. Schumann then focused his energies on composing.
Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957) was the son of a Swedish-speaking medical doctor who died of typhoid when the boy was three years old. His uncle was interested in music, especially the violin; it was he who gave Sibelius a violin when he was ten years old, and later encouraged him to maintain his interest in composition. After graduating from high school, Sibelius began to study law at the Imperial Alexander University in Finland but, showing far more interest in music, soon moved to the Helsinki Music Institute – now the Sibelius Academy.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) began piano lessons at five and, within three years, he could sight read music as well as his teacher. His parents were initially supportive of his musical gifts, but decided to send him to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg to prepare for a career as a civil servant. At 19, Tchaikovsky graduated as a titular counselor, a low rung on the civil service ladder, and was appointed to the Ministry of Justice. That same year, the Russian Musical Society was founded with the aim of fostering native Russian talent. The classes that the society offered were a precursor to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, and Tchaikovsky enrolled at the Conservatory as part of its premiere class, happily putting his civil servant career behind him.
Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) was brought up in St. Petersburg, beginning piano lessons as a young boy, studying music theory, and attempting composition. Despite his enthusiasm for music, his parents expected him to study law. He enrolled at the University of Saint Petersburg in 1901, but he attended fewer than fifty class sessions during his four years of study. He had already begun to spend more time on his musical studies than on law, and he started taking twice-weekly private lessons from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Four years later, the impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, heard two of Stravinsky’s early works, and commissioned him to write The Firebird for the Ballets Russes. The rest, as they say, is history.
There are myriad other stories like this about lawyer-musicians, and it begs the question: what is it about the law that lends itself to music, and vice versa? My guess is that it has something to do with the parallels between process and form. In the way that I understand legal argument to be structured around precedent and statutes, so musical composition, for all its creative spark and genius, begins with form – sonata form, rondo form, symphonic form. More often than not, a composer chooses a key signature for a composition, and all the harmonic progressions and key changes are hinged on that home key. Similarly, a legal precedent may be challenged, but it is argued on the basis of what already exists as law.
Whatever way you look at it, the legal mind and the musical mind seem often to find a synchronicity. If you are reading this, perhaps you find that too.