Pushing the six-year-old Mozart and his sister Maria Anna round the concert halls of Europe, Leopold Mozart was the archetype of what we would now call the Pushy Parent – the Tiger Father, if you will, of classical music.

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But if treating one’s offspring as a musical entrée to high society and a quick buck did not necessarily start with Leopold, his efforts undoubtedly contributed to the trend.

The trouble with pushy parents, of course, is that not all of them push in the same direction. Handel’s father directed him strongly towards Law, banning him from playing the violin whereas his mother reacted by secretly installing a clavichord in the attic.

And while some delighted in their child’s obsessions, such as the family of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose relations clubbed together to put him through the Royal College of Music, few went as far in their disgust as Berlioz’s devoutly Catholic mother, Marie-Antoinette. ‘Go wallow in the filth of Paris, sully your name and kill me and your father with sorrow and shame!’ she cried, after her renegade son announced that, having qualified in medicine, he would really rather go off and compose instead.

And so, in honour of Leopold Mozart we take a look at ten composers whose parents ranged from those who had their foot too hard on the pedal to those who didn’t even know where the pedal was.

Pushy didn’t always means productive, however – sometimes it paid simply to let talents and passions develop in their own, unique way…

How good and supportive were the parents of our favourite composers?

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart was a child prodigy
Mozart was a child prodigy

Biographers have largely not been kind to Leopold, but in his time he was recognised as a passionate and innovative teacher. A jobbing court musician and composer, he sacrificed his own career to promote the incredible musical talents of his children, Maria Anna (Nannerl) and Wolfgang, although the former was forced to retire when she reached marriageable age.

Leopold tirelessly promoted his son, setting up introductions at many European courts. Denounced by some as controlling, it was inevitable, at any rate, that the wilful Mozart would eventually cut loose.

HELP OR HINDRANCE?

His methods may have been controversial, but Leopold got results.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven

Beethoven’s treatment at the hands of his alcoholic and pushy musician father was nothing short of abuse. Johann Beethoven – a tenor at the court of the Archbishop of Cologne at Bonn – recognised his son’s talents early on. Aware of Leopold Mozart’s success, Johann allegedly kept Beethoven up all night practising, pulling him out of bed to perform and beating him if he did not play to his alcohol-fuelled standards.

Greedy, too, he deliberately cast confusion over Beethoven’s birth date to make his prodigy son appear younger than he really was. Ludwig, aged 17, eventually obtained a court order to procure half his father’s salary to look after his long-suffering family.

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HELP OR HINDRANCE?

Alcohol, abuse: it’s hard to find much good in Beethoven’s upbringing.

Fanny Mendelssohn

Sister of Felix Mendelssohn and dazzling child prodigy in her own right, Fanny Mendelssohn was taught to play the piano by her mother, Lea, who had herself been trained by a student of Bach, and supported, at first, by her father Abraham.

Fanny excelled at both the piano and composition, and yet societal constraints fell hard on her, as they had on Nannerl Mozart. ‘Music will perhaps become his (Felix’s) profession, whereas for you it can and must be only an ornament,’ said her father, devastatingly, of her prospects, shortly before she attained that ominous marriageable age. Luckily, her new husband did not take the same view.

HELP OR HINDRANCE?

Mixed messages from the Mendelssohns for their talented daughter.

We named Fanny Mendelssohn one of the best female composers of all time

Johann Strauss II

Strauss’s famous dad, Johann I, might have been the feted father of the Viennese Waltz but he was determined not to foster any musicians. Strict and domineering, he mapped out the future careers of all seven of his legitimate children, with Johann marked down as a banker.

Strauss Jnr had other ideas, secretly taking violin lessons with the leader of his father’s orchestra, but was apparently whipped to ‘beat the music out of him’. Luckily for Strauss, his philandering father subsequently had seven more children with his long-term mistress. The heat now off, Strauss pursued his musical leanings, aided – very keenly – by his jilted mother, Anna.

HELP OR HINDRANCE?

No stopping that Strauss family waltz gene, despite Father’s best efforts.

Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was a composer in her own right

Clara Wieck’s outstanding talent led her driven father, Friedrich, to make her an example of his intensive teaching method, with daily theory, harmony and counterpoint, plus two hours practice.

His requirement to learn pieces from memory made Clara a sensation. If there wasn’t much love shown, he at least exempted her from onerous domestic chores to allow her to concentrate on composition - something which her future husband, Robert Schumann, did not.

HELP OR HINDRANCE?

A rock-solid training for Clara but a cosy childhood was but a dream.

César Franck

César Franck was the classic example of a wunderkind suffering from the exertions of an over-ambitious father. Bank clerk Nicholas-Joseph Franck doggedly flogged his young son around the salon circuit as a pianist-composer, but pushed him onto the Paris public too soon.

Reception was muted, even scornful, his father’s blatant commercial instinct alienating critics. Franck eventually rebelled and married the girl who was the dedicatee of a song that his overbearing father had torn up on account of the fact that her parents were ‘mere’ theatre actors.

HELP OR HINDRANCE?

The public spotted a gimmick when Franck senior tried to cash in.

Camille Saint-Saëns

Acclaimed by one critic as ‘the most remarkable child prodigy in history’, Camille Saint-Saëns grew up under the formidable tutelage of his mother Clémence and his great aunt, Charlotte Masson.

Yet, unusually, Clémence held him back from the limelight, realising that Paris faced prodigy overload. When he finally debuted at the Salle Pleyel, aged ten, he offered an encore of any Beethoven sonata requested – from memory.

Clémence continued to critique his compositions rigorously, even opening his post for him every day of his adult life. Beleaguered Tiger Mothers of the world, note: he adored her.

HELP OR HINDRANCE?

A tough life, but it was happy families all along in this musical household.

Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber was obssessed with music, a fact that his parents looked upon with benign dismay, even though his mother, Margaret McLeod, was a pianist.

Hoping to produce the archetypal all-American youth, Samuel was raised on athletics and football. Barber, aged 9, confided in his mother his ‘worrying secret’. ‘Now don’t cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault... I was not meant to be an athlet [sic]. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure....’ Needless to say, football was kicked into touch.

HELP OR HINDRANCE?

Despite attempts to make him a jock, Barber stuck firmly to music.

Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Florence encouraged her son Scott Joplin by letting him play the piano in the houses in which she worked as a cleaner. This interest in music brought both mother and son into conflict with Joplin’s father Giles, a former slave who, although a part-time musician himself, wanted his son to learn a more practical trade.

When Giles left them, Florence worked hard to support her son and managed to engage local professor Julius Weiss, who taught Joplin for free. She acquired a second-hand piano so that Joplin could practise at home.

HELP OR HINDRANCE?

Tough beginnings that didn’t stop a remarkable talent shining through.

We named Joplin one of the best, and most influential, black composers of all time

Michael Tippett

Ensconced in the family home in rural Suffolk, the young Tippett had no real means of hearing live or recorded music. His parents – a successful businessman and a card-carrying suffragette – felt that music was ‘frivolous’, leaving him to his own musical devices.

The epiphany came, far from home, at a concert near his boarding school in Lincolnshire. His father was eventually persuaded to fund his studies at the Royal College of Music, on the notion that he might just make a living as a concert pianist.

HELP OR HINDRANCE?

A slow start in music but his parents were won round in the end.

We named Tippett one of the best English composers of all time

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Main image: Mozart with Leopold and trumpeter Andreas Schachtner in 1762 © Getty Images

Authors

Sarah Urwin Jones is an Edinburgh-based classical music and visual arts writer and critic, with bylines in The Herald and The Times. She is a regular critic for BBC Music Magazine. In 2016, she won the Scottish Book Trust's New Writers Award in Narrative Non-Fiction and was nominated for the Arts Foundation Fellowship in Creative Non-Fiction the following year.