15 unlikely composers
Which famous people have also tried their hand at writing music?
Over the years, we have enjoyed exploring the various skills and enthusiasms that composers have shown away from their day job: Mendelssohn’s ability with a paintbrush, for instance, Elgar’s love of golf, or Prokofiev’s chessboard brilliance. But what about the other way round? How many famous names from other walks of life have dabbled in composing as a hobby? Digging around the archives, there do appear to have been a few, and we’ve picked 15 of the more interesting below.
Intriguingly, some walks of life seem to produce more aspiring Mozarts and Elgars than others. Why is it that philosophers and actors have more inclination to pen the odd sonata or two than, say, painters or sportsmen? But maybe we are just being too quick to judge. For all we know, Wayne Rooney’s First Symphony could be just around the corner…
1. Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher (1844-1900)
Keen though he was, Nietzsche appears to have had as much difficulty in composing a masterpiece as some of us do in fathoming his philosophies (or, indeed, spelling his name). The raw ingredients were certainly not lacking. Brought up in a musical family, he could play the piano well and found himself as a young man befriended and supported by Wagner. And, of course, he possessed one of the most agile minds of the 19th century. Sadly, though, the brilliance which brought about groundbreaking texts such as Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil never translated into mastery of the musical score. When Cosima Wagner and Hans Richter played his The New Year’s Echoes for piano duet in 1871, Wagner himself apparently had to leave the room, doubled up in hysterics. The following year, Nietzsche’s Manfred Meditation for solo piano met an even worse reception from Hans von Bülow. ‘Have you no better way to kill time?’ wrote the conductor on receiving the score, adding that Nietzsche had ‘raped the muse of music’.
2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, philosopher (1712-1778)
Given that, in his 1750 treatise Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, Rousseau’s take on said arts was, roughly, that they were generally a corrupting influence on human nature – in that they encouraged vanity and various other sins – it may come as a surprise to learn that he himself composed in earnest. Penning a fair number of songs, chamber and orchestral works, his best achievement came in the form of his 1752 opera Le Devin du Village, which earned him the offer of a lifelong pension from King Louis XIV (he turned it down) and remained popular for many years. In keeping with the philosophical outlook of a man whose hugely influential The Social Contract had a bearing on both French and American revolutions, Le Devin du Village places its emphasis on simplicity and lack of show.
3. Ezra Pound, poet (1885-1972)
‘Pound’s style,’ says the authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ‘is possibly the most individual devised by an amateur.’ Two operas, The Testament of François Villon (1923) and Cavalcanti (1932), are the compositional highlights of the US poet, whom literature students probably associate more readily with Chinese-influenced poetry collections such as Cathay and the Cantos. In contrast to the relative simplicity of his verse, Pound’s compositional style was complex, in rhythm at least – Villon, which takes its inspiration from the music of Provençal troubadors, contains metres such as 7/16 and 19/32.
4. Samuel Pepys, diarist (1633-1703)
‘Home to Mr. Hill,’ wrote Pepys in December 1665, ‘and sang, among other things, my song of “Beauty, retire” which he likes, only excepts against two notes in the base, but likes the whole very well.’ Indeed, so proud of his song was the English diarist that he is seen holding it in his famous portrait by John Hayls from the following year. Actually, it’s a little dull.
5. Leo Tolstoy, author (1828-1910)
The author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina most famously revealed his love and knowledge of music in his 1889 story The Kreutzer Sonata about a man’s obsessive jealousy over his musical wife. Tolstoy’s own musical legacy was short (about a minute in total!), but very charming – in 1906, he played a little waltz in F major that he’d composed in his youth to musicologist Aleksandr Gol’denveizer, who wrote it down for posterity. It has since been recorded by pianists Imogen Cooper and Lera Auerbach.
6. Charlie Chaplin, actor, director (1899-1977)
Chaplin couldn’t read music, and apparently made life hell for those poor souls who were tasked with the job of putting down the brilliant-but-moody actor and director’s musical thoughts onto the written page. The effort, and the tantrums, were worth it – nearly all of Chaplin’s films are enhanced by his own scores and, in 1973, he deservedly won the Best Film Score Oscar for Limelight.
7. Clint Eastwood, actor, director (b.1930)
OK, so most of us probably associate Clint Eastwood’s rough, unshaven features with the music of Ennio Morricone – in particular that iconic ‘Oo-ee, oo-ee, oooo, wah, wah, wah’ theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. However, the great Western film actor (and, lest we forget, politician) has also written a few scores of his own, albeit with a little help when it comes to the orchestration. The best known of these is 2003’s Mystic River, whose main theme, explained the composer, is derived from a triad that came to him while he was thinking of the film’s trio of central characters, played by Tim Robbins, Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon.
8. Sir Anthony Hopkins, actor, director (b.1937)
So, Dirty Harry and Hannibal Lecter. There are two characters you probably wouldn’t want to be stuck in a room with at the same time. But the men who played them appear to be refinement its very self – when Clint Eastwood and Sir Anthony Hopkins meet at Hollywood parties, we’d like to think they discuss nothing more sinister than key signatures and ledger lines. For his 2007 film Slipstream, Sir Anthony not only wrote the score but – get this – orchestrated and conducted it himself. Describing his compositional approach as ‘freestyle’ in a 2008 interview, Hopkins said he took his inspiration from the likes of Scriabin, Debussy and Ravel. He is not, incidentally, to be confused with English composer Antony Hopkins, who, as far as we know, has never tried to eat anyone on the big screen.
9. ETA Hoffman, author (1776-1822)
Hoffmann’s name is forever guaranteed a slot in the music library, courtesy of Offenbach’s The Tales of… opera; and it’s his colourful story that was turned by Tchaikovsky into the Nutcracker ballet in 1891. But let’s not deny ETA Hoffmann his own seat at the composers’ table. Six of the German author’s operas remain intact, the most important of which is Undine (1816), as do a couple of choral works. His composing was polished though evidently less imaginative than his story-telling – much of his music leans heavily on Mozart and Gluck.
10. Anthony Burgess, author (1917-93)
It is on a high of drugs and Beethoven that Alex, the vile delinquent in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, leads his gang of ‘droogs’ towards long nights of violence and rape. Later, one of his victims subjects him to torture by making him listen to the same composer loudly and repeatedly. Extremely nasty stuff from an author who, as a composer himself, no doubt intended their abuse of Beethoven to give those crimes a little extra added horror. Self-taught from the age of 18, Burgess’s breakthrough in music came in 1975, when his Third Symphony was performed publicly in Iowa. ‘I have written over 30 books, but this was the truly great artistic moment,’ he later enthused. After that, Burgess continued to compose prolifically, his output including a large number of chamber and solo works, concertos and cantatas. A lover of fugues, his style is described by biographer Paul Philips as something akin to ‘a hybrid of Holst and Hindemith’.
11. William Herschel, astronomer (1738-1822)
And talking of Holst… time to look towards the planets. Which is exactly what William Herschel spent most of his time doing – so much so that in 1781 he discovered Uranus. When not peering through his telescope, the Bath-based astronomer directed his gaze music-wards. An impressive 24 symphonies form the bulk of his musical CV, along with various concertos, although most have disappeared somewhere into the far beyond. That said, in 1981 Herschel enjoyed a large audience when fellow astronomer Sir Patrick Moore played one of his keyboard works on the harpsichord as part of the introduction to a special edition of the BBC’s The Sky at Night programme.
12. Sir Patrick Moore, astronomer (1923-2012)
Alas, Sir Patrick has described Herschel’s music as ‘Mozart gone stale’. But what of Moore’s own efforts? The Sky at Night presenter, famed for enjoying the occasional plinkety-plonk on the xylophone – he has even duetted on TV with Dame Evelyn Glennie – has written quite a large number of pieces. Alongside Joplinesque piano rags and a tone poem called Phaethon’s Ride (once recorded by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra), three operas, Perseus, Theseus and Galileo, take pride of place. Think Gilbert and Sullivan-lite here…
13. Henry VIII, monarch (1491-1547)
Like Charlie Chaplin, Henry VIII has enjoyed performaces of his work at the Proms, though his achievements as a composer are too often over-shadowed by the red herring of whether or not he wrote Greensleeves. Memorable songs and instrumental works flowed from the regal pen as readily as the orders for the executions of those who got his goat. Pastyme with good companye and Tandernaken show the King at his most accomplished.
14. Prince Albert, royalty (1819-61)
Was Mendelssohn just creeping to royalty when he said that Queen Victoria’s husband played the organ ‘so charmingly, precisely and accurately that it would have done credit to a professional’? Possibly, though Prince Albert’s credentials are well served by a compositional legacy that includes a number of lieder and some accomplished choral works – his Jubilate Deum was heard at Westminster Abbey in the 1980s. Ha. Who said that 19th-century England was the ‘Land without Music’? OK, admittedly Albert was German…
15. Ivo Josipovic, politician (b.1957)
So, David Cameron’s First Symphony? Barack Obama’s Violin Concerto? Possibly not, but one country can boast a current leader with a few opus numbers up his sleeve. Ivo Josipovic, who was elected president of Croatia in February, is an avant-garde composer whose Samba de Camera won him a prize from the European Broadcasting Union in 1995. We’re impressed.
Illustration: David Lyttleton
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Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.