5 Unexpected Classical Facts

This month marks the start of our Classical Concerts Series, which will feature some of the world’s finest musicians, performing the work of the greatest composers who ever lived.

From Russia to Germany, this music endures across the world – but here are some things you might not know…


Rimsky-Korsakov – a bit of a genius

Vladimir Altschuler, who will be conducting the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov started out not as a composer but as a naval officer. It was an encounter with musician (and future mentor) Mily Balakirev that inspired him to change course.

Once he did, the results were nothing short of outstanding: Rimsky-Korsakov’s first composition was a full-scale symphony, written before he had even encountered basic harmonic principles. Despite still being only vaguely aware of music composition, he was quickly appointed as a professor at the St Petersburg Academy.

Always ahead of his time, Rimsky-Korsakov’s work was a forerunner of the post-war avant-garde music which would come half a century later. And yet, he was never a fan of modernist music, once telling Stravinsky: “Better not listen to it; you risk getting used to it, and then you might even end up liking it.”

The St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra perform his Scheherazade here on Sunday 22 October. Buy tickets now at Norwich Theatre Royal.


Bach suffered for his music

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 3 is performed by the European Union Chamber Orchestra on 24 March.

Bach was one of the biggest composers of his day, but that doesn’t mean he was willing to waste money on horses. Once, he walked over 200 miles to hear an organist he particularly enjoyed. The performance ended, and Bach got up and walked 200 miles home again.

We’re not expecting you to do that for this concert; take a look at your travel options here.

The European Union Chamber Orchestra


Beethoven struggled with his hearing

Classic FM describes Ludwig Van Beethoven as “the defining figure in the history of Western music.” On 15 April, the Czech National Symphony Orchestra are here to perform his Piano Concerto Number 5 (The Emperor).

One of the things that makes Beethoven’s output even more impressive is that by the age of 26, he was suffering from tinnitus and beginning to lose his hearing. He was almost completely deaf by the end of his life, and had to ‘hear’ music by feeling the vibrations it made. Nevertheless, he didn’t let that stop him: it was during this period that his wildly inventive ‘Late Quartets’ were composed.


Rachmaninov wasn’t very popular

Sergei Rachmaninov is undeniably one of history’s greatest and most influential composers – but that doesn’t mean he was popular with his contemporaries!

Stravinsky once called him “a six-and-a-half foot tall scowl,” and critics of the day weren’t much kinder.

Nevertheless, Rachmaninov produced a stream of incredible work, starting with his Piano Concerto Number One, composed when he was still a student.

He can be rather more proud of himself for upsetting the USSR, who described The Bells (a choral symphony based on the work of Edgar Allen Poe) as ‘decadent’ and ‘composed by an enemy of Russia: Sergei Rachmaninov.’

The St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra will be joined by soloist Peter Donohoe to perform Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto Number 4.


It’s lucky Schubert hated teaching

Despite showing a knack for composing from the age of just 10, Austrian composer Franz Schubert decided to follow his father into teaching.

The Czech National Symphony Orchestra

As it turned out, it was his hatred of the job that inspired him to put the effort in, and he became one of the most prolific composers around. In his very first year as a teacher, he produced his first masterpiece (Gretchen At Her Spinning Wheel), before going on to produce an enormous quantity of ground-breaking music, all while still working full-time.

Once he had made his name, Schubert was able to quit – and with little money to show for it, he relied on the generosity of his adoring fans.

Schubert’s Symphony Number 8 (popularly known as the Unfinished Symphony) will be performed by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.