Pianists That Made History
Since the invention of the piano, musicians the world over have put their mark on history from behind the ebony and ivory keys. From the classical composers of the 18th century to the soul singers of the 50s to the stars who revolutionized rock and roll, the piano has been the common denominator connecting us to musical heritage. And the artists who made it possible deserve recognition. That’s why we’re diving into the lives of 3 famous pianists and how they made their names synonymous with music.
Ludwig van Beethoven
It is not too far off to say that Beethoven remains one of the greatest composers of all time. Let’s face it, when you think of classical music, what names come to mind? Odds are, one of the first (if not the first) was Beethoven himself. At least, Schroeder from the Peanuts would agree. And if you’re like most people, you probably grew up knowing how to play at least the first few measures of his famous Für Elise (a name which means, literally, “For Elise.”)
A Rocky Childhood
Yet amazingly, for a man so famous, we can only estimate his actual birthday. We know for a fact that he was baptized on December 17th, 1770, and since the law and practice at the time was generally to a newborn within 24 hours of birth, it is believed that he was born on or around December 16th in the city of Bonn, Germany.
(Incredibly enough, he was adamant that he was born two years later, in 1772, and maintained his opinion even after being shown official documents marking the true year of his birth.)
His mother, Maria Magdalena van Beethoven, was a kind and proper woman. But his father, Johann van Beethoven, was a subpar court singer and well-known alcoholic. His penchant for the bottle was better known than his talent for song. Ludwig’s grandfather and namesake, Kapellmeister Ludwig van Beethoven, was revered for his musical ability, which always meant a lot for the boy.
At a very young age, Johann demanded his son take to music, and did so with an abusiveness that would have a lifelong effect on the boy. Even neighbors recorded numerous accounts of the boy crying as he played the clavier, interspersed with relentless beatings from his father every time there was a mistake or hesitation. With periods of severe isolation and sleep deprivation in the name of extra practice, the elder Beethoven was far from fatherly towards his son.
But in spite of the cruel rigor with which he was taught, young Ludwig progressed and grew into the instrument with an amazing skill.
Though he took to music remarkably well, his schooling left much to be desired. Mathematics and spelling were areas in which he struggled his whole life, later saying, “Music comes to me more readily than words.”
And so it did, because at the age of 10 he departed school to pursue music full-time, a choice that would set him on the path towards composing music that is nothing short of immortal.
“In my profession it is a terrible handicap.”
But while he was crafting music, at the age of 26 he began to come to a horrible conclusion: he was going deaf. By 1801, he had ceased to attend social gatherings for nearly two years because it was nearly impossible to make out what anyone was saying. In any other job, he confessed to a friend in a letter, it would not be so bad, “but in my profession it is a terrible handicap.”
Nevertheless, it was at this time that Beethoven composed some of his greatest works, including his first and only opera, Fidelio, as well as his Moonlight Sonata.
Continuing to produce music despite increasing deafness not only shows the genius of Beethoven but also immortalized him among the greatest musicians in history.
On July 13th, 1985, Queen made history in 20 minutes. No one could have guessed that when they accepted the invitation to perform at Live Aid, they would deliver one of the most legendary musical performances in television.
Birth of a Legend
The man who would lead Queen’s charge into the history was born nearly 40 years before that performance, on September 5th, 1946, on the East African island of Zanzibar, and under a different name. Born Frederick Bulsara, he spent the majority of his childhood in India, attending St. Peter’s boarding school. At the age of 7, Freddie began learning piano lessons, a pivot point that few, if any, could have guessed would lead to worldwide fame.
In 1964, when Freddie was around 18, his family relocated to Middlesex, England. Not much later, while studying graphic design at school, Freddie joined up with a blues band named Wreckage. It was at this time that a fellow student introduced him to two young men: Roger Taylor and Brian May, who had a band of their own named Smile.
From that moment, the road to changing rock history was before them, as Smile became Queen.
With the addition of bassist John Deacon, the band was complete and would play together for the next 20 years.
In 1973, EMI and Elektra Records signed them on and soon their debut album, titled “Queen,” was released. Since then, music historians have hailed it as one of the most exhilarating new developments in rock music. But they hadn’t seen anything yet, because in 1975, something new happened.
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song that would remain recognizable more than 40 years later, was released, topping the UK charts for 9 weeks straight.
The Live Aid Concert
And 10 years after its release, on July 13th, 1985, they took the stage at Wembley Stadium at 6:41pm to the roaring applause of 70,000 people, in addition to hundreds of millions more glued to their TV sets. Freddie Mercury ate it up. His attitude was electric as the crowd adored him and he adored them right back.
Freddie took his seat before the piano, on which rested drinks for the performers. His fingers danced over the keys for a moment, belting out some cords, before settling into those familiar opening notes of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The crowd went wild.
Freddie’s voice meshed with the piano and sealed the memory in the minds of fans for years to come. And in that way, he joined the ranks of pianists who made history.
Frank Sinatra once described Ray Charles as “the only true Genius in show business.” Though the pianist would downplay it, hundreds of millions of listeners held some similar esteem as Sinatra’s (including Billy Joel in a Rolling Stone tribute (Ray Charles-RS 952/953 (July 8-22, 2004)).
But Ray Charles’ genius started from humble beginnings. Born on September 23rd, 1930 in Albany, Georgia to a laundress, Aretha Robinson (nee Williams), and laborer, Bailey Robinson, he grew up in Greenville, Florida. A family friend began to teach young Ray the piano before the age of five, an action that would spin the wheels that would one day lead to international fame.
At the age of 6, though, life took a pivot. Whereas Beethoven began to grow deaf, Ray Charles Robinson developed a glaucoma that would one day leave him blind. But did that stop him? You can bet it did not. Quite the opposite, Ray took to learning how to compose music in Braille and even took up such instruments as the alto saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, and the organ in the 8 years he attended a school for the blind and deaf.
The Start Of A Musical Legend
After the death of both parents (his father when he was 10 and his mother when he was 15), he left school to pursue music full-time. While doing so, he shortened his name from Ray Charles Robinson to simply Ray Charles, in an effort to avoid confusion with the famous boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
By 1947, he moved to Seattle with $600 to establish himself as a musician. From there his reputation grew as he revolutionized and pioneered genres such as soul, R&B, jazz, and even country music. People all over the nation, and eventually all over the world, were falling in love with hits like, “Unchain my heart,” “What I’d say,” “Hallelujah I love her so,” and his rendition of “America the Beautiful” has come to be known as the definitive cover of that song.
A Lasting Legacy
Despite the obstacles of his blindness and a heroin addiction (which he kicked in the mid-60s), Ray Charles was more than a musician. He was an inspiration of the triumph of one’s determination over obstacles that stand in one’s way. He proved that you can beat your struggles if you redirect yourself onto a better path.
Start Your Musical Journey At The Ogden Piano Gallery
One of the major lessons these three musicians teach us is that accomplishing your goals is a matter of your own determination and what you’re willing to put into it. From Beethoven we learned how music can be an escape, Freddie Mercury reminded us of the importance of having fun, and Ray Charles taught that you shouldn’t let obstacles stop you from your goals.
You can follow in their footsteps by starting your piano journey today. Visit the Ogden Piano Gallery to begin piano lessons, find sheet music, or to purchase a piano for your home. We are staffed by music experts who are ready and willing to help you know the best places to start.
You can reach us at (801) 779-9700 or send us an email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions that you may have. We look forward to pointing you in the right musical direction to achieve your goals so you can learn to play the music you love.