Classical music BFFs: What composers were the best buddies?

by Jay Gabler, Minnesota Public Radio
December 13, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. — In the abbreviated parlance of youth, a "BFF" is a "Best Friend Forever." Though BFFs may — ironically — change, your BFF of the moment is the person you feel closest to, the one who really gets you.

Friendships have helped to sustain and inspire composers for centuries. Who among repertoire composers were the best BFFs? Here are three pairs that might qualify.

Mozart and Haydn. In 1781, the 49-year-old Joseph Haydn and the 25-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart met for the first time; despite their differences in age and temperament, they immediately became fast friends. Not only did Haydn and Mozart offer moral support to one another, their friendship was one of the most artistically fruitful in the history of music. Haydn's Russian quartets inspired a set that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, and Mozart's inspiration kept the older composer happily on his toes. "He alone has the spirit of making me smile," said Haydn, "and touching me to the bottom of my soul." At their final meeting, Mozart — who knew he was ill and correctly supposed that he would predecease his mentor and dear friend — wept.

Strauss and Mahler. In the turbulent world of turn-of-the-century European music, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler were close friends — or, perhaps more precisely, frenemies. "Strauss and I travel from opposite sides of the mountain," said Mahler, referring to differences of both aesthetic philosophy and personality. "One day we shall meet." Despite Mahler's metaphor, in reality the two met often, and championed each other's work. As Alex Ross recounts in The Rest is Noise, they spent the day of Strauss's epochal Salome premiere together, visiting a waterfall and lunching at an inn. Upon Mahler's death, Strauss was so devastated that he could barely speak. Mahler, Strauss said, had been both a good friend and a worthy adversary.

Holst and Vaughan Williams. These two towering English composers met in 1895, when Gustav Holst was just 20 and the elder composer was in his mid-20s. Though the two had their occasional differences — Holst enjoyed playing light music in pop orchestras, some of which Ralph Vaughan Williams regarded as "trashy" — the two became lifelong friends and regarded one another as valued critics. The two, said Vaughan Williams, discussed "every subject under the sun from the lowest note of the double bassoon to the philosophy of Jude the Obscure." Holst remarked on how deeply his friend had influenced his work, and in return Vaughan Williams described Holst as the single greatest influence on his work. Fer cute.


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