Top 5 Influential Moms in Classical Music

Tune in to WQXR on Sunday for Hourly Pieces About Moms and Motherhood

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Van Cliburn and his mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan in Amsterdam, 1966 Van Cliburn and his mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan in Amsterdam, 1966 (Wikipedia Commons/Dutch National Archives)

In honor of Mother's Day, we're recognizing five moms who through their unflagging support and devotion shaped the future of classical music.

1.  Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn

Rildia Bee O'Bryan attended the Cincinnati Conservatory and the forerunner to the Juilliard School before she married Harvey Cliburn had her only son, Van. She discovered his preternatural musical gift when, as a three year old, Van Cliburn would play pieces she rehearsed with her piano students by ear. Rildia remained her son’s only piano teacher until he was 17, when he followed his mother’s footsteps to Juilliard. Afterward, Rildia, who Van endearingly called “Little Precious,” successfully managed her son’s career to great heights.


2. Maria Grigoryevna Prokofieva

Maria Grigoryevna Prokofieva, a well-educated woman and avid pianist, sensed an extraordinary musical aptitude in her son, Sergei. The composer called his mother his earliest influence, crediting her teaching style which encouraged passion over perfected technique and tiresome exercises; she sought out the best instruction available for him. (A short Russian cartoon based on the composer’s life shows mother and son playing the “Moonlight Sonata” together.) She enrolled Sergei in summer lessons with the composer Reinhold Glière. Two years later, Prokofiev became the youngest student admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory. (Right: Serge Prokofiev with his parents in an undated photo.)


3. Anna Magdalena Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, was a fine musician in her own right — a singer and keyboard player for whom her husband wrote a pair of notebooks. There's also evidence that she may have written works credited to her more famous spouse. Magdalena was also mother to three of the Bach's children who went on to successful musical careers: Gottfried Heinrich, a keyboard player; Johann Christoph Friedrich, the Bückeburg Bach; and Johann Christian, who wrote enjoyed success in London.


4. Edith Hockey Britten

Benjamin Britten had an especially close relationship with his mother, Edith Hockey Britten, an amateur mezzo-soprano and pianist. Benjamin, the youngest of four children, was the most precocious of the brood, jotting down notes on staff paper by the time he was five. Unlike composers who were child prodigies, Britten didn't show much more than just a strong interest in music in these early compositions. Two of his biographers have recently scrutinized Britten’s relationship with his mother: Humphrey Carpenter goes so far to suggest Edith to have been early version of a helicopter mother, whereas Paul Kildea finds the relationship intimate but less worrisome. (Right: Benjamin Britten, center, with his mother and elder siblings. Britten-Pears Foundation.)


5.  Sarah Mittenthal Copland

Aaron Copland’s father, Harris, had little interest for music, but his mother Sarah Mittenthal Copland, both sang and played the piano for her five children, However, only Aaron and his brother Ralph, a violinist, pursued musical careers, which gave Sarah great pleasure. Sarah bragged to reporters in 1927 that watching Aaron perform his Piano Concerto in front of the Boston Symphony was the proudest moment of her life.

Aaron Copland's parents, Harris and Sarah Copland, in 1922


More in:

Comments [8]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

COSIMA LISZT WAGNER, Wagner's second wife, the daughter of FRANZ LISZT, bore him four children, one of whom was SIEGFRIED WAGNER , an opera composer and conductor. Cosima inspired much of Wagner's. compositions But even more so, WAGNER'S mother, JOHANNA WAGNER, nurtured his talents and helped him in decision making when WAGNER himself was depressed with the vicarious situation in Germany's musical
possibilities for professional composers. Mothers tend to be more creative and supportive than their spouses. Schlafe mein kind, a lullaby Wagner wrote in 1840 and which I sang at its American premiere as part of six songs that WAGNER wrote while he was in Paris, seeking to get funds. My concert was the first that those selections had ever been given a major concert hall performance, anywhere. My solo 3 hour long ALL-WAGNER concert, Thursday, May 28, 1998 at 8 PM entitled WAGNER'S EPIC HEROES was in the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, and DAVID BRANDON was my accompanist on the 12 foot STEINWAY GRAND PIANO, Carnegie's largest. The lid of the piano was up to get the fullest sound. The LULLABY, written by Wagner, newly a father himself, was so un-Wagnerian , so tender, that the full capacity audience at my concert called for an encore, and I gratefully obliged. Many speaking to me after the concert thought the song was as good as BRAHMS's LULLABY. i sang the French language version that Wagner intended to have sung by the leading artists in FRANCE. They responded that they only sing works by major composers. So I got to sing its major concert hall premiere performance. In French the song is entitled Dors mon enfant. EVEN THE ENFANT TERRIBLE WAGNER HAD A HEART for an adorable infant! My voice is a Wagnerian romantischer heldentenor, a Wagnerian romantic heroic tenor.

May. 10 2015 06:15 PM
David from Flushing

What do Cliburn, Copeland, and Britten have in common?

May. 10 2015 04:42 PM
steeveave from Hyderabad

Thanks for sharing your information.this is very useful information,this is very useful information

Social Media Music Site

May. 14 2014 05:53 AM
steeveave from UK

Thanks for sharing your information.this is very useful information,this is very useful information

Social Media Music Site

May. 12 2014 08:30 AM
Michael Meltzer

"Most influential isn't necessarily positive influence, or the influence of intent. I can't think of any more profound historic happenstance than the illness of Beethoven's mother that prevented him from becoming the pupil of Mozart.
What turn might musical history have taken had Beethoven's mother remained healthy?

May. 11 2014 10:15 PM

@mingusqcat -- All Top 5 mothers were musical in their own right.

@Pat -- Unfortunately, my mother passed away in 1995. But she supported (and was influential in) my musical career. Biggest highlight was when she was in NYC for my opening night on Broadway.


May. 09 2014 02:45 AM
Pat from NJ

I really enjoy features about women who were influential musicians. I'd like to see more of them. Whether they happened to be mothers or not is a biographical footnote, not the main story. But the article you're complaining about is a MOTHER'S DAY feature. Not the greatest article in the world but no harm done, so why not relax a little. And call your mother.

May. 09 2014 12:53 AM

Wow. So all moms can do is support their sons' great work? Why not feature moms who were influential MUSICIANS themselves?

May. 08 2014 05:48 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Top 5 @ 105

WQXR helps you make the most of the New York City’s classical music scene.

Our "Top 5 at 105 " features can't-miss experiences: the best concerts, books and films about music, places to eat before and after shows, and more.