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Classical 101

Dog Day: Composers and Their Dogs

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Sir Edward Elgar with his dogs

It’s easy to think of classical composers as lofty beings held in high esteem above the rest of society, but they were much more human than we tend to realize. To celebrate National Dog Day, here are some anecdotes we’ve collected about various composers and their undeniable best friends – their dogs.

Much to Edward Elgar’s dismay, his wife Alice hated dogs and forbade them in the household during their marriage. After her death in 1920, the composer wasted no time in acquiring two dogs - a spaniel named Marco and a terrier named Mina.

Elgar doted on Marco and Mina like they were his children – during a live radio broadcast in celebration of his 70th birthday, he wished a fond goodnight to Mina, who was said to have been overjoyed at the sound of her master’s voice.

His love for dogs was also heard in No. XI of his Enigma Variations for orchestra. The variation portrays a walk along the River Wye in Hereford, England with George Sinclair, an organist and good friend of Elgar. While the movement is named for Sinclair, it’s actually a depiction of Dan, Sinclair’s regal bulldog, falling into the river, paddling upstream, and clambering onto the bank with a triumphant bark.

Elgar wasn’t the only composer with a penchant for pups. Frederic Chopin’s partner, George Sand, had a playful little dog she called Marquis whom Chopin adored so much that he wrote his Valse du Petit Chien, or Little Dog Waltz, inspired by Marquis chasing his tail.

Most musicians know that an excited dog in a rehearsal is potential for disaster, but this didn’t deter composer Ethel Smyth from bringing her dog, an unruly St. Bernard named Marco, to a rehearsal of a Brahms piece with Brahms himself in attendance. The rehearsal was interrupted when Marco ran into the room and knocked over the cellist’s stand. Luckily for Smyth, Brahms was a fellow dog lover and didn’t mind the intrusion.

Richard Wagner was another canine-loving composer - he was outraged when Pohl, his Labrador, died and was hastily buried in the yard by a servant. He demanded Pohl be dug up and buried in a casket with a proper service and a ceremonial collar.

In 1947, a reporter visited Dmitri Shostakovich at his home to conduct an interview. Shostakovich’s wife and children were packing for a trip in the next room, and before long their Airedale terrier, Tomka, wandered in, anxious and whining. Shostakovich explained to the reporter that he was upset because the family was leaving on a trip, and added, “I have a theory that dogs lead such short lives because they take everything so much to heart.”

Shostakovich’s theory will certainly ring true for dog owners - they really do take everything to heart, and perhaps this is one of the reasons they are such perfect companions.