Born to a poor family in northern Germany on September 11, 1786, Friedrich Daniel Rudolph Kuhlau showed an early aptitude for music. At age seven, his mother sent him one dark night for water from the village well; he slipped on an icy street and permanently blinded himself in the right eye. At age fourteen, he began composition studies with Schwenke. Over the next several years, Kuhlau composed much piano and chamber music, and in 1804 began regularly appearing as a concert pianist.
During this time period, he was able to earn good money composing for the flute. These works are of generally high quality, featuring a firm grasp of the instrument’s expressive range. Because of this, one critic dubbed Kuhlau “the Beethoven of the flute”, imagining him to be a quality flutist. However, he could not play the flute at all; his instrument of choice was the pianoforte.
In 1810, Kuhlau fled to Copenhagen to avoid conscription in Napoleon’s army. His piano concerto had debuted earlier that year to critical acclaim, so he was able to secure employment as a composer in the Danish court. Several operas and incidental play music were composed during this period with various levels of reception. The opera Elverhoj maintains great popularity in Denmark, having been lauded as that country’s national opera.
In 1825, during a trip to Vienna, Kuhlau became close friends with Beethoven, whose music certainly had an effect on his own piano compositions. The two met at a raucous party, during which Kuhlau impressed Beethoven by improvising a canon. Beethoven responded in kind by playing a canon making a pun upon his new friend’s name – kuhl, nicht lau – which translates as: cool, not warm. The following morning, Beethoven cemented their friendship by sending him a new canonical pun; since, due to the copious amount of champagne consumed, he had forgotten the previous night’s satirical composition.
It is certainly the piano for which Kuhlau will be mostly remembered. His numerous sonatinas serve as fitting introduction to the more technically challenging Beethoven sonatas. Not to be ignored, however, are his many other keyboard compositions – waltzes, sonatas and a piano concerto. Unfortunately, many new manuscripts were lost forever when his home burned to the ground in 1830.
Following the devastating fire, Kuhlau found his health in decline. His father died later that year as well. After a prolonged illness, Friedrich Kuhlau passed from this world in March of 1832. A funeral march of his own composition accompanied him to a grave near Copenhagen.