Cornelius Gurlitt was a man in the right place at the right time. As a composer of piano music who was most noted for his miniatures, or character pieces, he had the great good fortune to live during the era in which the piano became the most popular form of home entertainment and the public appetite for piano music could not be satisfied.
Born in Altona, Prussia, on February 10, 1820, Cornelius Gurlitt arrived in this world at the height of the first industrial revolution that swept through Britain, Europe, and the United States. This was a period of mechanization and technological invention that made mass production of goods possible for the first time in history. Workers were freed from backbreaking labor and could, by learning the skills of operating the newly invented machinery, be more productive and earn more money than ever possible before. Their money created a new demand for consumer goods, which fueled the factories to produce even more. This in turn caused industrialized economies to grow at never-before-seen rates. The prosperity of the age created an enormous middle class—in fact it made the middle class the largest class in industrialized nations of that time.
The popularity of the piano is tied to the birth of the middle class during this historic period. In previous generations, owning a piano was a privilege of wealthy aristocrats. Playing the piano was a social skill reserved for those with both money and tremendous amounts of leisure time. The working class of the era had neither. But by the early decades of the 1800s, families of the swelling middle class did have the money to buy pianos, particularly upright pianos that cost far less than traditional grand pianos. They also had the money to pay for lessons and to buy music.
Even if the adults who became members of the growing middle class didn’t learn to play the piano, they saw to it that their children had the opportunity to learn to play. They wanted a piano in their parlor, partly as a mark of social status or achievement, and partly as a source of entertainment. Piano miniatures such as the ones written by Cornelius Gurlitt were wildly popular as children’s pieces, parlor pieces, or entertaining little tunes that people could play at gatherings of friends and family. Although countless such pieces existed at the height of the era, only the finest of them remain in print today, more than a century after they were written. Robert Schumann (1810-56) wrote a lovely book of miniatures, the most famous of such collections, that was published as his Album for the Young.
Many of Gurlitt’s piano works have colorful, descriptive names like “Grossvaters Geburtstag”(Grandfather’s Birthday) or Salto Mortale (Aerial Somersault) and “Heiterer Morgen” (A Sunshiny Morning). His vivid titles are no surprise given his lifelong interest in art. His brother Louis was a very successful artist whose paintings are still held in high regard. Cornelius himself studied painting in Rome and was known to have created some fine paintings. He also studied music in Rome, where he was nominated an honorary member of the papal academy “Di Santa Cecilia” and graduated as “Professor of Music.” His earlier studies were in Leipzig, where he studied with Karl Reineke, and in Copenhagen. Gurlitt worked as a pianist and church organist, and also served as a military band master for a time. He wrote music in a number of different genres, including symphonies, songs, operas, cantatas, and educational keyboard pieces. He died in his hometown of Altona on June 17, 1901.