Death, Suicide and Close Shaves in the World of Classical Music Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Death, Suicide and Close Shaves in the World of Classical Music

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Musicians and composers tend to have larger-than-life characters. They often live notable lives, and in many cases they die unusual deaths. This entry lists a few of the peculiar circumstances surrounding the deaths or close shaves of classical composers.

Tragedy - Granados

Enrique Granados (1867 - 1916) is famous for his Spanish music for piano, much of it later arranged for classical guitar. He travelled to New York in 1916 (during the First World War) to attend the première of one of his works. On the return journey, an enemy submarine torpedoed his ship, the Sussex. Granados drowned. He was last seen trying to pull his wife from the water.

Fate - Mahler

Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911) feared death. He noticed that many other composers, such as Beethoven and Schubert, had composed only nine symphonies. He thought that it was unlucky to write more than nine symphonies and that as soon as he started work on his tenth symphony, he would die. In an effort to trick fate, he decided to call his ninth great symphonic work a 'Song Cycle' rather than a symphony. He named it Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). He then felt that he was free to write another symphony, calling it his 9th Symphony, but secure in the knowledge that it was really his 10th.

Of course, fate has a way of fighting back: as soon as Mahler had sketched out the first draft of the symphony known as his 10th, he died suddenly of a streptococcal throat infection, something which would be so easily curable today by antibiotics.

Shame - Tchaikovsky

Piotr Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893) was one of the greatest composers of ballet and lyrical orchestral pieces. He died in Russia in 1893. The official story at the time was that he drank a glass of untreated water during a cholera epidemic, contracted cholera and died. Even at the time, this story was treated with suspicion, because his body was not put into quarantine, as it should have been. The truth did not come out until nearly 80 years later: Tchaikovsky was a homosexual. If this had become known in public, he would have been humiliated, had all his rights stripped from him, and been exiled to Siberia. In addition, it would have reflected very badly on his school and its other former pupils. When a letter of accusation was sent to the Tsar, the school friends got together and persuaded him of what they considered the only course. The following day, Tchaikovsky committed suicide.

Tragi-comedy - Lully

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632 - 1687) was a composer in the French court. He was one of the first conductors, leading his band of musicians by standing in front of them and waving a stick. Unlike modern conductors, who use a small baton, Lully used an enormous staff similar to that used by a marching band leader. He stabbed himself in the foot with the staff, contracted gangrene and died.

A Late Night - Purcell

Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695) was the major English composer of the 17th Century, who also had a habit of staying out late at night. His wife lost patience and instructed the servant to lock the house door at midnight, so when Purcell arrived home late, he spent the night outside. He caught a cold from this, which eventually killed him.

Carelessness - Weber

Carl Maria von Weber (1786 - 1826) narrowly escaped death when he drank some concentrated nitric acid that his father had thoughtlessly left in a wine jug. His singing voice was ruined by this accident and he had to be content with making a living as a composer.

Madness - Schumann

Robert Schumann (1816 - 1856) was severely mentally disturbed. On one occasion, he tried to commit suicide by jumping into the River Rhine. He survived the attempt, but later signed himself into a mental asylum. He went steadily downhill from there and, sadly, never recovered, dying two years later. His last days were surrounded by music that 'angels and devils sang to him'.

Mystery - Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) died at the early age of 35. The official cause of death was 'severe miliary fever', although various other causes have been suggested since, including rheumatic inflammatory fever, Schönlein-Henoch syndrome and even a worm infection from eating badly cooked pork.

One very popular story is that he was murdered by his archrival, Salieri, a mediocre composer of the time who envied Mozart's genius. This story was common even in Salieri's own time, but he denied it on his deathbed. It was made into a poem by Pushkin, a play by Rimsky-Korsakoff and finally a very good play and film, Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer. There is no evidence to confirm it, but it makes for a good yarn.

Interestingly, Salieri was a much better composer than is depicted in the film, so a modern composer had to rewrite his music to make it sound worse in order to create a more striking contrast between it and the music of Mozart.

Reprieve - Stradella

Alessandro Stradella (1638 - 1682) was an Italian composer of oratorio and opera. He had an affair with one of his students, the mistress of a rich Venetian. The Venetian found out and sent two heavies (either bodyguards or hired killers in this case) to murder him. They arrived early and decided to attend the performance of Stradella's latest oratorio before carrying out the dirty deed, but they were so enraptured by the music that they could not bring themselves to hurt the man. They approached him after the concert and told him that they had been sent to murder him. They advised him to leave town for his own good, which he promptly did.

Revenge - de Coucy

Chastelain de Coucy (1160 - 1203) was an aristocratic poet-minstrel. After an affair with a married woman, he decided to atone for his sins by joining a crusade to Palestine, where he died.

His last wish was that his heart should be embalmed and sent back to his lover, along with the love tokens she had given him. The jealous husband intercepted the heart, had it cooked up in a strong sauce and fed it to his wife. When she found out what she had just eaten, the poor lady vowed never to eat another morsel of food, and died soon after.

Rest in Pieces - Haydn

Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809) was a prolific Austrian composer who invented the modern symphony. A few years after he died, it was decided that his body should be moved to Vienna, where he had spent so much of his life. However, it was discovered that two men, Peter and Rosenbaum, had stolen the head. Frantic searching by police failed to uncover the skull, which Rosenbaum's wife had hidden under her nightdress. The skull was passed around the musical world, being displayed in glass cases and on mantelpieces as a curiosity. Only in 1954 was the skull finally reunited with the rest of Haydn's bones.

Last Words - Chopin

Frederic Chopin (1810 - 1849) was one of the greatest composers and performers of piano music of all time. On his death bed, this was his last request:

You will play in memory of me and I will hear you from beyond... Play really good music, Mozart, for instance.

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