Decomposers: strange classical deaths
Murderous bees, gun-toting GIs and death by chocolate… they’ve all taken a fatal toll on classical music’s finest. Jonathan Lennie picks his favourite final movements
Whenever I mention the concept of my BBC Radio 4 series ‘Classical Assassins’ – monologues from the bit players of history responsible for the deaths of great composers – the invariable response is: ‘like Salieri and Mozart?’ And the answer is ‘yes’. Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play and the subsequent 1984 film ‘Amadeus’ (directed by Milos Forman) captured the public’s imagination, but it occurred to me that history is full of famous people killed by lesser mortals’ deliberate or inadvertent actions. Think, for instance, of the lady who used to cook for Elvis – and how all those late-night fried peanut-butter sandwiches must have helped propel the King towards his final journey. The fact is that a good story is a good story, and classical music is full of them.
Jealous poisonerAlthough ignored today, in the late eighteenth century Antonio Salieri was a celebrity: court composer to Austria’s Emperor, while Mozart was just a desperate freelancer chasing commissions. But after Salieri’s death, a rumour spread that, on his deathbed, the court composer had confessed to poisoning the younger, more talented man. Such a good story gathered momentum and within a few months of Salieri’s death in 1825, Pushkin wrote a morality play ‘Mozart and Salieri’, which was set as an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1898.
Death by chocolate‘The Flowering of the English Baroque’, as his statue in Victoria depicts Henry Purcell, is one of Britain’s greatest composers. He achieved an extraordinary amount before dying at 36 in 1695. Yet, he might have lived longer if: a) he hadn’t contracted pneumonia after his wife locked him out of their house in Westminster in the rain after he’d spent another late night carousing with his mates, or b) as claims the more tantalising rumour, he hadn’t been dispatched by chocolate poisoning. A result of consuming the impure drink at one of London’s new chocolate houses… or murdered due to his association with one of the Restoration secret societies?
Fatal umbrellaFrenchman Charles-Valentin Alkan was reputedly killed by a falling bookcase in 1888. It is said that the accident happened when the ageing Jewish composer was reaching for a copy of the Talmud from a high shelf. Some musicologists reject this and claim that he died after being trapped under a fallen umbrella stand. Still, no less unusual a demise.
Bee flatAlban Berg, along with Schoenberg and Webern, makes up the triumvirate of the Second Viennese School. The humble bee that stung him wasn’t to know that it was cutting short the life and career of the 50-year-old who had written the wonderful expressionist operas ‘Wozzeck’ and ‘Lulu’. Unfortunately, the resultant blood poisoning killed him in 1935.
Gallic gangreneCourt composer to Louis XIV of France, Jean-Baptiste Lully, was another victim of blood-poisoning. No bees here, though: he stabbed himself in the foot with the staff he used for conducting, and died of gangrene in 1687.
Trigger-happy gruntAnton von Webern is probably the most famous – and most senseless – classical victim of war and its aftermath. In September 1945, Webern was out on his veranda in the Austrian town of Mittersill, lighting a cigar, while an American soldier, Raymond Bell, was inside arresting Webern’s son-in-law for black-marketeering. Rushing out to fetch an interpreter, Bell was either startled by the composer’s lit match or simply collided with him. Three shots in the dark later, the world had lost one the twentieth century’s great inspirations.
A deadly dropPyotr Tchaikovsky did the offski after drinking a glass of unboiled water in a St Petersburg restaurant and contracting cholera in 1893. Did he do so deliberately? Was it done on the orders of a kangaroo court, at the behest of his former college students at the Institute of Law, because of his overt homosexuality? Was he about to face a high-profile trial that would shatter his reputation and those of his fellow alumni also indulging in ‘gentlemanly games’ and similarly in danger of falling from high society? A depressive, such an indictment may have pushed Tchaikovsky over the edge. Of course, he might just have consumed the water accidentally. But that wouldn’t make half as interesting a story, would it?Jonathan Lennie’s ‘Classical Assassins’ is broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Mon-Fri (June 23-27) at 3.30pm.
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