My Top 5: Deathly Tales about Dead Composers

Oct 30, 2015

There's nothing better than a good story.  The history of classical music is chock full of them.  In the spirit of Halloween, I'm delighted to share with you 5 of my favorite tales related to the death (or after-life) of composers.  These range from the stubborn to the eerie to the just plain bizarre, arranged in ascending order. 

5. Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687).  We've heard the warning about not shooting ourselves in the foot.  Perhaps we should also take care not to stab ourselves in the foot.

 

Jean-Baptiste Lully
Credit Brittanica

Jean-Baptiste Lully could have used that advice.  The 17th-century Italian-born Frenchman's life was cut short in his mid-50's when he was conducting his Te Deum.  Apparently, the old way of conducting involved beating a staff on the floor; Lully accidentally thrust his staff into his foot (I imagine out of unbridled enthusiasm-it is inspiring music).  The injury resulted in gangrene.  Lully could have saved himself by having his leg amputated, but he was a dancer as well as a composer; he wouldn't go through with it.  The gangrene spread through his body and killed him.

4.  Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)  

Chopin's health deteriorated before he reached 40 years-the actual illness that took his life remains in dispute.  One thing that we know is that Chopin wished for his heart to be removed from his body upon his death.  In addition to a fear of being buried alive, Chopin wanted his heart returned to his home country, Poland.  He was in Paris during his decline and death.  

Frederic Chopin
Credit haraldmath.com

Chopin's sister Ludwicka took the heart back to Poland preserved in alcohol (cognac?) in an urn.  In 1879, the heart was sealed in a pillar at Holy Cross Church in Warsaw.  During WWII, the heart was moved for safekeeping into the hands of a German commander.  At the end of the war, Church authorities took the heart to the town of Milanowek, still fearful for it's safety; it was returned to Holy Cross in October of 1945.  Chopin's heart was disturbed yet again just last year by a clandestine committee seeking to preserve it further.  

RIP Chopin's Heart
Credit Newsmax

3.  Claude Vivier (1948-1983)

Claude Vivier was a Canadian composer whose life was cut short by murder.  This in itself is not terribly uncommon in music history-but Vivier seemed to predict his fate.

The last work Vivier was composing prior to his death was Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele? Do you Believe in the Immortality of the Soul?  The unfinished piece told a first-person story about a night spent traveling on the metro and being attracted to a young man.  The final line Vivier wrote on this unfinished work: Then he removed a dagger from his jacket and stabbed me through the heart.

Claude Vivier
Credit Radio Canada Montreal

Something just like that may have been what happened the night of his murder.  Vivier brought home a male prostitute.  The man stabbed him to death.  Listen to the music here or watch a staged performance here

2.  Rosemary Isabel Brown (1916-2001)

Rosemary Brown was an English pianist, composer, and most importantly, a spirit medium.  She claimed to be in contact with a number of dead composers, including Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff.  Her favorite was Franz Liszt, whose spirit first visited Rosemary when she was a child.  

The composers, she said, transmitted music to her by singing (Schubert), moving her hands on the keyboard (Chopin), or dictating notes (Beethoven).  Brown herself apparently had very little musical training, only a few rudimentary piano lessons, yet she produced sonatas, songs, and symphonies.  One sonata she said came from Schubert is 40 pages long.  Listen to a piece Brown received from Liszt here.  

Rosemary Isabel Brown
Credit centerblog.net

Of course, few people-including psychologists and music critics-believed her, although they had to admit the music did echo the masters.  She's still very popular in psychic circles.  

1.  Josef Haydn (1732-1809)  For less than a week following his death, Josef Haydn's coffin contained one head-his own.  For over a decade, it contained no head at all.  And for the past 61 years, Haydn's coffin has had two.  Yes-two heads.

When Haydn died, 2 important things were happening:  First, Vienna was occupied by Napolean, causing Haydn to be buried in Gumpendorf instead of Eisenstadt in the Esterhazy family seat (the Esterhazy's were Haydn's patrons).  This becomes important later in the story.

Second: Phrenology was all the rage.  A friend of Haydn, Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, worked with another gentleman, Johann Nepomuk Peter, to bribe the gravedigger to exhume Haydn's body to retrieve the head for phrenological study.  The task was achieved 4 days following the burial.  Naturally, Haydn's skull showed a prominent musical bump in the skull, and Peter kept the skull in an elaborate box in his collection to show off to friends.  At some point, Peter gave the skull to Rosenbaum. 

Josef Haydn
Credit Times of Malta

In 1820-that's 11 years after Haydn's death-Prince Nickolaus Esterhazy II realized that Haydn's body still needed to be moved to Eisenstadt.  The body was exhumed and the Prince was furious to find the head missing.  Peter and Rosenbaum were immediately suspected of the macabre theft, but they used some amusing tactics to keep Haydn's head from Prince Nickolaus.  Rosenbaum finally gave the Prince a different skull (that was placed in the coffin), and Haydn's real head passed from hand to hand for years.  

It wasn't until 1954 that descendent Prince Paul Esterhazy finally united Haydn's real head with his body-and with the other skull as well.  The Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir performed in celebration, a Cardinal blessed everything, and the bones were placed in a new copper coffin-a mere 145 years after Haydn's death.  

There are many more composers with true bizarrities surrounding their deaths...what's your favorite? 

Information for these tales taken from Wikipedia, Chopin Society, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and Wonders and Marvels