Unusual Deaths of Eleven Classical Composers
Death is a part of life, and sometimes death comes in unusual ways. For composers of classical music there have been a number of deaths that could be considered unusual. Some of these composer deaths will have people wondering how could that composer do something that stupid? Other deaths on the list happen to be tragic, while others in a cynical sort of way, are amusing.
This article is the second part of a two part series about untimely or unusual deaths of classical composers. The first article focused on composers who died at a young age. Criteria for being on this list is simply the composer died in a way that was uncommon or unusual.
Below are eleven unusual composer deaths, plus a bonus death, where the death itself wasn't unusual, but what they found afterwards was.
(1735? - August 28th, 1767)
Johann Schobert was a renowned composer during his time. His music was studied by a young Mozart, who at an early age was largely influenced by Schobert's music. Besides having his name frequently mistaken for Schubert's, today, Schobert is largely remembered for the way he died.
During a dinner amongst friends and family at his home in Paris, Schobert had mushrooms brought to the table that were poisonous. His guests informed him that the mushrooms were poisonous, but Schobert managed to convince them, and himself, that they were not. Schobert was wrong about the mushrooms, and as a result Schobert, his wife, one of his children, his maid, and four of his friends died eating them.
(November 28th, 1632 - March 22nd, 1687)
Jean-Baptiste Lully was a great composer during the French Baroque era of music. He was famous for creating a uniquely French sound for opera, and for being one of the earliest composers to break from the Italian opera tradition. Lully was so successful that he became a favorite court composer for the French King Louis XIV.
Lully's music today isn't widely performed, but his musical accomplishments are still remembered. His death is also still remembered, and is frequently the butt of jokes about conductors. While conducting a performance of his sacred piece, The Deum, Lully stabbed himself in the foot with his conducting baton. Gangrene eventually infected the injury, and he died a short while later.
(January 6th, 1872 - April 27th, 1915)
One of Russia's greatest composers at the turn of the 20th century saw his music begin to fade into obscurity shortly after he died. However, towards the latter half of the 20th century, a re-emergence of Scriabin's music had begun, resulting in his music returning to concert halls across the globe.
Scriabin was famous for his ten piano sonatas and the evolution of his musical compositional style. Scriabin's early musical output showed a large influence from Chopin, while later he created his own atonal musical system, that was independent of the atonal system of Arnold Schoenberg (the man who is credited with starting atonality in music). Scriabin was also famous for declaring he had synesthesia, a disorder where a person sees colors when they hear sounds. Scriabin would credit this disorder for his musical evolution.
Scriabin, while shaving one day cut his lip. A common injury, but unfortunately it would ultimately lead to his death at the age of 43. Shortly after cutting his lip, an infected boil filled the cut area. Scriabin's immune system overreacted, making his official cause of death Septicemia.
(1730? - September 2nd, 1791)
Frantisek Kotzwara was a Czech virtuosic double bassist living in England. In addition to being a performer, Kotzwara also composed string quartets and trios as well as serenades. His music today is largely forgotten, but his death may be the most notorious in the whole history of classical music.
Kotzwara was frequently around prostitutes, and while in London Kotzwara visited a prostitute named Susannah Hill. Kotzwara took Hill out to an expensive dinner and afterwards asked her to castrate him. Hill refused to castrate Kotzwara, so Kotzwara convinced Hill to comprise with him by letting him have sex with her while he tied his neck with a noose to a doorknob. Hill agreed to do this. Unfortunately for both of them, Kotzwara strangled himself to death while having sex with Hill.
Kotzwara's death at the age of 61 made him one of the earliest known recorded deaths to be caused by auto-erotic asphyxiation. Hill was tried for the murder of Kotzwara but was found innocent of any wrong doing.
(January 20th, 1855 - June 10th, 1899)
Ernest Chausson was a mildly successful French composer during the latter half of the 19th century. He studied under Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire and failed in his bid to capture the Prix de Rome, a prestigious prize in music composition. During his life he was the secretary for the National Society of Music, and he was an avid collector of paintings.
Today, Chausson is remembered for the manner in which he died. While riding his bike, Chausson took a wrong turn down a hill. Presumably losing control of his bike, and while riding at a high speed, Chausson rode straight into a brick wall, which killed him instantly. He was only 44 at the time of his death.
(July 27th, 1867 - March 21st, 1916)
Enrique Granados was a successful Spanish composer who lived during the turn of the 20th century. Granados is widely remembered for his piano suite Goyescas, a suite based off the paintings of Francisco de Goya, and for his fear of water. Granados's death is filled with ironies and tragedy.
During World War I, Granados was in France when he was invited to give a piano recital to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. In order to get to the U.S. he would need to travel by ferry to England first, and then take a ship out to the U.S. Granados missed his scheduled departure to England in order to record some live player-piano rolls.
His delay put him on the ill fated ferry called Sussex. While crossing the English Channel with his wife, the Sussex was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. Granados managed to make it to on a lifeboat, but while the lifeboat began to sail to safety he saw his wife flailing about in the ocean. Despite his lifelong fear of water, Granados jumped in the ocean and attempted save her. Unfortunately he couldn't swim and they both drowned.
Ironically the cabin on the ferry where Granados was staying did not sink, and it was eventually towed back to England. All of the people on that cabin during the attack managed to survive.
(April 3rd 1639 - February 25th - 1682)
Alessandro Stradella was an Italian composer during the middle of the Baroque Era. During his time Stradella was an immensely successful composer. His fame would later be surpassed by Vivaldi and Corelli, but he remained an important influence on their music. Stradella was also an important pioneer in writing the concerto grosso. The concerto grosso became a popular composition structure and would later evolve into the concerto.
Stradella today is remembered for his affairs with the wives of powerful noblemen. During the early part of his career, while composing music in Rome, Stradella unsuccessfully attempted to embezzle money from the Roman Catholic Church. He also had had affairs with a number of noblemen's wives in Rome by this time. His poor behavior resulted in a bounty being put on his head, and Stradella was forced to flee Rome permanently.
Rome would not be the only city Stradella would have to flee during his life, and ultimately his affairs would catch up to him in Genoa. In 1682 an assassin hired by an unknown noble stabbed Stradella to death outside the Piazza Banchi. Stradella was 42 at the time.
(March 7th, 1875 - December 28th, 1937)
Maurice Ravel was one of the most important composers in the early 20th century. Along with Debussy, Ravel was frequently associated with impressionism in music, a classification he disagreed with. Ravel was famous for his chamber works, solo piano pieces, and concertos.
His demands on solo piano performers in his compositions increased the virtuosity required for performers of his piano music. His large scale orchestral works were known for their textures and instrumental combinations. Ravel's Bolero and his ballet Daphne and Chloe were highly influential compositions and the orchestral textures are still being mimicked today.
While riding in a taxicab in Paris, Ravel's driver hit another cab causing Ravel to slam his face into the window. Over the next five years after this accident, Ravel's slowly lost all of his memory and eventually slipped into a coma and died after an unsuccessful attempt to fix his deteriorating brain.
(February 9th, 1885 - December 24th, 1935)
Alban Berg was famous for being a member of the Second Viennese School along with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. Berg, a student of Schoenberg, would incorporate Schoenberg's twelve tone technique into his compositions in a way that would try to take advantage of some of the tonal relationships created by his twelve tone rows.
Public reception to his opera Wozzeck and his Violin Concerto still divide audiences today. Despite the public division of Berg's compositions, his music is still performed.
Berg was a fairly successful composer during his life, but he struggled with finances, and this would ultimately lead to his death. Shortly before Christmas, Berg received an insect bite on his back which caused a carbuncle to appear. Instead of going to a hospital he convinced his wife to cut the carbuncle with a pair of scissors, in order to save money. The do it yourself home operation was a failure, and Berg was rushed to a hospital where he succumbed to blood poisoning and died at the age of 50.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(May 7th, 1840 - December 6th, 1893)
The death of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is notorious for the number of conspiracies surrounding it. Tchaikovsky who's music is amongst most widely performed of any composer, hardly needs an introduction.
Tchaikovsky officially died after contracting Cholera from drinking an unboiled glass of water. The conspiracy theory that is still being debated is that Tchaikovsky knowingly contracted cholera in order to commit suicide.
Tchaikovsky was warned, and knew better than to drink water during a Cholera outbreak. Conspiracy theorists argue Tchaikovsky was pressured to commit suicide by either the Tzar or by a court of honor after either possible party discovered Tchaikovsky was gay. They argue that Tchaikovsky chose to do so in as discreet a way as possible, so that his homosexuality would not be known to the public.
Further fueling the speculation of conspiracy theorists is the final completed work written by Tchaikovsky, his 6th Symphony. This symphony is famous for its final movement, which depicts a slow and gloomy death. While writing this symphony, Tchaikovsky revealed to his brother that his 6th Symphony was in fact a programmatic work, or an instrumental composition with a narrative behind it. Tchaikovsky never revealed what the program was, but he did mention that it was very personal. His death, just over a week after its premiere, has many people believing the Tchaikovsky wrote the symphony as his own personal requiem and confession.
Today the cause of Tchaikovsky's death is still debated between suicide by cholera infection, or Tchaikovsky's uncharacteristically dumb decision to drink unboiled water during a cholera outbreak.
(December 3rd, 1883 - September 15th, 1945)
Anton Webern, like Alban Berg who appeared earlier in this list, was also a part of the Second Viennese Music School. Webern was also famous for using Schoenberg's twelve tone system of music composition. Unlike Berg, Webern sought to bring total control of all musical elements to the composer. As a result Webern became an important forefather to composers of Total Serialism.
Towards the end of World War 2, Webern moved from Vienna to Mittersill in order to avoid the violence from the war. In September of 1945, a few months after the official end of World War 2, Allied forces still occupied Germany and Austria, and had imposed curfews on most of the occupied cities.
Webern decided to go out forty-five minutes before curfew was to go into effect and smoke a cigar in order to avoid waking his grandchildren. As Webern went outside to smoke, U.S. Private Raymond Norwood Bell shot and killed him. Bell who had not seen any combat during the war, and previously had never killed someone, was overcome with grief after learning who he had killed. Bell was so traumatized by the event that ten years later he succumbed to alcoholism and died.
Bonus - Erik Satie
(May 17th, 1866 - July 1st, 1925)
Erik Satie was one of the most unusual composing personalities to have ever lived. His eccentric lifestyle was largely discovered after his death, which is why he is being added as a bonus, since his death wasn't truly unusual. Besides his eccentricities, Satie is remembered for the Gymnopedies that he wrote for piano, and his early pioneering of the musical avant garde. A life long drinker of alcohol and absinthe, Satie died from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 59.
While he was alive, Satie lived in a tiny one room apartment in Arcueil for over twenty-seven years. During those twenty-seven years no one visited his home. After his death, the truth of his eccentricities came to light and were corroborated on by people who knew him professionally.
In his tiny apartment Satie had two grand pianos, one was stacked on top of the other, and the pedals were integrated on one pedal board. Satie had a collection of twelve grey suits, all identical. He wore each suit, never changing into another one until the previous suit wore out. There were six of these suits left in his closet after he died. Satie was also fond of umbrellas, as his tiny apartment contained over 100 of them. He also had a collection of 84 handkerchiefs.
In addition to collecting items in a repetitive way, Satie wrote a large collection of letters addressed to himself. These letters mostly consisted of information about various appointments that he was supposed to attend. However, one did describe his strange eating habits as the following:
"My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin). I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with the juice of the Fuchsia. I have a good appetite, but never talk when eating for fear of strangling myself."
Satie also left behind a number of unpublished compositions, many of which had strange titles such as, "Authentic Flabby Preludes (for a dog)," and "Dried Up Embryos." Other compositions were ordered to be played with strange interpretive directions such as, "like a nightingale with a toothache," or most famously his directions on a piece entitled Vexations, which was a composition that was to be repeated 840 times. John Cage would later stage a performance of Vexations with ten other pianists, the performance would last over eighteen hours.
Additional Classical Music Articles
The first article in the two part series exploring the unusual or untimely deaths of classical composers.
An article that looks at five very mean spirited critiques of classical composers by their critics.