This is a post that's been playing around in my head for some time now, mainly because I keep finding out new information and, as a side effect, the number of composers I initially wanted to look at has expanded. There's the old stereotype of your "classical" composer as a starched-collared wearing killjoy, conducting music in a grand hall full of other starch-collared wearing killjoys.....and God help you if you fidgeted in your seat or clapped between movements. I've always found this picture amusing particularly when you start to take a look at the private lives of some of these composers. There's the old cliche about there being a fine line between genius and insanity. I don't know about that but what I have come to discover is that some of these composers (even some of the more well-known ones) were just a bit odd.
1. Eric Satie...was a late 19th-early 20th century French composer who was a known eccentric. He only ate food that was white, carried a hammer with him at all times for self defence and even founded his own Church - the Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus the Conductor (seriously). He owned 12 identical grey suits and would wear the same suit continually until it wore out, whereupon he'd change in to his next grey suit. Apparently, he had a great tailor and got a lot of mileage out of those suits since he still had 6 left when he died. Upon his death, his flat was discovered to contain over 100 umbrellas and 84 handkerchiefs and a number of letters that he had written to himself.
2. Carlo Gesualdo...a 17th century Italian nobleman, lute-player......and murderer. That's about the best one can say about his personal life. He murdered his first wife after she had an affair with a cross-dressing duke. His second wife accused a couple of Carlo's lovers of being involved in witchcraft whereupon they were then put on trial. One of them confessed, albeit under torture, that she had tricked Gesualdo into drinking her menstrual blood. (I swear I'm not making this up). Apparently all the extra-marital hanky-panky finally got to Gesualdo as he later claimed he was afflicted by hordes of demons that would only leave him alone if a group of young men violently beat him three times a day. It's believed that one of these masochistic trysts was ultimately responsible for his death.
3. Richard Wagner...perhaps one of the better-known ones on this list. As if being an ardent anti-Semite and a favourite of Hitler didn't make him notorious enough, Wagner suffered from skin lesions throughout his life and sought to cure them by giving himself enemas. There were also rumours (based on some of his private correspondence) that he had an interest in cross-dressing. Some letters request lacy flourishes and feminine touches to his clothing. To gain inspiration for his opera 'Parsifal' (a favourite of Hitler's), he surrounded himself with rose-scented cushions and bathed in perfume. When he died he was rumoured to have been wearing a pink dressing gown.
4. Jean Sibelius...a 19th/20th century Finnish composer wrote a piano concerto and a violin concerto that are staples of the classical repertoire. In his private life though, he was a bit a jerk who drove his wife into a sanitarium before becoming unstable himself. (As an aside, he had a love of Wagner, but without all the pink frilly stuff). Once into his 40's, Sibelius developed a passion for dining on champagne and lobster (but wouldn't we all?) and began to smoke and drink excessively. So excessively in fact, that he had to undergo surgery to remove a cancerous tumour from his throat. While he did sober up, he fell back into drink again and did a Britney Spears by shaving his head. His alcoholism afflicted him such that from about 1926 until his death in 1957 he almost entirely gave up up composition. He tore up and burned the manuscript of his 8th symphony, claiming that after his 7th, he didn't feel he could write a better one.
5. Anton Brucker...a 19th century Austrian composer, who was another Hitler favourite, by the way. Anton suffered from an obsession with counting things. He would keep lists of how many "Hail Marys" he recited every night and feverishly poured over his own symphonies to ensure that every single bar conformed with his own hidden numerical pattern. He also is said to have had an obsession with teenage girls which is rather creepy. Bruckner was also present when the graves of Beethoven and Schubert were dug up and moved to another cemetery. During both occasions, he grabbed the skulls of each composer and only let go when said skulls were pried from his hands.
6. Arnold Schoenberg...was another early 20th century German composer credited as one of the first practitioners of 12-tone music. Luckily for him, an octave only contains 12 semi-tones because Schoenberg suffered from triskaidekaphobia, the irrational fear of the number 13. When he realized that one of the title of his opera "Moses and Aaron" had 13 letters, he changed the name of the opera slightly to "Moses and Aron". He was also born on September 13. He died on a Friday the 13th, aged 76 (7+6=13).
7. Robert Schumann...was one of the great 19th-century German composers known especially for his piano works. Not only did Robert love the piano, he also seems to have liked young girls. (And while the historian part of me tells me that for the time this wasn't as creepy as it might seem today, I can't help but get a little weirded out by it.) When he was 24, Robert became involved with the 16-year-old daughter of a noblemen....but after discovering she was illegitimate, he dumped her. The following year, he became to become romantically involved with his 15-year-old piano student, Clara Wieck. Clara's father, who was actually one of Robert's early piano teachers forbid the two to have anything to do with each other but after a great deal of animosity and court proceedings, the couple eventually wed the day before Clara's 21st birthday. A device Robert devised to strengthen the fingers of his right hand eventually damaged it to the point where he had to give up his concert career. Towards the end of this life, Schumann became increasingly melancholic and jumped off a bridge in to the Rhine. After being rescued he spent the rest of his days in an asylum.
8. Bedrich Smetana...a 19th-century Czech composer I'm actually quite fond of so I don't want to bash him too much. He's probably the tamest one on the list. (Side note...I was able to visit his grave as well the church were his funeral was held during a trip to Prague). Smetana went deaf by the time he was 50. The last two years of his life were marred by bouts of insomnia, hallucinations and loss of speech. His behaviour became increasingly erratic and even violent at times, once greatly disturbing his friends at a private reception.
9. Alexander Scriabin...a late 19th/early 20th century Russian composer, of whose piano music (like Sibelius, Schoenberg, Schumann, and Smetana) I've played a little growing up. Some of his harmonies are just bizarre. Scriabin was heavy in to mysticism and was prone to synesthesia (where you associate a certain color for every tone of the musical scale.) He wrote a symphonic work which featured a "color organ". This piece was rarely performed, even during his own lifetime. Scriabin later died of septicaemia from an infected pimple on his lip and so many people attended his funeral that tickets had to be sold.
10. Frantisek Kotzwara...a Czech composer about whom I have to admit I know more about how he died than anything he actually composed. Yes, this would be the X-rated entry on the list if ever there was one. As the story goes, during a 1791 trip to London Frantisek took on the services of a "lady of the night", shall we say. He paid her 2 shillings and asked her to cut off his manhood. When she refused he tied one end of a rope around a doorknob and the other end around his neck and proceeded to have intercourse with her, after which he died of strangulation. The prostitute, while charged with his murder, was later found not guilty by the court and Kotzwara went on to collect his Darwin Award.
And this was just the short list. I didn't include Grieg, who kept a porcelain frog in his pocket and rubbed it, believing it would bring him good luck or Salieri who went insane and raved about having murdered Mozart.