Saturday, September 24, 2016

Composers Behaving Badly

One of the things that has always fascinated me as I've delved further in to classical music and history is the disconnect between peoples' conceptions of classical music and the composers who wrote it and reality.    To a certain degree, most people's ideas of the concert hall as being all staid and austere, where you dressed to the nines, sat board-stiff in your seat (and heaven help you if you dared clap between the movements of a symphony or a concerto) are just a stereotype.  But I thought I'd focus more on composers themselves.  Behind some of that saintly music of the church, the royal court or the concert hall lay some pretty interesting antics, which would no doubt have them splashed all over social media (or even in jail) had they lived in our current age.  I've included a mix of well-known and perhaps not-so-well-known.    

1.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - I was actually hesitant to include Mozart simply because many people have seen the 1984 blockbuster "Amadeus", which left many, including myself, cringing a little at how he was portrayed.  I think the cackling laugh and "man-child" image was a bit overplayed although there is still a degree of accuracy in his lack of money management skills and womanizing.  But back to the man himself.  He was still well-behaved compared to some others I'll be mentioning.  One of the reasons we know so much about Wolfgang's life was that the Mozart's were prodigious letter writers.  The correspondence highly "scatological" and makes for some interesting reading to say the least.  Some of the letters are filled with phrases like "Go shit in your bed and fill it up."  Apparently, this was slang for "Have a good night."  He also wrote a cannon for 6 voices entitled "Leck much I'm Arsch".  I'll let you work out the translation.

2.  Johann Sebastian Bach - Mr. Bach...so German, so Lutheran, so.....ornery?  Bach once got into a scrap as a student when he drew out his sword after what he he took as an insult from another student and snipped off a part of the man's ear.  Aside from this, his first wife was his second cousin with whom he had seven children.  He met his second wife when he was 35.  She was 19...and they had a further 13 children.   (The poor woman).  From what I understand, a few of the Lutheran congregation were concerned that perhaps it wasn't just music Bach was creating up in the organ loft.

3.  Hector Berlioz - Berlioz was a Romantic composer perhaps best know for his "Symphonie Fantastique".  As a young artist working to establish himself in Paris, Berlioz took a second job working in a mortuary and would shock his friends by going in to graphic detail about what he saw.  He was also quite the womanizer who would recount his "conquests" to those in his inner circle....again in very graphic detail.  Berlioz also came close to be being a homicidal maniac when he learned his finance's wife wished to have his future bride married off to a man named Pleyel (the piano manufacturer).  He left Italy, where he was at the time, and set out for Paris to do the deed but realized he had forgotten his disguise.

4.  Arnold Bax - But why just brag about a love conquest when you can immortalize it in music?  English composer Arnold Bax did just that.  To be fair, his many many love interests aside, the man was well-respected as a composer during his lifetime as he was knighted, named to the Royal Victorian Order and had an honorary doctorate from Oxford.  He wrote a tone poem, "November Wood", in which he sought shelter from a storm in a copse of tree with his love interest, Harriet Cohen (who happened to be his nurse during the war....she was 19; he was 34).  The couple then find themselves in a cosy hotel room, and well.......A couple years later he met 23-year-old Mary Gleaves and for the next 20-odd years, Bax maintained a "warm relationship" with both women.

5.  Thomas Weelkes - Admittedly, Weelkes isn't that well-known, except perhaps to university students or those who have studied early English vocal music.  Weelkes got himself dismissed as the organist at Chichester Cathedral for a long list of antics, including urinating on the Dean, drinking in the organ loft during services and using long strings of profanity between pieces.  

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