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How They Died
If you live in the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere, the world is getting colder, the days are getting shorter, the trees will soon be nude and scraggly looking, and all manner of scary things that might happen will begin to seem more likely to happen. Maybe they were just waiting for the darkness to happen in.
What was that?
The sound behind you. Didnít you hear it?
Ok, well, I heard it. You might want to be prepared. It sounded a little creepy. Just saying. Anyway, where was I?
Ö.there it is again.
Well, with whatever time youíve got left, letís share a story about some great composers and their not-so-great demises. The way they died. Thatís what this season of fear is all about, isnít it? All things horrible and Öpossibly fatal. Like lung cancer, but in a much more immediate sense.
Funny, I donít know any composers who died of lung cancer. Itís probably happened, though.
Letís start with something truly horrifying. Composer Enrique Granados. Granados had just been wined and dined and honored at the White House, and was delayed a day on his way back to Spain so he had to take an alternate route when he missed his ship. The year was 1916 and Europe was in the midst of the First World War. The ship he took across the English Channel was sunk by a German U-boat. The composer got on a life raft but saw his wife struggling in the water some yards away and rushed out to save her. She couldnít swim. Sadly, he couldnít swim either. They both drowned.
There are some composers who favor the slower, but no less inexorable approach of death. Jean-Baptiste Lully was one of those guys. In the days before conductors wielded batons, Lully was keeping time with a long pole which he beat on the floor. In an excess of enthusiasm, or bile, he managed to stab himself in the foot, and later die of gangrene. Nobody seemed too broken up about this because Lully was pretty much a jerk. Of course, you might expect such a story to be more gossip than history, but apparently this story is true.
One more likely to be a legend is the strange death of the 19th French composer Alkan. The story is that while in his apartment, reaching for a copy of the Talmud on a high shelf, the bookcase came down on him and killed him. Not only would that appear to involve an especially heavy bookcase, loaded with particularly heavy books, but the idea that it was his Talmudic studies that did him in suggests there may be anti-Semitic bile behind this one.
You would expect some historical exaggeration behind some of these stories and you would be right. Of the greatest members of the pantheon, few met with any particularly violent or strange ends, though often the exact cause of their deaths is a mystery, mostly because medical knowledge at that point did not know what to diagnose. Some have attempted to retroactively diagnose causes of death.
For instance, Mozart is likely to have died of Rheumatic Fever, and it didnít help that his liver was pretty much shot from heavy drinking and that Syphilis was treated with Mercury in those days.
That little STD may or may not figure in the early death of Schubert as well.
Of course, what you remember about Mozart is how the black masked man pretty much worked and/or scared him to death writing a Requiem which turned out to be for himself. That, remember is a movie. It is not history, it is drama. The truth, interestingly, does involve a Requiem mass which Mozart DID leave unfinished, and which was commissioned by an unknown person. That unknown person was a count who liked to pass off the compositions of others as his own. The legend of the mysterious stranger started soon after Mozartís death, supposedly as related by his wife to her second husband, who wrote a biography of the composer and included the fantastic tale (which was further embroidered for the movie Amadeus).
All things considered, it is the strangest tale of the death of a famous composer, even if it isnít quite as sensational as it later turned out to be (!) Oh, and the weather in Vienna was fine the day of his funeral. Somebody looked up the weather report for that day and busted another legend.
Beethoven was also said to have died during a thunderstorm, shaking his first at the heavens.
Brahms, on the other hand, died of cancer.
While we are separating truth from fiction, it is true that Schumann threw himself off a bridge into a river in a suicide attempt and spent the last three years of his life in an insane asylum. After him, genius and madness were never allowed to travel apart; the public insisted upon one being the price for the other.
The genius of our unfortunate composers having risen dramatic ally in the last several paragraphs, let us allow another, far less gifted, to slip in. For sensationalism, you simply canít beat the death of Franz Kotzwara, composer of The Battle of Prague, the very silly concatenation I played in recital last spring. I will say only that it involved a prostitute and asphyxiation. For details you can look elsewhere.
In an attempt to salvage our standards as regards the deceased, while still allowing a certain amount of public interest, one should note that both Bach and Handel were near blindness late in life (probably from too much candlelight composing) and were both operated upon by the same scary quack doctor, who left them completely blind. Their actual deaths, though, were the usual decline and fall.
Back to the French composers. 20th center Pierre Cochereau died of a brain hemorrhage two days after Easter. Marcel Dupre died on Pentecost; I am not sure of what. I just know to be careful on high holy days. The Reaper is watching church organists.
This little cemetery is of course not exhaustive; it only involves composers whose deaths the author happens to remember off the top of his head.
Finally, there is the terrifying death of Camille Saint-Saens, composer of the Danse Macabre and other symphonic poems suitable for bedtime . On the morning of his death, he put in a couple hours of piano practice, lay down on the couch to take a nap, and never woke up.
That is the most awful of all for two reasons. It compounds the sadness of his passing with the tragedy of his not even getting a good story to go out on, and it reminds us that we, too, could pass from this mortal vale at anytime, anywhere, simply by laying down on a couch. And not waking up again.