Friday, 12 February 2016

TRIVIA & HUMOR: Did You Know? (Fun Opera Facts part II)

It’s time for another installment of fun (and macabre) facts related to Classical music and Opera!
La Danse Macabre, Michael Wolgemut
From naughty schoolboys receiving their just desserts in the end, to rivaling musicians and those whose talents were a gift – or curse – from the darkest depths of hell, and the ancient Latin hymn later set to the Requiem Mass in the hope of guiding a recently deceased soul peacefully into the great beyond (the work itself being a depiction of the placement of souls on the Biblical "Last Day of Judgment") that would become associated with terror, morbid delirium and horrific respite in the coming centuries - to masterpieces composed by drunkards and drug addicts.

The reader is sure to find in this months’ Trivia Post something for his or her every sinful curiosity.

*Featuring grave robbers and missing body parts.


A Rival throws coffee into the face of a "frenemy";
Vulgus Brittanicus, 18th century.
There is something to be said about getting old. Nothing seems to work like it used to, even with strenuous and extensive efforts. The memory is no exception to the laws of aging. Sometimes we walk into a room and forget why we walked into it in the first place. Sometimes we lose focus mid-sentence and completely lose our train of thought. And sometimes, as in the case of megalithic late 19th (and early 20th century) romantic composer Giacomo Puccini, we forget we are in a full blown battle with our on-again, off-again “frenemy.”

It was on one very festive Christmas in the 19th century that composer Giacomo Puccini was struck by the giving spirit of the season. Thinking of his friend and frequent musical collaborator, the iconic living legend, conductor Arturo Toscanini, Puccini at once sent for a surprise gift of Panettone (a delicious Italian bread and traditional holiday gift of the era) to his ‘brother’ in music. It was only after the gift had been duly dispatched that the absent-minded composer remembered that he and the maestro were fully engaged in one of their all-too-frequent quarrels and weren’t actually supposed to even be speaking to one another!

Daunted, but not too mortified to deliver one last punch, the hapless Puccini at once telegrammed his nemesis Toscanini, declaring in the exchange his error in but five simple words:


Toscanini, the wry little devil, seized upon the opportunity with a one-two punch of his own, when he sent a return telegram to Puccini in the same vein:



Many a great composer had equally robust reputations that seemed to precede them in their heyday. 18-19th century German composer Ludwig van Beethoven was no exception. Even in the years prior to the famed pianists’ descent into total deafness, Beethoven was engaged in war with his landlords and neighbors, who complained about everything from the composer’s hygienic habits (he was said to have lived in near squalor, with rotting food on spoiled dishes piled up in stacks and strewn about the abode, causing ungodly stenches that would permeate through the walls and into the streets) to being unceremoniously serenaded by Beethoven’s late night practice sessions on his piano, which he would play loudly into the wee hours of the morning. He was also becoming increasingly paranoid, a symptomatic condition that would only see an increase after the composer experienced the first onset of auditory paracusia (a precursor to deafness), in the few years to come.

It was during one of those late night sessions at the piano that Beethoven roused the neighbors from their slumber when the composer flew into a rage, flipping over furniture, tapestries, carpets - and everything else in reaching distance - whilst shouting obscenities over a maid who he was sure had stolen from him his prized golden penny. That incident would go on to become a grand tale of popular folklore when it was discovered that the enraged Beethoven had been composing the Rondo e Capriccio on that very evening, just prior to his total meltdown. The locals dubbed the Rondo “Rage Over the Lost Penny,” [1] a delightfully comical pseudonym that is still used by fans of the temperamental composer to this day.

The Rondo (or 'Rage'):

[1]"Rage Over the Lost Penny" is actually a shortened translation of a quotation which first appeared on Beethoven's "Rondo e Capriccio" autograph (manuscript), which had been auctioned off some seven months after the composer's death in November of 1827 by Diabelli & Co. 
The original quote:"Die Wuth über den verlornen Groschen, ausgetobt in einer Caprice" is translated into English as "Rage at the loss of a Groat (a penny) stormed out in a caprice (a huff)." It's authorship is unknown, however what is certain is that the scrawl was not from the hand of Beethoven (there is some evidence to suggest the afterthought may have originated from the hand of biographer and confidante to the composer Anton Schindler.

The Rondo manuscript also guarded one more secret: it would later be revealed that the work was an incomplete project. It is said Anton Diabelli (of Diabelli & Co.) himself completed the fragmented work before putting it up for auction.


As we have already seen in my post on Suicides, Schizophrenia & Syphlitics, the use of drugs and drink amongst many of the most prolific composers, librettists and musicians of their day would rob from the stage and theatre many a talent well before their time (a trend that is still going strong today, most notably in the genres of pop and rock music).

Below we look at some of Western Classical Music’s most beloved compositions - works that continue to dominate the symphonic and operatic repertoire to this very day - all of which were composed ‘under the influence’.


This grandiose symphony of unrequited desire has been mentioned frequently here at The masterpiece - in particular it’s final movement - however, deserves further discussion, as it not only sets the tone for the entire work, but Berlioz’ morbid manipulation of sacred music into something one hears in their worst nightmares would go on to not only influence an entire genre of dark music in modern film, the final movement itself would personify it’s manipulateur, Hector Berlioz, as the tortured, love-crazed, slightly sadistic psychopath he was known to morph into during one of his famous self-harming episodes.

Named the “fantastical symphony” with good reason, La Symphonie Fantastique’s final and horrific ‘scene’ is best enjoyed alongside the works’ penultimate movement, "Marche au supplice" (the march to the scaffold). While the works’ fifth and final movement is set in a hellish enclave during a witches’ Sabbath, the fourth movement sets the tone for the terrifying scene to come.

Troubled French composer Hector Berlioz
In the Fantastique's fourth, the love-sick protagonist that inspired the piece (believed to be an autobiographical character), downs a large amount of Opium in an attempt to commit suicide, so distraught is he at being the object of unrequited romance. His idée fixe, much like in the composers’ real life, didn’t seem to know he was even alive from romance's perspective – and the only solution for such a miserable fortune was for the brokenhearted to paint the final brushstroke on that dismal painting, and simply..not exist. Unfortunately for the pieces’ character (again, much like the symphony’s own composer) the overdose failed to kill the lovelorn, and, as the drug’s soporific effects began to take hold of its host, the protagonist steeps in and out of a brew of lucid deliriums – which display themselves in a cruel mélange of abundant love and a morbid delusion of marching toward a scaffold – a punishment to fit the crime of homicide (the condemned becomes convinced he has slain his beloved) – with the hallucination and the movement itself finally culminating in a horrific orchestral display of it’s protagonists head, rolling off the scaffold and bouncing down the steps after being unceremoniously hacked off by the sharp blade of the guillotine.

The movement ultimus is where things really get ‘trippy’ (Berlioz was said to have composed the entire work under the influence of Opium, a drug of which he proudly propitiated).

In this movement, the protagonist finds himself in his own twisted version of hell: a Witches’ Sabbath, complete with such grotesquery as can be found in every child’s hidden-under-lock-and-key mental vault of ghosts and goblins – all of whom have arrived as guests at the protagonists’ (Berlioz’) own funeral. Amongst the witches, shades, and monsters, who are collectively engaged in a sadistic orgy, is the shade of the protagonists idée-fixe (based on Berlioz’ own, one Harriet Smithson): formerly represented in the symphony’s earlier movements by a placid, pleasant, dream-like melodic theme - now grotesquely shrieking as an ominous series of funeral bells begin to toll, and a creepishly slow moving and bastardized version (Berlioz describes it as a "burlesque parody") of the Dies Irae, a 13th century Latin hymn depicting the "Final day of Judgment" horrifically repeats itself before engaging in it’s own twisted musical orgy with the dance of the witches, probably focusing on the hymns darker themes of souls uninvited into heaven and cast into the fires of hell.

It was this movement that would inspire countless composers to come, including prolific composer and pianist Franz Liszt, who took from from Berlioz’ macabre imagination the idea of transforming the ancient Gregorian melody of the Dies Irae into something both frightening and horrifyingly sinister:

Liszt’s play on this theme was displayed most alarmingly in his gooseflesh-inducing “Totentanz” (“Dance of the Dead”):

Other composers who wrote some of their most prodigal masterpieces under the influence of drink and drug include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote the Overture for his wildly famous opera Don Giovanni completely in the throes of an alcoholic induced ‘massive hangover’, to Edward Elgar - whose highly prized “Cello Concerto” that made the likes of iconic musicians Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim household names – and whose main theme was first imagined and quickly written down on a napkin immediately upon it’s composer awakening from dental surgery!

When it came to the consumption – and over consumption – of alcohol, even conductors were thrown into the mix – it is said that Russian Composer and Pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff was so horrified by the actions of conductor Alexander Glazunov – who led the orchestra at the composers’ premiere performance of his Symphony 1 in d minor, and who performed his duties whilst completely drunk – that Rachmaninoff refused to compose his next symphony until a full decade later! Needless to say, the premiere of the 1st was a total disaster.

Apparently drink alone wasn’t enough to kill some composers straight off the bat - but when combined with an unfortunate set of fateful happenstances, it’s effects would often contribute to an early visit with the reaper:

Henry Purcell, one of 17th century England’s most famed composers, was such an advocate of drink, he dedicated a not insignificant amount of compositions entirely to his precious liquid gold in a series of bawdy drinking songs (many of them x-rated), in an ode to his much loved pastime of frequenting the town’s inns and public drinking houses - stomping grounds notorious for fellow playboys about town who enjoyed regaling - in the form of song - tales of vast and varied carnal exploits and other raucous debauchery over a pint of ale. 

Perhaps due to an honest mistake, or perhaps fed up with his late hours, Purcell’s wife is believed to have locked her husband out of their abode one particularly frigid evening, directly contributing to the composers’ ultimately fatal case of pneumonia.


The 18th century violinist and conman Niccolò Paganini, known for his famous virtuosic talent on the instrument wasn’t the only the musician said to have acquired his skills after a quick tango with the devil. 

Did you know?

Another musician living in the 18th century, composer Giuseppe Tartini, was also known for engaging in a danse macabre with Beelzebub.

Tartini’s most celebrated work, his Violin Sonata in G minor, was famously coined the “Devils’ Trill” after it’s composer was alleged to have experienced a ‘visit from Lucifer’ in the form of a pseudo-nightmare.

Tartini would relate the dream to the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande:

Tartini's Dream - Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1824

"One night, in the year 1713 I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I wished: my new servant anticipated my every desire. Among other things, I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and - I awoke. I immediately grasped my violin in order to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the "Devil's Trill", but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that I would have destroyed my instrument and have said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me." 

Listen to the "Devil's Trill" Sonata:

While tales of selling one’s soul to the devil were abundant folklore well before the age of poets like Goethe, who made them famous with his epic magnum opus Faust in the beginning of the following century, the dark mystique of the violin itself dates back even further. The piercing ranges capable of the instrument had long been assumed to be a product of something unearthly (and therefore devilishly sinister) for many centuries previous across the European continent.


The obsessive Anton Bruckner
It seems Anton Bruckner may not have been the only one with an (alleged) morbid fascination with the decayed body parts of composer’s past. Anton, who was present at pianist Franz Schubert’s exhumation (he famously embraced the deceased’s skull at the first opportunity he could seize - or sneak), before proclaiming Schubert ‘the master’ (poor Wagner, Bruckner had attached the same honorific to his living hero Richard backstage at an opera theatre immediately following one of the German composers’ titanic operatic productions, embarrassing the stout Wagner by falling to his hands and knees, grasping his idols hands into his own and declaring Wagner to be his “Meister”); Bruckner was also present at the exhumation of yet another ‘master’ to the obsessive composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (as previously mentioned in my post on mental health here on
 Little did Bruckner know, that in the name of science, Beethoven’s skull would have become so damaged, dissected and exchange so many hands through the coming centuries that the latest fragments of the composers’ skull were believed to have been discovered in the present century and were even curated into the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at California's San Jose State University in 2005! (This finding, unfortunately, was later debunked through vigorous and modern DNA testing nearly a decade later). The story, nonetheless stirred up great public interest and renewed admiration for the late German composer (allegedly, the skull fragments were even considered for a possible trip to the famed Christie's auction block in 2010).

The modern era, of course, still has a morbid fascination with the cadavers of musical icons past:

In July of 2012, authorities in Austria reported the graves of 19th century Classical giants Johannes Brahms and Johann Strauss II had not only been unceremoniously disturbed but also ransacked by a modern grave robber who made off, bizarrely, only with both composers’ teeth. Why a modern ‘resurrectionist’  would seek to steal from his cadaverous victims only their teeth remains unclear.

For reasons of respect to the dead, the identity of the robber will not be mentioned on, however he did become known to authorities after posting a series of videos on the internet's video-sharing hub Youtube, showcasing his ‘finds’ and bragging about his stolen ‘relics.' Unfortunately for our beloved composers, the strong arm of Lady Law continues to evade the grave robber: the evidence in question (the videos depicting the body parts) were believed to have been made in 2002, making the crime itself “too old to prosecute” under current Austrian Law.

Phrenology, Princes and Police Chases (oh my).

Franz Joseph Haydn
Finally, we come to the mysterious case of Franz Joseph Haydn, the grandfather and reigning King of the Classical Era.

It was 1820 when Hungarian Prince Esterházy, Nikolaus II, issued an order for Haydn’s remains to be transferred from their burial place in Austria’s Capital of Vienna to Eisenstadt (the seat of the Eszterházy Hungarian noble family). No one was expecting (especially the Prince) what they would find upon exhuming the body and opening the coffin: there lay the skeletal remains of Joseph Haydn…minus the composers’ skull!

After much dismay and a grand amount of sleuthing, it was discovered that the skull of the composer had been lifted from the coffin under the cloak of night and the cunning hand of bribery in the name of the pseudo-science of “phrenology” another of the many quackeries to be found in medicine of times past.

This bogus “science” was formed on the thesis that the individual characteristics of man such as personality and intelligence were directly related to the proportions and mass of the skull. Two followers of the phrenology cult were Joseph Carl Rosenbaum (who appallingly, had befriended Haydn during his lifetime) and his partner in crime, a thief named Johann Nepomuk Peter.

Haydn's ever illusive skull.
The nefarious pair had almost lost possession of the stolen relic when they fell under suspicion of authorities in the mid-19th century. On one particularly unfruitful visit to the home of Rosenbaum (which he shared with his wife), authorities found the Mrs. curled up in the fetal position on her bed. She couldn’t get up, she informed the officers, because it was “that time of the month”. In reality, it wasn’t a case of crippling cramps doing her in – the lady Rosenbaum, alerted to the presence of the police at her door, had rushed into her bedchamber, stuffing Haydn's skull under the mattress on which she now lay. "That time of the month" was a most formidable excuse by the Mrs. – the bodily functions of ladies, at the time, were considered a topic too taboo for public - or even private - discussion and doing so was considered an assault on decency. The blushing officers simply took the Rosenbaums’ wife at her word, and at once vacated the premises, empty handed, and none-the-wiser for their noble efforts.

Monetary gain did not seem to be the focus of the Rosenbaums in illegally hoarding the skull. The Prince Eszterházy, himself convinced of the couple’s guilty hidden treasure, famously offered a substantial payment to the nefarious duo in exchange for Haydn’s head, with the intent to reunite and re-bury it with it’s host. Rosenbaum did indeed accept the money and in turn offer up a skull to the Prince for reburial – just not the head Eszterházy was hoping for. Unbeknownst to Nikolaus and those attending the reburial ceremony, Joseph Haydn’s body was re-interred into the earth – complete with someone else’s head!

This baffling case of Haydn seek would not see a resolution until the mid-20th century, when, through the hands of centuries worth of inheritors (almost all belonging to the medical sector), Haydn’s skull was finally returned to it’s rightful host in 1954 – but not before a select group of admirers held for the composers’ head a public procession (featuring almost 100 automobiles). The skull had been appropriately dressed in a peony-covered urn for the occasion. 

They say "Two Heads are Better than One":
To add further macabre details to this bizarre story, it is said the skull of Haydn, now peacefully resting, fully intact with it's host cadaver, was re-buried...alongside the bogus cranium, leaving the composer permanently at rest - with two skulls!

Some say the case of Haydn's traveling skull was a comically overzealous retribution of just desserts for the composer, who, as a notoriously naughty young lad was known to taunt the heads of fellow pupils with a sharp pair of scissors - once earning for himself the distinction of being expelled from school after unceremoniously hacking off a student's ponytail! 

Now that is a revenge-filled conclusion of operatic proportions, indeed.

Who said classical music was boring?


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