Wednesday, 26 April 2017


It’s time for another installment of TRIVIA & HUMOR!

Today’s much overdue feature combines a veritable cornucopia of mystery, scandal and intrigue as Unraveling Musical Myths meanders through the murky mire of the macabre, resting every now and then to regale the reader with tales of mercurial madness – a frequently occurring trait we have come to know and love in our beloved maestros of yore.


Alleged likeness of Taverner
We begin in the mid-16th century in Tudor England, just prior to the Reformation with the composer and organist John Taverner. Considered to be one of the most important musical figures of his era, Taverner would be appointed First Organist and Master of the Choristers at Cardinal College* (named after it’s ecclesiastical founder and then-Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey).

Taverner, like many an Englishman living under the notoriously volatile monarch’s reign, would find himself in a heap of trouble for allegedly possessing ‘heretical’ manuscripts – books by German theologian Martin Luther - on his person (and possibly stashed in the ‘song school,’ with the intent of teaching them to his pupils in the choir) for which the musician was promptly holed up in the college’s fish cellar (which then served as a makeshift prison until which time further punishment would be executed – pun intended). The word “allegedly” is important here – this was, after all, the most tumultuous period of Henry’s reign, during which time the King sought to have his marriage to his first wife, the Spanish Katherine of Aragon annulled in order to place future consort Queen Anne Boleyn in her stead – a notoriously rocky road for the monarch that saw a highly contested battle of power between the determined English king and Pope Clement VII, and, failing permission by the Holy See to divorce, an eventual break with Rome.

Cardinal Wolsey being counseled by King Henry VIII
Alongside his abrupt shift in power over religious matters of the State, the autocratic ruler installed himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, setting forth a tidal wave of reformist activity across the nation.

Accusations of heresy ran wild – whether the party was in fact guilty or an innocent offender (labeling another as a heretic was a quick and convenient way to rid oneself of their enemies in an age where one was considered guilty until proven.. well, guilty).

As it turns out, Taverner himself was a
noted reformist. Perhaps armed with this knowledge, or simply having been all-too-aware of the further punishment that his appointee would have undoubtedly suffered if left to rot in the fish cellar, Wolsey neither confirmed nor denied the accusation lobbed on the imprisoned musician, and instead, appealed quite convincingly, to the jailors’ egos by diminishing Taverner’s influence over even the meekest of students, calling him “but a musician” (then equivalent to a servant). 

Apparently, it worked. Taverner would be promptly pardoned by the Cardinal.

Listen below to a gorgeous rendition of Taverner's Dum Tansisset Sabbatum (And When The Sabbath Was Past), Performed by Alamire choir under David Skinner:

*Note: now Christ Church College at Oxford



Talk about a premiere from hell: from the blazing inferno ravaging a large portion of a specially constructed structure funded out-of-pocket by the reigning British King (some £8000 - worth about 1 million in today’s money) and which claimed two lives, to the attempted murder of the Duke of Montagu by an enraged architect (and the latter’s unsurprising - yet highly mortifying - imprisonment), Composer of the Chapel Royal George Frederic Handel’s debut performance of his suite “Music for the Royal Fireworks” would go off with anything but a hitch. 

"A VIEW of the FIRE-WORKS and ILLUMINATIONS at his GRACE the Duke of RICHMOND'S at WHITEHALL and on the River
Thames on Monday 15 May 1749."
The above image, frequently associated with Handel's Royal Fireworks display (which occurred 27th April, 1749 at London's Green Park) is actually a depiction of the second of two of the principal pyrotechnic celebrations marking the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. So as not to be confused with Handel's celebration proper, the residing Duke of Richmond had postponed his festivities for a few weeks later, on the 15th of May. His pyrotechnic display, as seen above, was launched adjacent his domicile
at Whitehall on the River Thames. The celebration associated with Handel in April was a far more elaborate affair (below):

"The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, 1749 - The Display in Green Park." King George II, who contracted the Music for the Royal Fireworks from Handel, watched the celebrations unfold from the Queen's Library at St. James's Palace. Immediately following the pyrotechnic display, he walked back through the "Machine" so that he could distribute royal purses among its operators.

It was during an otherwise jovial and most festive evening in late April, 1749 that the German-turned English composer was slated to honor his employer and patron, King George II of England with a ceremonial music suite which Handel had penned especially for the evening. The occasion being celebrated was the recent signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (signed in October the previous year) which had effectively ended the 8 year War of the Austrian Succession.

For some six months, all of London was abuzz with fevered chatter of the extravagant celebration to come: the word on the street was that the King himself had shelled out a sizeable fortune and hired the much accoladed stage designer/architect Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni to design for an upcoming festive occasion an elaborate neoclassical structure to serve as a backdrop for what promised to be a magnificent display of fireworks.

By the end of March, a print (fig. I) was published showcasing the intricate structure in all of it’s glory, further inciting frenzied anticipation - not only in the hearts of Londoners, but in the hearts of those residing in neighboring towns as well: according to the legendary writer Horace Walpole, coaches began to arrive in a steady stream, from “every corner of the kingdom” – so many, in fact, that during a rehearsal run some six days before he actual event, over twelve thousand eager spectators became gridlocked at the London Bridge on their way into town!

What would have been considered a telltale "bad omen" for the composer by some less than optimistic minds failed to yield the expectations of Handel, who enthusiastically proceeded on.

(fig. I) *CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE (George Vertue)

The first sign the evening would be a total wash - quite literally – was the weather: far from clear, mood-setting starlit skies, sporadic rain spewed in abundance from the stormy clouds above onto the finely manicured heads gathered in the massive crowd below. Yet even the rain would not be enough to dampen the spirits of the attendees – nor the large amounts of gunpowder that made up the primitive firework stock situated just outside of the otherwise glistening structure. By the time the orchestra began performing the suite’s allegro (the works' 4th movement), an errant firework ignited the right side of the delicate frame. Before the movement was even over, the entire pavilion burned to the ground. To make matters even worse, two people were killed during the catastrophe.

And the evening wasn’t over yet: the designer of the structure, the aforementioned Servandoni, flew into a violent rage, and charged at the event organizer the Duke of Montagu with a sword!

He was quickly disarmed before he could run his weapon through Montagu's throat. In spite of the attempted murder, Servandoni would only spend one night in jail for his crime - he would secure his release the following morning by simply apologizing to the Duke.

Discover in the video below how our not-so-distant ancestors set fire to the sky with primitive pyrotechnics (from Sir Tony Robinson's remarkable series "The Worst Jobs in History:" (Segment begins and is queued at 30 mins, 15 secs in):

Did you know?

Handel's Royal fireworks with
structure: prospective
Perhaps 20th century royal couple Prince Charles and Lady Diana should have taken notes from Handel’s disastrous London premiere by recognizing the numerous “bad omens” cast upon the festival: the royally betrothed chose to pattern the fireworks for their much publicized wedding after this very same event. Like the 1749 catastrophe at St. James park, their marriage too burned to the ground.

Further Reading: "A Description of the Machine for the Fireworks and a Detail of the Manner in Which They Are to Be Exhibited in St. James's Park, Thursday, April 27, 1749 on account of the General Peace, signed at Aix La Chapelle, October 7, 1748" by Gaetano Ruggieri and Giuseppe Sarti


A young capture of Austrian Archduchess Maria
Antonia (later Marie-Antoinette, Queen of
France). The princess was known affectionately
as "Antoine" at the Habsburg Court.
The ill-fated plight of 18th century Queen of France Marie-Antoinette – who famously lost her head under the sharp blade of a guillotine amidst the furore of Revolutionary Paris – is the stuff of legend. 

The young Austrians’ pitiable life as an unwanted and illiterate archduchess at the Habsburg court, to her much loathed and highly scandalized tenure on the French throne as consort to husband King Louis XVI, to her violent death and the eventual dumping of her corpse in a mass grave is fodder for film-makers around the globe. 

There is little of the doomed monarch’s life that we don’t know or which hasn’t somehow infiltrated pop culture in one medium or another. That is, unless one remembers a scarcely publicized anecdote involving Mozart and Marie-Antoinette when she was just a 7-year old princess at the Imperial court of her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa.

Maria Antonia (Marie-Antoinette) and Mozart
It was during a trip to Vienna alongside sister “Nannerl” and father Leopold in 1762 that little Wolfgang (who was only two months younger than the princess) first made the acquaintance of the future Queen of France, playing on the piano for the esteemed Austrian court. As would be the theme during this period of the young wunderkind’s life (and much of his later life), Mozart quickly won over the hearts of everyone in the room, mastering a composition on the harpsichord with the keyboard itself shielded from the little maestro's view (at the request of the Empress). As if not already astonished by the young musician's fingering ability, Mozart upped the adorable ante with a playful jump onto the lap of the Empress – the better to place a big fat, wet smooch on her blushing cheek of course!

The evening’s festivities would be complete with a proposal of marriage by Mozart to young Maria-Antonia, who had rushed to the tiny musician’s aid when he missed his footing and slipped on a freshly polished floor, to which the wunderkind declared: “you are good; I will marry you!”

The Empress, much amused by this unexpected display of affection, inquired of the boy his reasoning behind making such a statement: “Out of gratitude;” he replied, “she was kind, while her sister took no notice of me.”

Just think: had these two dynamic figures followed through on the ‘proposal,’ a humble musician (then considered a servant) would break the impermeable blue-blooded class barrier to become a royal, and, quite possibly, Marie-Antoinette’s extravagant spending and alleged lustful appetite wouldn’t have enraged a nation and hastened a revolution...

and maybe - just maybe - she would have kept her head.

Mozart was composing from a very early age; although it is commonly believed the wunderkind had a small
amount of help from his father Leopold during this period, his early works are nonetheless extraordinarily
impressive for a boy of his age. Listen below to Mozart's first compositions, penned by the musician when he
was only 5 years old:



Beethoven's skull
Speaking of disembodied heads (how’s that for an opener! I’m looking at you, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven!)

Did you know? 

Long before Beethoven’s corpse was exhumed and his cranium removed in the name of science, a paid watch worked around the clock to guard the composer’s burial plot in an effort to prevent looting from pesky grave robbers looking to add the musicians skull to their macabre collections or sell them to bogus phrenologists. In fact, close friends of Beethoven were reportedly tipped off prior to the burial of a plan to snatch the composer’s head from the grave that same evening under the cloak of night. Thinking only of their fallen comrade, and wishing him to rest in peace (and intact), Beethoven's surviving friends banded together to pony up the money from their own pockets to hire an around the clock stakeout at his grave.

Most fans of Mozart are familiar with the curious fate of a cranium alleged to have belonged to the enigmatic 18th century composer (it was famously displayed at Salzburg’s Mozarteum for a period of 50 years after the museum acquired the relic from an unknown source at the dawn of the 20th century). The morbid artifact accompanied a note, said to have been attached by the 19th century anatomist Josef Hyrtl (who briefly possessed the skull) bearing the inscription (in Latin) “Musa Vetat Mori” (“The Muse Prevents Death”).

Believed to be cursed by the spirit of Mozart himself - who was said to haunt those who gazed upon the stolen skull – the macabre relic was later removed by museum officials.

A bronze-cast 'death mask,' said to be the likeness of
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Fewer may be aware that the existence of a death mask – purporting to be a bronze cast of Mozart’s face - set by art collector Count Josef Deym immediately post-mortem (known colloquially as a ‘death mask’) continues to baffle the scientific and curator communities to this day. 

According to Mozart’s sister in law, Sophie Haibel, who had been aiding the ailing composer prior to his passing, the Count rushed to Mozart’s deathbed to set the first of two masks: one in plaster, which he presented to the widow Constanze (which Mozart's wife later accidentally broke), and another, more durable version in bronze, to be displayed at his Müller’s Kunstkabinett art museum. The latter mask would be discovered some 150 years later in a Viennese used goods store (possibly purchased as part of an estate sale during WWII). It would be assessed by sculptor and physiognomy expert Willy Kau and declared authentic shortly after it’s re-discovery, but, as was the case of Mozarts’ alleged skull, the composer’s death mask would later ruled to be of inconclusive authenticity. It didn’t help matters that Kau was presently embroiled in a fraud scandal.

The mystery continues.

Bernstein's excellently rendered Confutatis Maledicits (followed by an unnecessarily slow Lacrimosa) from
Herr Mozart's famous Requiem:



Memorial tablet at St. Marx Cemetery, positioned at a
location believed by some to be Mozart's grave. Image:
Invisigoth67 [CC BY-SA 2.5], Wikimedia Commons
With one skull and a rather dubious, now missing death mask set aside, we come to the subject of Mozart's corpse. We still don’t really know where the composers body is, either. We have a general idea: somewhere in an unmarked, shaft grave at Vienna’s St. Marx Cemetery. The exact location of the composer’s remains however, are uncertain. 

Lost though he may be, Mozart is far from alone in death. 

Other famous composers shared similar fates – in the case of 17th century Italian composer, teacher and virtuosic violinist Antonio Vivaldi remarkably similar:

Vivaldi, sickly and impoverished, would attempt to win over the royal Viennese by relocating to the Austrian capital after what he believed was a promising visit with then reigning emperor Charles VI. The move from Venice would be made in vain - the emperor died shortly after the composer’s arrival.

Not long after Charles’ death, Vivaldi himself passed away of what was simply referred to as “internal fire” (likely bronchial/asthmatic attack). Like Mozart, Vivaldi’s funeral service was held at St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom) before his remains were relocated to Armensünder-Gottesacker cemetery, where he too, was buried in an unmarked grave. The cemetery was originally reserved for the sinning poor prior to the mid-sixteenth century and was located accordingly, outside of the city wall. For reasons of public health, all cemeteries within the city wall had been indefinitely shuttered. By the late 18th century Emperor Joseph II decreed that new cemeteries be fashioned, once more outside of the city wall. The Armensünder-Gottesacker was abandoned – along with Vivaldi’s remains, which were never located or exhumed.

Illustration of St. Alfege Church
16th century Tudor-favorite composer Thomas Tallis also shares a similar fate: after perishing at his home in Greenwich, England, the much beloved Gentleman of the Chapel Royal was laid to rest at the nearby Anglican parish St. Alfege Church, the very same church that performed the baptism of Tallis’ one-time employer King Henry VIII. The medieval structure was host to many a burial, both inside and outside of its hallowed walls – significantly weakening the building’s foundation over time. The church would collapse on itself during a violent windstorm in the early 18th century.

After receiving funding via a grant from the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches in 1712, laborers set to work on rebuilding the church. Tallis’ 127-year old remains were seemingly all but forgotten - and believed by modern scholars to have been unintentionally disposed of by workers during the reconstruction.

Listen below to a touching tribute by the renaissance composer William Byrd for Tallis, which Byrd composed upon his teacher and colleagues' death: "Ye Sacred Muses," an elegy of astonishing beauty and sorrow. Note the lamentful lyric: "In mourning weeds, with tears in eyes: Tallis is dead, and Music dies..."

We end this edition of TRIVIA & HUMOR with a more recent scandal - this one involving Herr Beethoven, a mysterious manuscript, and the hub of all artifacts Beethoven: The Beethoven-Haus Bonn.

Lithograph of Herr Beethoven in 1817.
Private collectors and manuscript hunters across the globe were abuzz with excited chatter of Beethoven’s Allegretto in B Minor (for String Quartet) hitting the auction block in 2016 by world renowned auctioneer Sotheby’s. The piece was believed to have been penned by the composer sometime in 1817, and, according to Sotheby’s, the manuscript they had in their collection was the original score, written in the hand of Beethoven himself. The much anticipated lot was expected to sell for at least £200,000, but, much to the dismay of Sotheby’s, the piece failed to sell to all after a very public debate over the manuscript’s authenticity ignited between two noted Beethoven scholars and the auction house shortly before the item went up for sale. 

Despite the presence of an inscription stating that the present document was “composed and written by Beethoven himself,” Professor Barry Cooper, a noted Beethoven expert – who, according to Sotheby’s, did not inspect the document "first hand" – referenced discrepancies in what he believes is Beethoven’s normal style of notation. He also cited the presence of incorrectly transcribed notes scattered throughout the score, leading him to conclude “…absolutely that it couldn't possibly be Beethoven's hand.”

The speculation that the score was a later copy penned by a traveling companion of 19th century writer Richard Ford - in whom Beethoven is believed to have given the original -  is vehemently denied by the auction house, who claim the traveling companion, a ‘clergyman’ by the name of John Abbiss (reverend) would not have possessed the skill required to “master an imitation of a hand so characteristic and difficult to achieve.” 

"Allegretto in B Minor for String Quartet," allegedly in the hand of Beethoven

The debate was enough to instill just the right amount of doubt in potential buyers who felt rather uneasy at the prospect of shelling out over £200,000 on a dubious item. After all, Cooper’s name has all but become synonymous with contemporary Beethoven study, and after it emerged the good professor had informed rivaling auction house Christie's of the documents inauthentic nature in 2015 (Christie's passed on listing the item), it seemed no one was willing to take the expensive plunge.

Beethoven-Haus Museum at Bonn. Photo:
Eckhard Henkel / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
Prof. Cooper wasn’t the only renowned scholar to dismiss the document’s authenticity: Dr Michael Ladenburger, head of the famed Beethoven-Haus museum at Bonn (home of many verified Beethoven artifacts), also refused to authenticate the Allegretto. So convinced was the musicologist of his findings, he publicly denounced the piece before an international gathering of fellow Beethoven experts.

So imagine Sotheby’s surprise when it was revealed the doctor was accused of a shocking “conflict of interest and a breach of academic ethics” after allegedly attempting to purchase the very same manuscript from the document’s owner for the paltry sum of €900 (£757) - less than one per cent of the value placed on the item by the auction house!

When asked to explain why the museum head would offer to purchase an item he himself declared to be ingenuine, Ladenburger “deni[ed] the accusation.”

Did you know?

A life-like wax likeness of Ludwig van Beethoven,
on display at Mdme. Tussauds Berlin.
Madame Tussaud, the famous founder of the Madame Tussauds wax museum chain (which currently hosts likenesses of such beloved composers as Johann Sebastian Bach, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at wax ‘museums’ across the globe), and whose death was commemorated earlier this month, got her start during France’s infamous Reign of Terror with the rather macabre occupation of setting death masks upon the freshly severed heads of the French nobility – an alternative punishment to her own execution for the perceived crime of royal sympathizer (Tussaud previously worked as an art teacher to the sister of French King Louis XVI, Madame Elizabeth), which she narrowly escaped thanks to the intervention of one Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, an influential revolutionary. Tussauds' escape from death would come at a price, however: she would be forced to prove her loyalty to the cause. Not only was Tussaud made to set the death masks of both Louis and his ill-fated queen Marie-Antoinette, she was also forced to make a full cast of the freshly guillotined head of the Queen.

As for Marie-Antoinette, despite a history of late stage illiteracy whilst still a princess at her mother's court, the royal would later possess an admirable musical ability as Queen of France. A former pupil of Christoph Willibald Gluck (who would later be patronized by her highness) and the so-called "Black Mozart," the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Marie-Antoinette - like so many royals before her - would set quill to parchment, penning her very own musical compositions. Listen below to a charming piece from the doomed monarch, entitled "C'est Mon Amie" ("My Friend"), a romance for voice and harp based on a text by the French poet Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian:

That concludes this edition of TRIVIA & HUMOR. For more articles in this series, explore the Trivia Archives below.



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