Friday, April 20, 2012

The 13 strangest composer deaths in classical music

Jean-Baptiste Lully

This French Baroque master, the favourite opera of King Louis XIV, died from a self-inflicted wound to his foot, which he stabbed with his own pointed staff (used for keeping time) while conducting his Te Deum. Gangrene kicked in, spreading to his leg and finally killing him on March 22, 1687, three months after he had dealt the blow.

Henry Purcell

The English composer who penned the opera Dido and Aeneas was taken too soon; he was just 36, and at the height of his career. He died at his home in Dean’s Yard, Westminster, having caught a chill after returning home late from the theatre (or tavern) one night to find that his wife had locked him out… Or so the story goes. He is buried adjacent to the organ in Westminster Abbey, and his Funeral Music for Queen Mary was played at his own funeral.

Alexander Scriabin

Teenagers often say they could “just die” when acne takes over their faces, but in Scriabin’s case this is precisely what happened. The Russian composer-pianist made his last public appearance in St Petersburg on April 2, 1915. Just a few days later he noticed a pimple on his upper lip. On April 7 the furuncle was infected and Scriabin was bedridden and febrile. By the 11th, well-wishers crowded the staircase of his flat, for two types of blood poisoning had set in. Scriabin died a few days later, with his manuscript containing sketches for the Misteriya open on the piano.

Alban Berg

An insect bite was the undoing of this pupil of Schoenberg. A sting gave rise to a carbuncle on his back; since the Bergs were poor his wife attempted a home operation using a pair of scissors. As a result, the Austrian composer died from blood poisoning on Christmas Eve, at the age of 50.


Berg wasn’t the only pupil of Schoenberg to die in particularly unfortunate circumstances; fellow serialist composer Anton Webern also met a tragic fate. It was September 15, 1945 – World War II had just ended. Webern had stepped outside to enjoy a cigar without waking his sleeping grandchildren, unaware that a curfew was being enforced by the Allied occupying forces. He was shot dead by an American soldier who saw him light up.

Jean-Marie Leclair

This French Baroque composer and virtuoso violinist separated from his second wife in 1758, moving into a bachelor pad in a rough neighbourhood in Paris. There, in 1764, he was found stabbed to death. The mystery of his murder was never solved but it is believed that his estranged wife was responsible and stood to gain financially. Leclair’s nephew, Guillaume-François Vial, was the primary suspect at the time.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(1756 – 1791)

Mozart’s untimely death while he was composing his Requiem has been the subject of rumour, speculation and wild accusations for more than 200 years. One of the lesser-known legends to have done the rounds is that Mozart was poisoned with mercury by the Freemasons, assassinated for publicly revealing the secrets of their Craft in the libretto and plot of his opera The Magic Flute. The claim persisted in Nazi-era Germany in a 1936 article entitled Mozart’s Life and Violent Death, which aligned the Jewish faith to suspicious Masonic practices. However, there is no evidence that Mozart’s efforts were met with disapproval from the Freemasons.
Another rumour has it that Franz Hofdemel, Mozart’s lodge brother, murdered the composer for having an affair with his wife Magdalena, a 23-year-old student of Mozart’s. Hofdemel is said to have attacked the pregnant Magdalena and committed suicide on the day of Mozart’s funeral.
The most frequently cited, romantic theory is that Antonio Salieri was so insanely jealous of Mozart’s genius that he conspired to kill him. Mozart endured 15 days of excruciating pain, swelling and discomfort before his death, but his symptoms on the whole were not consistent with poisoning.
As there were no signs of foul play no autopsy was conducted, historians and medical professionals today can only speculate on the condition that claimed him. The most commonly held belief is that Mozart died of rheumatic fever – indeed, there was a fever epidemic in Vienna at the time – but in the past ten years a new theory has emerged: that Mozart died from a disease caused by a parasitic worm called trichinella, spread by tainted meat. The offending dish? Pork chops – Mozart’s favourite, which he referred to in a letter dated October 7-8, 1791.

Charles Valentin Alkan

This French pianist-composer extraordinaire also had a keen interest in the Bible and the Talmud. For many years it was believed that he died a suitably erudite death, crushed under a pile of books after reaching for the Talmud on a high shelf. But a recently discovered letter, written by Alkan’s concierge, casts doubt on this anecdote. Apparently the concierge discovered Alkan in his kitchen, trapped under a coat rack, perhaps having suffered a stroke or heart attack. He was 74 at the time of his death.

Ernst Chausson

The French Romantic composer who penned the ravishing Poème for violin was out for a bicycle ride outside his property in Limay when he lost control on a downhill slope and crashed into a brick wall, dying instantly.

Hugo Wolf


In early 1897, the great lieder composer began to show signs of mental derangement brought on by his syphilis, forcing him to stop composing altogether. After an attempt to drown himself, he admitted himself into an insane asylum, where he died in 1903 at the age of 43.

Enrique Granados

At the height of his success, during WWI, the Spanish nationalist composer was invited was invited by President Woodrow Wilson to give a piano recital at the White House. When Granados and his wife missed the boat back to Spain, they travelled to England, then boarding the “Sussex” ferry to take them on to France. On March 24, 1916, while crossing the English Channel, the Sussex was hit by a German U-boat torpedo. Granados, who had a life-long fear of the ocean, drowned after he jumped out of his lifeboat in a valiant but futile attempt to save his wife.

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky's death remains a mystery to this day. He fell ill just days after conducting the premiere of his deeply personal Sixth Symphony, the Pathéthique. Eyewitnesses including his brother Modest suggest that he had taken a "fateful sip of unboiled water" that led to cholera. But it is widely believed that the Russian composer had been having an illicit relationship with a young nobleman he was tutoring. In 1980 musicologist Aleksandra Orlova published a theory proposing that Tchaikovsky committed suicide rather than live with the scandal of th

Claude Vivier

With the murder of Montreal-born composer Claude Vivier, a student of Stockhausen, the music world lost one of the most original voices to emerge in the late 20th century. Vivier was 34 when he was fatally stabbed in his apartment by a male prostitute he met in a bar. On the worktable was the manuscript of the composer’s final, incomplete work, Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele? (Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul?) In this hauntingly prophetic dramatised monologue, Vivier describes a journey on the Metro during which he becomes strongly attracted to a young man. The music ends abruptly after the sung line, “Then he removed a dagger from his jacket and stabbed me through the heart.”

Titanic: The final messages from a stricken ship

The Carpathia rescuing Titanic passengers The Carpathia was one of the ships that received the Titanic's calls for help
On the night the Titanic struck an iceberg, a network of wireless operators on ships and land stations frantically communicated with each other across the expanses of the North Atlantic in an effort to mount a rescue mission. The surviving messages form a real-time record of the events of that night.
The story of the Titanic is barnacled with myths and legends.
It has become part of the popular imagination, a symbol for the most epic and glamorous failure. It is tragedy with tea dances.
But there is really only one first-hand, real-time record of what happened that night - the collection of wireless messages sent between the Titanic and the other ships which hurriedly tried to organise a rescue operation, during that freezing night in April 1912.
It is a telegraphic narrative showing how the Titanic had been given warnings of ice by other ships - and which records the increasingly frantic calls for assistance after the collision with the huge iceberg.
And to mark the Titanic's centenary, the BBC World Service's Discovery programme is broadcasting an unusual re-creation of these conversations.

Find out more

Titanic Lifeboats
Titanic - In Her Own Words, a Discovery special on the BBC World Service is presented by Sean Coughlan. Transmission times and dates can be found here.
Audio artist Susanne Weber has used speech synthesis software to translate these Morse messages into spoken words.
These are mechanical voices recreating the exchange of wireless messages, rather than actors performing a script, and it produces an eerie representation of how these overlapping messages crackled out over the airwaves.
It is something like hearing the urgent and confused text messages sent from a disaster.
Unlike in the Hollywood films of the tragedy, these wireless messages are stoically understated. Copied out in neat copperplate handwriting, and kept on the ships that had been in contact with Titanic, they are the actual words of the crew and passengers.
It's the Titanic in her own words.
Wireless was still a relatively young technology at the time of the Titanic's maiden voyage.
The Marconi company, the Edwardian equivalent of a top technology brand, had put its wireless operators on board some of the more prestigious ships.
The Titanic, as the showcase of an ambitious, optimistic era, had the biggest and best wireless equipment in the world.
It was still something of a novelty and much of the initial wireless traffic was from first class passengers sending messages to their friends, rather like text messages showing off about a glamourous trip.
Guglielmo Marconi at work in the wireless room of his yacht Electra Italian electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi's equipment was on board many prestigious ships
"Hello Boy. Dining with you tonight in spirit, heart with you always. Best love, Girl," read one message sent on to New York, the Titanic's intended destination.
A message sent on to Los Angeles said: "No sickness. All well. Notify all interested in poker."
"Fine voyage, fine ship," wrote another, unaware of the awful irony of how that might later sound.
The wireless operators sending these messages were independent young men of the modern age, who had been recruited with the promise of escaping "blind alley careers".
They chatted to wireless operators in other ships in a jaunty, mock public school slang, calling each other "old man".
As well as letting passengers send personal messages, they provided the first wireless news service for ships.
As the Titanic crossed the Atlantic, the news headlines were about industrial unrest on the railways and a high-profile murder in France.
Message received by the Olympic A message from the Olympic reports that it has received word from the Titanic
But the wireless was also beginning to be used for more serious purposes.
Ships gave each other safety information - and the Titanic received detailed advice about the location of icebergs - or "bergs, growlers and field ice" as one ship's captain described them.
Investigations after the sinking would never satisfactorily establish why these warnings had been ignored.
The senior wireless operator, Jack Phillips, had still been sending passengers' messages when the ship struck an iceberg. The collision was described as sounding like the tearing of calico.
With only enough room in the lifeboats for half the passengers and crew, the Titanic's captain turned to his only lifeline - the wireless - and asked the two Marconi operators to call for assistance.

The famous SOS

Artist's impression
Wireless operators originally used Marconi's "CQD" distress signal. "CQ" was the signal to stop transmission and pay attention. The "D" was added to signal distress. In 1906 the International Radio Telegraphic Convention in Berlin created the signal "SOS" for summoning assistance. The letters were chosen for their simplicity in Morse Code - three dots, three dashes and three dots. While the "SOS" superseded "CQD" in 1908 Marconi operators rarely used it. It became standard after the sinking of the Titanic.
The distress signal used by Marconi operators - CQD - boomed out over the Atlantic. The wireless operators joked they may as well also try another new distress signal that had been introduced - SOS - because they might never get a chance to use it again.
While the lifeboats were lowered, with awful goodbyes between husbands, wives and children, the wireless operators stuck to their task.
"Come at once. We have struck a berg. It's a CQD, old man," the Titanic called to another ship, the Carpathia.
"We have struck an iceberg and sinking by the head," she told a German ship, the Frankfurt.
The Titanic's messages caused consternation and disbelief among other ships.
They called back to the Titanic struggling to grasp what was happening, then urgently forwarded the distress signals in the hope that someone would be near enough to help.
It was like trying to organise a rescue by Twitter, with operators trying to make sense of the stream of sometimes contradictory information.
"We are putting passengers off in small boats. Women and children in boats. Cannot last much longer. Losing power," said the Titanic as the situation grew ever more desperate.
"This is Titanic. CQD. Engine room flooded."
The Titanic's Captain Edward Smith The Titanic's captain Edward Smith gave the orders for the distress signals to be sent out
In response her sister ship, the Olympic called back: "Am lighting up all boilers as fast as we can."
There were also flashes of anger in the confusion. "You fool... keep out," the Titanic barked at a ship almost 200 miles away who had interrupted to inquire: "What is the matter with you?"
The last recorded messages are increasingly desperate and fragmented - although a shore station officer following the exchanges reported there was "never a tremor" in the Morse tapped out by Jack Phillips.
"Come quick. Engine room nearly full," was sent from the Titanic only a few short minutes before the ship finally sank.
When the Titanic fell silent, the chasing ships carried on calling out for news, co-ordinating the rescue of the survivors.
And the wireless became the only way for survivors to contact their families.
"Meet me dock with two hundred dollars, underwear, cap, big coat - am well but slightly frozen," messaged one survivor from the Carpathia rescue ship.
"Completely destitute, no clothes," said one another. Words cost money - and a masterpiece of brevity reported: "Safe, Bert."
Message by Jack Phillips One of the messages sent by Jack Phillips says the ship is 'sinking fast'
These poignant, first-hand reactions to the disaster had been gathered in an archive by John Booth, a Titanic historian and expert on old prints. But many were sold off at auction in the early 1990s.
Jack Phillips did not survive the sinking. But his heroism, staying at his post after being released from his duty by the captain, became an enduring part of the Titanic story.
Not least because one of the most influential templates for all future Titanic stories came from Harold Bride, his junior wireless operator.
Bride survived on an upturned lifeboat and then sold his story to the New York Times.
His story was a global media sensation, setting the tone of heroic self sacrifice, with the first accounts of the band playing while the ship sank, with tales of selflessness and cowardice.
And he commemorated the role of Jack Phillips, unflinching, even when he knew better than anyone else that there was no chance of a rescue ship arriving in time.
"I will never live to forget the work of Phillips during the last awful 15 minutes," said Bride.
"I suddenly felt a great reverence to see him standing there sticking to his work while everybody else was raging about."

How Marilyn Monroe changed Ella Fitzgerald’s life

If asked “Who  played an important role in the musical career of Ella Fitzgerald?” you might respond with names like Chick Webb, Louis Armstrong, Norman Granz, and Dizzy Gillespie.
The name Marilyn Monroe (who passed away 50 years ago this August), however, might not come to mind.
While touring in the ’50s under the management of Norman Granz, Ella, like many African-American musicians at the time, faced significant adversity because of her race, especially in the Jim Crow states. Granz was a huge proponent of civil rights, and insisted that all of his musicians be treated equally at hotels and venues, regardless of race.
Despite his efforts, there were many roadblocks and hurdles put in to place, especially for some of the more popular African-American artists. Here is one story of Ella’s struggles (as written in
Once, while in Dallas touring for the Philharmonic, a police squad irritated by Norman’s principles barged backstage to hassle the performers. They came into Ella’s dressing room, where band members Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet were shooting dice, and arrested everyone. “They took us down,” Ella later recalled, “and then when we got there, they had the nerve to ask for an autograph.”
Across the country, black musicians, regardless of popularity, were often limited to small nightclubs, having to enter through the back of the house. Similar treatment was common at restaurants and hotels.
Enter Marilyn Monroe
During the ’50s, one of the most popular venues was Mocambo in Hollywood. Frank Sinatra made his Los Angeles debut at Mocambo in 1943, and it was frequented by the likes of Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Lana Turner.
Ella Fitzgerald was not allowed to play at Mocambo because of her race. Then, one of Ella’s biggest fans made a telephone call that quite possibly changed the path of her career for good. Here, Ella tells the story of how Marilyn Monroe changed her life:
I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt … she personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.
Learning from Ella
Ella had an influence on Marilyn as well. Monroe’s singing had a tendency to be overshadowed by dress-lifting gusts of wind and the flirtatious “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” not to mentions her movies and marriage to Joe DiMaggio. But years prior to the Mocambo phone call, Monroe was studying the recordings of Ella.
In fact, it was rumored that a vocal coach of Monroe instructed her to purchase Fitzgerald’s recordings of Gershwin music, and listen to it 100 times in a row.
Continued study of Ella actually turned Marilyn into a relatively solid singer for about a decade, but again became overlooked as her famous birthday tribute song to JFK in 1962 ends up being the vocal performance that is widely remembered.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

We will never see this again

Harry Truman was a different kind of President. He probably made as many, or more important decisions regarding our nation's history as any of the other 42 Presidents preceding him. However, a measure of his greatness may rest on what he did after he left the White House. The only asset he had when he died was the house he lived in, which was in Independence Missouri .. His wife had inherited the house from her mother and father and other than their years in the White House, they lived their entire lives there. When he retired from office in 1952 his income was a U.S. Army pension reported to have been $13,507.72 a year. Congress, noting that he was paying for his stamps and personally licking them, granted him an 'allowance' and, later, a retroactive pension of $25,000 per year. After President Eisenhower was inaugurated, Harry and Bess drove home to Missouri by themselves. There was no Secret Service following them. When offered corporate positions at large salaries, he declined, stating, "You don't want me. You want the office of the President, and that doesn't belong to me. It belongs to the American people and it's not for sale." Even later, on May 6, 1971, when Congress was preparing to award him the Medal of Honor on his 87th birthday, he refused to accept it, writing, "I don't consider that I have done anything which should be the reason for any award, Congressional or otherwise." As president he paid for all of his own travel expenses and food. Modern politicians have found a new level of success in cashing in on the Presidency, resulting in untold wealth. Today, many in Congress also have found a way to become quite wealthy while enjoying the fruits of their offices. Political offices are now for sale (cf. Illinois ). Good old Harry Truman was correct when he observed, "My choices in life were either to be a piano player in a whore house or a politician. And to tell the truth, there's hardly any difference!

December 7, 1941 A day which will live in infamy