The ‘Men Behind the Music’

What do you think of when you think about classical composers? Maybe you think of them as old guys who wrote great music and know very little about their lives, or perhaps you know a little more about their history and the context of their works. By giving the composers a bit more personality or by giving the work a bit more context, classical music in general becomes that little bit less elitist and more accessible and relatable for the modern-day listener.

But when we listen to classical music now on BBC Radio 3, Classic FM or on Spotify, no one tells us much about the piece being performed, what we’re listening to, or what made this composer the way he was. The composer becomes glorified for his works, a compositional God among men, as it were. And often, through this glorification of the composer and their music in the modern world, we often forget to tell the endearing, unexpected and humorous stories that make up each composer’s unique personality. They were wacky, wonderful and (in most cases) downright weird! So here I thought I’d share some of our favourite facts and stories about the best loved musical masters.

1. Mozart’s Don G procrastination:

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On the 29th October 1787, Mozart’s infamous opera, Don Giovanni, premiered in Prague, but on the day before the premiere, Mozart had still not composed the overture. Facts vary on the story of when he actually completed it; some say that he finished it the night before the premiere, while others say that he wrote it on the morning of the 29th, while suffering from a massive hangover. Either way, you’ve got no need to feel bad about procrastinating again. If Mozart wrote some of his best work with a hangover – we can too! *sips wine*


2. Wagner’s ‘fiery’ Ring Cycle: 

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Richard Wagner, the pioneer of German Romantic opera, had grand ideas for the presentation of his operas. When laying out ideas for the staging of his infamous Ring cycle (1876), he decided that he wanted to build a wooden stage on the edge of the river Rhine (the river that features in the beginning and end of the opera with his glorious Rhinemaidens who emerge out of the water at the opening, and drag the ring to its depths at the end). He theorised that after the last performance, after the full cycle had been performed two or three times, that the entire theatre, stage and set, along with the score of the opera, should be burnt to the ground. Unsurprisingly, this idea was quickly rejected. (No! really?! You mean setting opera houses on fire after just two performances is not a realistic goal?! Who knew?)


3. Eric Satie and the 100 umbrellas thing:
The popular French composer, Eric Satie, had numerous quirks that made him a very ‘memorable’ character in the musical world. He would only eat white foods and would never talk while eating for fear of strangling himself. He would carry a small hammer with him at all times for protection, and when walking home at night he would walk with his arms plastered to his side, moving forward but with his head always looking behind him. Equally, after he died his friends found his apartment filled to the brim with over 100 different umbrellas….

4. Mendelssohn’s amazing memory skills:
Mendelssohn left the overture score of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in a cab, and when he got home and realised, he was able to rewrite every single note of the entire score from memory.

5. If you’ve ever wanted to punch someone while listening to Schoenberg, you’re not alone:
On 31 March 1913 Schoenberg conducted a concert with works from Zemlinsky, Mahler, Webern, and Berg along with his own Chamber Symphony. The audience were very rowdy and confrontational that evening, and were very much opposed to the music they were hearing. After Berg’s Orchestral Song Op. 4, No.2 was played, the audience were so appalled by it that they started whistling, shouting and laughing, and eventually full on fist fights broke out in the hall. The police had to be called to the venue and the concert had to be shut down. It was apparently the most scandalous outbreak in the concert halls ever recorded, until the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in May of the same year.

6. Here comes the Bride?

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The famous ‘Here comes the Bride’ Wedding March theme originally comes from Richard Wagner’s early opera Lohengrin (1848), an opera about murder. You might want to give any of your engaged friends a little heads up on that one before they decide to march down the aisle to that chirpy number!


7. Mahler making girls cry:
The composer Gustav Mahler was very strict in rehearsals, and apparently in a rehearsal for his Second Symphony (1888-1894) he made one of the female flute players cry by insulting her performance of his work. After, the two bouncers had to escort him back to his hotel because the brass section had threatened to follow him home beat him up for making her cry.

8. New ‘Instruments’ in Symphonies:

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Composers sometimes got very creative with the ‘instruments’ they could use in their symphonies. In Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, composed in 1880 to commemorate Russia’s defence of their motherland from Napoleon’s advances, he composed in a set of cannons that go off a total 16 times during the performance. Also, in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, he created a ‘Mahler hammer’, which was a large wooden box that was hit with a sledgehammer during the performance.

9. Rossini, the gourmet chef:
The Italian composer Gioachino Rossini was known for being a big fan of three things: opera, food and money. He was a quick operatic writer and so he managed to churn out 39 significant operas in the space of nineteen years, and earned his fortune through composing. However, he had always had a passion for cooking. After he retired in 1829 he decided to dedicate himself to becoming a gourmet chef, and created recipes to go alongside his music. Not to mention, he used truffle oil in absolutely everything!

10. Beethoven’s obliviousness to his standing ovation:
By the time Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony he was almost entirely deaf. Apparently, after the first performance in Vienna in May 1824, he was unable to hear the raucous applause from the audience and had to be signalled from the performers to turn around so he could see how much the audience enjoyed it.

So, here’s to our composers, the weird, the creative and wonderfully mad. What I hope these funny little anecdotes convey is that behind the music there is a composer and a composition with a story that needs telling. So, next time you pop on the radio or a playlist on Spotify, I encourage you to take to the internet or to your local library and have a read up on your favourite musical maestro; there is always something new to learn, and it can have a monumental impact on the way that we listen to music when we know a bit more about the person who composed it.

And keep an eye out for our ‘sister-post’ that will shine a light on the exceptional women of classical music and the monumental impact they have had on the world of classical music that we know and love today.

By Genevieve Arkle
PhD Researcher at University of Surrey

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