The Nuttiest composers of all time
Composers are famously eccentric. Obsessive counting, weird colour fixations, animal mimicry, food hoarding, general megalomania – it’s all grist to the mill.
And on some level that’s why we continue to be as spellbound by great composers themselves as by the beautiful music they write. Below is a list of the most eccentric composers of all time and why they’ve been honoured with a place in this most eccentric list courtesy of yours truly.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Scatology And Cat Sounds
Much has been made of Mozart’s apparent obsession with defecation and farting, formally known as “scatology.” In one of his funnier letters, Mozart writes that a stink has entered the room. When his mother suggests that he’s farted, Mozart puts a finger up his rear and then sniffs it to confirm she’s right.
Mozart was very much a genius of contrasts – a supreme crafter of classical forms who loved nothing so much as a good fart joke. Throughout his most creative and fruitful years, flatulent, Jackass-esque humour runs through much of his correspondence.
Less well known, however, is that Mozart liked to imitate a cat. He’d be rehearsing an opera with his singers, when he’d suddenly grow bored and leap over tables and chairs, meowing and turning somersaults. He even wrote a comic song in which a woman responds to her husband’s questions with nothing but meows, until the poor man has no choice but to break down and meow, too. In English, the song is known as “The Cat Duet.”
Mozart loved wordplay and created nicknames for his friends—Duchess Smackbottom, Countess Makewater, Princess Dunghill, and Prince Potbelly von Pigtail, just to name a few.
Some experts have concluded that Mozart suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Others think he had Tourette’s Syndrome, a condition sometimes marked by copolalia (the obsessive or uncontrollable use of obscene language).
Mozart’s obsession with the bogs may also account for his less-well-known fondness for animal mimicry – in particular feline mimicry.
One famous example has Mozart getting bored—he had a low boredom threshold—during a rehearsal of Figaro and leaping over tables and chairs, meowing, pawing and tail swishing. Certainly something to think about next time you’re listening to the most angst-ridden passages of his Requiem.
(Video) Mozart versus Salieri
But whatever the cause of Mozart’s strange behavior, on one thing everyone agrees—Mozart was a genius, whose music still rocks our world.
Black Magic And Sadism
Peter Warlock was the pseudonym of handsome, hard-partying British music critic Philip Heseltine, whose life inspired for numerous films and books, including D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love.” When he wasn’t too busy smoking dope or writing crude limericks about other musicians, Warlock found time to write songs—over 200 by the time of his suicide at age 36.
According to Warlock’s illegitimate son, art critic Brian Sewell, Warlock was a“sexually voracious” bisexual sadist with multiple mistresses.
When one of his girlfriends became pregnant, Warlock told her to have an abortion, an instruction Sewell’s Roman Catholic mother refused. The two fought about it, and a few days later Warlock turned on the gas and lay down, after first putting his cat outside his house, presumably to save it.
(Video) Peter Warlock : Capriol Suite/The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra
Henning Kraggerud, leader
However, Warlock had made a fellow composer, Bernard van Dieren, his heir. Warlock’s legitimate son Nigel Heseltine—the product of Warlock’s short-term marriage to an artist’s model nicknamed “Puma”—claimed that van Dieren had killed his father.
But Warlock had suffered from depression, and so the claims were ignored, though even the coroner couldn’t conclusively rule out murder.
Ate Only Food That Was White
Satie’s eccentricity is famous. So famous it’s almost difficult to isolate one instance of crazy from the mix. He loved what can best be described as “quirky” performance directions and once stipulated that a piano piece had to be repeated 840 times in performance.
Eventually some American pianists in the 1960s took him seriously and it took the two pianists eighteen hours to perform the piece as Maestro intended. His works had comical titles such as ‘Three pieces in the form of a pear’, ‘Dessicated embryos’ or ‘Flabby preludes for a dog’.
Satie owned 12 identical gray, velvet suits, wearing just one repeatedly until it wore out, at which time he would begin wearing another. At the time of his death he still had six. He detested the Sun, carried a hammer in his pocket for protection, and established his own church—the Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus the Conductor.
He wore a bowler hat, wing collar and always carried a rolled-up umbrella. If it was raining he kept his umbrella underneath his coat to keep it dry. He started a church called Église Métropolitaine d’Art de Jésus Conducteur (Metropolitan Church of Art of Conductor Jesus), but nobody belonged to the church except himself.
(Video) Erik Satie Gnossienne 1 performed by the Steinway Artist Alessio Nanni, piano, Italy.
Erik Satie is indeed a rare genius. Almost every British music scholar should know this piece!
(About the video) Satie’s coining of the word “gnossienne” was one of the rare occasions when a composer used a new term to indicate a new “type” of composition. Satie had and would use many novel names for his compositions (“vexations”, “croquis et agaceries” and so on). “Ogive,” for example, had been the name of an architectural element until Satie used it as the name for a composition, the Ogives.
“Gnossienne,” however, was a word that did not exist before Satie used it as a title for a composition. The word appears to be derived from “gnosis”;
Satie was involved in gnostic sects and movements at the time that he began to compose the Gnossiennes. However, some published versions claim that the word derives from Cretan “knossos” or “gnossus” and link the Gnossiennes no 1 to Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur myth.
Studio recording at ©WHITE NOISE FACTORY.
Piano: Steinway & Sons.
November 23rd, 2009.
By the way, he owned twelve identical grey velvet suits – wearing one at a time until it wore out, where he promptly moved on to the next – and was obsessed with eating only white or pale-coloured food. In his dairies, Satie outlines his peculiar dietary requirements with Rain Man-esque precision: “I can only eat white foods: eggs, sugar, scraped bones, fat from dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, rice, turnips, things like pasta, white cheese, cotton salad and certain fish.”
Witchcraft, Murder, and Masochism
Carlo Gesualdo (b. 1561) was an Italian composer of the late Renaissance era (1450 – 1600 C.E.). Carlo’s father was prince of Venosa, and his mother was the niece of then-current pope Pius IV and the sister of Cardinal Borromo, who would later be canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church.
From an early age, Carlo showed an interest in music and learned to play several instruments. His favorite was the lute, a forerunner of the modern guitar. He also studied music composition and was very passionate about playing and writing music. However, he had a gloomy and morose personality and tended to sink into severe depression.
Gesualdo is also known for his behavior characteristic of possible mental illness, including lewdness, violence, and sadism, culminating in the brutal murder of his wife and her lover.
Gesualdo is also believed to have engaged in masochistic practices and possibly to have ordered his own death. This has led to various rumors and legends about him over the centuries, with some locals believing his was a victim of demonic possession.
The 17th-century Neopolitan composer Carlo Gesualdo was a royal prince acclaimed for his chromatic vocal music. But his compositions are not the reason he has been the subject of 11 operatic works and a 1995 Wernor Herzog pseudo-documentary called “Death for Five Voices.”
As mentioned earlier, Gesualdo is best known for the violent murder of his first wife, who’d committed adultery with a cross-dressing duke. After his second wife accused his own two lovers of witchcraft, they were tried for murder. One of the women confessed (under torture) that she had made Gesualdo drink her menstrual blood. She further admitted that the other had advised her to take a slice of bread, place it within her womb to saturate it with her “seed,” and give it to Gesualdo to eat with sauce.
(Video) Carlo Gesualdo – Miserere
Gesualdo ended his days afflicted by an imaginary horde of demons, whose torments only ceased if a dozen young men beat him violently three times a day. While the cause of Gesualdo’s death is uncertain, it is believed he was beaten to death during one of these masochistic frenzies.
Theosophy And Mysticism
The early 20th-century Russian composer Alexander Scriabin was gifted with synesthesia, a rare neurological condition in which two or more senses intertwine. Scriabin heard music as colors, and invented an instrument that could be played like a piano to project colored light into the concert hall.
Scriabin’s life was a continual search for an experience of God. He engaged in flying experiments and once tried to walk on water. After discovering the theosophical teachings of New Age spiritualist Madame Blavatsky, Scriabin came to believe his music was a bridge to mystical ecstasy.
(Video) Sviatoslav Richter plays Scriabin Etudes (Selection)
In later years, Scriabin’s work grew increasingly dark. His Seventh Sonata (the “White Mass”) purported to exorcise demons, while his Ninth (the “Black Mass”) was about summoning them back into living Hell. His final work was to be the “Mysterium,” which would be performed in the foothills of the Himalayas over a period of seven days. Bells suspended from clouds wouldsummon the spectators, and perfumes appropriate to the music would pervade the air. At the end of the piece, the world would dissolve in bliss, and humanity would be replaced by better, “nobler” beings.
Alas, before this final apocalypse could take place, Scriabin died of septicemia from an infected pimple.
Numeromania And A Love Of Skulls
Austrian composer Anton Bruckner suffered from Numeromania, an obsession with counting objects. He kept careful lists of how many “Hail Mary”s and “Our Father”s he recited each night, and composed his symphonies so that every bar satisfied his own hidden numerical pattern.
Bruckner was a hopeless romantic, whose infatuation with teenage girls led to an accusation of impropriety at the school where he taught music. He made unsuccessful proposals of marriage to young girls all the way into his seventies, but he never married.
(Video) Anton Bruckner – Symphony No. 9 in D Minor – Daniel Barenboim & Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Bruckner also had a thing for dead composers’ skulls. When Franz Schubert’s coffin was opened in 1888, Bruckner was overcome with awe. He reached in and grasped Schubert’s skull with both hands, letting go only when he was physically pulled away. This might not have been so odd, had he not done the same thing a few months earlier to Beethoven’s corpse.
Further on a more macabre note, he had re-created the cemetery scene from Hamlet not only with Schubert’s skull but with Beethoven’s too. Why Bruckner was present at the ceremonial exhumation—and reburial—of both these composers can only be speculated. Creepy fella!
And with this, we come to an end to our first in a two part story with regards to some of our most celebrated classical composers of all time and how weird they all were….and with this I’d like to say it has been an absolute joy writing about them and hope to see you when the second and final part comes online!
We are indeed working towards creating a fitting frenzy just in time for Halloween and it looks like we are indeed getting there!! But hey, these kinda of character traits fit all seasons, right or not?
Cheers for now!