Grand Tours, as they were known in the 17th Century, were responsible for educating and ultimately inspiring our most famous composers. The idea is believed to have originated in England. After an elite education at “Oxbridge” (Oxford or Cambridge, whatever), graduates would journey through Europe with a tutor-like guide, often gout-stricken, in search of the highest art and culture. The Renaissance had awakened not only a refinement in the appreciation of classical antiquity, but also an awareness of a burgeoning European cultural legacy.
Depending on how full the coffers were, a “tour” could last anywhere from a few months to a few years. With deep pockets, a blue-blooded social network, and not the slightest concern for getting back to work, patricians toured as many cities as they could get to, commissioning every genre of art (paintings, operas and symphonies), polishing their language and etiquette skills, and exchanging ideas with the Continent’s fashionable upper crust.
Paris was a mandatory destination, but equally vital were Florence, Venice, Rome, Geneva, The Lucerne, Athens, Berlin, Dresden and Vienna. It was the epitome of finishing school for any young man or woman, and a near guarantor of certified social prestige. Historian E.P. Thompson wrote, “ruling-class control in the 18th century was located primarily in a cultural hegemony…” Grand Tours were the most direct way to enter that culture.
Value structures have shifted today, but there’s still some cultural capital gained in knowing the cannon of classical music. Using the Hollywood Bowl as a campus for learning is both expedient and fulfilling. Studying the symphonies before hearing them deepens the experience, and the Hollywood Bowl website does an expert job of preparing you for the music you’re about to experience.
In many instances, the tumult these composers were entrenched in at the time of creating their work is as engaging as the composition itself, especially for the archetypically eccentric geniuses. Or less euphemistically, madmen.
A common denominator linking the originators of ancient Greek theater, the Hollywood Bowl and the master composers whose works live on in its beautifully mottled canyon, is a voluntary immersion into creative insanity. The brief chronological survey of composers that follows reveals lives filled with wildly idiosyncratic behavior, life threatening heath issues, financial destitution, political persecution, profound under-appreciation, and spurts of inspired luminosity.
Vivaldi (1678-1741) was a fascinating paradox: master musician and composer… and ordained priest. His claim that – prevented him from standing long enough for mass was challenged by the Bishop of Venice’s observation that he had no trouble on his feet when a violin was in his hands, or while he was conducting his appallingly secular operas.
That Antonio was notorious for touring with a retinue of indecent young women (actresses, dancers and singers, oh my) might have helped to season the church’s rancor. His reputation was scandalous enough for the Bishop of Parma to ban him from playing anywhere in the city, which of course, increased his popularity every where else.
Vivaldi commanded ludicrous quotes for live performances, but in proper madman fashion, he was equally profligate with his savings. He inevitably fell out of favor in his God-fearing homeland and immigrated to Vienna to claim a post from the fabulously wealthy Emperor Charles VI.
Unfortunately, the emperor dropped dead moments after Vivaldi’s arrival, leaving him with no source of income. His globally popular, and now wedding-worn Four Seasons was virtually unknown in its original edition and Vivaldi like so many under-appreciated genius composers died financially destitute and in extremely poor health.
Handel (1685-1759) showed acute musical acumen in his single digits on both harpsichord and pipe organ. But his father hammered the mantra into little George’s head that music was anything but a legitimate career. He forced his son into law school, and like most obedient, financially dependent young men, George complied.
After his father’s death, Handel drove himself nuts with a prolonged identity crisis. Many guilt wracked years passed, until he made the hard but error-free decision to quit the law and pursue his musical aspirations.
His career break came in composing Water Music for King George I– not the paragon of madness George III would be, but still well off his royal inbred rocker. King George’s biggest thrill was to pack guests onto a Royal barge loaded with food and wine and women, and drift down the Thames listening to jaunty little tunes, played live. His Majesty enjoyed Handel’s Water Music so much, he demanded it be played three times, even though it lasted an hour. They were crazy nights on the river, but who better to float around with than the kingdom’s happy-go-lucky sovereign.
Handel suffered a paralyzing stroke that ended his performing career. The brush with death left him in a deep depression, but it also inspired the legendary Messiah oratorio, written in 24 sleep deprived days, as well a catalogue of other compositions he was unable to create due to his demanding performance schedule. Like many of his peers, he needed deep personal adversity to fire him up. To get him writing. Unlike the majority of his peers, Handel died with a sizable estate, one greater than his father’s, or most lawyers in London, for that matter. May they all rest in peace.
Haydn (1732-1809) was responsible for creating the string quartet and did a great deal to establish the symphony. He also stands out as one of the luckier profiles with no major ailments and zero financial turmoil. Unlike Vivaldi’s luck of the draw, when Joseph’s regal employer, Prince Paul Esterházy, died soon after his arrival, his more enlightened, far wealthier brother Nikolaus kept Haydn on for the next 30 years, inspiring him to compose music in every genre, and spreading his reputation worldwide. His madness was fairly polite, according to peers. It manifested itself in frequent practical jokes played on friends, as well as in his more personal compositions. One example is the sudden loud chord in During the slowest movement of his Surprise symphony, No. 94, Haydn inserted a sudden loud chord just to see the audience jolted. Other musical pranks include fake endings (quartets Op. 33 No. 2 and Op. 50 No. 3) and the bizarre rhythmic illusion that unfolds in the trio section of Op. 50 No. 1.
His reputation spread through the continent, but the complexity of his work confused performers and audiences alike, making for several lukewarm premiers. Though he would eventually bow to standing ovations from Monarchs and their sycophants, Mozart could usually be found pawning valuables the following day to fund the journey to his next destination. Insanity. Having 6 children and a wife didn’t help his life long financial reckoning. Not did his committed lifestyle of hard-drinking and philandering. Most of the writings he left behind were desperate campaigns to fellow Freemasons for survival money.
The creation of his Requiem Mass is the paragon of brilliance and delusion. In the summer of 1791, a messenger knocked on Wolfgang’s door with a commission. Payment would come from an anonymous source under the condition that he never seek the identity of his Master. The composer was so out of his mind ill, and destitute, he agreed unconditionally.
He wrote the darkly fatalistic work in a state of mad delirium, fueled by cheap wine, and convinced the commissioner was none other than Death himself. He believed he was being administered a slow poison, in calculated measures, to time his own death with the exact moment of the Requiem’s completion. He wrote a friend, “I am writing my own funeral music. I must not leave it unfinished.” He died at 35 with the work unfinished. Fortunately for the planet earth, he had completed over 600 others.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) ranks just ahead of Mozart for wildly misbehaving hair. It’s a self-conscious point of pride for many composers (and is till this day) to have the ability to conduct via hair whips and flings (see early Gustavo Dudamel.)
Luddy was fortunate enough to study with Haydn during his Grand Tour of Eastern and Central Europe. He and his hair settled in Berlin, one of Europe’s proudest musical centers– but was tortured by his inability to enjoy a single minute of it due to progressive deafness. “I am living a wretched life; for two years I have avoided nearly all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to tell people – I am deaf!”
In addition to hearing loss, Ludwig suffered perpetual intestinal pain and an excruciating liver disorder due to lead poisoning that would eventually end his life. Before that unfortunate day, however, he would compose the most inspired and demonic roller coaster rides of symphonic sonic vibrations ever heard.
“Extraordinary” was the euphemism critics used for his conducting style. What they really meant was– freak-show. Beethoven oscillated between a teetering, trance-like flow and sudden spastic jerks. He would disappear from the orchestra under the conductor’s stand, kneeling almost as if trying to root himself and then snap into the air at the height of a forte, spreading his arms as if in seizure. Ancient Greek Maenads would have recognized the moves for sure. During one sforzando, he flailed his arms with enough force to extinguish a candelabra, and on another occasion, accidentally backhanded a youngster off his size 4 feet after he had come close to watch the master’s hands on the piano.
In 1909, Napoleon’s army besieging Vienna. Beethoven’s house stood perilously close to the line of fire, but he was so obsessed with the composition of his piano concerto #5, he refused to flee and continued writing in the basement of his bother’s house. The harsh realities of war only seemed to fuel his creative powers.
Beethoven contemplated suicide several times, mostly while doting on his “Immortal Beloved.” His love was unrequited. His friends described him as demanding, acerbic, temperamental and disrespectful of authority. These were his friends. He would storm off stage if an audience were anything but pin-drop silent and was loath to chitchat. He scandalized soirees regularly, offending high-status guests. But his Teutonic talent led Archduke Rudolph to proclaim the rules of court etiquette did not apply to him. Not much in the ordinary world did. He was brilliant and batshit crazy.
Carl Maria Von Weber (1786 1826) is mostly lost to contemporary music goers, but his Romantic influence on both peers and future composers was nothing short of seminal. There is no dark and brooding Berlioz or ubermenchian Wagner without him. He was sane, mostly, but his father was not. When he saw his son’s emerging skills, he began shamelessly promoting him as a second Mozart, even though he played piano, to which critics retorted, second to Mozart indeed, and perhaps more.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) meets the irrational genius criteria with flying colors. His ego was almost as wide as his waste-line. He was a towering 5 feet tall, four feet wide, and struggled with obesity his entire life. He suffered from high blood pressure, anemia, migraines, “giddiness” (your guess is as good as mine: giggling and weeping uncontrollably at the same time?) and exhaustion, and likely contracted syphilis in 1822.
For the record, lambskin prophylactics had been around since early Egyptian dynasties, and the modern “rubber” since 1855. But syphilis is postulated as the source of insanity in so many brilliant minds of the past (philosophers included) that one wonders why it was not rolled on more often.
Schubert’s physician recommended he move far from Vienna where fresh air and open countryside abounded, but his underlying motivation was to keep Franz from the boozing, gorging, nighttime “extracurriculars” responsible for his degenerative state.
He spent his last days in a sweat-covered delirium, vehemently singing out of context, naked, and in brief periods of lucidity, correcting proofs, clothed. Miraculously, during his last few weeks of life, Schubert was able to complete a series of his greatest masterpieces: the String Quintet in C, and the final three piano sonatas. He was astoundingly prolific and completely dead at 31.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) liked little girls. He had “relations” with a 16-year-old student to whom he became engaged, but broke it off to pursue a more mature 15 year-old, Clara Wieck. When her father got wind of their trysts he forbade her from further “lessons”. Schumann was shattered and asked him for her hand, only to be flatly refused as a wicked pedophile. He married her after the man’s death a few years later.
Schumann’s mental illness took root in auditory hallucinations and several other maladies indicative of going koo-koo for Coco-puffs, most likely brought on by syphilis. Horrified by the prospect of prolonged infirmity, he attempted suicide by diving headlong into the icy Rhine, only to be rescued by a local fishermen. At his own behest, he spent the rest of his life in a mental institution outside of Bonn, dying at the age of 46.
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) drifted off into elaborate conscious hallucinations while playing the 88’s. They fueled his compositions with a visuality rarely achieved in sound. His dear friend, George Sand, claimed it was “the manifestation of a genius full of sentiment and expression.” Odds are it was temporal lobe epilepsy. Chopin spent time in Majorca where he was unable to find decent doctors to treat his severe headaches, insomnia and depression. He was so ill so frequently that rumors of his death circulated with regularity, and returned to him. He only performed in public 30 or so times. Later in life, while dabbling in tuberculosis and cystic fibrosis, he wrote out his last will and testament in the event he “drop dead somewhere.” On his death bed in Paris, the doctor asked him if he was suffering much. Chopin nodded, calmly, and responded, “Not anymore…” He checked out permanently moments later.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) had an enormous natural technical facility on the piano and composed unabashed showpieces for himself. Lauded by Emperors and peasants alike, he was the 19th century’s first virtuoso superstar. Women fought over his handkerchiefs and ripped his gloves to shreds as souvenirs. Franz loved the action, and became known for his victories in the boudoir as well as for his anti-Classical triumphs in the concert hall. Apparently, his talent was not the only enormous gift he was endowed with.
Adding to his mythic popularity was his enthusiasm for giving away proceeds to churches, hospitals, and schools. He too was plagued with constant illness, severe religious doubts and the requisite Hungarian pessimism and bleak despair.
Fortunately he had an outlet, as he told a friend. “I carry a deep sadness of the heart which must now and then break out in sound.” Right.
His tragic demise was nearly nonsensical. He fell down the stairs in a hotel one night and was laid up for months. The spill led to a rapid breakdown in health: cataracts, insomnia and heart disease. Questions of medical malpractice loomed after his death.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) elevated the tradition of Italian music after greats like Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti before him establish their mastery in opera. He was on a skyrocket trajectory when he tragically lost his daughter and son in infancy and then his wife, all between 1838 and 1840. He fell into a deep depression and vowed to give up music forever. Forunately a friend persuaded him to lose himself in work, which he did, and the fruits of that kick in the pants, Nabucco, made him famous. He began his “years in the galleys,” during which he scribbled an opera a year, including the masterpieces Rigoletto, La Traviata, Otello and Falstaff.
Mussorgsky (1839-1881) Modest Petrovichas was one of the Russian “Five” including. Mily Balakirev (the leader), César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin. He set out to make music that was deliberately different than the rest of the western canon. This lead his peers to say things like, “Mussorgsky is little short of an idiot.” Tchaikovsky believe he might have been the most talented of the five, but called him, “a hopelss case. In addition, he has a certain base side which likes coarseness, uncouthness, roughness…. He takes pride in his ignorance, blindly believing in the infallibility of his genius.”
His music was lost a bit in the following years, and he was never able to make a living as a composer. But he was committed to drinking his face off, and missing work regularly in a torturous civil service job, which he kept only because his both was a massive fan of classical music. He drank himself to death before his inevitable rediscovery.
Brahms (1833-1897) had a distinctly inverted form of wackiness: he played piano as a teenager in Hamburg’s waterfront pubs surrounded by prostitutes and dancing girls. But the straight shooting, perhaps hormone-less Johannes was focused solely on his music, perhaps too much so. As a child, he loved two things more than ever, re-enacting war scenarios with as many toy soldiers as he could gather, and reading scripture from cover to cover.
Brahms had a debilitating respect for the history of music and his place in it. Beethoven’s prolific accomplishments, for example, cast a daunting shadow over him. He compared himself unfavorably to Luddy, and all too frequently. It was a paralyzing self-criticism. He was so pathological about revisions that he did not complete his first symphony until age 43.
Luckily, Schumann became his friend and benefactor, and began promoting the young talent. Brahms reciprocated by falling in love with Schumann’s wife. As his mentor’s mental illness set in, Brahms took to “consoling” his bride Clara. “I am dying for love of you,” he wrote in lusty ink. But Clara clung to her husband with unwavering loyalty.
Johannes nearly lost his mind over the rejection, but in proper genius fashion, he channeled the frustration and pain and sexlessness into the masterful Third Piano Quartet. Being Brahms, he stuck it in a drawer for 20 years before completing revisions that would give us all goose bumps hearing it two hundred years later.
Interestingly enough, though Brahms never married, his legacy was secured as the first major composers to ever make a recording In 1889, one of Thomas Edison’s representatives invited him to record his Hungarian dance on the piano. The recording, still remains.
Bizet (1836-1875) showed signs of musical genius at a wee 4 years old. He was admitted to the Conservatoire de Paris at 9, and had planned or projected 30 operas by 13, one of which was Carmen. He won the coveted Priz de Rome at 17, but as his professional career began, he was plagued by indecision and insecurity: changing direction mid composition, dropping promising ideas, and devastated by negative criticism. It was an early sign of his questionable sanity. Verifying it came a few years later. The Priz de Rome exempted him from all military service, but when the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870, Georges enlisted in the National Guard anyway. Wackjob.
Carmen premiered in Paris in 1875 to a thoroughly unimpressed public. Critics denounced the libretto as indecent and debauched. Bizet died three months later from a heart attack at 36 years old. In the following years, Carmen became one of the most phenomenally popular operas worldwide, receiving ferocious endorsements from Debussy and Tchaikovsky. Brahms saw it performed over 20 times. It was Freidrich Nietzsche’s favorite opera of all time.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was obsessed with death and dying, and vexed by every other aspect of his life from daily diet to lack of fitness to the mystical significance of numbers. The end of humanity was also a favorite topic of conversation for the composer when he forced himself into public. He was notorious for hating obligatory social events, perhaps it was his infamous hemorrhoids that kept him inside working, or it could have something to do with the toxic antisemitism that ran rampant in Vienna.
His first symphony took a protracted 15 years to complete and represented his internal chaos in its full spectrum. Hushed, harmonic meanderings smashed into orchestral shrieks without warning. It was said that only out of the wreckage of a total orchestral collapse did Mahler’s symphonies achieve any sort of resolution.
His anxieties were exacerbated before all big performances, often to the point of him trying to back out commitments. On more than one occasion, Mahler insisted a performance be cancelled due to lack of preparation for musicians, sub par acoustics, or his own unworthy composing. He filled his compositions with admonitions to future musicians, certain they too would not be playing the music correctly. He referred to the dress rehearsal of his 8th symphony as a “catastrophic Barnum-and-Bailey performance.” It was a smashing success.
He was also pathologically concerned with the fidelity of his much younger wife and successfully manifested the fear when she had an affair with a lanky architect. Mahler visited Freud in Vienna in hopes of stemming the trauma. In his notes, Freud hypothesized that the wife’s resentment found its origin in the composers “withdrawal of his libido” from her. Mahler was saving his semen for his art.
He so feared dying after his 9th symphony, as his idol Beethoven had, that after his 8th was complete, he chose not to number it. He never completed his 10th, therein realizing his premonition.
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) took on the universe in composing The Planets. He did not consider the symphony his best work by a long shot, so of course it became an instant hit and the work with which he would forever be associated. As many of us do with our free time, Holst taught himself Sanskrit and wrote several operas in Hindi.
Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), another in a long line of child prodigies, continued to nurture his talents, and became the greatest violinist of his day. He perfected his intense, almost percussive vibrato, under the tutelage of Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory, and later with Delibes at the Paris Conservatory. Kreisler never experienced any kind of formal madness, but many of his peers thought he was crazy, primarily he gave credit for dozens of original compositions to obscure composers like Pugnani, Stamitz and Tartini. In 1935, he exposed the truth, baffling if not embarrassing music critics across the land.
Listening to Béla Bartok’s (1881-1945) First Piano Concerto, you would swear the man was substituting the ivories for a drum set. Pounding rhythms and arresting measure progressions were interrupted by unexpectedly provocative calms. It premiered in America in 1928, and was received with equal measures of perplexity and loathing. Bartok wasn’t the slightest bit phased, though. As far as he was concerned, America wasn’t very discerning when it came to classical music. What it did offer that Europe did not, were avocados, which he fall in love with in Los Angeles.
His opera The Wonderful Mandarin achieved the type of scandal the Concerto lacked. The plot unfolds around a prostitute who lures a Chinese man into a hotel room so her pimp daddies can rob him blind and asphyxiate him with the hotel bedding. It premiered in Cologne, a city of churches and monasteries, and elicited such a repertoire of catcalls and foot stomping that the mayor signed an edict banning it citywide after a single performance.
Unruffled, Bartok waxed philosophical about the story to a reporter: “The Chinaman is a good catch, as it turns out. The girl entertains him with her dance. [His] desire is aroused. The thugs attack… rob him, smother him with pillows, stab him with a sword, all in vain, because the Mandarin continues watching the girl with eyes full of yearning… The girl complies with the Mandarin’s wish [for sexual consummation] whereupon he drops dead.”
Hector Berlioz’s (1803-1869) father sent him to Paris to study medicine, but the youngster simply could not resist the lure of the opera, and found himself there more often than the lab. He attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and instantly fell in love with the actress playing Ophelia. He barely understood English, but returned to see her again in Romeo and Juliet. Smitten, he asked to meet the thespian, Harriet Smithson, but she refused. He was devastated, and referred to her in the proceeding heartbroken years as his Juliet. He became engaged to another woman, but weeks before they wed, she jilted him for a life of guaranteed boredom with a piano manufacturer.
Berlioz finally broke through with his hypnotic Requiem, a work commissioned by French officials to mark King Louis-Philippe’s survival of an assassination attempt; an odd commission, but you take work where you can get it. A paralyzing writer’s block halted all creativity on his next “great symphony”, but the arrival of his Juliet (Smithson) in Paris broke the spell. They agreed to marry, and in a rush of optimism and productivity, Berlioz completed his psychedelic opus Symphonie Fantastique in a matter of weeks. It was performed in the Great Hall of the Paris Conservatoire to bedazzled audience members including Victor Hugo, Niccolò Paganini, Alexandre Dumas, and Heinrich Heine.
Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was as impressive a child prodigy as Mozart, but he had the added benefit, (or deficit as some see it) of coming from a filthy rich, highly over educated family. His grandpa Moses was a powerhouse philosopher who confabulated with intellectual gargantuans Hegel and Schlegel, among others. Dinner table conversations lasted for months.
Felix’s father was one of Berlin’s most established bankers and funded his son’s four year Grand Tour. The enculturation was invaluable as Mendelssohn successfully penned several of his masterpieces– the Octet and the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture among them– as a mere teenager. By 15, he had completed 12 symphonies, and two comic operas. His sister, Fanny, was also a gifted musicians, and his other sister Rebecca, when not mastering languages, enjoyed reading Homer in the original Greek. All three children read Shakespeare for fun, enacting the roles. Midsummer was their favorite.
Felix’s ego matched his talent as he thought little of his contemporaries, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, and Liszt, and said so publicly. When a pair of strokes silenced his genius at 42, Wagner, now married to Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, began a campaign in writing, (Das Judenthum in der Musik) to besmirch Mendelssohn as a hack whose music was mere Jewish sentimentalizing.
Alexander Borodin (1833 – 1887) was a real bastard, albeit a very kind and intelligent one. He was the illegitimate son of a prince who felt guilty about registering the kid as the son of the serf’s wife he impregnated, so he tee’d him up with the finest education rubles could buy. Alex excelled in chemistry but music was never far from his mind. His teacher advised him to chose because one “can’t hunt two rabbits at once.” But that seems to be precisely what Borodin did. Music was second to medicine, but he was still consider one of the Mighty Five along with Mussorsky, Cui, Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov. It was all was going smashingly well for Borodin until he dropped dead suddenly of a coronary at a Medical Faculty Ball in 1887 surrounded by the countries finest doctors. Rimsky-Korsakov completed Borodin’s Prince Igor with a student years later to help keep his friends name alive.
Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his famous Concerto for his teacher, and best friend, the legendary pianist, Nicholas Rubinstein, hoping he would premiere the work. They had collaborated several times in the past, so no one was more surprised than Pyotr when Rubinstein trashed his composition as “unplayable, broken, disconnected, and so unskillfully written that it can not even be improved.“ Fortunately for history, Tchaikovsky ignored his teacher and friend outright, altering not a single note.
But the critics had a field day with Tchaikovsky for years, proving just how often, and how deeply wrong critics can be. After his Violin Concerto, one critic wrote, “It is no longer a question of whether the violin is being played, but of being yanked about and torn to tatters. Whether it is at all possible to extract a pure sound out of these hair-raising acrobatics I do not know, but I do know that in making the attempt Mr. Brodsky (the violinist) tortured his audience no less than he did himself.” So much for reading the morning papers….
Tchaikovsky’s death added to his already considerable mystique. It was either a dose of cholera from a sip of contaminated water, or a Socratic suicide induced by the “scandal” of his uninhibited, socially unacceptable homosexuality.
Like most greats before him, Dvorak (1841-1904) didn’t have a pot to piss in his entire life. He tripped into a decent survival job, however, as the growth of commercial music publishing took off in the mid 19th century.
As pianos became more common, so did the amateurs who played them, and with that, the demand for pieces to be played in living rooms. Instruction books were in short supply and Dvorák was among those wise enough to rework some of his catalog for less capable performers. Work begat work, as publisher Fritz Simrock, introduced him to Brahms who helped launch Antonin’s career.
Debussy (1862-1918) was a pioneer in the fame-used-for-getting-laid category. As his star rose in Paris at the end of the 17th century, Claude had his choice of promising young women, among them painters, musicians, and writers. Instead he married a super-model who impressed his friends, but irritated him to death with her devout superficiality and utter disinterest in music. Having a good eye for character and a better sense of drama, Debussy left her for the mother of one of his students, a brilliant conversationalist, and accomplished singer. The model attempted suicide with a pistol. Claude fled to England with his now pregnant mistress until the scandals subsided and multiple lawsuits were settled.
Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) adds new hues to the Russian composer museum of oddities. Like other nearly autistic musical prodigies, Sergei could hear a symphony and play it back the next day, or year, or decade with terrifying accuracy. His teacher would assign as demanding a piece as Brahms’ Variations and a day later Segei would perform it with an artistic finish of the most dedicated study.
Rachmaninoff was a daredevil on the keyboard, speeding through impossible progressions at a hundred miles an hour, but the uncompromising complexity of his own work left audiences unsure of how to react. Further confusing them was Rachmaninoff’s unsmiling, seemingly inimical bearing at the piano. His slightly Mongoloid features, extremely large hands with inhuman finger stretch, protruding ears and 6’ 6’’ stature, did little to soften to his presence. One can imagine him approached Russian hockey coaches in search of a goon. He was a deeply sensitive soul, however. He played one of his early pieces for Leo Tolstoy, who listened patiently, and then crushed Sergei’s soul with the comment, “Tell me, does anyone need music like that?”
But real tragedy struck after the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony. Rachmaninoff had a nervous breakdown, only to be later revived through hypnotherapy. Dr. Nikolai Dahl told him, over and over again, “You will write again, and the work will be excellent.” And so it was.
His list of ailments was equally impressive: debilitating arthritis, eye strain, fatigue, bruising of the fingertips, chronic back pain, pleurisy, bi-polar disorder, and depression. He managed to spend his last years in Beverly Hills, of all places. One can only wonder what he made of the borscht at Nate & Al’s.
Prokofiev (1891-1953) is the exemplar of persecuted artist and led a tragic existence for not capitulating with the Totalitarian leadership of his homeland. In 1911, he premiered his D-flat Piano Concerto to a Moscow audience. One reviewer thought it was a “primitive cacophony,” and another thought it best if auditorium gave donations on the way out to “buy the poor fellow a straitjacket.”
In 1917, while Trotsky, Lenin and the rest of those rowdy Bolsheviks were preparing bloodless revolutions to topple the czarists from power and declare Russia the globe’s first socialist state, Sergei was composing at a fiendish pace. That year alone he wrote the Classical Symphony, the steely Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas, the epigrammatic Visions fugitives for solo piano and the Violin Concerto.
The maiden voyage of the Concerto was scheduled for November of 1917, but the freshly toppled government was temporarily orchestra-less. Like other Soviet intellectuals, Sergei used it as an excuse to flee to Paris for what he claimed would be “a brief concert tour”. It lasts 15 years. His admirers include the best of the Parisian avant-garde: Pablo Picasso, Alexander Benois, Anna Pavlova, Arthur Rubinstein, Joseph Szigeti, and Nadia Boulanger.
He returns to Russia in 1933 to score Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, as well as collaborate with Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. Stalin is in the audience, hears an incidental exaltation of a rival, and is outraged. Sergei’s best musicians are purged to frozen nether regions and his music is ironically labeled ‘anti-democratic’; coded words which strike enough fear in symphony administrators to stop programming any of it, and leaving the aging genius in dire financial straits. Later, his wife Lina is arrested, charged with espionage, and banished to Siberia. For the remaining five years of his life, Prokofiev lives in terrified squalor often on the verge of starvation.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) brings the survey full circle with his genre shattering composition to the ballet The Rite of Spring, choreographed by Andre Nijinsky. The ballet’s story, set in the wilderness, revolves around the ritual Pagan sacrifice of a virgin to God of spring. The premier in Paris in 1913 was nothing short of Bacchanalian.
The score’s opening dissonant scale progressions, asymmetrical accents and fragmented melodies jarred the predominantly traditional audience. Ballet dancers took the stage, but their barbaric stomping and overtly sexual rhythms depicting the fertility rites further alienated the crowd. Arguments between conservative bourgeoisie audience members and an incipient, radical avant-garde degenerated into all out fisticuffs in the aisles. Nijinski screamed over the melee from backstage in hopes of keeping the dancers in tempo, while the troupe’s stage manager cut the lights to calm the fray, all while the band played on.
The police arrived at intermission but chaos ruled the rest of the performance. Stravinsky considered the presentation a catastrophe, and the critics, of course, agreed. But they were both dead wrong. The neoclassical (some said neo-primal) movement in music had been born. Leonard Bernstein dedicated a portion of his Harvard lectures to the piece, claiming that its sophistication has never been topped since. The piece continues to influence composers around the world. It is one of the most reproduced compositions in all of music history.
Like his predecessors, Stravinsky suffered from all kinds of heart palpitating hypochondria. He battled all kinds of anxieties, intense insomnia, and developed a near tangible terror of writing at night. When the sun set, he put his work aside, and twiddled his creative thumbs till daylight.
Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) was all music, all the time as a youngster. His father was the principal horn player at the Court Opera in Munich and he would see to it that his son would get a right education in music, enough to create his first composition at the age of six. Education in some other areas may have helped the young prodigies’ capable mind, for later in life, after an inspiring visit to Italy encouraged by Johannes Brahms, Strauss composed the tone poem, “Scenes From Italy” in which his magnificent orchestration of “Funiculì, Funiculà” in the poems fourth part, Neapolitan Folk Life, lead to a rather public lawsuit.
Strauss mistakenly believe the song was in the public domaine, which it was not. It was composed in 1880 by Luigi Denza, who regaled in the windfall he would get from the composer, who had no real money to his name to begin with.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897 – 1957) had friends who thought he was crazy, or an early pioneer in selling out. After achieving success at the Vienna Court Opera, and throughout Europe, he passed on multiple offers in order to go to Hollywood and work in the movies. Several peers snickered. But colleague Max Reinhardt asked him to score A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Korngold’s composition was far beyond any that had been composed for film. The film was well received, but the score drew raves, and led to two other scores, Anthony Adverse and The Adventures of Robin Hood, both won him Academy Awards.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 1975) proudly maintains the sick genius tradition of the best know neoclassical composers. His atrocious health began at birth with tuberculosis. A steady diet of very little to eat added to his fragile disposition and he spent a great deal of his life in and out of sanitoria. By 1954 he was dealing with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis which stopped his ability to play piano. But worse things lie in wait for young Dmitri. Things would drive him madder than a hatter.
At the ripe young age of 28, Dmitri wrote an opera titled Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District that became an instant hit. He was already popular with the Soviet power elite: Trotsky and Lenin were so impressed with his composition they lauded him as a harbinger of proper socialist values.
Unfortunately, a psychopath was about to take over, the Politburo and he wouldn’t feel anywhere close to the same. When Stalin heard Lady Macbeth he was appalled. The brass section was cringingly loud and the quiet parts overly sentimental. Shastokovich sat behind the leader and his retinue, watching as they laughed in exactly the wrong places. The reviews in Pravda were universally brutal; “course, primitive and vulgar.” Soviet values were changing around him, and suddenly, what had been brilliant for three decades was suddenly an abomination. His commissions stopped just in time for the beginning of the Great Terror in which many of the countries best artists were single out and “purged” in so relentless a manner it would have horrified J. Edgar Hoover.
Fortunately, Kruschev didn’t feel the same, and Dmitri enjoyed a renaissance of his own work and talent.
John Williams – Some would say this cat doesn’t deserve to share the stage with the aforementioned legends. Especially because he is three things most great composers were not: sane, polite, and healthy. But listening to the work of this five-time Academy award winner is like listening to a survey of all the creativity that preceded him. Sections of Star Wars sounds exactly like Holst, Indian Jones was clearly affected by Brahms, and German Romanticism, Jaws is deconstructed Wagner as clear as day, and if Witches Of Eastwick isn’t a page straight out of Hector Berlioz, that what the hell is? Each of these examples can be debated at length with any classical connoisseur and there are more influences in the Williams cannon that can be kept track of. But the technique is rock solid. If you’re going to steal, do it from the best.
Williams has also composed several original symphonies, concertos and sonatas that have premiered at Tanglewood with hacks like Yo Yo Ma at the helm. But the movies are the thing. And had half of the great composers listed in this survey seen a movie, they would have lost their goo at the chance to make the music for it. What would it have sounded like if Beethoven had been brought on score On The Waterfront? Or if Puccini got union wages for The Godfather? Wouldn’t Bach have done wonders with 2001 Space Odyssey? So before discounting Williams, take another listen. It’s an entertaining jigsaw puzzle piecing all his influences together.
Bugs Bunny (1940– ) is appropriate for concluding not only chronologically, but because he is the maddest of all great artists. To date, no other composer, conductor, or musician, has been so animated. Nor have any of the aforementioned composers conducted with their ears and feet, as Bugs did brilliantly at the Hollywood Bowl. He chose Franz von Suppé’s Ein Morgen, ein Mittag und ein Abend in Wien, a challenging piece that was further complicated by the tiresome persistence of a fruit fly. Bugs also gave devastating performances in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, both co-starring Elmer Fudd, and cementing the refrain of “Kill the Wabbit” forever in the minds of several generations.
Bugs holds the most direct link to The Hollywood Bowl in the production of his major opus, Long-Haired Hair. Mr. Bunny modestly adopted the pseudonym Leopold for the performance, but it is obvious to connoisseurs who is waving the baton. It was during this opera, where Bugs’ relentless, demanding conducting style forced his tenor to hold a note so long that the entire band shell came crashing down around the performer. The destruction, wildly applauded by the sold out audience, is an often forgotten chapter in the band shell’s long, colorful, controversial history.