Classical music has a long, rich history of talented people creating magnificent art. There have been composers of noble birth who, after a lifetime of moving audiences to tears with splendid music, are honored upon their deaths with great ceremony. These are not their stories.
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)
If you were a French aristocrat during the 17th century, you probably spent your afternoons making sure your lead-based facepaint was slathered on just right in case you ran into Jean-Baptiste Lully. The most influential and important French composer of the time, Lully was also an accomplished ballet dancer, a prolific composer of operas, and best mates with King Louis XIV.
In those days, orchestras were smaller than they are now and the position of conductor wasn’t really a thing yet. Instead, the composer (usually) stood off to the side of the ensemble, rapping the deck with a large staff. During a particularly spirited moment while conducting his own Te Deum setting, Lully accidentally jammed the staff into his big toe. In an unbelievable stroke of bad luck, this led to a nasty gangrene infection. For us, gangrene is a punch line reserved for only the most specialized tastes in pornography, but in the 17th century, gangrene was often deadly because proper treatment didn’t exist. Surprisingly, “MORE LEECHES!!” was not an effective medical solution and Lully died three months later.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Schumann was a hugely important German composer during the period of the 19th century known as the Romantic Era. Aside from composing some super sweet tunes for piano, he wrote about music and musicians of the time. He was quite opinionated and criticized composers or performers who used flashiness to hide their lack of talent. Basically what Harry Connick, Jr. does for American Idol. But in German.
Sometime in the mid-1840s, Schumann began to experience a tremendous amount of anxiety. You may remember from an episode of Seinfeld that Schumann had a constant ringing in his ears. (The note was supposedly A5 for those of you who carry around pitch pipes.) Anxiety led to horrific panic attacks which then led to suicide attempts. After his second attempt, which involved leaping into the Rhine only to be “rescued” by some boatmen, Schumann was institutionalized. But not in a fun, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest way. Just imagine a public, German sanatorium in the mid-19th century.
Schumann’s doctor, Franz Richarz was of the school of thought that mental disorders are caused by poor circulation. Treatments included baths, mineral water, and something called climate cures. While the actual cause of Schumann’s disorder is contested (syphilis, mercury poisoning, brain tumor, bi-polar disorder), it’s pretty much general consensus that warm baths are not a comprehensive treatment. Schumann sadly wasted away for two years without even seeing his family (Thanks, doc!) until two days before his death at age 46.
Anton Webern (1883-1945)
Anton Webern was part of a group called The Second Viennese School. Along with Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, he developed the twelve-tone system. Have you ever been accused of sounding “atonal” whilst jamming out to some Miley? These guys wrote atonal music on purpose. They basically pulled the musical world, kicking and screaming, out of the Romantic Era and forcefully thrust them into the 20th century. Webern was taking a break from “writing” his “music” to visit family in Mittersill, Austria when things went horribly, horribly wrong.
Webern’s son-in-law, Benno Mattel, was suspected of trading foodstuff on the black market. The American army set up a sting operation, sending a sergeant, Andrew Murray, and a cook, Raymond Bell, to the house to feign interest in trading sugar, flour and coffee. It’s not clear how much Webern knew about what was going on but we do know he decided to step out on the front porch for a cigar, presumably muttering to himself, “I’m too old for this $#!+.”
While the sting was going on in an interior room, Sgt. Murray heard a noise from the front of the house and sent young PFC Bell to investigate. Private Bell stumbled out of the front door and directly into Anton Webern, whom he shot three times. Raymond Bell never recovered from his mistake and died of alcoholism in 1955.
Nobody said it was going to be a cheery list! Lucky for you, there’s always Alexander Scriabin…
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)
Let’s cut to the chase. Alexander Scriabin was bonkers. He literally tried to end humanity with a piece of music. As a color-synesthete, he was obsessed with showing other people the colors inherent in music. So he designed a “light organ” which, when played, displayed rays of color rather than sound. He also thought he was a messiah, which is interesting considering he was a frail, sickly child growing up.
Once, he even tried to walk on water. Then, when some fisherman pulled him out of the lake, he preached to them! Scriabin wrote lots of music for piano and orchestra in entirely his own style, eschewing Nationalism and other schools. At the time of his ridiculous death, he was working on a piece called “Mysterium,” a multimedia, interactive extravaganza set in the foothills of the Himalayas that was meant to shake apart humanity.
Unfortunately, we’ll never get to hear his amazing excuse explaining its failure because in 1915, Scriabin died of a zit. Feel free to share that with your disgusting friends who insist on popping their pimples. Scriabin developed a pimple on his lip that became septic , meaning one little spot gradually poisoned all of the blood in his body until his fragile frame resigned. And thus, humanity was saved!