Grave Tales

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away, breath:
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
Oh, prepare it!
My part of death no one so true
Did share it.

— William Shakespeare (Twelfth Night, c. 1601-02)

Celebrated for their exquisite music, many of our best loved composers came to a rather unstylish end. Final Note takes a cheeky look at some of these tales, some true, some alleged, but all interesting nonetheless.

[1] Off the Beat: Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687)

It was common practice during Lully’s time to bang a large stick on the floor to keep time when conducting. However, excitement got the better of the Italian-born French composer during a performance of his Te Deum in the church of the Feuillants (to celebrate Louis XIV's recovery from surgery). Lully drove his staff somewhat fiercely through his toe, resulting in subsequent infection. Gangrene spread through the mangled limb, but the composer stubbornly refused amputation. He died three months later.

[2] A Woman Scorned: Henry Purcell (1659–1695)

England's Purcell allegedly caught a murderous chill after returning home late one night from the theatre in a rather intoxicated state, only to find that his wife had locked him out. Another theory is that he died from poisoned chocolate, procured from a disgruntled acquaintance.

[3] Pigeon's Blood: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

Following two botched eye-surgeries at the hands of British ophthalmologist John Taylor, Bach went completely blind. Various tortuous attempts were made to treat the inflamed eyes including bloodletting, laxatives, large doses of mercury, and eye drops made from pigeon’s blood, sugar, and salt. (Coincidentally, the same surgeon operated on Handel a year later; He also lost his sight after the procedure.) Bach died of a stroke four months after his operation.

[4] Pork Chops: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

The cause of Mozart’s death at the young age of 35 has invited much speculation and melodrama over the years. Following his departure from this world, rumors abounded regarding his final resting place. Some proposed that the Austrian composer had received a pauper’s burial in which his naked body was sewn into a linen bag without a coffin and dumped into a mass grave. Others suggested that Mozart was laid to rest in the customary allgemeines Grab (the usual common grave) after the debts he had accrued in life left his widow Constanze devoid of sufficient funds for a private funeral. His death was officially recorded as ‘hitziges Friesel Fieber’ (severe miliary fever, where ‘miliary’ refers to a rash resembling millet-seeds), and later diagnosed as ‘rheumatische Entzündungsfieber’ (rheumatic inflammatory fever). Despite this, the world of classical music has flirted with the notion that Mozart may have been poisoned by the masons in retaliation for his disclosure of masonic secrets in The Magic Flute, or poisoned in an act of revenge by his musical nemesis, Salieri. Others have entertained the idea that the well-known lothario may have met his fate at the hands of a disgruntled husband. However, the most interesting theory is that of the unassuming pork chop — trichinosis from tainted meat!

[5] When Good Furniture Goes Bad: Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813–1888)

For many years it was argued that the French composer, who lived alone, became trapped by a falling bookcase while reaching for a book. He died in his apartment hours later. Recent research suggests that he collapsed at home and, in a bid to steady himself, pulled down a heavy umbrella stand situated in the kitchen.

[6] Dancing at the Disco: Aleksandr Porfir'evič Borodin (1833–1887)

The Russian composer, festooned with dark red shirt, baggy blue trousers, and high boots, got a little carried away on the dance floor, and following a rather energetic Waltz, collapsed and died of heart failure.

[7] Whodunnit?: Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)

Like Mozart, Tchaikovsky's name has been embroiled in a musicological debate on the details surrounding his death. During the 1980s Alexandra Orlova made the questionable claim that he was forced to commit suicide as part of a 'court of honor' made up of his former classmates at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St Petersburg. She, and her disciple David Brown, disagreed with the coroner's report that Tchaikovsky died of cholera from drinking unboiled water. The Russian composer's last hours were far from glamorous. He suffered violent diarrhea, excruciating spasms, convulsive vomiting, fever, kidney failure and loss of consciousness.

[8] Look Out!!!: (Amédée-) Ernest Chausson (1855–1899)

A cycling jaunt in the Île-de-France region of north-central France led to the untimely demise of the French composer when his bicycle unceremoniously crashed into a brick wall at the base of a hill.

[9] A Close Shave: Aleksandr Nikolayevich Scriabin (1871–1915)

At the age of 43, Scriabin died in Moscow from septicemia as a result of a sore on his upper lip thought to have been caused by a shaving cut.

[10] Smoking is Bad for your Health: Anton Webern (1883–1945)

Oblivious that a curfew had been established by the Allied occupying forces, Webern was mistakenly shot dead by an American soldier who saw him light up an after-dinner cigar on the veranda of his daughter Christine's house.