The 10 most bizarre and tragic composer deaths

David Threasher Thu 18th January 2018

Tales of the deaths of composers such as Lully and Alkan are well known. Denying that he has a morbid streak, David Threasher looks into the notable deaths of some other composers, some bizarre, some heart-rendingly sad

Thomas Linley The Younger, who died in a boating accident

Thomas Linley The Younger, who died in a boating accident

No 1

Belgian composer César Franck became the first composer to die as a result of a road traffic accident. Struck by a coach while crossing the road in May 1890, he nevertheless - and against advice - performed his Variations symphoniques that evening. He went rapidly downhill over the following months and died in November while struggling mentally with imaginary fugue subjects: 'Mes enfants, mes pauvre enfants!' he is said to have cried in his delirium.

 

No 2

Ernest Chausson also died on the road, while on holiday in Limay in France in 1899. He and his daughter had departed by bicycle for the railway station. On the way Chausson struck a wall and was killed instantly.

 

No 3

Syphilis was ever the scourge of the artist. Josef Mysliveček, a Czech composer who worked in Italy (they called him 'II Boemo')  was particularly unfortunate, however, to lose his nose in a botched operation to cure him of the disease.

 

No 4

The Great War claimed its toll of composers. George Butterworth was killed by a sniper at the Somme in 1916. A few months earlier, Enrique Granados had been returning from America (having performed for President Wilson) when his ship was torpedoed by a U-boat. Despite being a poor swimmer, he jumped from his lifeboat in a brave attempt to rescue his wife but perished.

 

No 5

A member of the extraordinary circle of musicians, writers and artists interned at the Terezin concentration camp, Austrian composer Viktor Ullmann's story is among the saddest, as he was transported to Auschwitz and gassed there in October 1944.

 

No 6

Alessandro Stradella was appointed by a Venetian nobleman as tutor to his mistress but took more than a pedagogical interest in her. The incensed employer naturally set his thugs on the composer: they pursued him around Italy for some years before fatally stabbing him in Genoa in 1682. Dramatic? Certainly: the story has been made into three operas - most famously that by Friedrich von Flotow.

 

No 7

Serial killers: Schoenberg's two most famous pupils died young. Alban Berg caught blood poisoning from an insect bite, while Anton Webern was shot by an American soldier when he stepped outside during curfew to enjoy a quiet cigar.

 

No 8

Famous for his his Prince of Denmark's March (aka the Trumpet Voluntary), Jeremiah Clarke fell for a high-born lady who couldn't (or wouldn't) return his affection. He decided to end it all in 1707 and tossed a coin: heads, he would hang himself; tails, he would drown himself. The coin, however, landed on its edge in the mud. So he shot himself.

 

No 9

Acclaimed as a genius, Thomas Linley The Younger died at the age of only 22, in 1778, while boating on the lake at Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire. The boat capsized in a storm and Linley drowned while swimming for the shore.

 

No 10

A man of curious vices, František Kocžwara took a prostitute called Susannah Hill while in London in 1791. After she refused to cut off his testicles, he tied a ligature around a a doorknob and fastened it around his neck, and proceeded to enjoy Ms Hill's pleasures. He died during intercourse - the first recorded case of auto-erotic asphyxiation. Hill was tried for his murder but acquitted.

 

This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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