The 13 strangest composer deaths in classical music

On Friday the 13th we remember composers who met unusual ends, whether by conducting, pimple or foul play.

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Jean-Baptiste Lully


(1632–1687)

This French Baroque master, the favourite opera of King Louis XIV, died from a self-inflicted wound to his foot, which he stabbed with his own pointed staff (used for keeping time) while conducting his Te Deum. Gangrene kicked in, spreading to his leg and finally killing him on March 22, 1687, three months after he had dealt the blow.

Henry Purcell
(1659–1695) 

The English composer who penned the opera Dido and Aeneas was taken too soon; he was just 36, and at the height of his career. He died at his home in Dean’s Yard, Westminster, having caught a chill after returning home late from the theatre (or tavern) one night to find that his wife had locked him out… Or so the story goes. He is buried adjacent to the organ in Westminster Abbey, and his Funeral Music for Queen Mary was played at his own funeral.

Alexander Scriabin
(1871–1915)

Teenagers often say they could “just die” when acne takes over their faces, but in Scriabin’s case this is precisely what happened. The Russian composer-pianist made his last public appearance in St Petersburg on April 2, 1915. Just a few days later he noticed a pimple on his upper lip. On April 7 the furuncle was infected and Scriabin was bedridden and febrile. By the 11th, well-wishers crowded the staircase of his flat, for two types of blood poisoning had set in. Scriabin died a few days later, with his manuscript containing sketches for the Misteriya open on the piano.

 

 

Alban Berg
(1885–1935)

An insect bite was the undoing of this pupil of Schoenberg. A sting gave rise to a carbuncle on his back; since the Bergs were poor his wife attempted a home operation using a pair of scissors. As a result, the Austrian composer died from blood poisoning on Christmas Eve, at the age of 50.

Anton
Webern
(1883–1945) 

Berg wasn’t the only pupil of Schoenberg to die in particularly unfortunate circumstances; fellow serialist composer Anton Webern also met a tragic fate. It was September 15, 1945 – World War II had just ended. Webern had stepped outside to enjoy a cigar without waking his sleeping grandchildren, unaware that a curfew was being enforced by the Allied occupying forces. He was shot dead by an American soldier who saw him light up.

Jean-Marie Leclair
(1697-1764)

This French Baroque composer and virtuoso violinist separated from his second wife in 1758, moving into a bachelor pad in a rough neighbourhood in Paris. There, in 1764, he was found stabbed to death. The mystery of his murder was never solved but it is believed that his estranged wife was responsible and stood to gain financially. Leclair’s nephew, Guillaume-François Vial, was the primary suspect at the time.

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(1756 – 1791)

Mozart’s untimely death while he was composing his Requiem has been the subject of rumour, speculation and wild accusations for more than 200 years. One of the lesser-known legends to have done the rounds is that Mozart was poisoned with mercury by the Freemasons, assassinated for publicly revealing the secrets of their Craft in the libretto and plot of his opera The Magic Flute. The claim persisted in Nazi-era Germany in a 1936 article entitled Mozart’s Life and Violent Death, which aligned the Jewish faith to suspicious Masonic practices. However, there is no evidence that Mozart’s efforts were met with disapproval from the Freemasons. 

Another rumour has it that Franz Hofdemel, Mozart’s lodge brother, murdered the composer for having an affair with his wife Magdalena, a 23-year-old student of Mozart’s. Hofdemel is said to have attacked the pregnant Magdalena and committed suicide on the day of Mozart’s funeral. 

The most frequently cited, romantic theory is that Antonio Salieri was so insanely jealous of Mozart’s genius that he conspired to kill him. Mozart endured 15 days of excruciating pain, swelling and discomfort before his death, but his symptoms on the whole were not consistent with poisoning. 

As there were no signs of foul play no autopsy was conducted, historians and medical professionals today can only speculate on the condition that claimed him. The most commonly held belief is that Mozart died of rheumatic fever – indeed, there was a fever epidemic in Vienna at the time – but in the past ten years a new theory has emerged: that Mozart died from a disease caused by a parasitic worm called trichinella, spread by tainted meat. The offending dish? Pork chops – Mozart’s favourite, which he referred to in a letter dated October 7-8, 1791. 

Charles Valentin Alkan
(1813-1888) 

This French pianist-composer extraordinaire also had a keen interest in the Bible and the Talmud. For many years it was believed that he died a suitably erudite death, crushed under a pile of books after reaching for the Talmud on a high shelf. But a recently discovered letter, written by Alkan’s concierge, casts doubt on this anecdote. Apparently the concierge discovered Alkan in his kitchen, trapped under a coat rack, perhaps having suffered a stroke or heart attack. He was 74 at the time of his death. 

Ernst Chausson
(1855-1899)

The French Romantic composer who penned the ravishing Poème for violin was out for a bicycle ride outside his property in Limay when he lost control on a downhill slope and crashed into a brick wall, dying instantly.

Hugo Wolf

(1860-1903) 

In early 1897, the great lieder composer began to show signs of mental derangement brought on by his syphilis, forcing him to stop composing altogether. After an attempt to drown himself, he admitted himself into an insane asylum, where he died in 1903 at the age of 43.

 

Enrique Granados

(1867–1916)

At the height of his success, during WWI, the Spanish nationalist composer was invited was invited by President Woodrow Wilson to give a piano recital at the White House. When Granados and his wife missed the boat back to Spain, they travelled to England, then boarding the “Sussex” ferry to take them on to France. On March 24, 1916, while crossing the English Channel, the Sussex was hit by a German U-boat torpedo. Granados, who had a life-long fear of the ocean, drowned after he jumped out of his lifeboat in a valiant but futile attempt to save his wife. 

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky
(1840–1893) 

Tchaikovsky's death remains a mystery to this day. He fell ill just days after conducting the premiere of his deeply personal Sixth Symphony, the Pathéthique. Eyewitnesses including his brother Modest suggest that he had taken a "fateful sip of unboiled water" that led to cholera. But it is widely believed that the Russian composer had been having an illicit relationship with a young nobleman he was tutoring. In 1980 musicologist Aleksandra Orlova published a theory proposing that Tchaikovsky committed suicide rather than live with the scandal of the affair.

Claude Vivier

(1948–1983) 

With the murder of Montreal-born composer Claude Vivier, a student of Stockhausen, the music world lost one of the most original voices to emerge in the late 20th century. Vivier was 34 when he was fatally stabbed in his apartment by a male prostitute he met in a bar. On the worktable was the manuscript of the composer’s final, incomplete work, Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele? (Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul?) In this hauntingly prophetic dramatised monologue, Vivier describes a journey on the Metro during which he becomes strongly attracted to a young man. The music ends abruptly after the sung line, “Then he removed a dagger from his jacket and stabbed me through the heart.” 

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The 13 strangest composer deaths in classical music
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