I have always enjoyed a bit of classical music not that I consider myself an expert, far from it. I rarely swerve off the beaten track, not because I don’t want to but because I just don’t know where to begin. I am also surrounded by people who are averse to classical music, which really doesn’t help me embrace the genre. It’s funny how classical music is perceived: dusty, prehistoric and for some anxiety provoking. For many, classical music is like a really bad episode of the madeleine; childhood memories of endless dreary afternoons at their great-aunt’s house staring at suffocating brown wallpaper listening to Stravinsky while chomping on stale bourbon biscuits. So yes, classical music leaves an impression of conservative and clichéd music for old age pensioners with a penchant for barley water.
However after reading a fascinating article by Paul Morley, who considers that pop music belongs to the last century and classical music is in fact the actual real revolutionary music, I felt a sudden sense of musical freedom. I made public my Wagner playlist and embraced the classical world for all to see fully convinced that, and as Morley states, “classical music is a move to where the provocative, and transformative ideas are”.
So if you consider Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball subversive, defiant and bold in a digital age where provocation has become marketed exploited and therefore oh so commonplace, you haven’t been properly acquainted with Richard Wagner, Chopin and Beethoven.
Here is why it’s worth taking a dive into classical music: smell the revolutionary air, learn more about the vintage #thuglife, hear the grumble of strife and change, lend an ear to ten badasses who really played with fire when they composed music.
Wagner’s life was an incredibly long sequence of political exile, raunchy and destructive love affairs, poverty and running from creditors. He spent 12 years in exile in Germany, had no regular income and his philandering ways caused his wife to fall into deep depression. In short Wagner never really got his act together, but was nevertheless able to deliver one of the most incredible operas of all time: an epic four part opera saga called The Ring of the Nibelung. The complete opera, which lasts a staggering 15 hours revolves around a magic ring that gives power to rule the world. The ring was forged by the Nibelung dwarf from gold he stole from the Rhine maidens in the river Rhine. Yep you’ve guessed it, Wagner’s interpretation of the mythological tale is said (though some would dispute this) to have been one of Tolkien’s greatest inspirations, he himself considered one of the greatest writers of all time. It’s almost too much talent to take in at once.
Bach wasn’t your run of the mill, wig wearing musical boffin. Nope, he was tossed in jail when he told his boss to get lost and left for a more interesting job. He was also quick to draw his weapons and once threatened a student with his sword. Not to mention an overbearing sexual appetite displayed through his fathering of no less than 20 children.
Tchaikovsky the one and only, the greatest ballet composer to have ever lived suffered from heavy depression and personal crises leading to a suicide attempt (he was also married for sometime to a crazy fan called Antonina Milyukova). This was in part due to his mother’s early death and the fact that he had to keep his homosexuality hidden. In 19th century Russia homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment, loss of all rights and banishment. Tchaikovsky did therefore have a somewhat justified fear of social rejection. He died at the age of 53 from Cholera, which apparently may have been self inflicted…
Debussy left his wife for another woman provoking a scandal in Parisian high society and causing their exclusion from their social circles. More importantly he composed Clair De Lune, a masterpiece that basically transcends centuries and is still used by many dudes to impress and score… the posh way.
Chopin had a strong penchant for those opium drops on sugar cubes. It was supposed to be for his “ill health”, but like many Chopin was most likely a fan of the opiated state in which he found himself.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Beethoven composed his first six string quartets between the ages of 28 and 30 (some of us are still trying to figure out how to use a toaster). His love life was hindered by class issues, he was an alcoholic and died most likely from liver failure, gradually became deaf, was irascible and had a deep disregard for authority and social conventions. Some suggest that Beethoven suffered heavily from Bipolar disorder.
His Rite of Spring caused a riot at its world première in Paris in 1913. The audience got into fistfights and police presence was required during the second act.
Although polite, courteous and highly sociable Igor Stravinsky was reputed to have been a womanizer and was rumored to have had an affair with the charismatic Coco Chanel.
Ok here’s a story to creep you out: Mozart was commissioned to write a requiem in 1791 for a pompous count. Writing this requiem was rumored to have made Mozart ponder in an unhealthy manner over his own death, he even began to feel that he was writing the requiem for himself. One could consider this a tad egotistical except that Mozart never actually completed the Requiem, dying before its completion. Creepier still, the requiem was played at his own funeral… talk about a premonition.
Schumann was unstable to say the least, Tyler The Creator looks like a choir boy on a scout’s camping trip next to this peculiar man.
He suffered visions that were so bad he was worried he would hurt or even kill his wife. His insanity could have been due to syphilis or mercury poisoning or a tumor. He attempted suicide on several occasions, imagined that ghosts spoke to him and was taken to an insane asylum where he remained until his death.
Franz Liszt was what you could call a 19th century rock star, notably famous for the hysteria he induced during his performance in Berlin in 1842. This behavior was later coined as Lisztomania, referring to the intense fan frenzy directed towards the young man. We’re not talking about just an autograph here, we’re talking women fighting over his cigarette butts, handkerchiefs and gloves. Women would wear his portrait on brooches and cameos, much like a Twilight fan today wears a Robert Pattinson t-shirt and screams until she busts a vocal cord. Finally the most perseverant fans would try to snip off locks of his hair and in those days private companies providing bodyguard protection didn’t exist. Today it would be like sending Harry Styles from One Direction to perform alone on the underground: risky to say the least.
Liszt also inspired Phoenix’s incredible hit single Lisztomania which peaked at #11 on the US’s Hot 100 singles chart in 2009. The video to the song actually shows the band paying homage to the virtuoso by visiting the Franz-Liszt-Museum in Bayreuth.
I often remind myself that 100 years ago, civilization was not as developed as it is today, contrary to our believes.
Thank you for mentioning the life of these famous classical composers, their struggles and secrets. Classical composers are not ‘saints’ and they did have their own pains to go through.