We generally imagine famous icons of classical music to be stuffy figures whose personal lives couldn’t hold a torch to the exploits of the modern-day gods created by the rock and roll revolution.
Reading the biographies of the great luminaries in classical music will tend to convince you otherwise. In their day, many of these people evoked adoration and reverence to levels never seen before, and sank to depths just as low. Whatever their stories were, there are plenty of parallels between the great innovators of the classical era and the more recent past in music. Below are ten of the most colorful personalities among classical music icons.
10. Johann Sebastian Bach (1765-1850) rose to acclaim through coffee house gigging
Along with Mozart and Beethoven, Bach is one of the three famous classical musicians that every school kid knows for good reason: No artist has produced more pieces (i.e. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, “
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3”, “Air on G String”) that are instantly recognizable today. Most people know Bach was employed by a church. More specifically, he was on the payroll of Leipzig Town Hall for sacred and ceremonial occasions. “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul,” he once said.
But he really let loose at the local coffee shop known as Zimmermannsche Kaffeehaus, or Café Zimmermann. You wouldn’t think that in 1723, but they weren’t the places you see today with gentrified hipsters sporting non-prescription glasses, working on their liberal arts thesis all day. But in fact, it was way more shady: Kind of like a men-only opium den. There also happened to be violas and bassoons and harpsichords lying around in case any double woodwind players and strings wanted to get in on a jam session. He would charge admission and reap the profits with the cafe manager. He even wrote a cantata to honor his favorite coffee shop owner.
9. Jenny Lind (1820-1887) was the first international diva and went solo
Jenny Lind was a Swedish diva who was known as “Swedish Nightengale” when she sold out concerts at Europe and had Queen Victoria throwing flowers at her feet. She was brought over to America in 1850 by none other than circus magnate PT Barnum. He had never even heard her voice but gambled on her reputation and built it up even more through a series of press releases to keep the hype alive.
When her steamship arrived in New York, a large enough mob of people gathered to greet her, that the New York Tribune treated her welcoming as a public safety issue. In addition, 20,000 mobbed her hotel room on top of of 30,000 people who attended her first concert, with riots taking place in the aisles. Tickets were so in demand that Barnum sold seats to her concert via auction.
After 9 months and 93 sold-out concerts, Lind decided to take her act solo. She got paid the 2015 equivalent of $9.96 million but Barnum took home $14.2 million from the tour. Lind also grew tired of the constant publicity grabs. “I am not a horse,” she famously said, and struck out on her own. Barnum assumed she’d go back to Europe but for a while she toured the U.S. with her piano accompanist (whom she eventually married) and gave him quite a bit of competition.
8. Max Strakosch (1835-1892) was the first hustler agent
A Czech pianist with an inflated resume, Strakosch was one of the very first prominent professional operators who built a niche in New York City’s newly-formed classical scene in the mid-19th century.
Strakosch persevered through hard work and a keen eye for talent to land great acts and connect them to a public that was newly appreciative of classical music. And by that, we mean he met a prominent tenor when emigrating from Austria-Hungary to New York, and got hitched to his 12-year-old daughter Amelia. When it turned out that Amelia wasn’t as proficient a Soprano as he hoped, Strakosch figured that the genetic odds had to favor someone and went with her younger sister, Adelina Patti instead. Strakosch put Adelina Patti on a three-hundred stop concert tour over five years and retired her for puberty to artificially increase demand for when she’d make a comeback.
Like many agents today, Stakosch resorted to undercutting his talent. He registered Patti’s fee at $100 a night but paid her and her family considerably less. He was also sued for breach of contract and his stable of singers was paid so little that one of them held his assistants hostage with a knife to his throat in retaliation. In the end, Patti went off on a European tour with Max’s brother (and rival) Maurice taking over as her manager, but Max was still responsible for creating the opera scene in New York City.
7. Franz Lizst (1811-1886) evoked enough hysteria to coin a definition…
Lizst evoked such hysteria that eventually gave credence to a dictionary definitions meaning “A mental derangement characterized by hallucinations or vehement passion or desire.” Russian critic Vladimir Stasov wrote “We had never heard anything like it before, never been confronted by such a passionate, demoniac genius” Women came tearing at his hair and scrabbling for cigar butts and secreting them between their heaving breasts.”
But the funny thing is that Lizstomania was a ruse. While he had an uncanny ability to improvise melodies from audience sugggestions and was given lessons by Antonio Salieri for free based on potential alone, he had been giving concerts for 20 years before the swoonings and mobbings had begun.
6. …and Gaetano Belloni (1810-1887) created the hype
In 1841, Lizst hired a publicist named Gaetano Belloni and it was in 1842 that Lizstomania really took off.
Sadly, much of the details of Belloni’s life is lost to history. He never kept a diary or wrote memoirs. But, it is known that in relationship to Lizst’s career, Belloni took the Hungarian pianist from respected musician to superstar.
Belloni did this by sending ahead to the local press stories of the hysteria aroused by previous engagements.
It turned out that extremely good publicity simply bred extremely good publicity. By the time Liszt turned up in an elaborate carriage, the town would be hysterical in anticipation. Belloni also hired old-fashioned claqueurs to fake ecstatic applause at Liszt’s concerts.
5. Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was a hopeless romantic who descended into madness
Robert Schumann’s music was often equated to lyric poetry and he was considered the most romantic of the composers of the Romantic Era. It’s no wonder then that the German composer was so heavily motivated by romance. At the age of 17, Schumann met a young piano prodigy named Clara Wieck and was so moved that he decided to discontinue his law studies to pursue music. He eventually fell in love with her and when neither family approved, they carried on an affair for years through music. Schumann would write a song for her on sheet music and Clara would play it. Eventually the two would elope.
The other notable thing about Schumann is that he was, by all standards, pretty crazy. He suffered from a bipolar disorder that turned out to be both a blessing and a curse as he was able to compose enormous amounts of music during manic periods. At the same time, his illness manifested itself into full-blown schizophrenia as he approached his 40s, and he got fired at the age of 43 from his municipal position with Dusseldorf (though a music school is still named after him). A year later, he reported shrieking cosmic voices in his head drove him to throw himself into the Rhine in February (not the first person to do that: See entry #3).
Upon being rescued, he and Clara decided he should be placed in a sanitarium, where he lived out the last two years of his life. Interestingly enough, one of the things that kept him sane during his last few years was the project of mentoring another young prodigy, who became quite famous in his own right.
4. The music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was so ahead of its time, it incited riots
Igor Stravinsky was an iconoclast who was one of the few composers to live into the age of rock and roll. As such, it’s not surprising that he picked up a few things along the way being the first to have percusion in his symphonies that appropriated what you’d hear on a drum set.
It also follows that the Russian piano player and composer was not appreciated in his time. The Firebird Ballet wove two Russian folk myths together into a modern opera that catapulted to stardom when it premiered in 1910. But his ambition got the better of him (or at least his audience) when he broke all the rules a couple operas later with “The Rite of Spring.” The ballet introduced rhythms and dissonances never before heard before and it’s been reported that the audience rioted in the concert hall.
While a BBC article has cast doubt on the extent of the riot it is historically established that the police were called and some forty people were arrested. Phil Goulding notes that the infamous 1913 concert “made Stravinsky the enfant terrible of music, the shock-you genius.” “Rite of Spring” was named by Time Magazine as the definitive work of the 20th Century in their 1999 issue.
3. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was a tortured artist of extreme proportions
Tchaikovsky was cornerstone of classical music’s romantic era and is often cited as the greatest composer and orchestrator Russia has ever produced.
But Tchaikovsky did not have an easy life. For one, he was a homosexual living in a country that has historically had an unusually strong aversion to it. Even musicologists denied his homosexuality during the Soviet era. Struggling with societal pressures to repress himself, he married a young music student named Antonina Milyukova. The marriage was a catastrophe, with Tchaikovsky abandoning his wife within weeks of the wedding. During a nervous breakdown, he unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide by jumping into the icy waters of the River Neva naked, and eventually fled abroad.
Beyond that, Tchaikovsky had a history of nervous breakdowns and paranoia. He became so convinced that his head would roll off his body, he held his hand on his head when he was conducting. When he was being decorated by the Tsar on another occasion, he had to drug himself heavily just to get through the ceremony.
2. Niccolo Paganani (1782-1840) was a wildly successful solo artist believed to be the devil
Niccolo Paganani was an extraordinary violinist who was one of the first instrumentalists to successfully launch a multi-national concert tour. When he played during the 1832 cholera epidemic, one source said “all pain and sadness was suspended; one forgot death and the fear that is worse than death.” Snuff boxes, billiard canes and restaurants all over Europe were named after him, and newspapers reported daily on his touring progress.
However, his virtuoistic ability and sulken appearance led to rumors that he was the devil. There was even a rumor that the fourth string of his violin was made from the intestine of a dead mistress. In reality, modern historians speculate that he had a genetic abnormality. Because people hadn’t heard of genetics back then, he simply carried around a certificate from his mother proving his mortal origins but that didn’t convince the Bishop of Nice, who denied him a Christian burial on grounds of proven atheism and demonism.
1. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was the maddest genius of them all
It could be argued that no one has reshaped classical music more than Beethoven. “Beethoven stands at the pinnacle of development of the history of music,” one scholarly journal writes. “He absorbed the different trends of thought of the 18th Century and bought them to completion.”
But with Beethoven’s enormous talent came an enormous ego. He was known to tangle with virtually every landlord, patron and girlfriend he ever had, and his mentor Joseph Haydn found him impossible at times (though the two eventually became friends again). In his late 20s, Beethoven started losing his hearing, which catapulted him to new levels of depression and madness. In his quest to maintain his quality of work, Beethoven poured himself into his music so much that he rarely groomed himself or maintained order in his apartment. When friends and colleagues came to visit, they reported his rooms were filled with stacks of manuscripts no one was allowed to touch, he was often naked or in his underwear, and he was often unaware that anyone else was in the room.
Unlike many other classical music icons, Beethoven was lucky in that he lived in a time and place (Vienna) in which he could make a good living and gain the esteem of his contemporaries. When Beethoven died at the age of 57, a crowd of 20,000 lined the streets of his funeral procession in in appreciation with nine priests presiding over the service.