12 of the best fictional composers

Geoff Brown delves into the worlds of literature and film to reveal a wealth of often brilliantly imagined, but utterly fictional, composers. 

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As John Keats put it in his Ode to a Grecian Urn, ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.’ Perhaps that explains why the tunes written by Adrian Leverk├╝hn, Alexander Hollenius, Vinteuil, Bone, even Erik the Phantom – fictional all – exert such fascination.

The lineage of imaginary composers stretches back at least to the myths spun in Ancient Greece. We all know Orpheus, of Eurydice and underworld fame, whose songs and singing could divert rivers and make rocks dance, and who inspires music by real composers to this day. But what of more recent years – figures conjured in prose or films, by people whose musical knowledge varied from the detailed to the hastily snatched? The most convincing of this phantom breed of composers write music that we can easily believe in, even without a Hollywood soundtrack to give us the manufactured proof. But the silliest lives and works outlined here still retain value as indicators of classical music’s standing in the popular mind and the power of lingering stereotypes.

Few in this selective musical encyclopaedia enjoy an easy life. It’s the lot of the imaginary composer to battle against family, society or, occasionally, blindness. Several have their work plagiarised. Quite a few are geniuses, but geniuses of the boorish, crazed kind, especially in the 20th century after Beethoven, Berlioz, Scriabin and their kin laid a trail in real life. The imaginary melodies here may not always be sweet, but to anyone with a nose for curios they’re surely irresistible...

 

Joseph Berglinger (18th century)

The biography of this grouchy, self-centred German Kapellmeister is found in Wilhelm Wackenroder’s Effusions from the Heart of an Art-loving Friar (1797), often considered the literary foundation stone of German Romanticism. His spiritual goals and general lack of a harmonious spirit can be seen in many later composers, both imaginary and real. Following a bleak childhood, Berglinger consistently fights against something or other, from the prescripts of his hard-nosed father (‘Study medicine!’ he is told) to the shallow public taste for music and the rules governing classical composition. He dies young, of course, of typhoid fever, shortly after the successful premiere of a Passion setting, the one work in which his gifts finally crystallise.

 

Johannes Kreisler (early 19th century)

The composer who inspired Schumann’s piano cycle Kreisleriana could almost be Berglinger’s brother. His life is amusingly documented in various writings by ETA Hoffmann in the 1810s and 20s. A genius, we’re told, but anti-social, exaggeratedly sensitive, and manic-depressive. Not one to invite to a dinner party.