Each month, when putting together BBC Music Magazine, we are constantly reminded how composers past and present operate on a different creative plane from us normal beings.
And which of us, when in thrall to a sublime Sibelius symphony or miraculous Mozart mass, haven’t allowed ourselves to be drawn into the conclusion that such genius can only have come from some sort of superhuman presence?
Allow us to break the spell for a while. Of course, the great composers were all human. In fact, in terms of their faults and foibles, many of them were all too human.
Vanity, greed, recklessness, temper, lust, you name it – as a collective group, there is scarcely a vice that composers haven’t embraced in one way or another. By and large, most kept their unacceptable side fairly low key.
Some, however, really did push the boat of bad behaviour out with gusto. Such as…
Beethoven was desperately messy, and the smell from his lodgings wasn’t too good either, as uneaten trays of food piled up in the corner, right next to his manuscript paper.
Unsurprisingly, he was always at odds with his landlords, though, from their point of view, his squalid lifestyle was possibly the least of his faults.
People complained he kept odd hours and played the piano too loudly, and, worst of all, he had a habit of shouting at his servants for stealing from him – the Rondo a capriccio of 1795 later gained the nickname Rage Over A Lost Penny because on the night he was writing it, the composer was sure a maid had stolen his gold penny and he turned his entire apartment over looking for it.
Perhaps what Beethoven needed was the steadying influence of a good wife, such as Sibelius’s other half, the long-suffering Aino. The Finnish composer, a notorious bon viveur in his youth, founded Symposium, a drinking club that met in Helsinki’s Hotel Kämp to binge on Benedictine for days on end while discussing art and life.
Stories of Sibelius’s excesses are legion – on one occasion, for instance, he had to be dragged away from feasting on oysters and champagne in a restaurant to conduct a concert worse for wear – and it was inevitably down to Aino to pick up the pieces.
As well as asking friends to keep an eye on her wayward spouse, particularly when his best drinking buddy, Ferruccio Busoni, was in town, she regularly trawled the bars of Helsinki herself to drag him back home when a composition’s deadline was looming.
For 1900s Helsinki and Sibelius, read 1680s London and Purcell. A more-than-regular in the English capital’s inns, Purcell’s list of compositions includes a fair number of bawdy drinking songs. Sadly, however, his habit of coming home late, drunk and disorderly may well have proved his downfall.
In contrast to Aino Sibelius’s watchful approach, Frances Purcell is said to have simply locked her wayward husband out one chilly evening – the bout of pneumonia that soon followed proved to be fatal.
Maybe Purcell would have done better to have simply carried on drinking through the night? This is just what Fauré once did while working as a church organist in Rennes in the 1860s, turning up for the morning service still dressed in his evening tie and tails.
The clergy, who already took a stern view of his tendency to pop out of the organ loft for a cigarette during the sermon, were none too impressed.
5. Thomas Weelkes
Fauré’s organ loft antics seem positively saintly when compared to the list of misdemeanours that got Thomas Weelkes the sack from Chichester Cathedral in 1616.
Already in trouble for urinating on the Dean during evensong a couple of years earlier, Weelkes was finally given his marching orders when his habit of being drunk at the console and swearing loudly in services got too much.
Extraordinarily, he was soon reinstated and, despite there being no let-up in his love of either bottle or blasphemy, continued in the post until his death in 1623.
6. Nicolas Gombert
Few composers have found their career trajectory stopped in its tracks as suddenly as Gombert, who until 1540 held the prestigious post of ‘maître des enfants’ (‘master of the children’) in the royal chapel of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
Abusing his position by foisting his attention on an unwilling chorister, the master of polyphony soon found his rowing skills being put to the test when he was sentenced to ‘hard labour in the galleys’.
Being consigned below deck didn’t seem to have affected Gombert’s work as a composer – in fact, some of his finest music, much of it of an unsurprisingly penitential nature, comes from his time of exile at sea, and he was eventually granted a pardon by the emperor.
7. Joseph Haydn
Given his ‘Papa’ sobriquet and reputation as all-round good egg, Haydn would be the last name one would expect to find in a list of composers behaving badly.
But that would be to overlook his naughty streak, evident both in a number of his compositions and, more manifestly, in an episode from his youth: in 1849, the 17-year-old Haydn found himself expelled from school when he decided it would be a good wheeze to cut off a fellow pupil’s pigtail. Good lad. We approve.
In a letter to his wife Constanze, Mozart admitted sneaking backstage and sabotaging the great Emanuel Schikaneder as the latter sang ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’. When Schikaneder, as Papageno, went up on his magic bells, Mozart, playing the glockenspiel in the wings, went down. And vice versa.
Then he stopped playing altogether, leaving Schikaneder silently miming. Finally, he came in when Schikaneder wasn’t playing, causing the actor to bellow ‘Shut up!’ into the wings.
More fun and games, but this time with composer as victim rather than perpetrator. Handel’s rages were legendary, and his ear was so sensitive that he couldn’t bear to hear an orchestra tuning up. Consequently, musicians were required to tune well ahead of the maestro’s arrival in the concert hall.
Once this interregnum proved just too tempting for a wag who sneaked in and untuned some of the instruments while the musicians were off having a drink. When Handel arrived and the orchestra struck up, the cacophony was so distressing to the composer that he tore off his wig and advanced on the unfortunate musicians, fists flying. Oh dear.
10. Arnold Bax
Write down all the composers who were unfaithful to their partners, and you’ll rapidly reach the end of your sheet of A4. The likes of Debussy, Delius and Wagner would undoubtedly be near the top of most people’s list but, when it comes to raising the artistry of infidelity to a whole new level, Bax remains peerless.
With love nests dotted around the country, the composer proudly marked his most famous affair – with the 19-year-old Harriet Cohen – by depicting it in music.
The action portrayed in the 1917 symphonic poem November Woods may begin with Bax and Cohen quaintly sheltering from the storm in a copse… but it soon moves into a cosy hotel room nearby. You can guess the rest.
11. Hector Berlioz
It may be better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all, but Berlioz clearly decided he’d be happier if he could also bump off the woman in question. When, in 1832, he learned that the mother of his fiancée, the pianist Marie Moke, had decided instead to marry off her daughter to the piano manufacturer Camille Pleyel, the composer decided drastic action was needed.
Setting out from Italy to Paris, he equipped himself with a pair of double-barrelled revolvers with the intention of killing the three of them before turning the gun on himself. Leaving nothing to chance, he also packed some poison as a back-up method and the disguise of a dress, wig and hat so he could gain access to Moke’s home.
Fortunately, by the time he had reached the French border, he realised he’d left his disguise somewhere en route, and gave up his nascent career as a homicidal maniac. And as for Mr and Mrs Pleyel? His persistent infidelity soon put an end to their wedded bliss.
12. Carlo Gesualdo
Unlike Berlioz, Gesualdo actually carried out his murderous intent. When he discovered his wife and the Duke of Andria in flagrante at his palace in 1590, he did not hesitate to draw the knife, and so earned himself the reputation of the most notorious composer of all time.
This being Renaissance Italy, however, and with Gesualdo coming from noble stock, his crime went relatively unpunished. In those days, it was all about mixing within the right circles…
13. Lord Berners
Quite how composer Gerald Tyrwhitt, better known as Lord Berners, escaped the attention of the RSPCA is anyone’s guess. His delight in catching pigeons, painting them various colours and making them wear masks, has already been mentioned in this publication.
Previously unremarked upon in these pages, however, has been the sign erected at his house warning that ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted, dogs shot, cats whipped’ or, more disturbingly, the occasion when he dropped his mother’s dog out of a window to see if it would fly.
The eccentric Brit clearly had a ghoulish fascination with living things falling from high places. Deciding to build a 100-foot viewing tower in his garden, he accompanied it with another ominous sign: ‘Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk’.
14/15. Peter Warlock and EJ Moeran
Finally, onto the great double-act of badly behaved composers. If the people of Eynsford, Kent initially welcomed seeing two such prestigious figures as Peter Warlock and EJ Moeran move into a house in their village in the mid-1920s, their opinion soon changed.
Hopes of the dulcet strains of the piano or a nice chamber recital wafting from the windows were dashed, as the air reverberated instead to the sound of yet another bottle being opened or the cries of pleasure from three-in-a-bed sessions.
Not that the pair kept the fun within four walls, with Moeran’s antics including drunkenly driving his car into a hedge. And Warlock? He chose to shock the locals by riding into the village on a motorbike. Naked.
This article appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC Music Magazine.
Illustration: David Lyttleton