15 Composers who loved their food
The weird and extreme eating habits of classical music’s geniuses
However ethereal or profound their music, composers need food just like the rest of us. Not surprisingly, though, these geniuses tended to go to extremes when it came to meal times, and musical history is littered with gourmands and bon viveurs at one end of the table, and ascetics and picky eaters at the other. Admittedly, given that composers are largely remembered for what they wrote on the stave rather than what they cleaned off the plate, our knowledge of their eating habits is far from comprehensive – quite what poultry Byrd tucked into between motets and galliards has been lost in culinary history. However, in a surprising number of instances history has recorded, often in some detail, what they ate, and we’ve plundered the archives to reveal 15 of the more interesting examples here. So, if music be the love of food, as Shakespeare so nearly wrote, play on…
1. Gioachino Rossini
Of all composers, Rossini was surely king of the dinner table. His love of food was evidenced not just by his ever-expanding waistline, but also the number of dishes named after him, including Tournedos Rossini and Eggs Rossini. The corpulent composer claimed he only cried three times in his life: once when his first opera was a fiasco; the second time when he heard Paganini play; and the third time when sailing to a picnic lunch and seeing a turkey stuffed with truffles, his favourite treat, fall overboard.
2. George Frideric Handel
Handel likewise did nothing by halves when it came to the finer things in life. He once received a bottle of very fine port and a brace of pheasant from a royal duke the same night that his friend Anne Dewes was bringing some admirers to supper. Mrs Dewes recorded that during the evening he would suddenly claim he had had a moment of inspiration and must leave the party to write it down. ‘No one wished to interrupt the divine Muse,’ she recalled, ‘until one member of our party took it upon himself to look through the keyhole where he saw Handel with a bottle of port that the Duke had sent him that morning.’
3. Jean Sibelius
Sibelius, meanwhile, belonged to a hard-drinking, hard-living set in Helsinki. After an operation for throat cancer, he made sure there was a box of cigars waiting for when he came round from the anaesthetic. On one occasion when he and his wife Aino were in Gothenburg for a concert, the composer disappeared shortly before he was due to conduct. Aino found him, immaculately dressed in his white tie and tails, drinking champagne and eating oysters at a nearby cafe. Returning with him to the venue, she thought her husband was fine until he began the Oceanides overture. After a few bars, alas, he stopped the orchestra and started to give them notes… convinced that he was at a rehearsal.
4. Igor Stravinsky
Stravinsky and Rachmaninov had been contemporaries in St Petersburg but they did not actually meet until they started dining together in California in the 1940s. Although in opposite camps when it came to modernism, Rachmaninov very much wanted to be friends with his fellow composer. One night Stravinsky had gone to bed late after working on his orchestral suite, Four Norwegian Moods. To his surprise he heard footsteps on the porch outside. There towering over him – as he did over most people – was the lugubrious figure of Rachmaninov bearing a very large jar of natural honey. The explanation? At a recent meal Stravinsky had announced how much he loved honey and this determined Rachmaninov to bring some round, regardless of the hour.
5. Erik Satie
Bowler-hatted Satie spent most of his life pushing the boundaries, so it’s no surprise that he wins the musical laurels when it comes to weird eating habits. When he went out, he wore only grey velvet and he ate only white foods. In this list the composer included eggs, sugar, animal fat, salt, coconuts, rice, turnips, pastry, white cheese, certain kinds of fish and shredded bones. He also refused to speak while eating as he was convinced he would choke to death.
6. Percy Grainger
Percy Grainger was hardly conventional either and, like Satie, his many idiosyncrasies extended to diet. Despising the Latin vocabulary, Grainger described himself as a ‘meat-shunner’ rather than vegetarian. His favourite food was boiled rice with milk and brown sugar or golden syrup, though he was also partial to tinned California peaches and brown sugar sandwiches.
7. Arthur Sullivan
Despite suffering from diseased kidneys for many years, Arthur Sullivan lived very well. Like his librettist WS Gilbert he enjoyed being wealthy, though Gilbert considered him profligate for employing a French chef. ‘My cook gets £80 and gives me a kipper,’ scoffed the wordsmith. ‘Sullivan’s cook gets £500 a year for giving him the same thing in French!’
8. Giacomo Puccini
As a music student in Milan, Puccini, in contrast, was largely broke. ‘In the afternoon, when I have money, I go to the café,’ he told his mother. ‘But many evenings I cannot go, since a punch costs 40 cents. I do not starve. I stuff myself with thin broth of minestrone and the stomach is satisfied.’ No wonder so much of his La bohème is taken up with food! By the time he was living in Torre del Lago, however, Puccini was a wealthy man. He formed a Club Bohème where he would cook pasta with eels for his male friends or roast them pheasant and partridge that he’d shot at the lakeside. One friend recorded that after much Toscano wine Puccini would organise farting competitions.
9. Leopold Mozart
Probably best, then, that Puccini never shared the company of Leopold Mozart, a man prone to complaining about most things, including the food he and young Wolfgang experienced on their European tours. In 1769 the Mozarts stopped at Kalterl in the Tyrolean Mountains on their way to Verona. ‘We had some potted veal for lunch,’ Mozart Snr noted, ‘accompanied by the most fearful smell; we washed it down with a few draughts of good beer as the wine was no better than a laxative.’
10. Richard Wagner
According to Cosima Wagner, her husband was ‘a vegetarian in principle but in practice, neither his health nor the orders of his physician allowed him to be’. Cosima kept a detailed account of everything ‘Our Friend’ told her. In December 1873, the couple lunched on roast hare and Wagner described how he had gone hunting in Bohemia in his youth. Squeamishly, he fired without taking aim, but beginner’s luck meant he hit the rear leg of a running hare. Wagner was presented with his trophy but vowed never again to go shooting. The memory didn’t spoil the couple’s lunch, however – Richard Wagner was a man of many ideas but little consistency.
11. Franz Liszt
Poor Liszt! Bad 19th-century dentistry turned him in old age from the most beautiful man in the world to one of the orcs in Lord of the Rings. It also had a drastic effect on what food he could enjoy. While staying with his vegetarian son-in-law (see above) for the Bayreuth premiere of Tristan and Isolde, he was sent a smoked veal cutlet in apricot sauce by Richard and Cosima. Unable to chew, Liszt passed the cutlet to his devoted pupil Lina Schmalhausen, who gave it to her dog while she cooked him some broth. Liszt didn’t help his cause by grinding his teeth together when excited at the piano and he got through several sets of dentures. As age took its toll, he became partial to asparagus because he could eat it without putting said dentures in, though even this most amenable of foods became something of an ordeal in the composer’s final months – deteriorating vision meant that, at a London banquet held in his honour in 1886, Liszt had to be helped out by Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie, as he could not see the plate.
12. Gustav Mahler
As a young man Mahler was not just influenced by Wagner’s music. He also embraced his vegetarianism. On taking up a conducting appointment in Moravia in 1883, Mahler shocked his singers when he joined them for a drink at their favourite inn. First he ordered water rather than wine or beer. Then when they ordered meat, he asked for spinach and apples. Finally he tried to convince them that woollen underwear was the way to regenerate western civilisation. Hmmm.
13. Béla Bartók
Bartók took a quiet, very precise interest in the food that was placed in front of him. When visiting the Scots composer Erik Chisholm in 1933, the Hungarian sat silent through lunch until the fish course, when he expressed surprise at never having encountered halibut before. For the rest of the meal he engaged Chisholm in animated conversation about the fish. And then, after moving to America in 1940, he and his wife visited Los Angeles where he first encountered the avocado pear while eating a version of Waldorf salad. ‘This is a fruit somewhat like a cucumber in size and colour,’ he carefully recorded. ‘But it is quite buttery in texture, so it can be spread on bread. Its flavour is something like an almond but not so sweet. It has a place in this celebrated fruit salad which consists of green salad, apple, celery, pineapple, raw tomato and mayonnaise.’
14. Frédéric Chopin
Chopin loved zrazy, a Polish dish made of thin slices of chopped beef and stuffed with vegetables and eggs. After he left Warsaw, never to return, he became mawkishly sentimental about all things Polish. Lodging in a poor part of Vienna, Chopin recorded his delight when he and a friend were invited to eat at the villa of Dr Johann Malfatti. ‘Szaniasio ate more zrazy and cabbage, I swear, than any Carmelite,’ Chopin wrote to his family. ‘You must know that this rare man, Dr Malfatti, is so considerate of everyone. If we come to dine with him, he searches out Polish food for us!’
15. Peter Maxwell Davies
What would you do if a Whooper swan hit a power line and dropped down dead near your home? If you were Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, you’d start thumbing the recipe book, even if that might result in a visit from the local constabulary. ‘A police car came whizzing up the lane with a very charming young man and a very beautiful young lady,’ the Orkney-based composer told the press when this very chain of events happened in 2005. ‘They didn’t accuse me of killing the swan, they accused me of being in possession illegally of a corpse of a protected species. I had to give a statement. I offered them coffee and asked them if they would like to try some swan terrine but I think they were rather horrified. That was a mistake, wasn’t it?’
Illustration: David Lyttleton