The lineage of fictional 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 – fictional musical characters 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 ifictional 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.
Mario Moreno from Fiesta (20th century)
Composers who mix composing with bullfighting are not common. Hence the singularity of Moreno, featured in the 1947 MGM film Fiesta. Conflict with his father, a famous matador, initially hampers Moreno’s development. But he finally wins through,
in gorgeous Technicolor, and also saves his twin sister from being gored by a bull. His one famous work, the Fantasia Mexicana, actually consists of Aaron Copland’s El Sálon México cut, re-orchestrated, and squeezed.
Alexander Hollenius from Deception (d.1946)
Famously rude and egotistical, Hollenius is a peacock example of the composer as insufferable genius, and is memorably played by Claude Rains in the Hollywood film Deception (1946). His reputation in the mid-20th century is acknowledged as formidable, sitting alongside Stravinsky and Richard Strauss and fusing the qualities of both (‘the rhythm of today’ combined with ‘the melody of yesterday’). His wealth is mighty too, manifested in an enormous Manhattan house where his ego bounces unfettered between staircases, Greek pillars and throne-like chairs. His one surviving work is his compact Cello Concerto, a turbulent piece bearing every fingerprint of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, which isn’t so strange when you know that the work’s actual composer was Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Shockingly, however, Hollenius is murdered on the night of its New York premiere – shot by his former lover, pianist Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis), who has earned his ire by marrying the solo cellist. The premiere, at least, is a tremendous success…
Erik The Phantom from The Phantom of the Opera
Documenting the life of the masked denizen of the Paris Opera’s bowels is difficult, as the biography of the character created in Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera keeps changing. Leroux doesn’t stress his musical gifts, but by the time of the Lon Chaney 1925 silent film, the Phantom has written Don Juan Triumphant, played on his underground organ; the soprano heroine considers it weirdest thing she has ever heard. In Hollywood’s 1943 version, the Phantom’s name is Erique Claudin, whose face is deformed in an acid attack after he wrongly believes that a music publisher is plagiarising his precious concerto (fulsomely praised by Liszt). Hammer Films’ 1962 edition makes the Phantom a mild but obsessive music professor in the early 1900s called Petrie, whose crowning achievement is an opera, Joan of Arc. Plagiarism fears, this time well-founded, result in another acid dousing. Still, before being flattened by the opera house chandelier Petrie at least hears his magnum opus performed. Edwin Astley’s specially-composed score reveals Petrie as a staggering avant-garde figure, a master of baleful dissonances. The Phantom is also a modernist in the Lloyd Webber musical (1986), where the opera is his Don Juan Triumphant. Characters describe it as ‘gibberish’ and ‘lunacy’, though the excerpt presented in Lloyd Webber’s score eventually abandons gnarled gestures for his best speciality: a singable tune.
Gottfried Rosenbaum from Pictures from an Institution (20th century)
Rosenbaum is a Jewish émigré composer turned American academic, known as the ‘Viennese Satie’. In Randall Jarrell’s satirical novel Pictures from an Institution (1954), we read of his early desire to ‘become Mahler’, and his eccentric approach to form and instrumentation. A tantalising figure, we still await a realisation of his Joyous Celebration of the Memory of the Master Johann Bach, where each movement is played on instruments whose names begin, respectively, with B (basset-horn, bagpipe, etc), A, C and H.
Piotr Zak (b.1939)
Zak is more an experiment than a character. Like several other later imaginary composers, Zak hailed from the extreme avant-garde. Born in Poland, he abandoned his conservative style after falling for Stockhausen and Cage. The result was his Mobile for Tape and Percussion, broadcast with a straight face on the BBC Third Programme in 1961. Two months later, the random collection of thumps and plonks (available on YouTube) was revealed as a hoax, perpetuated by Hans Keller and Susan Bradshaw to test music critics. Luckily, as far we know, Zak never wrote another note