Companion, distraction, muse, subject and even audience – dogs have played many roles in the great composers’ lives. Writing music can be a slow and solitary business, and many composers have found that a patient hound can make the ideal companion. And when better to mull over a tricky thematic development or a complicated modulation than while out walking one’s four-legged friend?
Important compositions have been inspired by, dedicated to, written for, and in one case significantly delayed by, a dog. Some, such as Elgar and Wagner, have shown a remarkable level of dedication to their own animals; for others, a passing acquaintance with other people’s pooches has left a lasting impression.
Of course, not everyone is smitten with the sound of the bark – you won’t find any mention here of Ravel, Borodin, Tchaikovsky or Constant Lambert, as they were all cat people. However, many are. So may we introduce you to…
1. Beethoven & Gigons
We begin with a tale of female clouds with silver canine linings. Beethoven’s bagatelle Für Elise was written for his student Therese Malfatti – the composer’s messy handwriting caused ‘Therese’ to be misread as ‘Elise’ when the manuscript was rediscovered after her death.
Beethoven had fallen in love with Therese and proposed to her in 1810, the same year as the bagatelle was written, but she rejected his advances, perhaps because of his famous temper though more likely due to the age difference of more than 20 years between them. One small consolation for Beethoven was that he was befriended by Malfatti’s dog, Gigons.
Shortly after the ill-fated marriage proposal, Beethoven wrote to a friend ‘You’re wrong to think Gigons only goes to you. No, I too had the good fortune to have him stick to my company. He dined by my side in the evening, and then accompanied me home. In short, he provided some very good entertainment.’
2. Chopin & Marquis
Luckier in love was Chopin whose lover, the novelist George Sand, owned a small dog called Marquis. Chopin and Marquis got on well, and in one letter to Sand the Polish composer writes ‘Please thank Marquis for missing me and for sniffing at my door.’ Chopin’s Minute Waltz was originally known as Valse du Petit Chien (‘The Little Dog Waltz’), and its scurrying, playful music is said to have been inspired by the sight of Marquis chasing his tail.
3. Wagner & Leo
A series of unwelcome distractions severely delayed Wagner in completing his opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. By 1862, his publisher was expecting the completed score, and Wagner was working frantically to finish it in a rented house near Mainz. Then came yet another distraction – his landlord had tied up a bulldog named Leo outside the front of the house, and it wouldn’t stop whining.
Wagner took pity on Leo, and resolved to free him. A servant was called to help him release the chain, and the composer held the dog’s head as the lock was opened. But the ungrateful beast bit Wagner’s right thumb, causing an infection. The injury meant that Wagner couldn’t write for six months, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it gave him a justification for the continuing delays to the score.
That said, it took another five years for the work to be completed, and there’s only so long you can blame the dog…
4. Wagner & Pohl
Despite his run-in with Leo, Wagner remained a dog-lover throughout his life, and his canine companions over the years included a King Charles Spaniel called Peps, a Labrador named Pohl and a Newfoundland dog named Russ. In 1866, Wagner’s first wife Minna died and he missed the funeral.
She had been living in Dresden while Wagner was living in Switzerland with Cosima, later to be his second wife. His justification for not attending the occasion was that he was unable to travel due to an ‘inflamed finger’ – sound familiar? Soon after, Pohl also died.
Again, Wagner was not present, and a servant hastily buried the dog in the back yard. When the composer heard, he was outraged at such a casual send-off.
He had the dog dug up, ceremoniously fitted a collar around his neck, placed him in a wooden coffin, and had him interred in a proper grave. Biographers have speculated that this bizarre ritual was an act of contrition for the guilt of missing Minna’s final farewell.
5. Sullivan & Tommy
Pity poor Edward Hall, Arthur Sullivan’s stockbroker who, in 1882, filed for bankruptcy, owing the composer £7,000. In an unusual business arrangement, Sullivan claimed Hall’s dog Tommy as ‘assets’ in lieu of repayment. By the time Tommy died eight years later, Sullivan had grown so attached to him that he had the dog stuffed and mounted in a glass case in his home.
6. Busoni & Lesko
Similarly skint was Busoni. In 1886, the Italian needed a holiday, but as a penniless music student in Leipzig, raising the money for foreign travel was out of the question. In August, his fellow students lost touch with him and assumed he must have gone away after all.
Then one of them, Ferdinand Pfohl, saw a poorly dressed man – a blacksmith he thought – walking down the street with Lesko, Busoni’s very smart, and very distinctive, Newfoundland dog. Assuming the dog to be stolen, he confronted the man. On closer inspection it turned out to be Busoni himself, who had decided to take a staycation and disguise himself as a labourer so as to avoid his usual social circle.
But then things started to get out of hand. Another of Busoni’s acquaintances later spotted him, still in disguise, now addressing a gathering of real workmen on the theories of Marx, and receiving a rapturous response. Fortunately for Lesko, he was never implicated in any of his owner’s holiday activism.
7. Smyth & Marco
Dogs and music rehearsals are rarely a good combination, as Ethel Smyth discovered to her horror. The English composer spent the late 1880s studying music in Leipzig, where she lived with Marco, her unruly half-breed St Bernard whom, in 1887, she took along to a rehearsal of the Brahms Piano Quintet in the presence of the composer himself.
Everything was going well until Marco suddenly came bounding into the room and knocked over the cellist’s music stand. A potentially awkward moment, but luck was on Smyth’s side: Brahms, also a dog lover, was more than pleased to see Marco….
8. Hahn & Zadig
Reynaldo Hahn, the very master of French song, was once bought a dog by his lover Marcel Proust. The author named the dog Zadig, after the eponymous philosopher from Voltaire’s novel. Ever the jealous type, however, Proust then took to writing long letters to Zadig, explaining how he would be so much more happy if he himself were a dog. Quite barking, some might say.
9. Elgar & Marco and Mina
Elgar loved dogs but his wife Alice couldn’t stand them. Before they met, the English composer owned a spaniel called Marco, but their 30-year marriage, while happy for both parties, was dogless – though Elgar did of course enjoy the occasional walk with his friend George Robertson’s dog Dan, so charmingly portrayed in No. XI of the Enigma Variations.
After Alice’s death in 1920, Elgar spent the rest of his life with two canine companions, another spaniel called Marco and a Cairn Terrier named Mina. The latest communications technology allowed Elgar to keep in contact with his dogs, even when on work trips to London.
On his 70th birthday, the composer conducted a live broadcast concert, which he concluded with a short speech over the airwaves. In it, he said goodnight to Mina, who got very excited hearing her master on the radio. On another occasion, Elgar was dining at Brooks’s Club on Pall Mall, and was called away for an urgent telephone call.
‘They are on the line now, Sir Edward,’ the waiter informed him. When he reached the telephone, fellow diners overheard loud barking coming down the line and Elgar saying in a firm voice ‘Don’t bite the cushions’.
In April 1947, a reporter from the Moscow News visited the Shostakovich home to conduct an interview about the composer’s family life. He and Shostakovich sat in the lounge and could hear the composer’s wife and children packing bags in the next room. Then a large, and obviously unhappy, dog wandered in, barking and whining.
‘Tomka’s upset because the children are going away to the rest home’, Shostakovich explained, before adding in a more serious tone, ‘you know, I have a theory that dogs lead such short lives because they take everything so much to heart.’
11. Moondog & Lindy
As a child in rural Missouri, Louis Hardin had a dog called Lindy who, he said, ‘used to howl at the moon more than any dog I know of’. Strange behaviour perhaps, but not as strange as Hardin’s own habits in later life. He took to hanging around New York’s 54th Street, dressed as a Viking and composing music under the pen name ‘Moondog’, a tribute to his former pet.
12. Henze & James
The composer Hans Werner Henze is a great lover of all things English. In the 1990s, he owned a dog called James. Despite being German himself, and despite the fact that both he and James lived in Italy, he always talked to the dog in English.
13. Crumb & Yoda
When it comes to expressing affection for one’s pets in music, George Crumb has few peers. In Mundus Canis (A Dog’s World), a 1998 suite for guitar and percussion, the American gives a series of musical portraits of the dogs his family has owned. In the last movement we meet Yoda, ‘a fluffy-white animal of mixed parentage and mercurial temperament’.
The music scurries along with the tempo indication prestissimo possible, then suddenly stops and the guiro player (a role Crumb often takes himself in performance) points his stick at the audience and says in a stern voice ‘Bad dog!’ Quite rightly, Yoda himself appears on the cover of Bad Dog! A Portrait of Crumb, released on DVD last year.
14. Adams & Eloise
Crumb’s compatriot and contemporary John Adams doesn’t much like dog shows. He often ends up at them though, because his wife exhibits Pointers. In a blog entry, Adams writes that he has just driven their dog Eloise to a show, where he was relieved to entrust her to his wife:
‘I’m grateful to hand over Eloise because I’m outta baggies, and I am deathly afraid she’s going to do another poop in front of hundreds of professional dog people.’ How lovely.
15. Laurie Anderson & Lollabell
And finally, let’s not forget the experimental US composer Laurie Anderson. In June 2010, Anderson and her husband, the rock star Lou Reed, staged a concert on the steps of Sydney Opera House exclusively for dogs (watch below). In line with the tastes of their target audience, the music was performed at very high pitch. Although the composers themselves had difficulty hearing it, they were able to take expert advice from Lollabelle, Anderson’s Rat Terrier.
– Gavin Dixon
Illustration: David Lyttleton