Composers and their Accidental Deaths

(Jean-Baptiste Lully who famously died after accidently driving his conductor’s staff into his foot. Image: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Syphilis, alcohol, a broken heart – the notable lives of history’s musical geniuses may have been cut short by such afflictions. Retired surgeon, Jonathan Noble has analysed the fatal illnesses and sometimes mysterious deaths, of the great composers in his new book, That Jealous Demon, My Wretched Health. In this article, he discusses another fatal cause which led to their undoing – the possible freakish accident.

Of the 79 composers studied, 14 had suffered severe accidents, nine of which had been fatal, or were said to be. Three died in wartime. Captain George Butterworth died from a sniper’s bullet at the Somme. Anton Webern was at his daughter’s house when he was shot by a GI, after the Second World War’s end. Enrique Granados was returning to Spain on a passenger ship in 1916, which was torpedoed by a German submarine. He was rescued into a lifeboat, from which he saw his wife struggling in the water. His attempt to rescue her resulted in them both drowning.

Perhaps the most famous accidental death is that of Jean-Baptiste Lully. He dominated an era where conductors usually used a staff, rather than a baton. On an energetic downbeat one day, he drove the pointed end into his foot, which became septic. Gangrene followed and he refused an amputation, dying two months later. The popular view that this changed the development of orchestral conducting is probably tenuous. Sepsis also accounted for the deaths of Alban Berg and Scriabin. The latter’s moustache made Poirot’s seem restrained, and it was during shaving that he cut his lip, which became infected. Recurrences followed and he ultimately died in London after the lancing of an abscess. Berg was stung by a swarm of bees or wasps. Sepsis, to which he was prone, followed and, despite active surgical treatment, he died on Christmas Eve, 1935. One wonders whether Berg and Scriabin might have been diabetic.

Whilst out cycling, Chausson collided with a wall and died of a consequent head injury. It is commonly held that Charles Valentin Alkan was reaching up to retrieve his Talmud from the top of a bookcase which then collapsed upon him, causing his death, possibly from a head injury. The likely truth is more prosaic, with him returning home and collapsing, whereupon the hat stand may also have collapsed across him. The likely cause of death was either a heart attack or a stroke. Whether Nielsen’s first accident moving a piano on the stairs was due to early heart trouble remains uncertain. That his later accident moving scenery was, is very probable. There are two versions of César Franck’s collision with a horse-drawn omnibus, to which his death is often attributed. In a way it is difficult to attribute that death six months later to this episode from which, for a while, he had seemed to recover.

Puccini was a passenger in a car which skidded off the road. Although he rapidly recovered from concussion, his progress following the consequent compound fracture of a shin bone, was stormy. It had to be re-set and subsequently he always limped. A young girl, Dora Manfredi, was engaged to help nurse him, and her consequent tragedy at the hands of Signora, not Signor, Puccini overshadowed the rest of the composer’s life. Prokofiev was also the victim of a car accident, although he eventually recovered from the subsequent head and hand injuries. Mendelssohn’s return home was delayed by two months after a carriage accident in Wales, which gouged out a chunk of flesh from his leg. In that era people lost limbs for less. Probably the most famous vehicular accident of all was when Ravel travelled by a Paris taxi during 1932 and bumped his head. Thereafter, he composed little more than a few songs. The question is raised as to whether banging his head was more serious than apprehended at the time. He thought not. Ravel’s sad, late decline is analysed in my forthcoming book, That Jealous Demon, My Wretched Health. These accidental deaths, like the poisoning of Mozart, the alleged syphilis of Schumann or Britten (and many others), or the supposed suicide of Tchaikovsky, at first sight are like Russia – a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

That Jealous Demon, My Wretched Health: Disease, Death and Composers by Jonathan Noble will be published by Boydell Press in hardback for £25.00 RRP in June 2018.

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