As it’s Halloween, we thought we’d share the 13 strangest and most unlucky composer deaths.
1. Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-88) It’s widely believed that the French composer and virtuoso pianist was crushed to death by a falling bookcase which he accidentally overturned when reaching up to the top shelf for a copy of the Talmud (he was deeply religious). However more recent sources report that his concierge found him in the kitchen, breathing his last, pinned beneath an umbrella rack.
2. Ernest Chausson (1855-99) Just as this French composer’s career was getting under way, he lost control of his bicycle one afternoon while pedalling downhill. He smashed into a brick wall and died instantly.
3. Anton Webern (1883-1945) Tragically, this master of serialist technique was killed at the very end of the Second World War, when he stepped outside his apartment in Salzburg to light a cigar just before a curfew came into effect. The glow was spotted by an American soldier, who shot him.
4. Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87) While enthusiastically conducting a performance, the French Baroque composer accidentally stabbed himself in the foot with his staff. Gangrene set in and, after refusing to have his foot amputated in an attempt to save his life, he died of blood poisoning.
5. Alban Berg (1885-1935) This key exponent of the Second Viennese School was another victim of blood poisoning – due to an insect bite on his back that became infected. He had apparently attempted lance it with a pair of scissors. Berg died on Christmas Eve.
6. Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) The last in our trio of toxic deaths – always rather prone to ill health, the visionary Russian composer nicked himself shaving, developed raging septicaemia and died aged just 43.
7. Alessandro Stradella (1639-1682) This Italian Baroque musician had a racy love life. He enjoyed several affairs with married women and mistresses of his employers, until one cuckolded nobleman had had enough. He hired an assassin who pursued the composer through the streets of Genoa, cornered him and knifed him to death.
8. Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-93) The Russian composer’s death has been subject to much debate and speculation. Some believe he committed suicide by deliberately drinking a glass of cholera-infested water. Others say he was murdered, because of his homosexuality.
9. Enrique Granados (1867-1916) The Spanish composer’s passenger ferry was torpedoed in the English Channel by a U-boat during the First World War. Granados made it to a lifeboat but jumped out to help his wife who was struggling in the water some distance away. They both drowned. Ironically if they’d stayed in their cabin, they would have survived – that section of the ship was towed safely back to port.
10. Henry Purcell (1659-95) The demise the great English Baroque composer at the age of just 36 has often been blamed on his wife. She allegedly locked him out of the house overnight when he came home late and rather the worse for wear. It’s more likely he succumbed to tuberculosis.
11. Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) The Frenchman was involved in a taxi crash in 1932, where he hit his head and suffered concussion. Initially it wasn’t regarded as serious, but he soon began to develop memory problems and aphasia (loss of speech). Five years later he underwent experimental brain surgery, which was not a success – he slipped into a coma and died.
12. Bedřich Smetana (1824-84) This Czech nationalist was one of several composers who died of syphilis. However, in a cruel twist of fate, one of the early symptoms was deafness and tinnitus – in his case a constant, screeching high E. He suffered a complete mental collapse and ended his days in an asylum. Interestingly, you can hear the ringing high E depicted in the last movement of his String Quartet No. 1 ‘From My Life’.
13. Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) The Russian died of natural causes (a stroke), but unluckily for him, on the very day that Stalin’s death was announced, 5 March 1953. Prokofiev had lived near Red Square in Moscow and because of the crowds that had been herded in to mourn the dictator, it was three days before the composer’s body could physically be moved out of his apartment for a funeral. The death of one of the greatest composers of the 20th century went virtually unreported in the Soviet press.