If you play a musical instrument or have listened to any classical music, then you might have heard of one of these composers. Beethoven, Mozart, Bach or Tchaikovsky. And if you took any music lessons, chances are, you took music history lessons and possibly wrote exams for the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) — especially if you’re Canadian.
One of the advantages of learning music history is that you get to actually place a face to the name on the top of your music! And besides learning about the lives and styles of famous composers such as Beethoven or Mozart, the RCM also gives students the opportunity to study lesser-known composers such as Ravel, Alexina Louie or Schoenberg.
One of the disadvantages is that some of the facts that you learn aren’t the most invigorating things to read out there. There’s an emphasis in these music exams to learn just the essentials about a composer’s life and music style, for example, how J.S. Bach’s musical style can be seen in his collection of Preludes and Fugues or how Symphonie Fantastique, composed by Hector Berlioz, was inspired by him falling in love with a Shakespearean actress. Unfortunately, sometimes the more interesting bits get left out.
Just to prove to you that music history isn’t all boring, here are some interesting facts about various composers:
Composers With a Criminal History
- Franz Schubert used “insulting and opprobrious language” at the police after his friend was arrested while he was attending an illegal student gathering.
- Carlo Gesualdo viciously murdered his wife and her lover. But he got away with it because he was the Prince of Venosa.
- Ethel Smyth was a suffragist who was arrested for throwing rocks at a politician’s window.
Image Source: Bach Cantatas Website
Composers Who Were the Music Rebels of Their Time
- Claude Debussy shocked all of his teachers at the Paris Conservatoire with musical ideas that broke traditional harmony rules.
- John Cage is famous for 4’33”: 4 minutes and 33 seconds of complete silence. He let the shuffling and noises of the audience in the concert hall speak for his music.
- Franz Liszt, a Romantic composer, broke rules about key and tonality when much of the emphasis in the Classical era was to keep things relatively simple.
Composers With Unique Deaths
- Arnold Schoenberg had triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13) and he died on Friday the 13th (July 13, 1951).
Image Source: Classical Greg
- Charles Alkan, a Romantic composer, was thought to have died under a bookshelf but in reality, he was trapped underneath an umbrella stand after possibly fainting.
- Jean-Baptiste Lully had been conducting when the stick he was using as a baton, fell on his toe. He refused to amputate it after it became gangrenous.
For anyone who is interested in learning about the lives of composers who have created some of the world’s greatest music, it just takes a little digging. These composers may be long-gone, but their legacies and their histories still live on. All you need to do is look a little deeper to find that music history is more exciting than you may think.