Sunday, October 23, 2011

Happy Halloween!!
The Ghoulish Side of Classical Music:
Conductor & Performer Deaths

Written by Andy Fein, Angie Newgren, and Kevin Berdine

The music world is not immune from the vicissitudes of life. Bring life to music and life returns the compliment. All the way to the bitter end. Throughout history there have been some strange deaths associated with performances. Below is a list of conductors and performers who unfortunately fell into this category.

Many of these musicians and conductors were wonderful people and made great contributions to music. Death, in itself, does not have any entertainment value... but it is the season of Halloween. So while it's on your mind....

Deaths on Stage
Te Deum
Jean Baptiste de Lully died on March 22, 1687. It was a result from conducting a Te Deum (Thee, O God), and was beating the tempo on the floor with a long staff (the precursor of the baton) and accidentally hit his toe, injuring it quite severely. He refused to have it removed, it turned gangrenous, the gangrene spread throughout his body and it killed him.

Domenico Donizelli
Americo Sbigoli died on January 28,1822. He was a tenor singing in a quintet, performing Pacini's opera Cesare in Egitto. He was instructed to closely follow the style of the first tenor, Domenico Donzelli, and ended up dying by bursting a blood vessel in his neck.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, the sister of Felix Mendelssohn, suffered a stroke while leading the rehearsal of one of her brother's oratorios, The First Walpurgis Night. She died a few days later. The city? Berlin. The year? 1847.

Felix Mottl died at age 55 on July 2, 1911, while conducting Act II of Tristan and Isolde, in Munich. Make a mental note here: Munich. Opera.

Wenzel Pichl suffered a stroke in Vienna Austria at the Lobkowitz Palace while performing a violin concerto.

Caruso singing Vesti di Giubba
Enrico Caruso had just finished singing Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci. While walking off stage he fell, unconscious, into the arms of his secretary. He performed five more performances and died on August 2, 1921.

Aroldo Lindi also suffered greatly while performing Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci in 1944. As he finished the last few notes he collapsed to the floor. The audience applauded his intense commitment as the curtain closed. When the curtain reopened, Lindi was still lying on the stage-dead!


Josef Strauss died from complications caused by a fall while directing his own piece, Musical Potpourri. He had been sickly his whole life and suffered from bouts of fainting. It is believed he fainted while conducting and hit his head and later died from the complications.


Thomas Baker died while being lowered through the trap door at the end of Gounod's opera Faust. He was playing the part of Mephistopheles.It is said that his ghost still haunts the Princess Theatre to this day.

Simon Barere died on April 2, 1951, of a cerebral hemorrhage during a performance of Grieg's Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall, with the Philadelphia Orchestra.



Nikolayeva performs Schostakovich's Prelude and Fugue No. 6

Tatiana Nikolayeva performed Bach's Preludes and Fugues at the Leipzig bicentennial commemoration of Bach's death. Schostakovich was so moved by her performance that he composed his own 24 Preludes and Fugues and dedicated them to Tatiana. Ironically, she died while performing these pieces in 1994.

Anton Cajetan Adlgasser suffered a stroke while playing the organ at the Salzburg Cathedral. His replacement, Michael Haydn, was also thought to have suffered a stroke while playing the organ, but it was later discovered that he was just drunk.

Dimitri Mitropoulos died while conducting a rehearsal of Mahler's 3rd Symphony at La Scala.

Edward Van Beinum died on April 13, 1959. He was chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. After rehearsing the first two movements of Brahms's Symphony Number 1, he stepped off the podium, collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was 58 years old.

Leonard Warren died on March 4, 1960, in New York's Metropolitan Opera. He fell face-down, after singing his second act aria in Verdi's La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny).

Joseph Keilberth died on July 20, 1968 conducting Tristan and Isolde in Munich with the National Theatre. This is the exact same place, and the same opera, where Feliz Mottl (mentioned earlier) met his fate. Hmm, Munich. Hmm, Tristan and Isolde. Which is it?

Lee Morgan was a jazz trumpet player. Playing at Slugs' jazz club in New York City on February 19, 1972, he was murdered on stage. His common-law wife shot him, just as their set was beginning. OK, not Classical music, we just thought we'd throw that in.

Come Sweet Death
Carl Barnett, on April 23, 1974 died at age 59 while conducting Bach's Come, Sweet Death at Will Rogers High School in Tulsa. It was his first time performing that piece (also his last).

Mindru Katz died on January 30, 1978. He died on stage during a recital in Istanbul, Turkey, performing Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Tempest.

Edith Webster died of a heart attack on November 22, 1986 while on stage, after singing, "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" from The Drunkard. It was directly after her staged death scene. She was 60 years old.

Giuseppe Patanè, an Italian opera conductor, collapsed suddenly from a heart attack while conducting a performance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, on May 29, 1989. Munich. Again. Note to self-- DO NOT conduct in Munich. Especially opera.

Richard Versalle died on January 5, 1996 in the middle of Janacek's play, The Makropulos Case. It was right after delivering the line "You can only live so long." He was on a 20 ft. ladder when he had a heart attack and fell to the ground.

Giuseppe Sinopoli in Berlin on April 20, 2001, was conducting and died on stage of a heart attack in Verdi's Aida. He was 54 years old. His replacement conductor was Marcello Viotti.

Marcello Viotti, like Sinopoli suffered a stroke in 2005 while directing a rehearsal in Munich. He never regained consciousness after undergoing surgery to remove the blood clot.

Jean-Marc Cochereau died on January 10, 2011 conducting a rehearsal with the Orleans Symphony Orchestra. He was working on Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony and collapsed just after the end of the 1st movement and before the beginning of the funeral march. He was 61 years old.

Carl Robert Helg passed away on July 26, 2011. The Swiss conductor was killed while rehearsing a farewell gala performance for the director of Baden State Theatre in Germany. He climbed up to the lights to get a better view of his choir, and fell to his death. He was 66 years old.

Herbert Khaury, aka "Tiny Tim" was a well-known singer, ukulele players, and musical archivist. He suffered a heart attack while performing on stage at a ukulele festival. He recovered from this event, but doctors warned him that he should stop performing. Unfortunately, he did not take their advice, and suffered a fatal heart attack while performing Tiptoe through the Tulips." 


Other Odd Deaths
Henry Purcell passed away in 1695 at the young age of 36. There are 2 theories as to his death, both of which are tragic. One story of his demise includes Pneumonia. After staying out too long with his friends, his angry wife locked him out of the house to teach him a lesson. Instead, he contracted pneumonia due to the unfortunate cold, wet circumstances that are common in England. The other, more scandalous story, contends that Purcell was murdered because he had associated himself with the Restoration movement.  

Alban Berg passed away on Christmas Eve in 1935 because of a bee/insect sting. The sting did not kill him directly, but the ensuing infection at the site, and carbuncle it formed caused his wife to perform "surgery" upon the infection and the resulting infection and blood poisoning caused his demise.

Claude Vivier was stabbed to death in his Paris apartment by a young male prostitute that he had met at a bar. On his table was his last, unfinished, but prophetic, manuscript Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele? (Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul?). The music suddenly stops at the line "Then he removed a dagger from his jacket and stabbed me through the heart." 

Jean-Marie LeClair in 1758 Leclair separated from his 2nd wife. She took most of his possessions thus he was forced to live in a small apartment in a rough neighborhood. In 1764, he was found stabbed to death in his small Paris flat. It conjectured that his estranged wife hired her nephew to "take care of" Jean-Marie. To this day this mystery has not been solved.

Anton von Webern died in 1945 when shot by an allied forces gunman. Oblivious to a curfew placed on the country, Anton left his house, leaving his sleeping grandchildren unbothered, at night to have a smoke. When the allied forces gunman saw a cigar being lit, he shot Anton dead. The gunman who shot Anton, ended up drinking himself to death 10 years later.

Maurice Ravel was in a taxi accident and knocked his head. The injury was not thought to be serious, however shortly after the accident he developed aphasia and frequent bouts of absent-mindedness. it worsened to the point that he could no longer put his musical ideas down on paper. To remedy the affects of the accident he underwent surgery and died 9 days later while recovering in 1937.


Bedrich Smetana suffered from tinnitus (a high pitch ringing in his ears) for most of his life. This coupled with the loss of 3 out of 4 children and his wife by the time he turned 35 made his life difficult. He did remarry, however, and life seemed relatively good for awhile until he suffered a stroke in 1882. He was then forbidden to continue composing to save him from stress. He, of course, refused and continued composing while in an insane asylum where he eventually died.

Alessandro Stradella was hired by a Venetian nobleman to tutor his mistress in music. Stradella and his student had a torrid love affair. When discovered, the nobleman hired hitmen to kill Stradella. Stradella fled unharmed to Genoa. While in Genoa, he started another steamy love affair. This time, he was not so lucky. After being chased through the streets of Genoa, he was stabbed to death by another band of hired hitmen.

Ernest Chausson died at the age of 44 while bicycling through his property. Unfortunately, he crashed into a brick wall and passed due to the injuries he sustained.

Jean-Baptiste Krumpholz committed suicide in the Seine after discovering his wife, Anne Marie, eloped with her lover. Although she did not committ suicide, Anne Marie had a similar fate when her new husband left her for a younger woman.


Philip Arnold Heseltine, also known as Peter Warlock committed suicide by turning on gas in his London apartment. It is believed that he felt consumed by an utter lack of creative spirit.

John Barnes Chance was electrocuted when his tent pole touched an electric fence

Composer Frantisek Kotzwara visited a prostitute, Susannah Hill, on February 2, 1791. Susannah recounted the evenings events; Kotzwara asked her to cut off his testicles for 2 shillings. When she refused, he tied one end of a rope around his neck and the other end around a doorknob. He then proceeded to have sex with Susannah. When the deed was done, he was dead. It is believed that this is the first case of erotic asphyxiation causing death. Susannah was tried and acquitted for the murder of Kotzwara. The court precedings and transcripts were destroyed to avoid further public scandal.

Liszt's marriage to a princess was thwarted, a son and daughter died and he gave up performing to become a Franciscan order
Hugo Wolf began exhibiting signs of mental instability, believed to be attributed to syphilis, in 1897. During this time he continued composing until his conditions worsened to the point that he tried to drown himself. When this failed, he was admitted in an asylum where he eventually died without any mental facility.

Sergei Prokofiev died the day that Stalin's death had been announced. Having struggled under the oppressive regime for most of his creative life, it was all too ironic that he never lived to see a new era. Even more ironic, perhaps, was that Prokofiev's body could nto be moved until the masses cleared the city, there to witness Stalin's body lying in state.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died a mere 9 days after the premier of his 6th Symphony, the "Pathetique." It is rumored that he committed suicide by drinking cholera-infested water as a means of covering up his illicit affair with young nobleman that he was tutoring. Unfortunately, at the time homosexuality was a offense punishable by exile.

Enrique Granados and his wife died in 1916 while crossing the English Channel. A German U-boat torpedoed the Sussex. Although afraid to swim, Granados jumped out his life boat to save his wife. Unfortunately the attempt was futile and they both drowned.

Louis Vierne died, fulfilling his lifelong dream, of performing on the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. He died while playing the Low E, leaving it sustain throughout the cathedral.

Claude Debusy's 1st wife, Rosalie attempted suicide after Claude eloped with his mistress. Claude was not surprised as she used a threat of suicide in their courtship. It went something like "if you do not continue seeing me, I will end my life." Her attempt to shoot herself was not successful, but she did live the rest of her life with a bullet lodged in her chest.

Johann Schobert and his entire family, minus one child, died from eating poisonous toadstools that they had believed were ordinary mushrooms.
Oskar Nedbal threw himself from the window of the Zagreb Opera House on Christmas Eve, 1930. It is believed that his mounting debt caused him to unravel.

Louis-Gabriel Guillemain, a Parisian violinist and composer, died after stabbing himself in the chest 14 times on the way to Versailles.

J.S. Bach and G. F. Handel both suffered from cataracts. They each hired John Taylor to operate on their eyes to restore sight. Each ended up dying while recovering from a stroke, that is thought to be triggered by their surgeries.Taylor's legacy- killing two of the most famous musicians of all time!

Giachino Rossini was born February 29th, 1792. He died on Friday, November 13th, 1868 at the ripe age of 19. How?


Think being a musician is a hazardous occupation? Herbert Von Karajan was so worried about it, that he paid for a study at Salzburg University to see if conducting an orchestra is a strain on the heart. The results were never published. Here's my unscientific take: Conducting in itself isn't, but turning beet red while you scream, yell, stomp your foot and curse at the orchestra is. Just sayin'!

Actually, many conductors have very long lives and several studies have shown that conductors have one of the longest life expectancies of any profession. Like anything else, you need to take care of your body and health. And be nice to the musicians and singers. Or else....


For Friday the 13th of April, 2012, Limelight Magazine got right into the spirit with "The 13 Strangest Composer Deaths in Classical Music". Who says classical music is all about elitism?

No comments:

Post a Comment