6 Classical Scandals Straight from the Tabloids

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1. First Conductor Dies from Conducting

You probably haven't heard of the poor guy, but Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632"“1687) was the first documented conductor. Before him, most musical groups just followed the lead of their first violinist or their keyboard player.

Lully was the first musician to use a baton. He was also the first musician to ever die by baton.

Let's rewind back to his technique though. Following in the tradition of other soft walking leaders, Lully carried around a really big stick: one that was six feet long, which he pounded on the ground in time to the music. Unfortunately, this enormous staff proved to be his undoing. One day, while merrily beating time (in a concert to celebrate the king's return to health), he stuck the wood into his foot by mistake. He developed gangrene and died. Not a good role model for conductors worldwide.

2. Haydn Nearly Gets Castrated

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732"“1809) was the father of the symphony as we know it. During more than 30 years of experimentation, he came up with the form that has influenced composers to this day. But as a little boy, Haydn was known for something else—his beautiful voice. He was the star soprano in his church choir. As he got older and his voice was about to change, his choirmaster came to him with a little proposition. If he would consent to a small operation, he could keep his beautiful soprano voice forever. Haydn readily agreed and was just about to undergo the surgery when his father found out and put a stop to the whole thing.

3. Paganini Allegedly Sells Soul to Devil! (Fetches Good Price)

paganini.jpgThe Italian violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini (1782"“1840) was one of the most astounding virtuosos of all time. He had amazing technique and enormous passion. He also promoted himself shamelessly, doing tricks to astonish his audience. Often before a concert he would saw partway through three of the four strings on his violin. In performance, those three strings broke, forcing him to play an entire piece on one string. Rumors flew that Paganini had sold his soul to the devil in order to play so well. Sometimes Paganini would order the lights dimmed while he played particularly spooky music, at which point the rumors and the mood would form a perfect storm and everybody would faint. (It didn't take much to make an audience faint in those days.)

4. Cross-Dressing Berlioz Nearly Snuffs Out Rival

The renowned French composer Hector Berlioz (1803"“1869) was, among other things, wacky. While away in Rome studying on a scholarship, he heard that his beloved girlfriend, Camille, back in Paris, had started seeing another guy. Furious, he resolved to kill his rival. But he needed to disguise himself. So he bought a gun, put on a dress, and boarded a train for Paris. Halfway home, however, Berlioz chickened out and threw himself into the Mediterranean. Luckily for us, and for music, he was fished out (minus the gun).

5. Liszt's Lucky Fans Receive Canine Surprise

liszt.jpgThe Hungarian Franz Liszt (1811"“1886) was a virtuoso in the tradition of Paganini. He played the piano and created a sensation throughout Europe. Everywhere he played, women swooned, and Liszt was treated like one of the world's first rock stars. In fact, the word Lisztomania was coined during his lifetime. He received so many requests for locks of his hair, though, that it was impossible for him to keep up with demand. Finally, the young musician stumbled upon the perfect solution— he bought a dog and snipped off patches of fur to send to his admirers, an unexpected use for man's best friend.

6. Peter Tchaikovsky Nearly Loses His Head

The magnificent Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840"“1893) was yet another in the line of geniuses who sometimes came unhinged. Tchaikovsky loved to compose, but he hated to conduct, mainly because he was paralyzed with a fear that his head might fall off. Unfortunately, conducting opportunities came up way too often for him—including the gala opening concert of Carnegie Hall in 1891. Neurotic to the core, Tchaikovsky always conducted with one hand while using the other to keep a firm grip on his chin.

Ed Note: This list was adapted and embellished from Condensed Knowledge, available for purchase here. 

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December 27, 2007 - 1:00am
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