The Criminal Lives of 5 Classical Musicians

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Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day was once kicked off an airplane for wearing sagging pants, which is pretty much everything you need to know about musicians of the last 30 years. As with everything else, if you want to see the right way to stick it to the man, you’ve got to look at the greats of classical music. Here are five classical composers with criminal histories.

1. Ludwig van Beethoven

Charge: Vagrancy

Beethoven tended to get so engrossed in his work that things like housekeeping, grooming, and laundry fell by the wayside. While out for a walk one day in 1820, he found himself lost on the streets of Weiner Neustadt, and began peering in windows to get his bearings. Because he looked like a bum, a policeman picked him up for vagrancy.

“I am Beethoven!” he told the Five-O.

Sure you are, came the response.

Beethoven cooled his heels in the lockup until Herr Herzog, the city’s musical director, could spring him. For the record, Beethoven didn’t take his incarceration well. A constable reportedly went to the police commissioner for help in dealing with the enraged composer. “Herr Commissioner,” he said, “We have arrested a man who gives us no rest, and yells all the time that he is Beethoven.” (Emphasis mine.)

Given enough time, he probably would have started a prison riot.

2. Igor Stravinsky

Charge: Defaming the National Anthem

In 1944, Igor Stravinsky left the doughnut commandos in Boston outraged for his arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner. (Nobody should have been surprised; when he composed “The Rite” his stated purpose was to “send them all to hell”—them being European civilization itself.) How outraged were the cops? They showed up the next day “to make sure he didn’t play it again.”

If you can find a way to stir up the police for a major minor seventh chord, you are not a man to be trifled with.

3. Franz Schubert

Charge: Revolutionary activity

Heads of state weren’t exactly relaxed in 1820. As Johann Senn wrote at the time, “The German struggles for liberation, from 1813 to 1815, had left in their wake a significant spiritual upheaval in Austria too.” Likewise in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and the earlier French Revolution, students with crazy ideas about liberty were not to be trusted. So when Austrian secret police observed Franz Schubert and his four droogs “inveighing against [officials] with insulting and opprobrious language,” the young artists were rounded up and arrested. Senn, one of the five, spent 14 months in prison. It’s likely that Schubert was saved by his burgeoning reputation as a great composer, though he was severely reprimanded, and in a society where the police had to approve everything from publication to marriage, a police record could cause no end of troubles.

4. Richard Wagner

Charge: Revolutionary activity

While living in Dresden, composer Richard Wagner spent six years writing operas and throwing in with leftist radicals. In the pages of Volksblätter, he incited revolution, and during the May Uprising of 1849 made hand grenades and stood watch for students at the barricades. (If there ever were a time when songs from Les Misèrables might spontaneously occur, this was it.)

When the uprising failed, Wagner found himself wanted by the government, and absconded to Zurich where he lived as a fugitive. (Again, Les Misèrables.) The charges kept him out of Germany until 1862.

5. Johann Sebastian Bach

Charge: “Too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal.”

In 1708, Johann Sebastian Bach took a job as a chamber musician in the Court of the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar. Within five years, he was head of the chamber orchestra and eyeing the position of capellmeister, or director of music. He was pretty much doing the job for the incumbent, who was decrepit and moribund, and ascending to the position itself was a formality awaiting only the capellmeister’s death. Imagine his frustration when the job went to the capellmeister’s idiot son.

The rival Court of Anhalt-Cöthen saw what a terrible decision this was, and asked Bach to join them and serve as its own capellmeister. Bach said yes, and the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar retaliated by having Bach thrown in jail for 30 days, which is a sentence 30 times longer than Johnny Cash ever served, no matter what he’d have you believe.

While in the gray bar hotel, Bach did what any self-respecting master musician would do: he wrote chorale preludes for organ, later published as part of Orgelbüchlein, his first organ masterwork.

January 10, 2013 - 10:00am
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