17 Interesting Facts About Classical Composers

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In today’s video, we’re going to look at 17 interesting facts about classical composers. This spans the gamut from silly to weird – everything from coffee addiction to accidental suicide.

A few of these facts are things I’ve mentioned in previous videos (like the brief history videos). However, I thought it would be fun to do a big compilation video of some random and weird facts I’ve come across.

These interesting facts about classical composers are unabashedly influenced by John Green’s list videos over at Mental Floss – if you haven’t seen any of those videos, go check them out, they’re highly entertaining.

Interesting Facts about Classical Composers: Mozart

Let’s start with Mozart, because everyone has heard of him!

1) Most of us know that Mozart was a big fan of fart jokes and that he was a big silly jokester. But not everyone knows he enjoyed imitating cats. If he was bored during a rehearsal, he would leap around tables and meow.

He enjoyed imitating cats so much that he wrote a song called “The Cat Duet”, where the husband is singing questions to the wife and she only responds with “meow”. Eventually the husband starts meowing too – but musically, of course.

2) And another Mozart fact: You know the famous opera Don Giovanni? Well, the opening song, the orchestral overture, was written the night before the opera’s premier. Mozart was out drinking with friends and one of them mentioned, “Hey Mozart, how come you haven’t written the overture yet?”

So at midnight that evening, Mozart went home and spent a few hours writing the masterpiece…while under the influence. The orchestra was handed the music moments before the performance, and…played it flawlessly.

Interesting facts about classical composers: Joseph Haydn

3) When one mentions Mozart, one has to mention Haydn. They were real-life friends/kindred spirits, and would often jam on the violins/violas together.

4) Haydn was a goof who loved playing practical jokes. At age 17, he was kicked out of singing school, partly because he had cut off the pigtail of another boy, but mainly because he had “matured” and his once-beautiful voice had turned to something described as “crowing”.

Empress Maria Theresa herself complained to Reutter about his singing, calling it “crowing”.

5) Haydn had lots of interesting life stories, but he has a good post-death story, too. About a week after Haydn’s death, his body was dug up and his head was kidnapped. This was because the kidnappers were interested in studying the brain of geniuses. The guys who stole it, Johann Peter and Joseph Rosenbaum, had a collection of skulls that they displayed and liked to show people – including Haydn’s.

Of course, people weren’t happy about this, so Peter and Rosenbaum returned a fake skull as Haydn’s. Haydn wasn’t reunited with his real skull until 1954, and now his tomb has two skulls.

Franz Liszt

6) Most of us know that Franz Liszt lived the rockstar lifestyle as a youth, being very desirable and fathering children out of wedlock. But not everyone knows that, in older age, Liszt went through the process of becoming a Catholic priest.

He had wanted to be a priest off and on throughout his whole life, so finally in 1865, when Liszt was 54, he took the four minor orders (but never officially became a priest).

Richard Wagner

7) Richard Wagner has many, many stories. But one I find really interesting was his enjoyment of crossdressing. Looking at pictures of Wagner and reading about his life and persona, he had a rather stereotypical “man” exterior. But he liked to wear women’s underwear.

He would order pink lacy costumes “for his wife” (she never mentioned these costumes in her diaries). She did, however, give him a pink carpet made from flamingo feathers for one of his birthdays. So props to Cosima for being thoughtful.

8) Oh, and Cosima, Wagner’s wife, was one of Liszt’s illegitimate daughters.

Frederic Handel

9) Jumping back to the Baroque era, we have Handel the Food-Lover.

Also when I was trying to verify this claim, I typed in “Handel loved food”, and Google gave me a bunch of websites on how to “melt away my love handles”. Maybe next time, Google.

Handel was a big fan of the finer things in life, including heaps of rich food and wine. In fact, his heavy wine habit was thought to have caused him lead poisoning (it was a preservative), and the rich foods caused him gout. One of Handel’s dinner guests, a comic artist, even made a rather rude comic about his eating habits, portraying him as a pig sitting on a barrel of wine.

Jean-Baptiste Lully

10) Jean-Baptiste Lully was a Baroque composer who had the habit of keeping time by hitting his staff against the ground. Well, one time he missed the ground, and stabbed his foot. He contracted gangrene from this wound, leading to his death at age 55.

J.S. Bach

11) Bach was a regular at Café Zimmerman in Leipzig, where he would consume 3 of 4 cups of coffee. He was such a huge fan of coffee that he even wrote his famous (and silly) Coffee Cantata about a woman trying to kick her coffee habit.

Antonio Vivaldi

12) And one more Baroque fact, via Vivaldi. Vivaldi, the renowned Baroque violinist and composer, became a Catholic priest at age 25. He was nicknamed “The Red Priest” because, cleverly, he was also a redhead.

Felix Mendelssohn

13) Felix Mendelssohn was one of those annoying people who was good at basically everything. Aside from composing, he was a good writer, made cartoons for fun, and could paint and draw.

14) A friend of Mendelssohn’s, Attwood, lost an original manuscript of Mendelssohn’s in the back seat of a cab. It was the Overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was the only copy. But instead of freaking out, Mendelssohn just rewrote the whole thing from memory.

Edvard Grieg

15) Edvard Grieg had a good-luck figurine. It was a little frog that he would pat before a concert.

Tchaikovsky

16) Tchaikovsky was a man of many mental health issues, but one especially peculiar habit of his was holding his chin with his left hand while conducting. This is because he apparently believed his head would fall off.

Eric Satie

17) And finally, the eccentric Eric Satie. One of his many quirks was his diet of white food. In one of his letters, he detailed his diet, consisting of:

“Eggs, sugar, shredded bones, animal fat, veal, salt, coconuts, rice, pasta, turnips, chicken, white cheese, cotton salad, and certain fish.”

So maybe this just goes to show that artists and celebrities have been going on weird diets for centuries.

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I hope you enjoyed this video of interesting facts about Classical composers. I had a ton of fun compiling this – let me know if you’d like to see more videos like this in the future.

xo,
Allysia

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Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.