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Classical Music Epic Fails

Over the history of classical music, there have been many amusing and/or ironic mishaps documented. I am not referring to audiences walking out on symphony premieres or riots breaking out, such as the famous Rite of Spring riot. In this article I would like to draw you away from the more serious side of Western music and towards a few little-known anecdotes, including awkward courting outcomes, a performer publicly shouting in annoyance during a performance, the classic falling over routine, or disastrous self-inflicted injuries.

Jean Baptiste Lully died as a result of a foot injury he sustained while conducting his Te Deum on 22 March 1687. In the French court in these times, it was customary to conduct with a large wooden staff, beating it on the ground to keep time. Lully unfortunately stabbed his foot with the staff and the wound became infected, with gangrene starting to spread throughout his leg. Despite a lot of care from doctors, the injury soon killed him. 

In 2008, the young German-born violinist David Garrett tripped and fell on his million dollar violin. The instrument was made in 1772 by a protegé of Stradivarius, Giovanni Guadagnini. After performing the Mendelssohn violin concerto at the Barbican in London, “still wearing my flat-soled concert shoes, I lost my footing and took the entire flight on my back in classic slapstick fashion, riding the violin case like a sledge.” The repairs took 7 months and cost £60,000. 

Moving on from physical comedy, I thought it noteworthy to mention that Berlioz’s personal life was marked by an ironic example of an “Epic Fail”. He attended Shakespeare's Hamlet at the Odéon in Paris where he saw the 27-year old Irish actress Harriet Smithson for the first time. He instantly fell in love with her and gained a lot of creative inspiration, having only ever seen her acting on stage – never meeting in person. History paints it as adoration and awe, but in reality it was more of an obsession, his thoughts out of touch with reality. It was as though he did not differentiate between the real human Harriet and the Shakespearean idealised heroine. His fixation was transmuted into the programmatic, opium-driven Symphonie Fantastique, one of his most noted masterpieces, which made him both famous and notorious. He bombarded the Irish woman with love letters in French, referring to her as if she were one of her Shakespearean characters Juliette or Ophelia, and although she never replied to this eccentric stranger, Berlioz continued to repeatedly declare his love for her in letters and in other compositions. It was not until 1832 that they actually met. An intermediary bought her a ticket to one of his performances, making sure that their paths would finally cross– after all this was going on for six years! Their eventual introduction led to a disastrous marriage, plagued by debts, jealousy, an unresolved language barrier and estrangement. 

On the subject of French composers, Erik Satie ended up in jail for eight days for defamation and yelling the word ‘cul’ in public. Besides his diverse corpus of musical compositions, which is significant in that it anticipated the later artistic movements, he was also a published writer. Altercations came about because his ballet,Parade, a collaboration he made with Cocteau and Picasso which premiered in May 1917, was not to the music critics’ taste, particularly that of Jean Poueigh whose unfavourable review led Satie to extremes. In response, Satie wrote several postcards to Poueigh, one that read“Monsieur et cher ami – vous etes un cul, un cul sans musique! Signe Erik Satie”(Sir and dear friend – you are an arse, an arse without music! Signed Erik Satie) The music critic sued Erik Satie and at his trial he was arrested and beaten by police for yelling ‘arse’ repeatedly. This was coming from a man who went through a phase of eating only white food.


On a more sombre note, it was an unfortunate crossing of timelines that saw one of the most celebrated Russian composers off. “What a terrible coincidence that Papa died the very same day as Stalin” wrote young Svyatoslav Prokofiev to his mother in 1953. As famous and highly regarded a composer as Sergei Prokofiev was in his lifetime, his death went unnoticed due to this unlucky turn of events. On the day of Prokofiev’s funeral, they found it near-impossible to carry the composer’s body from his home to the Soviet Composers’ Union because the streets were packed with Stalin mourners – gathering to communicate genuine and false grief together. His death did get a brief mention though, albeit a few days late and on page 116 of the daily newspaper. The first 115 pages were taken up with Stalin tributes.

And finally, we finish up with the story of Jon Vickers, the legendary Canadian tenor, who stopped singing during an intense hushed moment of Tristan und Isolde to shout out “Shut up with your damn coughing” to an audience member. Vickers was said to dislike publicity, however, with almost 20,000 Youtube hits, he certainly failed to avert media attention with that one.


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Rachel Deloughry

Photo: courtesy of www.jonvickers.org