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Classical 101

Elizabeth Lunday Reveals the Secret Lives of Great Composers

Music history. If the phrase doesn't conjure images of a schoolmarm rapping knuckles with a hickory stick, it might just stick in your throat like a crust of dry bread. This is unfortunate, for what is history but a deep, dense mesh of people's stories, some funny, some sad, some strange? And what is music if not beautiful, impassioned, relaxing, joyous? How does such a melange of excitement and beauty get drilled down to what most might consider a skeleton of dry, dry bones? We might look to the schoolmarm for one answer to this last question, since she may well have buried the human stories of musical works and their authors beneath mounds of random facts. And if you've ever sat down to read the phone book, you know that facts alone do not a narrative make. In Secret Lives of Great Composers:What your Teachers Never Told You about the World's Musical Masters (Quirk Books, 2009), author Elizabeth Lunday has put the "story" back in history and, in doing so, has brought back to life the composers who for so long have seemed all to dead, all too dull, and all too distant from us today. Lundy starts by making the very good point that composers of art music were never the uptight crowd many of us envision today. From the introduction:

"The idea of 'outrageous musician' is much older than rock and roll a lot of composers led truly outrageous lives. Mozart had a potty mouth, Schumann had syphillis, and Bernstein had an ego bigger than New York City. Bach wrote the Well-Tempered Clavier while locked up in the clink, Wagner cranked out Lohengrin while on the run from creditors, and Puccini crafted Madama Butterfly while trying to keep his wife from hunting down his (latest) mistress."

These are broad outlines of just a few of the more outrageous composer anecdotes out there. And these stories do make for good, even if not always entirely accurate, copy. There is some dispute, for example, about whether or not Schumann had syphilis. We do know he went mad, threw himself into the Rhine, and spent the rest of his life in an institution. That's outrageous (though sadly so) enough, isn't it? But for this type of book perhaps we need not be too pushy when it comes to apocrypha.  It's all about the good read, and Lundy's paperback volume, amply illustrated from cover to cover with graphic novel-style artwork by Mario Zucca, isn't vying for status among peer-reviewed musicological monographs.  Secret Lives of Great Composers is an anywhere-anytime book: the volume is sized just right for tucking into your briefcase or purse, and the stories unfold in sections brief enough to tackle while sitting in the dentist's waiting room. Don't like to get into thick plots during a flight? Secret Lives is your next vacation book. Read while on vacation? In a sense, this book is a vacation, in that each story in it is truly a trip. One of my favorite composer stories (which we are to believe is true - at least the composer writes about it in his memoirs) is that of Hector Berlioz's triple murder plot.  The composer of the Symphonie fantastique and, later, La Damnation de Faust was on his Prix de Rome stay in Italy when the mother of his fiancée, Camille Moke, wrote to tell him that she preferred her daughter marry the rich piano maker, Camille Pleyel. Lunday sums the story up well:

"To put it lightly, Berlioz lost it. He decided his only recourse was to murder Pleyel, his fiancée, and her mother. He developed an elaborate plan to disguise himself as a ladies' maid so that he could enter his beloved's house unsuspected; he even purchased a dress, wig, and hat as part of the plot. He stole a pair of pistols and armed himself with vials of strychnine and laudanum."

I've always suspected the laudanum, literally the opiate of the masses in the nineteenth century, was for Berlioz, not the Moke-Pleyel trio. The story ends with Berlioz somewhere between Italy and the south of France discovering that he had left his disguise in a coach.  When he reached Nice, Lunday writes, "he had returned to his senses. He consoled himself by writing an orchestral overture." That orchestral overture, if you care to know, was his Le roi Lear overture. The stories in Lunday's book go on an on, one wild romp after another through the pages of time. And, if you're into this kind of thing, Secret Lives also tells us that Berlioz was a Saggitarius, Bach was an Aries, and Wagner was a Gemini. What better way to commune with the composers who wrote the music that enriches your life? Those composers were people, with passions and fancies just like yours.  Far from dead, they jump off the pages of Lunday's book with all the life of a good story.