Musical Credentials: Outrageous Composers

Friday, July 01, 2011

Though it's sometimes perceived as the most serious and starched of art forms, classical music has been the domain of some pretty outrageous characters. Check out the eccentric credentials of these composers-gone-wild and tell us who was truly the rock star of his day.

Franz Liszt

  • Dubbed the world’s first rock star
  • A womanizer, he lured a French countess away from her husband
  • Broke so many piano strings in performances that stronger instrument was invented

Carlo Gesualdo

  • Married his first cousin
  • Had his wife and her lover killed and displayed the bodies
  • Used avant-garde harmonies in the 16th century

George Antheil

  • Published an autobiography called “Bad Boy of Music”
  • Scored pieces for airplane engines, player pianos, etc.
  • Wrote a nationally syndicated relationship advice column

Niccolo Paganini

  • Fame as a violinist was matched only by his reputation as a gambler and womanizer
  • Contracted syphilis
  • Used opium

Claude Debussy

  • Left his wife for another woman
  • Wrote scandalous pieces, breaking free from traditional harmonies


Hector Berlioz

  • Used opium for musical inspiration
  • Married a woman who only spoke English; he only spoke French

Who have we missed? Please leave your comments below:

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Comments [21]

Frank Feldman

Scriabin, esp. in his later years, ranks very high in the classical composer fruitcake competition, IMHO.

Jul. 08 2011 12:51 AM
Ray from Shorewood, IL

I agree with Sally that Charles Ives music is way out there especially for an Ivy League insurance agent. I know that this is reversed from the intention of the question but just listen to his music.

Jul. 07 2011 07:12 PM
TC Nye

Maybe not in the same league. Probably in a league of his own. Charles Mingus. Read his autobiography, "Beneath the Underdog."

Jul. 07 2011 04:12 PM
Bardin Levavy

Anyone for Charles Valentin Alkan?

Jul. 05 2011 10:12 PM

Carlo Gesualdo has my vote as #1. Having people murdered is pretty wild and crazy.

Jul. 05 2011 09:31 PM
Kika from Santiago - Chile

My vote goes to Paganini, but almost every one had something crazy. Maybe the genes responsible for musical genious, peculiarities, sexual risky behavior, and most certainly real madness, are next to each other and they interact among themselves. What do the geneticists say, now that the human genome was unraveled?

Jul. 05 2011 02:44 PM
Richard from Englewood

It comes down to a definition of terms:
(1)Crazy - Schumann was institutionalized after all.
(2)Wild in Private Life - hands down to Franz Liszt. Although Leonard Bernstein's jumping into bed with Copeland's male "trick" before his very eyes, in Copeland's apartment, is a reasonable runner-up.
(3)Wild Musically - just listen to Ives' America or the 4th symphony!
(4)Eccentric - good God! The list is neverending

Jul. 05 2011 01:19 PM

When Simone Kermes sings him- my vote goes to Vivaldi. Two redheads rocking the joint.

Jul. 05 2011 11:39 AM
Sally Evans from Ossining NY

Interesting criteria for 'wild and crazy'. I don't know what John Cage's sex life was like nor do I care. But I will never forget the first time I heard some of his music. It was as out there as anything I'd ever heard. And Charles Ives would be on my list as well.

Jul. 05 2011 11:38 AM
Michael Meltzer

If "Rock Star" still includes packing concert halls and making lots of money, we're leaving out Louis Moreau Gottschalk America refused to acknowledge its own composers, conductors and performers until after World War One, but European audiences had no such prejudices and Gottschalk was wildly successful over there.

Jul. 05 2011 10:08 AM
John J. Christano from Franklin NJ

Tough questions. Your criteria only prove that there is a thin line between insanity and genius.

How about Beethoven? How crazy is it to try and write a symphony while deaf...and have it become an all-time hit?

Jul. 05 2011 10:07 AM
Ferenc from Queens

I'm not sure what is meant by "wild and crazy" , but if it means drunken and debauched then we are leaving out some good candidates in the cases of Arensky, and Mussorgsky; if we are looking at musically innovative and daring then Beethoven and Cage could be added to the list.
I think Allen Walker's three volume biography of Liszt has done a lot to put Liszt's early virtuoso touring life in perspective, and dispell many of the hyperbolic myths of his early career. His later musical life was indeed highly influential and innovative, and still requires much study and attention by most of us.

Jul. 05 2011 09:53 AM
Michael Meltzer

Point taken, but you won't get this stuff from Grove's.

Jul. 05 2011 09:01 AM
FCM from LIC


Just because you own an old copy of Grove does not mean that the community wants to listen to you recite it.

Jul. 05 2011 08:36 AM

From a compositional standpoint, I'll offer Leroy Anderson, Anna Russell (composition/arrangement), and Peter Schickele ("O, Little Town of Hackensack" gets me every time!).

Jul. 04 2011 06:35 PM
Frank Feldman

You neglected to mention Percy Grainger, and his penchant for, ahem, unusual sexual practices, i.e., S & M.

Jul. 04 2011 05:01 PM

I beg to differ on the bit about Berlioz not speaking English. He had learned enough to read Byron and Shakespeare. He was in London in '48. His Memoires contain at least one English word, a reaction to news of revolt on the Continent: "Horrible."

Do I think he was wild and crazy? Yes, but he wasn't the wildest and craziest ... Not sure who qualifies for that. Paganini was certainly among the first "rock stars," but I can't ignore Berlioz's stories about Liszt giving concerts while hung over ... My vote goes to Liszt ...

Jul. 04 2011 06:54 AM
Jaime Jaramillo

Don't forget that Anatheil, along with Hedy Lamarr invented frequency hopping, the basis of modern wireless communications.

Jul. 04 2011 05:42 AM
Michael Meltzer

Sorry, the Liszt dates are 1820 and 1825, not 1920 etc.

Jul. 04 2011 01:54 AM
Michael Meltzer

Historically, extrusion wire was introduced to piano manufacture in the early 1830's. Until that time, wire was drawn by hand, and not only lacked tensile strength, but had nodes and other imperfections that generated secondary false fundamental tones.
Liszt's significant concert debut at age 9 was in 1920, by 1925 he was a major concert attraction. He and everyone else of course broke strings, it was common practice to have three pianos on stage in those days. When enough strings were broken in #1, the pianist would go to #2, and a stringer would go to #1. When the pianist went to #3, the stringer would go to #2, and a tuner to #1. The pianist would return to #1, restrung and tuned, and the "musical chairs" would continue in a circle.
This went on until about 1832 or 1833. Extrusion wire also made possible the manufacture of industrial cable and the development of the modern elevator.

Jul. 04 2011 01:45 AM
Michael Meltzer

I'm surprised that you have included Carlo Gesualdo, for the infinitesmal air time he has seen on WQXR, but he has my vote.
To take slight issue with a couple of statements, Liszt wasn't the first rock-star, Paganaini was, and about 30 years earlier.
I wouldn't call syphilis or opium wild and crazy, just self-destructive. Finally, to say that Liszt broke so many strings that a stronger instrument was invented is to reduce the intiguing history of the evolution of the modern piano from a great saga to an absurdity.
Do some reading: following from Bartolomeo Cristofori through Heinrich Engelhard Steinway is like following the Atomic Bomb from Marie Curie through Robert Oppenheimer.

Jul. 04 2011 01:02 AM

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