And You Thought You Had it Bad

In the past few years I have grown to love reading about the lives of composers. It started when the local PBS radio station had “Mahler month” and played his symphonies every night. I went home and read all about him on Wikipedia and instantly had some context for the angst and beautiful despair in his music. So below are some interesting facts about three composers I love. Part of me is grateful for the comparatively tragic-less life I’ve led. But another part of me feels like a slacker when I consider what these men accomplished despite their hardships…or was it because of them?

It may be no coincidence that a great deal of music written by these composers was due to a woman, one way or another.

Gustav Mahler (best known for his symphonies) 

Mahler was born in what is now the Czech Republic, in 1860. His mother had 12 children, but only 6 survived. He was known early in his career for his conducting but wasn’t considered a serious composer until later in his life; even then his critics were merciless and many did not like his works. When he was 14 his little brother died. In 1889, his father, mother, and a sister all died. After he was married, he and his wife had two little girls. The oldest, Maria, died of scarlet fever when she was five. Soon after, Mahler discovered he had a heart defect. He had always suffered from migraines. Apparently Mahler wasn’t the easiest to work with or live with. In 1909 he discovered that his wife was having an affair. He dedicated his eighth symphony to her as a gesture of love, but it didn’t work. She never ended the affair. Mahler became gravely ill with a bacterial infection in New York in 1911. He arrived back in Vienna and died 8 days later, at the age of 51.

Robert Schumann (best known for his piano works and songs, or “lieder”) 

Schumann was born in 1810 in what is now Germany. He was the youngest of five and a musical prodigy, composing by the age of 7. He had a happy childhood but his father, the one who encouraged his music, died when he was 16. To fulfill the terms of his inheritance, Schumann was required to study law. He went back to music by the time he was 20. In his early twenties, Schumann permanently damaged his right hand using a contraption that was supposed to strengthen his hand. When he was 23, his brother and sister-in-law died from cholera and Schumann tried to commit suicide. In 1834, he fell in love with Clara Wieck – he was 24, she was 15. Her father wouldn’t give his blessing, so they had a secret relationship. Schumann had to wait until 1840 to marry Clara, the year she turned 21. That year, Schumann wrote 168 songs. 168 songs! Talk about needing an outlet. Schumann was rarely given credit for his accomplishments in his lifetime, despite the fact that he was so generous with complimenting other composers. In 1844, Schumann began having strange delusions and mentioned having a “A” ringing in his ears at all times (what we know now as tinnitus). The symptoms went away temporarily, but after 1850 they came back and never left. He began to hear “angelic voices” all the time, that sometimes turned into “demonic” voices. He attempted suicide again in 1854 and then committed himself to a mental institution for fear of hurting Clara. Two days before he died Clara went to visit him; he recognized her but could not speak. Researchers now believe his symptoms may have been caused by mercury poisoning, as mercury was a treatment for syphilis at that time. He died at the age of 46.


Ludwig van Beethoven
 (best known for, well, pretty much everything he wrote) 

Most people know a little about Beethoven’s life. He is considered one of the greatest composers ever. He was born in Germany in 1770. Out of seven children, only Ludwig and two brother survived. He was a prodigy but his father tried to exploit success by saying Beethoven was younger than he was on event posters. When he was 17, his mother died and his father turned to alcohol, so Beethoven took it upon himself to take care of his younger brothers. Unlike the composers above, Beethoven had great success during his lifetime, but only professionally. He never married, although he fell in love 3 women; he wrote “Fur Elise” for one of them. Beethoven began having problems with his hearing when he was 26. 26! This drove him to write a letter to his brothers, basically a suicide note, but stated that he would will himself to carry on through his music. By 1814, when he was 44, he was almost completely deaf. He took care of his brother Carl, who had tuberculosis, until Carl died. He took in his nephew when he felt his sister-in-law was unfit to be his mother. Beethoven’s strict discipline drove the nephew to attempt suicide by shooting himself in the head. He survived and last saw Beethoven in early 1827. Beethoven died that year at the age of 57, during a thunderstorm.

A few more quick ones:

Frederic Chopin was always a sickly person and died at the age of 39 of tuberculosis.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died at the age of 35, penniless, and was buried in a mass grave.

Johannes Brahms (my favorite composer) took 21 years to write his first symphony because he felt he couldn’t live up to the expectations of himself and his audience after Beethoven. He also was in love with Clara Schumann and gave up two years of his life and work to help take care of her family after Robert died. Brahms never married.

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