Behind the Music

Working for a symphony orchestra, I come across a lot of interesting characters. From the musicians who make up the orchestra to the patrons who attend our concerts, the full spectrum of humanity’s quirks are on full display.

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But one of my favorite parts of my job is reading and writing about the people who wrote the music we perform today. From Beethoven’s hearing loss to Mozart’s mysterious patron requesting what would be his final Requiem, the real life stories of the composers whose genius birthed the greatest music we’ve ever known is often stranger than fiction.

For example, this past weekend, my orchestra performed a piece called Symphonie fantastique, by French composer Hector Berlioz. While the music itself is beautiful, haunting, and bewitching (especially the final movement), it is the story behind it that is the stuff novels are written from.

In 1827, Berlioz was a 24-year-old struggling composer in Paris. After attending a performance of Hamlet put on by a troupe of traveling English actors, he fell immediately in love with the play’s Ophelia, a beautiful young actress named Harriet Smithson. Berlioz wrote her countless love letters, to the point of filling her dressing room with them, but the actress, frightened of this obsessed stalker’s fan’s attentions, never answered them.

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For three years, Berlioz held on to his unrequited passion for a woman he had never met, despite becoming engaged to another young woman who ultimately broke it off (Berlioz actually planned to kill his former fiance and her mother, but got cold feet. That’s a story for ANOTHER day.). The composer eventually found an outlet by writing Symphonie fantastique, the story of a young artist in love with a beautiful woman. The artist attempts to kill himself through opium, instead producing a horrible vision in which the artist kills his beloved and is surrounded by a hideous throng of sorcerers and devils before he awakens (cheery stuff, eh?).

When the work premiered in 1832, Smithson just happened to be in the audience. Upon realizing the piece was written for her, and that Berlioz still loved her, she relented and met the composer the next day. Get this: Smithson and Berlioz ended up getting married a year later. Crazy, right? (FYI, they didn’t live happily ever after, since Berlioz didn’t speak English and Smithson didn’t speak French, and apparently Berlioz eventually realized that worshipping his lady love from afar was much more fun that actually living with her.)

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Take another composer, Franz Liszt. Insanely talented as a pianist and composer, Liszt gave concerts across Europe, often four or five a week, and was showered with honors and adulations. A true showman who had a mesmerizing stage presence, Liszt’s audiences adored him. Women fought over silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves that Liszt had worn. Broken piano strings from his concerts were made into bracelets. Swarming fans tried to attain locks of his hair, and even fought over his coffee dregs and cigar stumps. Women fainted and went into hysterics in his presence (kind of like the reception Elvis had in his day).

Medical professionals even coined a term for the hysteria in 1842: “Lisztomania.” Unlike “Beatlemania” of the ’60s, Lisztomania was believed to be an actual contagion, and doctors sought to immunize the public against it. Of course, Liszt was just the rock star of his day, and much like “Bieber Fever,” it died out when his popularity waned.

I just adore learning the stories behind classical masterpieces and the people who created them, much like finding out what inspired my favorite authors to write my favorite books. Since I’m writing a symphonic murder mystery, I’ve considered having a blog on my future website dedicated to anecdotes about composers. I’d love to call it The Decomposing Composer. What do you think?