The Arts

Classical Composers and Their Bizarre Quirks

Each of us has his and her own quirks. But others may go too far – and more often than not, they are seen in people who are perceived to be as geniuses in their own field.

Perhaps it is not so surprising because there’s a “thin line between genius and insanity,” as one quote says. It’s no wonder that some of the greatest classical music composers – truly musical geniuses – had really extreme eccentricities, which may or may not have directly inspired or contributed to their work.

1. Arnold Schoenberg

Triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13)

Arnold Schoenberg side profile

Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg is widely regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. He was the creator of the twelve-tone technique, which led him to become recognized as one of the innovators of atonal music.

Having a highly superstitious nature, Schoenberg dreaded the number 13. He was born on September 13, 1874, and he considered the date of his birth as an evil omen. His fear of the number 13 was so irrational that when he noticed that the title of one of his works, “Moses and Aaron” had 13 letters, he omitted the second “a” in “Aaron” to make it 12.

On September 13, 1950, Schoenberg turned 76. A friend joked to him that the numbers “7” and “6” would add up to “13.” But for the composer, it was a bad joke that upset and depressed him, and he believed that he would not live past this age. And that happened. Schoenberg died on Friday the 13th — July 13, 1951 – a quarter before midnight.

Listen to Schoenberg’s music below:

2. Erik Satie

“White food” diet (among many other eccentricities)

black and white photo of Erik Satie

Erik Satie may be the most eccentric classical music composer that you would have ever come across. He was a 19th-century French composer primarily known for his famous three piano compositions, collectively called Gymnopedies. But he also composed pieces with weird, comical titles, such as Véritables Préludes flasques (pour un chien) (“True Flabby Preludes for a Dog”) and Embryons desséchés (“Dessicated Embryos”).

As you might expect of Satie, he had his shares of his own weirdness. He owned twelve identical gray suits, but he would wear only one again and again until it wore out, after which he would wear another one. He hated the Sun and always had a hammer in his pocket to protect himself. He even founded his own church, the Metropolitan Art Church of Jesus the Conductor, with himself as its only member.

After Satie died in 1925, numerous letters were found at his home, which he had written to himself. One of these letters described his diet, which was no less weird – consisting of nothing but white foods: eggs, coconuts, sugar, shredded animal bones, cream cheese, rice, and so on.

Listen to Satie’s “Gymnopedies” piano suite below:

3. Richard Wagner

Cross-dressing and daily enemas

Black and white photo of Richard Wagner

The great German Romantic composer Richard Wagner suffered from erysipelas, a type of cellulitis. This condition led him to painful and terrible rashes. He attempted (although unsuccessfully) to treat this condition with enemas, which he administered to himself twice daily. It may have been the reason for his predilection towards cushions and satin robes.

However, Wagner’s letters to his milliner (hat-maker) give hints that he was most likely a cross-dresser. Many of his letters include requests for “graceful costumes” with lots of lace and other feminine designs, and usually in pink. These dresses were for his wife Cosima (Franz Liszt’s illegitimate daughter). But Cosima, a diarist known for writing with great detail, never mentioned them in her accounts.

When Wagner died of a heart attack in Vienna in 1883, at age 69, he was reportedly dressed in a pink wedding gown, according to rumors.

Listen to Wagner’s music below:

4. Anton Bruckner

A love for counting and skulls

Anton Bruckner

Move over, Count Dracula! Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) suffered a particular kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder, called “numeromania,” which is an obsession with counting anything. He carefully maintained lists of how many “Hail Mary”s or “Our Father”s that he read out every night. As you might expect, his obsession with numbers extended to his work. For example, his finished scores and other works reflect this obsession with musical proportion: each bar is numbered, in units of 1 to 4, 1 to 8, 1 to 12, and so on, sometimes together with detailed harmonic analyses.

Even a lot weirder, Bruckner also had a morbid fascination towards skulls – in particular, skulls of dead composers. In 1888, he was there when Franz Schubert’s remains were exhumed. Bruckner seized Schubert’s skull and cradled it in the same manner that he did to Beethoven’s skull some years before.

Listen to Anton Bruckner’s music below:

5. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Fart jokes and cat sounds

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, detail from a portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Mozart is everybody’s idea of a child prodigy and musical genius: he composed his first piece when he was only five years old; at six, he performed before imperial courts; and at 11, he wrote and performed his first piano concerto. He composed many of his best-known concertos, symphonies, operas, and parts of the now-famous Requiem, which was left unfinished due to his untimely death at age 35.

Much has been said about Mozart’s personality as a “party person” and his fascination with scatology – that is, farting and pooping. In one of his funnier notes, Mozart recalled that there was a stinky odor entering the room. When his mother suspected that he was the one who farted, Mozart put his finger inside his rear and then sniffed it to confirm that she was right. He even composed a canon called “Leck mich im Arsch” (“Lick me in the arse”), which is thought to be a party piece that he wrote for his friends.

Less known about Mozart is that he was also a cat person – he loved cats so much that he would mimic them. One time, he was rehearsing an opera with his singers. Out of boredom and restlessness, he suddenly jumped over tables and chairs, meowing and tumbling. He even wrote a piece, known in English as the “Cat Duet,” in which a woman replies to her husband’s questions but meows, until the poor guy has no other choice but to say “meow,” too.

Listen to Mozart’s “Nun liebes Weichben” (“The Cat Duet”) below:

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