Thursday, November 20, 2014

Strange deaths of some French composers

Odilon Redon: "À Edgar Poe" (1882)
The Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (collaborator with Molière, court composer of Louis XIV, the Sun King) died of gangrene. In those days—the late 17th century—before the development of the modern symphony orchestra, large ensembles kept time not under a conductor's baton, but rather by having someone stamp out the beat with a large staff to the side. Lully had been doing exactly this when he struck his foot so hard it apparently bled, got infected, and killed him. (Lully had declined to have it amputated.) He was 54.

For a long time, it was believed that Charles-Valentin Alkan (a composer and piano virtuoso of the same generation as Chopin and Liszt) died when he accidentally brought a bookcase down on himself as he reached for a Talmud on the very top shelf. However, this seems to be apocryphal: apparently it may have been an umbrella stand, not a bookcase, that was found on top of his body. He was 75.

Ernest Chausson—student of Franck, friend of the symbolist painter Odilon Redon—died when his bicycle collided with a brick wall at the bottom of a hill. There is not much more to say about the matter. He was 44.

All three are worth listening to, but it's Chausson's premature death that strikes me as the worst loss for music. Here's his arresting, yearning Poème, op. 25, for violin and piano:

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