folie et musique classique
folie et musique classique

The Top 10 Madmen of Classical Music

The mental health of certain historic classical music figures leaves a lot to be desired. From Schumann who heard voices to Schönberg who had a crippling fear of the number 13, here are some of the maddest (but most inspired) artists of the last few centuries.

 It may be difficult to define madness but it’s easy to see when things aren’t quite right – when a person tries to walk on water, to kill his wife or kiss cadavers... 

 The Visionary... Robert Schumann 

 In 1854, Clara Schumann wrote about the hallucinations her husband suffered from in her journal, “He says that it’s glorious music played on instruments with a beautiful tone like nothing that has been heard on Earth”. 

 Schumann heard sounds, he wrote of “a whistle that never stopped night or day”. As he got older the sounds became clearer and sometimes turned into music. 

The composer had frequent episodes.
Exhausted, a few years before his death, he asked to be hospitalised saying, “I can no longer control myself”. His wish was granted and he ended his life in a psychiatric hospital where, in lucid moments, continued to compose.

 The Serial Killer... Carlo Gesauldo 

Carlo Gesualdo, prince de Venosa
Carlo Gesualdo, prince de Venosa

 In a 2010 an article appeared in the Guardian titled ‘Carlo Gesauldo: Composer or Crazed Psycopath?’. The Italian is one of the most famous madrigals in musical history, but he is also infamous for having murdered his wife and her lover in 1590. 

 Originally from a renowned Neopolitan family, he came to be known as ‘The Prince of Musicians’. In 1586 he married Donna Maria, one of the most beautiful women in the city. Four years later he found out that she was cheating on him and killed his wife and her lover, with the help of several men.
 

 As he was not formally brought before justice, the Italian people took care of ruining his name and reputation. Gesauldo also inflicted pain on himself, carrying out flogging sessions “to cast out the demons”.
 

 The Triskaidekaphobe... Schönberg 

Arnold Schönberg en 1949 ©FredStein/Maxppp
Arnold Schönberg en 1949 ©FredStein/Maxppp

 If you’re scared of Friday the 13th Arnold Schönberg’s life story may make you feel a little better. The composer wasn’t only scared of Friday the 13th but also the number itself, a fear known as triskaidekaphobia (not to be confused with hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia, the fear of the number 666.)  

 The Austrian composer was born of the 13th of September 1874 and... wait for it... died on the 13th of July 1951, at 76 years old an age he dreaded because 7 and 6 add up to 13. His fear was so great that when he wrote the opera ‘Moses and Aron’ he got rid of one letter from ‘Aaron’ so that the title would only have 13 letters, rather than 12. 

 The Strange Next Door Neighbour... Erik Satie 

Erik Satie à son harmonium
Erik Satie à son harmonium

 Erik Satie lived in a strange, disordered state in his tiny room in Arcueil... the first people to enter after his death found identical, unworn suits, unused umbrellas, handkerchiefs, rubbish and numerous unopened letter writing sets. 

 This bizarre apartment in many ways reflects Satie’s unconventional nature... In 1897, after having composed ‘les Pièces froides’, he bought 7 mustard yellow, velvet suits and went on to wear them for the next 7 years. This strange behaviour led to him being nicknamed ‘The Velvet Gentleman of Montmartre’.

 The Mysterious Loner.... Glenn Gould 

 The Canadian pianist, world famous for his wonderful, faithful interpretation of Bach, was a musical prodigy. However, he suddenly ended his career as a concert pianist at 32 choosing to only record in the studio from then on. Glenn Gould preferred silence. 

 This retreat marked the beginning of a period of deep anxiety for Gould; he exhibited almost autistic behaviour. He shut himself away, touched nothing with his hands and developed a phobia of sickness and death. After a few hours of sleep he would drink a glass of milk,
eat a couple of pieces of fruit and two eggs. This would be his only meal of the day. 

 On his rare outings, Glenn Gould would wear an overcoat, gloves, a cap and hand warmers, no matter the season!  

The Jesus Impersonator.... Alexandre Scriabine 

Alexandre Scriabine en 1909
Alexandre Scriabine en 1909

 One day Alexander Scribaine tried to walk across the surface of Lac Léman. On another, he attempted to make his wife float in the air (no injuries reported). His friends said that he seemed to fly rather than walk. The composer wanted to get closer to the heavens, in every sense. 

 Born on Christmas Day, he had a complex relationship with religion, which can be felt in his music. His last work, Mysterium, was made to prepare humanity for the final salvation, a sort of apocalypse in which humans would be replaced with ‘more noble’ beings. Scriabine wanted the performance of his piece to last for 7 days, in the foothills of the Himalayas or in an Indian theosophical park, but he never finished writing the score. 

 The Cadaver Kisser... Anton Bruckner 

Anton Burckner avait une fascination morbide ©A.DagliOrti/GettyImages
Anton Burckner avait une fascination morbide ©A.DagliOrti/GettyImages

 Anton Bruckner’s students must have recoiled in class... Was he a strict teacher? Not really. Demanding? Not exactly. No, the Austrian composer kept a photo of his mother’s corpse in the classroom. What an atmosphere! 

That’s not the only instance of his obsession with cadavers. In 1888, Bruckner kissed Beethoven’s head, then Schubert’s a few months later. He also tried to see his cousin’s body and that of the emperor Maximilian, without success.  

The Young Madman... Mozart 

 Can one be completely sane when they compose so prolifically and start writing music at the age of 6? The link between genius and madness is hard to pinpoint but Mozart definitely had a few eccentricities that could make you believe he was not quite from this world. 

 He composed before he could speak or write. If he heard a piece of music once he could transcribe it from memory. Some of his works are so powerful that they have been said to cause miracles, such as curing epilepsy.  

 The Manic Depressive... Hugo Wolf 

Le compositeur autrichien Hugo Wolf était malade ©A.DagliOrti/GettyImages
Le compositeur autrichien Hugo Wolf était malade ©A.DagliOrti/GettyImages

 The story of this composer is less well known as it is less eccentric. Hugo Wolf was affected by manic depression, a disease related to bipolarity. He was very sensitive and could be unbearable, even to his friends. From about the age of 37 he oscillated between periods of depression and euphoria. 

 This great composer was said to be one of the harshest music critics, he was merciless, mean, unreliable and unpredictable. Hugo Wolf tried to commit suicide by drowning towards the end of his life after several serious psychiatric episodes. 

 The Temperamental Pianist... Vladimir Horowitz 

Vladimir Horowitz en 1988 à son piano si précieux ©JackMitchell/GettyImages
Vladimir Horowitz en 1988 à son piano si précieux ©JackMitchell/GettyImages

 Horowitz would not let anybody, other than his piano tuner, go near his piano or even touch it. Only once did he go against this rule and let Murray Perahia play it. After the first piece, Horowitz couldn’t bear it and never let anyone touch his instrument again. 

 He had difficult relationships with others; it was hard to be liked by the pianist, Franz Mohr, Head Steinway Piano Tuner (one of the most important people to Horowitz), attests. 

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