10 of the strangest, most mysterious and tragic deaths of classical composers
10 of the strangest, most mysterious and tragic deaths of classical composers © Getty  /  FPG

10 of the strangest, most mysterious and tragic deaths of classical composers

The history of classical music is riddled with macabre, sometimes gruesome, and above all tragic deaths. From accidental shootings to electrical mishaps and untreated wounds, here are but a few of the more mysterious and shocking deaths to befall a classical composer...

Charles-Valentin Alkan – Killed by an umbrella stand?

The French composer and pianist Charles-Valentin Alkan was widely considered as one of the 19th century's great piano virtuosos, alongside Chopin and Liszt. An eccentric and hypersensitive artist with a vivid imagination, his withdrawal from almost all public activities, both musical and social, puzzled many to say the least. Though an erroneous and persistent legend claims that the composer was crushed by a bookcase as he reached for his copy of the Talmud, it was later confirmed in a letter by one of his students that the composer was found trapped and crushed by a particularly heavy umbrella stand on 29 March 1888. His concierge eventually heard his painful moans, but it was too late and the composer died later that evening.

One of only two known photographs of Charles-Valentin Alkan
One of only two known photographs of Charles-Valentin Alkan

Alexander Borodin – Don’t stop 'til you drop!

Composers are often known for their outlandish and eccentric lifestyles, rarely with the slightest restraint. Alexander Borodin seems to be no exception, as he literally died mid-dance during a ball at the Medical–Surgical Academy in Saint Petersburg, in 1887. (Alas, no surgeons came to his aid.) A chemist and physician first and foremost, and a composer in his spare time, Borodin had already suffered from cholera and several heart attacks during his lifetime.

Alexander Borodin
Alexander Borodin

Maurice Ravel – More than just a bump to the head?

Maurice Ravel suffered a violent trauma to the head following a taxi accident in 1937. Though at first not deemed life-threatening, medical experts later concluded that the injury exacerbated a pre-existing cerebral and neuro-degenerative condition.

Interestingly, another French composer, César Franck, also suffered a head injury when his hansom cab was struck by a horse-drawn trolley; though ultimately the trauma was not fatal, it nonetheless contributed to a variety of debilitating health issues.

Maurice Ravel
Maurice Ravel © Getty  /  Bettmann

Henry Purcell – Tuberculosis, disgruntled wife or…chocolate?

The great English composer Henry Purcell was taken too soon when he died in 1695 at the age of 36. Various legends still surround his demise, and none of them dull! Though it is most likely that he died of tuberculosis, another widespread theory claims that the composer’s wife locked out her husband to teach him a lesson as he returned from yet another tavern jaunt. Locked out of his home in the cold night air, the composer is said to have caught a violent chill which eventually claimed his life. Another less-than-likely legend claims that Purcell, a great consumer of chocolate, succumbed to chocolate poisoning!

Henry Purcell
Henry Purcell © Getty  /  Print Collector

Guillaume Lekeu – A cold and sweet death

Death by sorbet: what was undoubtedly meant to be a moment of pleasure for the Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu turned out to be quite the contrary. Certainly, Lekeu could not have thought that the sorbet he was eating would eventually lead to his death on 21 January 1894. Having contracted typhoid fever after eating a contaminated bowl of sorbet, his death at the age of 24 is undoubtedly the most unusual in this list! 

Guillaume Lekeu
Guillaume Lekeu

Louis Vierne – A heartstopping performance

Many have a preferred death in mind, though few are unfortunately granted such a luxury. Of all the composers in this list, Louis Vierne is the lucky exception to whom Death granted his desired departure: at his organ, in 1937. During a concert at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, allegedly Vierne’s 1750th concert, the already-ailing composer was about to begin one of two improvisations when he suddenly suffered a fatal heart attack, pressing the low-E pedal as he collapsed and sending his final note echoing throughout the cathedral. 

Louis Vierne
Louis Vierne © Getty  /  Keystone-France

Alessandro Stradella – All's fair in love and war

A notorious womaniser, the Italian composer Alessandro Stradella’s actions finally caught up with him when he was stabbed and killed by an anonymous assassin in Genoa, allegedly hired by Giovanni Battista Lomellino for reasons of amorous jealousy. With the composer having already escaped a previous assassination attempt in Venice in 1677, after absconding with the mistress of his patron, some may say Stradella reaped what he sowed.

Alessandro Stradella
Alessandro Stradella

Sergei Prokofiev – Forever in Stalin’s shadow

Another victim of Josef Stalin, Sergei Prokofiev was often considered a propagandist composer, creating music in favour of the Stalin regime. Little did critics know, his first wife and children were held hostage by the state in Siberia to ensure the composer’s compliance. Unfortunately for Prokofiev, he is today and forever associated with the Russian dictator, for an unusual reason: not only did the composer die on 5 March 1953, the very same day as Josef Stalin, but is also purported to have died from the same affliction - a cerebral haemorrhage. Overshadowed by the death of the Russian dictator, Prokofiev’s body was not moved for three days due to the crowds mourning throughout the streets of Moscow. Furthermore, the composer’s death was only announced six days after his passing.

Sergei Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev © Getty  /  George Rinhart

Claude Vivier – A dark prophecy

A student of Gilles Tremblay and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Montreal-born  Claude Vivier was named Composer of the Year in 1981 by the Canadian Music Council and offered a scholarship allowing him to continue his work in Paris. In 1983 his life was cut brutally short under horrific and mysterious circumstances: the composer was stabbed to death by a male prostitute he had met earlier in the evening. Eerily prophetic, the composer’s final and unpublished work describes an attraction between two men, one of whom is suddenly stabbed by the other.

Claude Vivier
Claude Vivier  /  Boosey & Hawkes

Enrique Granados - Abandon the ship, not the wife

The death of Spanish pianist and composer Enrique Granados is yet another testament to the senseless and futile nature of war. Having accepted an invitation to perform for the president Woodrow Wilson in New York in 1916, Granados missed his initially-planned trip back to Spain. He headed instead to England, from where he then boarded the SS Sussex headed for France. As fate would have it, the ship was torpedoed by the German navy whilst crossing the Channel and partially sank. The composer left the safety of his lifeboat upon seeing his wife struggling in the water, only to drown as he tried to save her. The composer’s cabin was never damaged by the torpedo, and the remaining section of the ship was later towed back to land…

Enrique Granados
Enrique Granados © Getty  /  Popperfoto
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