Mental Floss

6 Classical Scandals Straight from the Tabloids

Mangesh & Jason
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1. First Conductor Dies from Conducting

You probably haven't heard of the poor guy, but Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632"“1687) was the first documented conductor. Before him, most musical groups just followed the lead of their first violinist or their keyboard player.

Lully was the first musician to use a baton. He was also the first musician to ever die by baton.

Let's rewind back to his technique though. Following in the tradition of other soft walking leaders, Lully carried around a really big stick: one that was six feet long, which he pounded on the ground in time to the music. Unfortunately, this enormous staff proved to be his undoing. One day, while merrily beating time (in a concert to celebrate the king's return to health), he stuck the wood into his foot by mistake. He developed gangrene and died. Not a good role model for conductors worldwide.

2. Haydn Nearly Gets Castrated

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732"“1809) was the father of the symphony as we know it. During more than 30 years of experimentation, he came up with the form that has influenced composers to this day. But as a little boy, Haydn was known for something else—his beautiful voice. He was the star soprano in his church choir. As he got older and his voice was about to change, his choirmaster came to him with a little proposition. If he would consent to a small operation, he could keep his beautiful soprano voice forever. Haydn readily agreed and was just about to undergo the surgery when his father found out and put a stop to the whole thing.

3. Paganini Allegedly Sells Soul to Devil! (Fetches Good Price)

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4. Cross-Dressing Berlioz Nearly Snuffs Out Rival

The renowned French composer Hector Berlioz (1803"“1869) was, among other things, wacky. While away in Rome studying on a scholarship, he heard that his beloved girlfriend, Camille, back in Paris, had started seeing another guy. Furious, he resolved to kill his rival. But he needed to disguise himself. So he bought a gun, put on a dress, and boarded a train for Paris. Halfway home, however, Berlioz chickened out and threw himself into the Mediterranean. Luckily for us, and for music, he was fished out (minus the gun).

5. Liszt's Lucky Fans Receive Canine Surprise

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6. Peter Tchaikovsky Nearly Loses His Head

The magnificent Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840"“1893) was yet another in the line of geniuses who sometimes came unhinged. Tchaikovsky loved to compose, but he hated to conduct, mainly because he was paralyzed with a fear that his head might fall off. Unfortunately, conducting opportunities came up way too often for him—including the gala opening concert of Carnegie Hall in 1891. Neurotic to the core, Tchaikovsky always conducted with one hand while using the other to keep a firm grip on his chin.

Ed Note: This list was adapted and embellished from Condensed Knowledge, available for purchase here. 

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