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Danse Macabre: Terrifying Tales from Classical Music History

La grant danse macabre des hommes et des femme, by Nicolas le Rouge, 1496
La grant danse macabre des hommes et des femme, by Nicolas le Rouge, 1496

It's easy to look at classical music like it's in a museum - clean, pristine, wholesome works, with their composers little more than names on placards beside them. But, as you've probably guessed, "clean and pristine" is not always accurate. For Halloween, let's take a little detour into the underworld of classical music - and explore a few of the sordid details there.

Everyone loves a good ghost story, after all. 

Help from the Other Side

The end of Robert Schumann's life was unhappy. Suffering from syphilis and rapidly deteriorating mental health, he sometimes hallucinated the spirits of Mendelssohn and Schubert, who, he said, forced him to write music they dictated to him. But that's not the weirdest part. In 1853, three years before he died, Schumann wrote his only violin concerto - which was never performed or published, as his friends and family worried it would reveal too much of his mental instability. The concerto was locked away and nobody heard of it again - until one fateful day nearly 80 years later.

Two grand-nieces of the great violinist Joseph Joachim attended a seance in London in 1933. They had done this kind of thing many times before, as both sisters were fascinated with the occult. The spiritualist event proceeded mostly uneventfully, until the medium announced that a spirit voice was communicating with her - and that his name was Schumann.

Schumann's ghost directed the sisters to find and perform one of his unpublished works, which he said could be found at a Berlin museum. Sure enough, a short while later, they found the manuscript at the Prussian State Library in Berlin. It was Schumann's previously-undiscovered violin concerto. 

Witches, Wizards, and Warlock

Ah, Peter Warlock. A polarizing figure in his time, he picked fights with everybody and flouted social mores at every opportunity. Legend has it that he enjoyed bicycling naked through quiet residential streets, and that's mild compared to his other escapades... so it's no wonder that, aside from composing and writing blazing criticism of his peers, Warlock also dabbled in the occult. Here's a quote from a letter he sent to his former teacher Colin Taylor:

"Since my voyages of discovery during the last six months have opened up for me such amazing and far-reaching vistas of hitherto undreamed-of possibilities, I thought you might find a new interest in life by following a similar track... Please do not mention the books I have told you of to anyone else. This is important. When you have read them you will see that this kind of book must not on any account fall into unfit hands... there are far more dangerous books than obscene novels in existence."

Was he writing about certain alchemical texts or tomes of black magic? Only Taylor and Warlock know. In any case, that's not the full extent of Warlock's interest in occultism. He once tried to attend a seance in Dublin, but was turned away, as the medium said she sensed he was "dogged by evil influences." He also grew a peculiar little goatee beard, which he said increased his confidence; apparently, it was one of his "little magical energy-saving devices," whatever that means.

Bruckner's Bodies

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to hold a human skull?

Anton Bruckner didn't have to. He was obsessed with dead bodies, including his own, and left detailed instructions on how his corpse should be embalmed when he died. He also attended Liszt's funeral and Beethoven's exhumation, when Ludwig's body had to be relocated in 1888. As officials opened the coffin, likely to take skeletal measurements, Bruckner rushed forward to take a closer look at the great composer's remains. He scooped up Beethoven's skull, held it in his arms, and kissed it, before being forcibly pulled away. Later on, he discovered one of the lenses in his eyeglasses was missing, and he was overjoyed to think that it might have fallen into the coffin to stay with Beethoven's remains for eternity.

Bruckner was also there when Schubert was exhumed for the same purpose. This time, not only did he seize the skull and cradle it in much the same manner as he had Beethoven's, he refused to let it go until he was allowed to place it back in the coffin himself -- shortly after which, he was forcibly removed from the gathering. 

Haydn's Missing Head

Imagine this: you're a simple gravedigger, tasked with exhuming and relocating bodies to a new graveyard. You open the coffin to make sure that everything's alright in there, checking that grave robbers haven't ransacked it, and at first glance, it seems just fine. But then, you notice something: the head is missing.

This is exactly what happened when Joseph Haydn's body was exhumed in 1820. Apparently, a few days after his burial, two of his friends had snuck into the cemetery, decapitated his corpse, and dashed away with Haydn's head. They kept it for years, before finally relinquishing it to the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna in 1895. 

But when Haydn's headless corpse was discovered in 1820, officials demanded that his head be returned to his body. The friends who had stolen the head sent a skull to be buried with Haydn's body in the new location. The only problem was that it wasn't Haydn's skull, a fact that came to light when the Society of the Friends of Music acquired the real one 75 years later.

Ultimately, Haydn's real head wasn't reunited with his body until 1954. Whose skull was buried with Haydn's body in 1820, then? Why did it take so long for the Society of the Friends of Music to come forward with the true skull? And what did they do with it for all those years? All these questions remain, but one is answered: what happened to the mystery skull that spent so long in Haydn's coffin?

Believe it or not, it's still there.

Most of the research for this post is attributed to the book Beethoven's Skull: Dark, Strange, and Fascinating Tales from the World of Classical Music and Beyond, by Tim Rayborn.

Kendall Todd is the Content Manager for GBH Music.