Composers I Have Known and Loved

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

When I was a kid, I had no interest in classical music and I don't even remember hearing any in my home as I was growing up. But there was one particular event that occurred when I was about eight years old that was to foreshadow my later passion for classical music. I had discovered a book my mother had in her library that featured biographical sketches of the world's great composers. I don't remember its exact title, but I can still see the book in my mind's eye and feel its heft. For some reason, even though I was not yet familiar with classical music, I loved reading about these composers, and since I had a head for dates, I soon memorized the years of their births and deaths. In those days, the great composers started with Bach and ended with Stravinsky (who was then listed as 1882--), and seemingly constituted about a dozen in all. Early in my life, then, the stories of these men (and they were of course all men) impressed themselves upon me vividly. It's odd -- I don't remember many books I read as a child, but the memory of lying across my bed absorbed in my mother's book of great composers is still clear to me. From the outset, it seems, I was fascinated with the lives of composers.

After I began college, although I never lost my interest in music, I pursued other subjects, eventually becoming, as I've mentioned, a psychologist and then a professor. I taught for many years at the University of Connecticut, had a successful career eventually focusing on the study of near-death experiences, and finally, in my early sixties, having taken early retirement, returned to the Bay Area in California where I had grown up.

I took some time to wind up my professional career, finishing a couple of books I had been working on, and then wondered what to do next. I gave no conscious thought to music, but one day, during a period when I had been ill for quite a while, I found myself reading about Camille Saint-Saëns. In short order, I found myself completely engrossed in his life story about which I had not previously known much, and in my enthusiasm thought I might share a few of my thoughts about him in a little essay I would write just for the fun of it, mainly for my friends. Well, without recounting this whole improbable adventure, suffice it to say that I wound up writing an entire book about him and got it published by the sheerest fluke without even seeking a publisher. I even collaborated on a screenplay about him, which, although the film never got made, did get a fair-to-middling review from the William Morris Agency. Anyway, I had a ball working on this project during which time I confess that I eventually succumbed to the biographer's disease: I had fallen in love with Camille.

Really, I had done all this as a lark to begin with, but I found that writing about Saint-Saëns had triggered something in me -- something new and something old. I had become interested in composers again and felt a yen not just to read about them, as I did when I was a kid, but to write about them -- despite having no professional credentials in music whatever, only the chutzpah of an academic who apparently had no qualms about venturing into territory where he had no right to tread.

So before too long I had started work on a much more ambitious book, this time about three composers, Leos Janacek, Peter Tchaikovsky and Edward Elgar, and their woman muses. My aim was to restore a proper recognition to the collaborative fructifying role those women had played in helping to bring forth much of the music these composers wrote, a great deal of which might never have taken the particular and enduringly compelling form it did without the creative stimulus that their muses provided. I felt that such women deserved to be more than footnotes to a distinguished composer's career; in my view, they had a right, as it were, to appear on history's stage beside the artists they lived to inspire and to share posterity's applause with them.

That was fifteen years ago. Despite getting a number of laudatory reviews, I could never find a publisher for this book -- the only time in my career as an author of almost twenty books, I had failed to do so. One reviewer said gently that had I written this book in, say, in 1937, when "people cared about classical music," I could easily have found a publisher, but these days …

Recently, again finding myself at loose ends, I decided to begin work on another book having to do with classical music, which was published earlier this year. And, naturally, it includes one chapter about some composers, all Jewish, I had never written about, two of whom you are about to meet. Composers, like many artists, are often a bit daffy and some of them have really remarkably dramatic lives that most people never learn about. Of course, everyone knows about Beethoven, but how about Louis Moreau Gottschalk?

Not many people know that Gottschalk was the most celebrated mid-19th century American composer, but he was, hands down. Born in 1829 in New Orleans, he was the son of a Jewish physician and Creole mother, and he was quickly found to be a prodigy at the piano. Eventually, he was to write almost exclusively for the piano, and in time he became a sensation at the Parisian salons but then I am getting ahead of our story. So let's return to New Orleans before we get to Paris where Gottschalk was first to shine and wow the ladies, which in time may have led not just to his downfall but to his death.

Gottschalk's precociousness as a pianist was recognized early and by the time he was eleven, he had made his debut before a crowd of New Orleans' music lovers. However, his father recognized that if Gottschalk's talent was to be developed, he would have to go to Paris for training. But at the age of thirteen, he was rejected a priori by the head of the Conservatory, Pierre Zimmerman, presumably on the basis of his American nationality ("America is a nation of steam engines," Zimmerman sneered), but possibly because of his "mixed race." Zimmerman didn't even give the kid the chance to play. He was simply dismissed. But others, including several notable composers, were soon and duly impressed. There was Chopin, for example, who reportedly said, "Give me your hand, my child; I predict that you will become the king of pianists." His prophecy was close to the mark. Liszt was also very taken with Gottschalk's obvious gifts as a pianist, and Berlioz, too, "predicted a great future" for him and even offered to teach him composition. Take that, Zimmerman! With such accolades from such prominent composers, Gottschalk was soon able to find very able piano teachers to nurture his development and within a couple of years, he was already something of a young celebrity with the Parisian salon crowd.

The critic Harold Schonberg summarizes his early stature as a pianist as well as giving us a sense of his personal charisma: 
Gottschalk's talent at the keyboard was of a supreme order. He soon became not merely a good pianist but a great and celebrated one … and for a while he had a tremendous vogue in Europe. He was slim, handsome, aristocratic, extraordinarily talented, and he blazed a trail through early Romantic pianism. Many competent critics called him the equal to Liszt. The flashy young American, the first internationally famous pianist to come out of the United States, was the man of the hour.
Indeed, Gottschalk was such an attractive personality and so prodigiously gifted that during the 1840s, he was not only in great demand as a soloist in Paris, but throughout France, Spain and the Americas. And his success continued into the next decade. For example, according to music critic Arthur Holde, "his performances were regarded as so sensational that he was able to give 80 concerts in the 1855-56 season alone." Gottschalk was the American Liszt -- a rock star both in the salon and on the concert stage.

And we know the temptations that lie in wait for rock stars.  In those days, it wasn't drugs. But as in our own time, it was the lure of women, and all commentators invariably mention his many affairs and some of the scandals he managed to get involved in during the course of his regrettably short but always adventuresome life. 

One notorious one was with the American Actress Ada Clare, originally a Southern belle from an aristocratic family who eventually moved to New York where in time she would be known as "The Queen of Bohemia." And sure enough, she had a very public affair with Gottschalk and had a child by him "out of wedlock," as the phrase then was. The affair was said to have "shaken the foundations of New York society." Apparently, the foundations held, and Gottschalk went on with his career as she eventually did with hers. Oddly enough, both died young, Gottschalk at forty, Clare, at thirty-nine.

And then there was his close call in San Francisco some years later. Schonberg gives this amusing account of it:
The citizens were stirred up when there were reports that Gottschalk had made free with one of the respectable young ladies of the city. He hadn't, or at least he claimed he hadn't, but rather than face a posse of vigilantes, he fled to a ship and sailed to South America [ending up in] Rio De Janeiro.
Gottschalk was indeed a peripatetic pianist, seemingly always on the go. By 1865, he estimated that he had traveled 95,000 miles by rail and given about 1000 concerts. Apparently, however, his frequent travels were sometimes occasioned by exigencies unrelated to the demands for his musical performances.

Here, however, I need to interrupt the narrative arc of Gottschalk's short but drama-filled life by saying something about his music, which was as singular and distinctive as was the man himself.

Gottschalk's music was very popular during his lifetime and his earliest compositions created a sensation in Europe. Schonberg comments that when his music began appearing on the continent, audiences could not get enough of it. And renowned pianists of the day vied with each other in their zeal to play his exotic compositions with their strangely beguiling Caribbean flavor. Early pieces like Bamboula, La Savane and Le Bananier were based on Gottschalk's memories of the music he heard during his youth in Louisiana. A number of them are said -- for I have never heard them -- to have "a wonderfully innocent sweetness and charm." Some, perhaps many, were "mere" salon pieces, meant to entertain his audiences, and did, but others, giving listeners a sense of the optimism and exuberance of American life, were significant and worthy creations in their own right. Schonberg, for one, expressed a real appreciation for what was of unique value in Gottschalk's work:
Probably no composer in the world at that time, not even Berlioz or Liszt, had Gottschalk's rhythmic originality. His rhythms were profoundly original because he was working in an Afro-Cuban rhythmic world that had not been explored by any serious composer up to that time.
But before I conclude this account of our composer, we must now return to Gottschalk's life and recount the story of his strange and enigmatic death, which seems somehow so fitting to the character of the man and the life he led.

In 1869, we find him in Rio to which he had fled after his Don Giovanni-like escape from the clutches of an aroused San Francisco citizenry following his latest tryst with a woman of former virtue. There he had established a series of very grand concerts. One night he was performing at one, and had just sat down to play one of his own works. And the title? Morte! [I am not making this up.] As he started to play the piece, he collapsed. A few days later he was dead.

I have read various speculations as to the cause. One writer suggested it was simply because of "excessive strain and nervous exhaustion." Others say it was yellow fever. Schonberg opines that it was probably peritonitis. But several commentators have said that the real cause of Gottschalk's early death was -- that he was murdered!  By a jealous husband.

We will never know, for if it was a murder, it was never solved. But the romantic in me would like to believe it is true. It would be so karmically appropriate. I like to think of Gottschalk in the lead role of a certain Mozart opera. And you know which one. [Well, since you may not habla opera, I'll just tell you: Don Giovanni of course.]
Gottschalk was a truly seminal composer of verve, charm and panache, an American original. The first American to make a splash in Europe with his winning personality, his marvelous pianism, and his memorable and catchy music, he is certainly someone whose music still deserves to played for and enjoyed by modern audiences, and is.

Gottschalk's life was certainly full of drama, but for weirdness, was there anyone stranger than that bugbear of modern music, Arnold Schoenberg?

I admit it. I am a triskaidekaphiliac. Perhaps you are not familiar with that formidable term. Suppose I were to tell you that I was born on Friday, the 13th, and because of that, I have always considered 13 to be my lucky number. So now you have presumably divined my psychiatric condition. I have an inordinate fondness for the number 13.

Schoenberg was my opposite: He suffered from a really bad case of triskaidekaphobia. So bad that it killed him. We will get to that.

But first, I suppose I must state a few obvious and well-known facts about Schoenberg. Unlike Gottschalk, Schoenberg was not only famous in his lifetime but has remained famous after his death. He is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential and important of composers in the first half of the 20th century. He is most famous for the invention of what to me is one of the most hateful devices of modern music, the twelve tone system that gives equal weight to each note of the chromatic scale. That's his claim to shame. It brought about a revolution in modern music. To me, it brought about the end of music and the beginning of something that drove mass audiences elsewhere to find their listening pleasures. All this is familiar fare.

Whether Schoenberg was "great" depends on your point of view, but certainly when the definitive history of 20th century music is written, Schoenberg's name will be a prominent entry. He's a composer who really made a difference.

But he was also a very strange man. So rather than simply treading over familiar ground in order to tell you something about Schoenberg, I'd like simply like to relate to you one story about him that will help you to understand just how strange he was.

Schoenberg was a Jewish refugee from Vienna who was forced to leave when the Nazis came to power and, like many European Jewish musicians escaping the scourge of Nazism, he settled in Los Angeles. Quite a few of these men wound up writing for the movies, but not Schoenberg; he played tennis instead. And continued to compose, to teach, to paint (Schoenberg was also a gifted painter) and to polemicize. But he also lived with a demon.

It was his fear of the number 13.

Schoenberg was born on September 13, 1874, and in what would be his last year, 1951, he would be turning 76. But of course in Schoenberg's phobic mind, he couldn't help thinking of his age as 7+6=13, a fateful dreaded number. And, as it turned out a fatal one, since he wound up dying on July 13 of that year.

But that's just the beginning and end of the story. What makes it even more curious and spooky is what came in between.

Throughout his life he fastidiously avoided rooms, floors and buildings with the number 13. He even refused to rent a house because its street address had been 13 Pine Street. This was not a superficial concern, but rather a powerful, all-consuming obsession that was central to his entire belief system. His musical manuscripts show the customary measure numbers, but starting with the composition of the 13th song of the cycle Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten (Book of the Hanging Gardens), Schoenberg began to substitute the number 13 with 12a in the measure count. Then there was the case of his opera, Moses and Aaron.  Oops, that makes thirteen letters! For Schoenberg, that also made for a big problem. But he found a way to solve it. Simple but effective: He just left out one of the "a's" in Aaron, so the title of his opera became Moses and Aron. Now you know why.

As Schoenberg got older, the degree of his triskaidekaphobia increased and spread into all aspects of his life, from the mundane to the existential. He absolutely dreaded his sixty-fifth birthday in 1939, because that year was a multiple of 13. In a letter dated 4 March 1939, Schoenberg wrote: "Indeed, I am not so well at the moment. I am in my 65th year and you know that 5 times 13 is 65 and 13 is my bad number.

In 1950, on the occasion of this seventy-sixth birthday, Schoenberg received an ill-omened note from his fellow composer and musician Oskar Adler. Adler stipulated that since Schoenberg's age of 76 added up to 13 (7+6), it would be a critically dangerous year. According to friends and family, this ominous suggestion severely depressed and apparently stunned Schoenberg. His obsession was taking a dangerous form.

Things finally came to a head on Friday, the 13th July, 1951. On that day Schoenberg stayed in bed all day. He was sick, anxious and depressed, but he wasn't going to take any chances. His wife Gertrud reported, "About a quarter to twelve I looked at the clock and said to myself: another quarter of an hour and then the worst is over."

But it wasn't. Gertrud reported to her sister-in-law Ottilie the next day that her husband had actually died at 11:45, 15 minutes before midnight, just as he had feared. The curse of triskaidekaphobia had struck!

I think that Schoenberg must have been a character in a story by Edgar Allan Poe all along and just didn't know it, don't you?

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