Quite apart from the music, it is usually interesting to discover more about a composer’s life. In many cases, being unusually talented men (let’s face it, for whatever reason, all the famous ones are male), they have colourful lives too. Sometimes too colourful, as poor, mad Schumann could testify. The majority of them living before a time of audio and visual recordings, we rely on the written word. Anecdotes and quotes, albeit of greater or lesser veracity, are especially delightful.
Quotes can range from the touching:
“Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name; he has taste, and, furthermore, the most profound knowledge of composition.” – Haydn to Mozart’s father.1
to the poignant:
“Do I not deserve a place on the earth?” – Schubert on his deathbed at 31.2
to the humorous:
“If there is anyone here I have not insulted, I apologise.” – Brahms, on walking out of a party.3
to the slightly bloody minded:
“Those who seek me know who I was, and the others do not need to know.” – Mahler, on explaining why his tombstone would bear only the single word MAHLER.4
to the inspiring:
“Prince, what you are you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am through my own efforts. There have been thousands of princes and will be thousands more; there is only one Beethoven!” – Beethoven, to the Prince Lichnowsky.5
The Brahms one always makes me chuckle. The ones by Mahler and Beethoven are inspiring indeed. The Schubert seems impossibly sentimental, even accepting the desperate plight he was in – this could be one of those embellishments of history.