Beethoven’s Skull by: Tim Rayborn 2016 271p

As an undergraduate student, I had a history professor who wanted nothing to do with biography. He would not even take the time to give us birth and death dates. He felt it was irrelevant. This made history deathly dull, not to mention difficult to put into a larger historical picture. Music is written by and to humans with all their flaws, idiosyncrasies, and vices. Yes, most music is not strictly autobiographical, but autobiography often explains and gives context to much of music.

This brings us to Mr. Rayburn’s odd book. He has gathered a rather wide and varied compendium of the odd, macabre, and often quite humorous stories of famous and infamous musicians and the events surrounding the meeting of their ultimate reward.

He lays his stories out into two parts, the first is a chronological examination of the strange lives, stranger deaths, and odd fates of various composers. The second section looks at the dark and weird musical miscellany.

The first example of a recorded bizarre demise is of a Greek musician names Terpander, c 675 BC. Terpander was an important founder of Greek music, revamping their notational system and improving the lyre, their primary instrument. He came to his untimely end during a performance. I guess throwing fruit at the musicians on stage was the tradition in Greece, for during his unplanned final performance he was being showered with fruit. And as he opened his mouth to sing, a fig landed in his mouth. The poor man chocked to death on stage from the praise of his fans.

Musicians have sometimes been pressed into other functions. Thomas Morley (1557-1602) became a spy for his employer. Musicians often moved from court to court, so it usually worked as a good cover to gather intelligence on opposing princelings. Unfortunately for Mr. Morley he was no James Bond. He was caught and suffered the usual punishment for spies.

Even conductors could face great risks. During the Baroque era, conductors would use a large staff to bang on the floor to keep time. Jen-Baptiste Lully (1632-1681) was known for his particularly violent temper (usually taken out on his musicians and their instruments). Maybe as poetic justice he hit his own big toe with his conductor’s stick. It became badly infected and gangrenous. Lully refused to have it amputated because he wanted to be able to dance! Without amputation, there is no recovery from gangrene.

As the title of the book hints at, skulls of various musicians formed a bizarre part of the story around the end of many of their lives. Several musicians suffered the indignity of having their heads separated from their bodies. Both before and after interment. Beethoven’s skull has a long and sordid history which even includes none other than Anton Bruckner being present when his remains were being relocated. Upon seeing the master’s skull, he grabbed it. It took several workmen to get it out of Bruckner’s hands.

You will have to read the book to learn the rest of the story…

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Choice Hymns of the Faith 1945

Now Sings My Soul, New Songs for the Lord by: Linda Bonney Olin:

J S Bach Riemenschneider 371 Harmonized Chorales


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