How can I prove that we call classical music isn’t stuffy and highbrow? Composers and performers of earlier generations were every bit as nutty as anyone the tabloids write about today.
George Frederick Handel
The composer of Messiah loved to eat. At one tavern he ordered way more food than any one person would normally eat–that is, at least before today’s super-sized restaurant portions. Then he waited. And waited. After a very long time, he demanded to know why he had to wait so long. The host told him the cook was waiting until his company arrived. Handel responded, “Then bring up the dinner prestissimo. I am the company!”
He once hired a singer named Francesca Cuzzoni. She had a reputation for begin very spoiled and impossible to get along with, but she also had a beautiful voice. Later, the English historian and critic Charles Burney wrote that she was “short and squat, with a doughy cross face, but fine complexion; … not a good actress; dressed ill ; and was silly and fantastical.”
Sure enough, at the very first rehearsal, she loudly refused to sing her big aria until Handel rewrote it to make her sound more spectacular. After some scowling and shoving, Handel told her, “I know you’re a she-devil, but I want you to know that I am Beelzebub himself!” He hoisted her by the waist, took her to a window, and threatened to throw her two stories down to the ground. She decided maybe his way wasn’t so bad after all.
Some time, maybe I should write about the trouble Cuzzoni and another diva named Faustina Bordoni caused by their running feud. They started fighting–not just arguing, fighting and drawing blood–in the middle of a performance of one of Handel’s operas. There were no tabloids in those days, but pamphleteers served the same purpose. So of course there was a pamphlet about that fight. Their rivalry also inspired the names of the race horses Cuzzoni and Faustina.
As a young man, Haydn fell madly in love with a woman who decided she preferred someone else. Haydn decided that her sister would be the next best thing, so they got married. Big mistake. She didn’t like music much and tended to nag. Eventually they started living in separate houses.
One day a friend visiting Haydn noticed a pile of unopened letters on his desk. Haydn explained that they were from his wife. She wrote to him once a month, and he wrote to her once a month. He never opened her letters and was sure she never opened his.
For many years, Haydn worked for Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, but when the prince died, his successor didn’t care much for music. Haydn still had a job, but nothing to do. He had already been writing music on commission from all over the world, so it seemed like a good situation. Then Johann Peter Salomon showed up, unannounced, and said, “I am Salomon from London, and I have come to fetch you. Tomorrow we shall conclude an agreement.”
Haydn could think of all kinds of reasons why a man of his age who spoke no English shouldn’t go to London. Salomon offered a large sum of money for an opera, six symphonies, and 20 other pieces. Haydn realized that this offer of a paid vacation was for him alone. His wife was not invited. He decided to go.
Guillaume de Machaut
Don’t worry if you can’t place Machaut. He lived almost 800 years ago. His music was wonderful, and revolutionary in its own way. After this long, however, it’s definitely an acquired taste.
We know nothing of Machaut’s birth, childhood, musical education, or lots of other things that ought to go into a proper biography, but we do know that he sold a horse in 1340.
When Machaut was in his 60s, blind in one eye, and gouty, he received a love poem from a teen-aged girl named Peronnelle. She had never seen him, but loved his poetry and his music. Machaut, an ordained priest, was bashful about meeting her, concerned with what she would think of his looks. She didn’t mind, and they had a wonderful conversation.
Eventually, she fell asleep with her head on his knee. Machaut was very happy. His secretary placed a leaf over Peronnelle’s mouth and asked Machaut to kiss it. It took him a while to overcome his bashfulness, and of course when he finally bent down to kiss the leaf, the secretary pulled it away. That was his first kiss, but not his last. At later meetings, Peronnelle had to ask for kisses. After a while, the old man started to like them.
Nothing much came of it, though. In those days, wealthy parents arranged marriages for their daughters. Peronnelle’s parents found a much younger man for her to marry, and I suppose she didn’t have to insist on kisses from him. Anyway, Machaut later wrote a long poem about their relationship.
Wagner was a great composer, but a perfectly dreadful human being. He must have had a lot of personal charm, because he always seemed to have friends no matter how badly he betrayed them.
He tried for a long time to ditch his wife. Three different women inspired him to run off with them, but after brief affairs, they all decided not to leave their husbands. Then, when desperately trying to arrange for a production of Tristan und Isolde, he enlisted the great conductor Hans von Bülow. Bülow was enchanted with the opera, and Wagner, of course, was fascinated by his wife Cosima.
Bülow presented the premiere of Tristan at about the same time his wife presented Wagner’s baby. Cosima soon took husband number two and became wife number two for Wagner. The odd thing? Bülow loved the opera so much he didn’t mind having his wife stolen! He said that he would have shot anyone else but Wagner.
The former Cosima von Bülow, by the way, was the daughter of Franz Liszt. Liszt didn’t exactly approve of his daughter’s behavior, but figured that since he was still a bachelor himself, he had no right to complain.