4 interesting facts about music history, and one questionable anecdote!

composers interesting facts about music history

History means more than dates and battles. Classical music history means more than lists of compositions.

It’s personalities that make it interesting.

Sometimes, for example, composers and their associates go to desperate means to solve a problem.

People have loved classical music anecdotes as long as classical music has existed. Writers have long supplied trivia about musical personalities, including themselves, to an eager readership.

Most have stuck to the facts, but occasionally a story has broken into print with no corroborating evidence. But hey, that just makes it fiction. It’s still a good read.

Mozart procrastinates

Mozart family interesting facts about classical music

The Mozart family, ca. 1780 / Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Mozart had to travel to Prague for the first performance of Don Giovanni.

For some reason, he hadn’t written the overture yet. He didn’t write it between rehearsals. In fact, he waited till after the dress rehearsal. The night before the show opened.

So did he decide to get a good night’s sleep and tackle the overture in the morning?


He decided to compose it overnight and asked his wife, Constanza, to help him stay awake. She told him stories from Arabian Nights to entertain him. (Who else but Mozart could compose while someone was talking to him?) She also made punch for him.

Unfortunately, it only made him sleepier. Whenever she stopped talking, he started to nod off. Even Mozart couldn’t compose in his sleep. Finally, they decided he would take a nap. He made her promise to wake him up after one hour. She didn’t have the heart to wake him up after such a sound sleep, though, and let him sleep two hours.

By that time, it was five o’clock in the morning. He finished composing at seven and delivered the score to the copyists. It took them all day to write out all the parts.

When they were ready, it was almost curtain time. The orchestra had no opportunity to rehearse the overture. So they sight-read it. They must have played it pretty well.

One of the members of the orchestra later wrote that the overture roused the audience to great enthusiasm. Mozart turned to the orchestra and said, “Bravo, bravo, gentlemen. That was excellent.”

Schubert forgets his own work

Franz Schubert. classical music trivia

Franz Schubert. Detail from a watercolor portrait (1825) / Wilhelm August Rieder.

Schubert once told a visitor, “I compose every morning. When I finish one piece I start on another.”

He wrote more than 600 songs in his brief life. Between his first (in March 1811) and his last (in October 1828) he averaged about thirty-five songs every year, or about three every month. And of course, he also composed reams of orchestral music, chamber music, piano music, church music, and operas.

How could he keep track of it all? He didn’t.

Michael Vogl gave the first performances of many of Schubert’s songs. One batch of songs included one Vogl especially liked, but it was in an uncomfortably high key.

He transposed it and had a professional copyist prepare a new manuscript. About two weeks later, Vogl pulled it out for one of their singing sessions.

Schubert exclaimed, “That’s a good song. Who wrote it?”

An incompetent performer Gottschalk couldn’t dismiss

Gottschalk monster concert. interesting facts about music history

Caricature illustration of “monster concert” by Louis M. Gottschalk at Fluminese Theater, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, 5 October 1869

American pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk knew what thrilled European audiences. He had a successful solo career there. He also attended “monster concerts” put on by Pierre Musard and other popular orchestra conductors.

When he returned to the US, he decided to try his own monster concert.

He arranged the March from Wagner’s Tannhäuser for fourteen pianos and decided to offer the first performance in San Francisco in 1865.

It required every professional pianist in town. The day before the heavily advertised concert, one of them called in sick.

San Francisco had its share of talented amateurs, and the owner of the hall suggested his son, who, he said, could play Liszt, Thalberg, and Gottschalk’s own music without difficulty. The young man declared the music too easy for him to need to attend a rehearsal and sat down at a piano to show his stuff.

It took Gottschalk about two measures to realize that he could only ruin the performance. He thought he’d have to postpone the concert until the piano tuner had a brilliant idea.

He removed the piano’s entire mechanism, leaving a dummy keyboard.

Before the performance started, Gottschalk reminded all the pianists not to extemporize any preludes. The entire effect demanded that all fourteen pianos coming in together take the audience by surprise. The audience loved the piece and demanded the group repeat the piece.

The arrogant young amateur forgot that Gottschalk had forbidden preludes. He began to play something and realized no sound came from the piano. Before he could say or do anything, Gottschalk gave the signal for the piece to start again. For the sake of impressing all his friends in the audience, the young amateur pantomimed playing his part.

Gottschalk later wrote that the mixture of discouragement and anger on his face would have been worth painting.

Sharp business practices rescue Gounod’s Faust

Mephistopheles from Faust by Gounod. interesting facts about classical music

Polish opera singer Edouard de Reszke (1853-1917) as Méphistophélès in Gounod’s “Faust” in the 1890s

Music is an art, isn’t it? It’s also a business. As Claudio Monteverdi observed, “Music is spiritual. The music business is not.”

Consider the promotional shenanigans behind Charles Gounod’s Faust.

One of the most successful operas in history, it looked like a failure in London before its first performance. The impresario, James Henry Mapleson, had scheduled four consecutive performances.

A few days before the first, he learned than Londoners had bought only 30 pounds worth of tickets. The cashier advised not to offer four performances.

Instead, of cutting back, Mapleson decided to remove all the tickets for the first three nights from the box office.

He gave them away to people from all over London and its suburbs. He took out an advertisement in the Times and claimed that the first three nights had been sold out. But because of a family death, tickets for two stalls were available on sale from a jeweler and a stationer.

Meanwhile, the box office had nothing. Whoever went there for a ticket learned that it had no tickets for any of the first three nights. They would have to wait till the fourth night.

Mapleson made sure Gounod appeared for multiple curtain calls to the audiences admitted with the free tickets. The first night’s audience responded to the opera with appreciation, but not with enthusiasm. The second and third nights got a successively better response. Paying customers for the fourth night, who had had to wait so long to see Faust loved it.

And so, by popular demand, Mapleson extended the run of Gounod’s Faust past the advertised four nights.

Did Johann Strauss, Jr.’s career really start this badly?

Johann Strauss, interesting facts about music history

Johann Strauss, Jr. as a young man.

The fabulous career of Johann Strauss, Jr. got off to a rocky start.

At least according to a book of “personal reminiscences and sketches of character” by William Beatty-Kingston, an English writer on music. No other writer in any language corroborates the story.

But so what if it’s not true! It’s too good a story to ignore.

Johann Strauss, Sr. famously didn’t want his son to follow him in the music business. According to Beatty-Kingston, the younger Strauss, then 19, recruited an orchestra of 33 other young musicians and set out on a tour with much more enthusiasm than money.

They ran out of money in a town called Panscova. Strauss decided to play a concert under the mayor’s window. The mayor agreed to lend Strauss some money, provided the orchestra repay him from concerts in town. Townspeople stayed away from the concerts.

When it became evident the orchestra could not earn enough money to repay the mayor, local police seized the instruments. The town government eventually agreed to return them so they could continue their tour. But Strauss had to agree that a town constable would accompany the tour at the orchestra’s expense until he collected enough money.

His appetite and thirst greatly added to the expenses. He ate, drank, listened to concerts, and collected money from time to time while the orchestra traveled in the general direction of Bucharest. He left them in Kronstadt, having collected enough to satisfy the debt.

By that time, the orchestra had not made enough money for members to take proper care of themselves. They had become so bedraggled, dirty, and unshaved that no inn in Kronstadt would give them lodging or let them perform there.

They looked like a band of robbers pretending to be musicians.

Strauss and his orchestra left not only the town but the entire district. With a military escort. After some heated discussion, they agreed to split whatever money they made in the next town, Bucharest, and then go home. But the road to Bucharest went through a pass notorious for its highwaymen. They decided to sell two violins and buy some old rusty pistols.

Now they were musicians who looked the part of a huge gang of thieves.

Villages emptied in panic at their approach. Even a smaller band of highwaymen withdrew rather than challenge them. Once they got to Bucharest, somehow they managed to look enough like an orchestra to perform numerous times.

The Johann Strauss Orchestra finally made some good money there and went on to its spectacular success.

Source: The Book of Musical Anecdotes / Norman Lebrecht (Free Press, 1985)

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