What Great Composers Ate
Johannes Brahms was something of an oenophile. And a curmudgeon. When a host proudly offered him his best, saying “This is the Brahms of my wine cellar,” the composer took a sip and responded, “Better bring out your Beethoven.”
Entrée, with wine
The propensity toward madness by artist-types has long been recognized (and not just by my family). And the tripartite nexus of madness and creativity and abuse of food and alcohol is, unfortunately, not uncommon.
George Frederic Handel was morbidly obese, with hands and fingers looking more like feet and toes, according to a contemporary. What killed him was not only his voracious appetite for food, but indirectly his equally voracious consumption of wine. Cheap wine in Handel’s day was sweetened with lead, resulting, after decades of overconsumption, in the lead poisoning that hastened his demise.
Evidently Ludwig van Beethoven also suffered lead poisoning resulting from his heavy consumption of cheap wine. Perhaps it was the wine talking when Beethoven, unhappy with the meatloaf, heaved plate and all at the waiter, dousing him in hot gravy.
Brahms, impressively corpulent in his maturity, was much taken by the music of the Bohemian Antonin Dvorak, and became a major supporter. During a three-year sojourn in America, Dvorak summered in the small town of Spillville, Iowa, which had a heavily Czech-speaking population. Every morning he would take his lunch out into the fields to compose, along with a pot of beer. I’m guessing it wasn’t a mini-planter.
Modest Mussorgsky was something of a tragic figure who ate and drank himself to death. A superb pianist, Mussorgsky was to be escorted to a morning rehearsal for a vocal recital later that evening. His escort found him stumbling down drunk, but assured him —in French, for some unknown reason — that he would be fine without rehearsal. He did sober up enough to arrive at the concert on time, but managed to down copious amounts of booze in the hospitality room for artists. Drunk as a skunk, he was able to play the concert perfectly, even transposing his parts down a step at the last minute request of the singer. While the food and alcohol intake didn’t impair his sight-reading, it did shorten his lifespan to some 41 years.
The famously overweight Duke Ellington was having dinner with his collaborator Billy Strayhorn, composer of numerous Ellington hits, including Take the A Train (or, in the northern Minnesota version, Take the Train, eh?). An observer told of how the dieting Duke ordered Shredded Wheat and tea. After seeing Strayhorn’s steak he broke down, ordered a steak with fries, then another, then salad, tomatoes, a lobster, pancakes, ham, eggs, waffles, and biscuits. Returning to his diet, he finished with an order of Shredded Wheat and tea.
Puccini was in the habit of sending a Christmas cake to his friends. After a falling out with Toscanini he tried — unsuccessfully — to cancel the delivery. He sent Toscanini a telegram: “Cake sent by mistake.” Toscanini responded some days later: “Cake eaten by mistake.”
Food, glorious food.
Markand Thakar is the Charles A. & Carolyn M. Russell Music Director, Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra; music director, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra; principal conductor, Duluth Festival Opera; co-director of graduate conducting, Peabody Conservatory. www.markandthakar.com Follow him on Twitter @MarkandThakar