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The composers who died in mysterious ways

A composer with an ominous background
A composer with an ominous background

Music history seen some of its best-loved figures die in the most unexpected ways. Here are eight of the oddest, bloodiest and sometimes tragically comic composers deaths we know of….

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven, famous for some of the greatest symphonies ever penned (see especially No.5, No.6, No.7, No.9), is widely considered to have died of liver disease. Until recently many musicologists attributed this to an over-fondness for alcohol, though a recent analysis of a lock of hair plucked from the head of the composer has revealed that the great man had a genetic predisposition for the disease. This does not, of course, rule out the possibility that alcohol was contributory factor.

VERDICT: Natural causes

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart’s death might be considered extraordinary for the things it was not, rather than what it was. There have been many scholarly attempts to pinpoint the exact cause, including a possible subdural hepatoma, rheumatic fever, trichinosis and hypochondriasis. But Mozart also because the subject of one of the great composerly conspiracy theories, one that was fuelled by the brilliant film ‘Amadeus.’ In that is was suggested that a rival composer, Antonio Salieri, who was jealous of the composer’s work, plotted to have Mozart murdered. The truth, however, is more prosaic—the rumours of Salieri’s involvement, which circulated in his own lifetime and, apparently, caused him some distress, were false.

VERDICT: Natural causes
SALIERI: Not guilty

Henry Purcell

English composer Henry Purcell, renowned for such works as Dido and Aeneas, Abdelazer and the Funeral Music for Queen Mary died at the lamentably young age of 35 or 36. There are various theories as to what brought him to this abrupt end. One of them is that he died of tuberculosis. Another is that, after returning late one night from the theatre (or very probably a tavern), he found himself locked out by his wife. As a result he caught a chill, dying some time later.

VERDICT: Wifely neglect?

Jean-Baptiste Lully

The great Italian-French musician Jean-Baptiste Lully, who worked for a large part of his life in the court of the King Louis XIV, met with one of the strangeness of deaths — he accidentally killed himself whilst conducting. At the time it was customary to mark the beat not with a baton, but with a large staff, which the conductor would tap on the floor. Poor Jean-Baptiste thumped the baton on his own foot causing an open wound. He contracted gangrene from this injury, which eventually killed him.

VERDICT: The only known case of death by conducting

Anton Webern

Anton Webern was jointly responsible for the development of a technique of musical composition known as ‘serialism.’ Using it he produced some of the most crystalline, beautiful works in twentieth-century music. His end, however, was tragic. Towards the final stages of World War 2 an American soldier shot Webern dead after he was observed lighting a cigarette outside his home in allied-occupied Austria. He apparently believed Webern was breaking the curfew. The soldier, wracked with remorse, died ten years later of alcoholism.

VERDICT: Casualty of war/manslaughter?

George Butterworth

Butterworth is an English composer, best known for his orchestral idyll The Banks of Green Willow . He died tragically young, being shot whilst leading his troops at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was, by all accounts, an exemplary soldier, being awarded the Military Cross. His brigade commander remarked that Butterworth was "A brilliant musician in times of peace, and an equally brilliant soldier in times of stress."

VERDICT: Casualty of war.


Tchaikovsky is perhaps best known for his wonderful ballets, including The Nutcracker , Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake not to mention six symphonies and the stirring 1812 Overture . He died at the age of 53, apparently from cholera after drinking unboiled water at a local restaurant. There has been some speculation, however, that his death was suicide, possibly because he feared that his affair with a young nobleman might be made public. In this scenario, it is argued, he either drank the unboiled water intentionally or, in fact, he took poison.

VERDICT: Suicide?

Alessandro Stradella

Alessandro Stradella was an abundantly talented mid-baroque Italian composer, his most famous work being the aria Pietà Signore. His life was marked by two bloody incidents. In 1677, after his problematic marriage to the mistress of the nobleman Alvise Contarini, he was attacked in the street and left for dead by two Contarini-hired assassins. Remarkably, he survived this incident, only to be stabbed to death at the Piazza Banchi in 1682. The killer, whose identity remains unknown, was hired by a nobleman of the Lomellini family, whose sister Stradella had seduced.

VERDICT: Murder.

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