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The Tragic Deaths of Famous Composers


We all know the heart-breaking story of Beethoven and his heroic defiance of his deafness throughout his waning years and many sadly may know about Chopin’s weak, illness-prone life but the sheer number of tragedies of famous composers is rarely documented as a compilation.

Blood Poisoning, Typhoid, Accidents, Syphilis, Depression, Alcoholism, Mental Collapse, Insanity - it’s truly a morbidly fascinating yet horrible historical comparison.

Note: (1) Detail Button toggles open/close; (2) All Composer Wikimedia Links open to the same tab.

Composer Age Dates Cause of Death

Jean-Baptiste Lully


(1632 – 1687)

Blood Poisoning


Jean-Baptiste Lully was an Italian-born French composer, instrumentalist, and dancer who spent most of his life working in the court of Louis XIV of France. Lully died from gangrene, having struck his foot with his long conducting staff during a performance of his Te Deum to celebrate Louis XIV's recovery from surgery. Back during this time, rather than using a baton, conductors would bang a large stick on the floor to keep time. He refused to have his leg amputated so he could still dance. This resulted in gangrene propagating through his body and the died two months later from blood poisoning.

Wikipedia »

Jean-Philippe Rameau


(1683 – 1764)

Typhoid Fever

At the height of his glory, Jean-Philippe Rameau caught typhoid fever, wasted away quickly, and died on September 12th, 1764.

Wikipedia »

George Frideric Handel


(1685 – 1759)

Carriage Accident, Blind

In August 1750, on a journey back from Germany to London, Handel was seriously injured in a carriage accident. In 1751 one eye started to fail. The cause was a cataract which was operated on by the great charlatan Chevalier Taylor. This did not improve his eyesight, but possibly made it worse. He was completely blind by 1752. He died in 1759 at home in Brook Street, at age 74.

Wikipedia »

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart


(1756 – 1791)

Rheumatic Fever, Trichinosis, Influenza, Mercury Poisoning, and a Rare Kidney Ailment (just a few)

In September of 1791, Mozart fell ill while in Prague - His health deteriorated on 20 November, at which point he became bedridden, suffering from swelling, pain, and vomiting. Mozart died in his home on 5 December 1791 at the tragically early age of 35. Researchers have posited at least 118 causes of death, including acute rheumatic fever streptococcal infection, trichinosis, influenza, mercury poisoning, and a rare kidney ailment.

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Ludwig van Beethoven


(1770 – 1827)

Deafness, Alcohol, Lead Poisoning?

By his late 20s, Beethoven's hearing began to deteriorate, and by the last decade of his life he was almost totally deaf. Beethoven wrote the last quartets amidst failing health. In April 1825 he was bedridden, and remained ill for about a month. Then in December 1826, illness struck again, with episodes of vomiting and diarrhea that nearly ended his life.. Beethoven was bedridden for most of his remaining months, and many friends came to visit. He died on 26 March 1827 at the age of 56 during a thunderstorm.

An autopsy revealed significant liver damage, which may have been due to heavy alcohol consumption. There is dispute about the cause of Beethoven's death: alcoholic cirrhosis, syphilis, infectious hepatitis, lead poisoning, sarcoidosis and Whipple's disease have all been proposed. Some of these analyses have led to controversial assertions that Beethoven was accidentally poisoned to death by excessive doses of lead-based treatments administered under instruction from his doctor.

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Franz Schubert


(1797 – 1828)

Typhoid Fever, Syphilis

Schubert died before his 32nd birthday. The cause of his death was officially diagnosed as typhoid fever, though other theories have been proposed, including the tertiary stage of syphilis. At the beginning of November, he again fell ill, experiencing headaches, fever, swollen joints, and vomiting. He was generally unable to retain solid food and his condition worsened. Schubert died in Vienna, at the early age of 31.

Wikipedia »

Hector Berlioz


(1803 – 1869)

Intestinal Pains, Stomach Spasms

In 1867 Berlioz's son Louis, a merchant shipping captain, died of yellow fever in Havana. After learning this, Berlioz, depressed and saddened,burnt a large number of documents and other mementos which he had accumulated during his life, keeping only a conducting baton given to him by Mendelssohn and a guitar given to him by Paganini.

The intestinal pains had been gradually increasing, and had now spread to his stomach, and whole days were passed in agony. At times he experienced spasms in the street so intense that he could barely move.

Wikipedia »

Frédéric Chopin


(1810 – 1849)

Weakness, Epilepsy

Chopin was of slight build, and even in early childhood was always prone to illnesses. Chopin made his last public appearance on a concert platform at London's Guildhall on 16 November 1848, when, in a final patriotic gesture, he played for the benefit of Polish refugees. By this time he was very seriously ill, weighing under 99 pounds!

From 1842 onwards, Chopin showed signs of serious illness. Modern research suggests that apart from any other illnesses, he may also have suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy.

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Robert Schumann


(1810 – 1856)

Mental Disorder, Suicidal, Insane

Schumann suffered from a mental disorder, first manifesting itself in 1833 as a severe melancholic depressive episode, which recurred several times alternating with phases of ‘exaltation’ and increasingly also delusional ideas of being poisoned or threatened with metallic items. After a suicide attempt in 1854, Schumann was admitted to a mental asylum, at his own request, in Endenich near Bonn. Diagnosed with "psychotic melancholia", Schumann died two years later in 1856 without having recovered from his mental illness.

On 27 February 1854, he attempted suicide by throwing himself from a bridge into the Rhine River. He was rescued by boatmen and taken home, he then asked to be taken to an asylum for the insane.

Wikipedia »

Franz Liszt


(1811 – 1886)

Fell Down Stairs, Subsequent Physical Deterioration, Heart Disease, Pneumonia

Liszt fell down the stairs of a hotel in Weimar on July 2, 1881. Though friends and colleagues had noticed swelling in his feet and legs when he had arrived in Weimar the previous month (an indication of possible congestive heart failure), he had been in good health up to that point and was still fit and active. He was left immobilized for eight weeks after the accident and never fully recovered from it. A number of ailments manifested themselves—dropsy, asthma, insomnia, a cataract of the left eye and heart disease. The last-mentioned eventually contributed to Liszt's death. He became increasingly plagued by feelings of desolation, despair and preoccupation with death—feelings that he expressed in his works from this period.

Liszt died in Bayreuth, Germany, on July 31, 1886, at the age of 74, officially as a result of pneumonia.

Wikipedia »

César Franck


(1822 – 1890)

Struck by Horse-Drawn Cab, Limp

During July 1890, Franck was riding in a cab which was struck by a horse-drawn trolley, injuring his head and causing a short fainting spell. There seemed to be no immediate after-effects; he completed his trip and he himself considered it of no import. However, walking became painful and he found himself increasingly obliged to absent himself first from concerts and rehearsals.

Wikipedia »

Bedřich Smetana


(1824 – 1884)

Depression, Mental Collapse, Syphilis

By the end of 1874, Smetana had become completely deaf. By the winter of 1882–83 Smetana was experiencing depression, insomnia, and hallucinations, together with giddiness, cramp and a temporary loss of speech. By the middle of February 1884 he had ceased to be coherent, and was periodically violent. A mental collapse early in 1884 led to his incarceration in an asylum and his subsequent death.

The hospital registered the cause of death as senile dementia.However, Smetana's family believed that his physical and mental decline was due to syphilis.

Wikipedia »

Modest Mussorgsky


(1839 – 1881)

Siezures, Poverty, Severe Alcoholism

After drifting away from his old friends, Mussorgsky had been seen to fall victim to 'fits of madness' that could well have been alcoholism-related. Although alcoholism was Mussorgsky's personal weakness, it was also a behavior pattern considered typical for those of Mussorgsky's generation who wanted to oppose the establishment and protest through extreme forms of behavior.

Mussorgsky spent day and night in a Saint Petersburg tavern of low repute accompanied by other bohemian dropouts. He and his fellow drinkers idealized their alcoholism, perhaps seeing it as ethical and aesthetic opposition. This bravado, however, led to little more than isolation and eventual self-destruction.

In early 1881, a desperate Mussorgsky declared to a friend that there was 'nothing left but begging', and suffered four seizures in rapid succession. Though he found a comfortable room in a good hospital – and for several weeks even appeared to be rallying – the situation was hopeless.

Wikipedia »

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky


(1840 – 1893)

Depression, Cholera/Drinking Unboiled Water, Suicide?

Despite his many popular successes, Tchaikovsky's life was punctuated by personal crises and depression. Contributory factors included his early separation from his mother for boarding school followed by his mother's early death, the death of his close friend and colleague Nikolai Rubinstein, and the collapse of the one enduring relationship of his adult life, which was his 13-year association with the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck. His homosexuality, which he kept private, has traditionally also been considered a major factor, though some musicologists now downplay its importance. Tchaikovsky's sudden death at the age of 53 is generally ascribed to cholera; there is an ongoing debate as to whether cholera was indeed the cause of death, or if it was accidental or self-inflicted.

While Tchaikovsky's death has traditionally been attributed to cholera from drinking unboiled water at a local restaurant, as one story accounts, many writers have theorized that his death was a suicide.

Wikipedia »

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov 64 (1844 - 1908)

Angina (Chest pains often due to not enough blood flow)

Beginning around 1890, Rimsky-Korsakov suffered from angina. While this ailment initially wore him down gradually, the stresses concurrent with the 1905 Revolution and its aftermath greatly accelerated its progress. After December 1907, his illness became severe, and he could not work. In 1908 he died at his estate.

Wikipedia »

Claude Debussy


(1862 – 1918)

Rectal Cancer

Debussy's private life was often turbulent. Debussy was often depressed and unable to compose. Both Debussy and Erik Satie (a kindred spirit in his experimental approach to composition) were bohemians during this period, enjoying the same cafe society and struggling to stay afloat financially.

Debussy died of rectal cancer at his Paris home in 1918, at the age of 55. He had been diagnosed with the cancer in 1909 after experiencing bleeding, and in December 1915 underwent one of the earliest colostomy operations ever performed. His death occurred shortly thereafter in the midst of the aerial and artillery bombardment of Paris during the German Spring Offensive of World War I.

Wikipedia »

Maurice Ravel 62 (1875 – 1937)

Taxi Accident (blow to the head)

As early as 1927, close friends had been concerned at Ravel's growing absent-mindedness, and within a year of the accident he started to experience symptoms suggesting aphasia. In October 1932, Ravel suffered a blow to the head in a taxi accident. The injury was not thought serious at the time, but it may have exacerbated an existing cerebral condition.

The exact nature of his illness is unknown. Experts have ruled out the possibility of a tumour, and have variously suggested frontotemporal dementia, Alzheimer's disease and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease.

In 1937, Ravel began to suffer pain from his condition, and was examined by Clovis Vincent, a well-known Paris neurosurgeon. Vincent advised surgical treatment. He thought a tumour unlikely, and expected to find ventricular dilatation that surgery might prevent from progressing. Ravel's brother Edouard accepted this advice; as Henson comments, Ravel himself was in no state to express a considered view. After the operation there seemed to be an improvement in Ravel's condition, but it was short-lived, and he soon lapsed into a coma. He died on 28 December, at the age of 62.

"His final years were cruel, for he was gradually losing his memory and some of his coordinating powers, and he was, of course, quite aware of it". - Igor Stravinsky

Wikipedia »

Paul Hindemith 68 (1895 – 1963)

Acute Pancreatitis

After a prolonged decline in his physical health, although he composed almost to his death, Hindemith died in Frankfurt from acute pancreatitis at age 68.

Wikipedia »

Dmitri Shostakovich


(1906 – 1975)

Polio, Lung Cancer

A towering figure of the the 20th century, Shostakovich had a complex and difficult relationship with the Soviet government throughout his life.

In later life, Shostakovich suffered from chronic ill health, but he resisted giving up cigarettes and vodka. Beginning in 1958 he suffered from a debilitating condition that particularly affected his right hand, eventually forcing him to give up piano playing; in 1965 it was diagnosed as polio.

He also suffered heart attacks the following year and again in 1971, and several falls in which he broke both his legs; in 1967 he wrote in a letter: "Target achieved so far: 75% (right leg broken, left leg broken, right hand defective). All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order." Shostakovich died of lung cancer on August 9, 1975

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What inspired this somewhat disturbing compilation?

I inherited this mini antique book when we cleaned out the house after my Dad died. It is actually quite a gem. Written and published in 1943, there’s a strange perspective on things. Not only is slightly old-fashioned descriptive language used but there is also a seemingly naive outlook regarding Germany due perhaps to being written earlier than it's published date, before World War II and the horrific rise of Hitler and the Nazis.

As I read through the pages, there seemed such an inordinate amount of tragic deaths (What is it: the curse of a composer?) that I opted to turn it into a interactive web project.

Most of the details are sourced from Wikipedia but viewers are encouraged to go the composer's Wikipedia page as well and learn more.