Beethoven's Skull: Dark, Strange, and Fascinating Tales from the World of Classical Music and Beyond

Beethoven's Skull: Dark, Strange, and Fascinating Tales from the World of Classical Music and Beyond

by Tim Rayborn

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“If you think classical music is boring and stuffy, [Beethoven’s Skull] will make you change your tune” (USA Today).
This unusual history of Western classical music focuses on strange happenings and shocking tabloid-style stories of revenge, murder, curious accidents, and strange fates, proving that pop stars don’t have a monopoly on wild behavior. Highlights include tales of:
  • A cursed song that kills those who hear it
  • A composer who lovingly cradles the head of Beethoven’s corpse when his remains are exhumed half a century after his death
  • A fifteenth-century German poet who sings of the real-life Dracula
  • A dream of the devil that inspires a virtuoso violin piece
Unlike many music books that begin their histories with the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, Beethoven’s Skull looks back to the world of ancient Greece and Rome, progressing through the Middle Ages and all the way into modern times. It also looks at myths and legends, superstitions, and musical mysteries, detailing the ways that musicians and their peers have been rather horrible to one another over the centuries.
“[A] rollicking, if grisly, stroll through the history of music . . . Impeccably researched . . . Sure to keep readers engrossed.” —Library Journal

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510712720
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 11/15/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 663,486
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Tim Rayborn writes on a variety of historical and musical topics, from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century; he has a PhD from the University of Leeds in England. He is also a professional musician, with a specialty in medieval repertoire. He lives in Berkeley, California.

Read an Excerpt


Ancient Greece and Rome

Most everyone is familiar with the legacy of ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Their impact is still felt on the modern Western world, in everything from laws to architecture. Museums showcase the art, students study the writings and history (and if they're really lucky, they get to delve into Latin or Greek!), and we're all at least a bit familiar with the mythologies and old stories. Schoolchildren everywhere have snickered at nude Greek Olympians, wondered if the Egyptians only had profiles, and marveled at how the Roman army conquered the Mediterranean world in short skirts.

Yet for all of our admiration and even worship of our ancient forebears, their music is unknown to everyone but a scholarly few. Obviously very little has survived, but amazingly, over fifty pieces of Greco-Roman music (many in fragments) have come down to us in notations that have been deciphered and can be read with relative ease. There are also a few pieces from Assyria that may or may not be readable, and various scholars have taken a shot at reproducing what they might sound like, with varying degrees of success. Still, even with this small amount of surviving work, the ancients loved to write about their music, and everyone from the philosopher Plato to various Roman emperors seems to have had something to say about it.

The names of individual composers from this time are sparse and often coincide with those of poets. A celebrated poet might well have written some music to a particular poem, but it hasn't survived, or people might not have considered a "poet" and a "composer" to be two separate things. Indeed, the idea of purely instrumental music was at times controversial — those crazy kids with their lyres and flutes. There were many wandering musicians who offered their skills for plays, religious festivals, celebrations, private parties, and any other function requiring singers and instrumentalists.

The history of this ancient music is vast and well worth exploring. We will look at just a handful of individuals whose musical pursuits led them into interesting fates, to say the least, from an arrogant young wind player who blew himself to death to an infamous Roman emperor who took his performances to a new level of mediocrity.

Terpander (seventh century BCE, ca. 675)

Choking on ill-gotten gains?

To the ancient Greeks, Terpander was the man, the father of Greek music and its lyric poetry. He was based in Sparta, and his own works were apparently rather simple for one so renowned, but he was credited with revamping and revitalizing the whole Greek musical system. He was said to have added more strings to the lyre, changing it from four to seven and so opening up new melodic possibilities. Or maybe he changed the structure of a certain type of ode from four sections to seven; the sources are a little vague on this one. He seems to have invented some new types of musical rhythms, and most importantly, composed a good number of drinking songs; maybe that was why he was so popular?

His birth and death dates are unknown, but according to one story, he died in a ridiculous way: during a successful performance in Sparta, an audience member tossed a fig to him, presumably in appreciation (apparently there were no roses on hand). Terpander had opened his mouth in preparation for singing, where said fruit landed and lodged, and he promptly choked on it. Similar stories were told about Sophocles (who choked on a grape) and Anacreon (who choked on a grape seed), so it's probably just an ancient urban legend. We have no record of what happened to the remorseful and mortified fan, but it probably wasn't pretty. At the very least, his fan-club membership must have been revoked.

Lamprus of Erythrae (early fifth century BCE)


Lamprus (or Lampros) seems to have been a player of the lyre and a dancer, who may have taught the great Greek playwright Sophocles, of choked-on-a-grape fame. Little is known about him, and he also may have been confused with another man of the same name from a few centuries later, maybe even deliberately. He seems to have lived a reserved life, refusing to drink wine — not exactly typical musician behavior. Athenaeus, a Greco-Egyptian writer from the third century CE, records an interesting bit of information in his work the Deipnosophistae (say that three times fast), a long series of discussions over dinner that give insight into life at the time. He writes that an earlier Greek commentator, Phrynichus, noted "that the gulls lamented, when Lamprus died among them, being a man who was a water-drinker, a subtle hypersophist, a dry skeleton of the Muses, a nightmare to nightingales, a hymn to hell."

That is one weird epitaph! We have no further information on how he died, but "the gulls" perhaps suggests on a beach, or maybe that he drowned, what with being a mere "water-drinker." The rest of it seems pretty insulting, too, so maybe Phrynichus had some kind of personal grudge. The implication is that his stick-in-the-mud lifestyle earned him the end he deserved. Let that be a lesson to all musicians who won't drink wine!

Harmonides (fourth century? BCE)

A breath of fresh air

Harmonides was a promising young student of Timotheus, an acclaimed musician during the time of Alexander the Great. Both were players of the aulos, an ancient wind instrument that sounds a bit like an oboe crossed with a kazoo. When Harmonides asked his teacher how to win acclaim for himself, Timotheus recommended that he start small and acquire a limited number of knowledgeable admirers; from there his reputation would grow. This is sound advice for any young musician. Young Harmonides was far too impatient to heed his master's counsel, of course, and so decided to start big.He wanted to impress everyone at his first public performance, but according to the historian Lucian (ca. 125 — after 180 CE), when he started his solo, he gave such a great blast of air into his instrument that he died on the spot. So he probably was remembered, just not in the way that he wanted.

Nero, Emperor of Rome (37–68 CE)

Fiddler on the roof

Nero is usually regarded as the cruel, tyrannical, and completely crazy Roman emperor who persecuted Christians and played a fiddle while Rome burned in 64 CE; many believed that he started the fire himself. Both fire-related accusations are false, as we'll see. It's fair to say that the man has certainly been on the receiving end of a lot of negative propaganda over the centuries. Most see him as one of the worst Roman rulers ever, along with Caligula and a few other deranged individuals. There are many well-attested accounts of his cruelty and megalomaniacal behavior, but what we want to explore are his strange and even comical excursions into music and public performance.

According to the historian Tacitus, Nero was passionate about music from a young age. Being the dilettante that all educated upper-class young men were expected to be, he made an extensive study of music and poetry, committing himself to the practice of performance. The problem, at least according to some of his contemporary historians, was he just wasn't that good. He wasn't horrible, he was just ... okay.

As soon as he became emperor in the year 54, at the young age of seventeen, he embarked on a program of training that included special diets and enemas (!), and even weighed his chest down with lead plates, which he believed would strengthen his lung power and voice. He made his first public performances six years later, carefully observing all of the protocols. He also composed quite a bit of music, some of which continued to be performed after his death; unfortunately, none of it survives, so we can't judge its quality. He had a passion for music contests, but his family and high-ranking officials thought that it was outrageous for an emperor to share a stage with commoners.

Needless to say, his audience's responses were ecstatic; they really didn't have any other choice. Since he was the emperor, no one could leave the auditorium for any reason while he performed. The historian Suetonius notes with humor that women gave birth during his recitals, and some men either took the risk and snuck out by climbing over the high walls, or faked dying so that they could be carried out. Perhaps Nero actually was a decent singer, though Suetonius called his voice husky and lacking in fullness.

As for the whole fire-and-fiddling episode, it couldn't have been a fiddle, since bowed instruments did not make an appearance in Europe until the Middle Ages, coming from the Middle East. Might he have been playing his beloved kithara, a kind of large lyre? Tacitus, who was not overly fond of Nero, writes that as the fire raged, there was a rumor that Nero took to his personal stage and sang about the fall of Troy. He does stress that this was only rumor, though, and there are accounts that Nero was actually away from the city and rushed back when he heard the news, actively trying to contain the blaze and help its victims. He ordered certain public buildings to be opened to those made homeless, and later enacted new laws to help prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

Still, after the fire, he began construction of an enormous palace and pleasure garden on the site of some of the worst destruction, a palace that could not have been built without the flames conveniently having burned away the old buildings. Needless to say, this aroused suspicions. He also blamed the fire, with no real evidence, on a small religious group known as the Christians. He did rebuild various residential neighborhoods at his own expense, but maybe that was to deter such speculation.

Ultimately, relations with his advisors and senators deteriorated. A plot against him was uncovered, and there were many executions; some escaped by getting the chance to commit suicide. At the height of all of this tension, Nero trotted off to Greece to take part in the Olympic Games, where he naturally won prizes, since Greece was part of the Roman Empire at the time and had to honor him. He was enamored of all things Greek and would have been well suited to living there. His going off to the games was probably the last straw for his advisors, and soon there was an open revolt against him. Sections of the army, equally unhappy with his behavior, joined in the rebellion. Realizing that the end was near, Nero decided to stab himself. He couldn't go through with it, though, and forced his secretary, Epaphroditos, to assist him. Convinced to the end of his talent, he proclaimed: qualis artifex pereo — "What an artist dies in me!" Not everyone was inclined to agree.

St. Cecilia (later second century CE)

Head and shoulders above the rest

St. Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians, but her story is an odd one, because for well over one thousand years after her death, she had no association with music at all. Newly married to a Roman nobleman, Valerian, she informed him of her desire to remain a virgin because an angel had visited her and told her that Valerian would be punished for violating her, which made marital relations tricky at best. He was undoubtedly rather unhappy about this, but surprisingly ended up converting to Christianity, and then they were both promptly martyred, so the story goes, sometime between the years 176 and 180 CE (some accounts say later, about 230). It was said that Cecilia's neck was struck three times, but the executioner failed to sever her head. According to Roman law, he could not deliver another blow, so he let her be. She lived for another three days, long enough to ask that her house be made into a church.

All of this is quite grim and bloody, but there is an obvious absence of music in this tale. It appears that St. Cecilia was not associated with music until the fourteenth or (more likely) the fifteenth century, when music guilds began to adopt her as their patron. This may have been in part due to a mistranslation of the account of her wedding. Some scholars believe that guild masters misread a passage that described music playing and her singing to God in her heart as stating instead that she herself was playing the organ. For whatever reason, the association between this bloody martyr and music stuck, blossoming over the next few centuries. Indeed, composers such as Henry Purcell, George Frederic Handel, and Benjamin Britten have all written music in her honor, and her feast day, November 22, is still celebrated by the Catholic Church.

To top it all off, she may not even have existed at all. Medieval legends of early saints and martyrs are notoriously difficult to document and are filled with fanciful additions, inconsistencies, and various other problems, so the martyrdom of Cecilia may be just another example.

Boethius (ca. 480–524/25 CE)

Musician, console thyself

Boethius was not a composer, but a philosopher. Born in Rome, he achieved a high status in his own time, and after his death, he became one of the most important of the early medieval philosophers, revered through the centuries for his many writings.

His contribution to the world of music comes from his work De institutione musica, a Latin translation of writings of the earlier Greek mathematicians Nichomacus and Ptolemy. It draws in the theories of Pythagoras (remember him from your high school Geometry class?), who also had a keen interest in music and its relation to mathematics. Pythagoras and his followers, conveniently named the Pythagoreans, believed that music derived its beauty from an ideal numerical realm. Indeed, Boethius stressed this in his own work, stating that essentially music was number made audible, demonstrating in sound the pure world of numbers. This view would be the cornerstone of European music theory for the next thousand years. Church music, in particular, would be composed based on numerical relations between notes, with some harmonies considered much stronger and more "pure" than others and therefore more favorable as the basis for composition.

Boethius listed three types of music:

Musica instrumentalis: the "lowest" of the three, this was music that one could actually hear. Despite its name, it covered both vocal and instrumental music.

Musica humana: the next level, this refers to the symmetry of the human body and the harmony between body and soul, this harmony being numerical and therefore a kind of music.

Musica mundana: far from being "mundane," this was the highest form of music, most often known by its romanticized title, "the music of the spheres." This was the mathematics of the passage of time, the movement of the heavenly bodies, and the interaction of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water).

In short, all aspects of creation were related to each other by numerical values and so they were all a kind of music, even if we could only hear the ones made by voices and instruments. The two lower levels of musica were just reflections of the perfect ratios that formed the structure of reality as created by God. All of this probably seems pretty obscure and esoteric to modern readers, but it was hugely important at the time, giving a kind of blueprint for reality and how music should be composed for centuries to come. It would appeal to philosophers and musicians through the Renaissance.

Boethius eventually ran afoul of his king, Theodoric the Great, and was imprisoned. He was sentenced to be executed on the false charge of plotting treason. While waiting for that unhappy fate, he wrote another book that many consider his greatest, De consolatione philosophiae, or "The Consolation of Philosophy" — an attempt to console himself about the nature of his misfortune.

Boethius died by the sword, or perhaps he was clubbed to death. Another account states that he was strangled until his eyes bulged and his skull broke. However it happened, it was a terrible and unjust end to one of the greatest minds of the age. Theodoric followed him to death not long after, opening up a renewed period of violence and war in the long era that was once known as the Dark Ages.


The Middle Ages

The "Middle Ages" is an odd term. Created by nineteenth-century academics and historians, it more or less means the "middle" period between the fall of Western Rome (in the fifth century) and the "rebirth" of classical learning that began in Italy in the fourteenth century and was in full swing by the fifteenth century. In other words, it was seen as the dark middle period between ancient Greco-Roman greatness and our own obvious modern greatness. Apparently nothing much existed in those thousand years except Viking raids, plagues, unwashed peasants, heretic burnings, knights slaughtering infidels, and monks — many monks.

People back then didn't think that they were living in the "middle" of anything. In fact, given that many lived in fear of the impending apocalypse, they would have been more likely to see themselves as living in the "End Ages."


Excerpted from "Beethoven's Skull"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Tim Rayborn.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Grim and the Unusual in the History of Western Music,
Part I: The Strange Lives, Stranger Deaths, and Odd Fates of Composers,
1. Ancient Greece and Rome,
2. The Middle Ages,
3. The Renaissance,
4. The Baroque Era,
5. The Classical Era,
6. The Romantic Era,
7. The Modern Era,
Sins and Omissions,
Part II: A Dark and Weird Musical Miscellany,
1. Odd Musical Origins,
2. Magic in Music,
3. Plague and Penitence: the Rather Awful Fourteenth Century,
4. Blood and Guts,
5. The Dead Speak,
6. Nursery Rhymes: the Good, the Bad, and the Downright Awful,
7. Musical Curses, Bad Luck, and Superstitions,
8. Some Final Musical Oddities,
Last Words,
Suggestions for Further Reading,
About the Author,
Photo Insert,

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Beethoven's Skull: Dark, Strange, and Fascinating Tales from the World of Classical Music and Beyond 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is well worth the read! It's informative as well as humorously written. Whether the reader is "into" classical music or not, a musician or an electrician, the book is entertaining, and provides a great nonfiction reading experience. Find out about composers who were killers or just strange individuals. Enjoy!