This post was originally published on January 16, 2017.
When you hear “Symphony No. 4” by Brahms, you probably don’t think about the symphony of booze flowing through the German composer. Same goes for the sonatas of Schubert. And Strauss’s operettas. Yet it turns out, many of the world’s famous composers were as routinely zozzled as they were endlessly creative. An intriguing piece in The Spectator contends that “a surprising number of great composers were fond of the bottle,” throwing into question just how much booze might be actually responsible for some of the most memorable music in history. (Bach apparently once ran up a bar tab of 18 gallons of beer!) The list of sloshed symphonists includes Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Handel and Sibelius, among others.
Hitting All the Wrong Notes
The article’s author questions whether the world’s most celebrated composers were alcoholics by modern-day standards, creative artists with drinking problems or, perhaps, latter-day rock stars struggling with even darker demons. Unless you’re an academic who really enjoys esoteric slang, the phrase “Brahms and Liszt” probably isn’t something you throw around all that often. Still, in some circles, it’s a phrase that has somewhat stood the test of time. If someone’s out getting “Brahms and Liszt,” it means they’re getting shit-faced. This is because Hungarian composer Franz Liszt demonstrated “hair-raising episodes of drunkenness” that were, curiously, left out of several key biographies of the man. This suggests that biographers simply didn’t see alcohol as a problem for Liszt, even though he “drank a bottle of cognac a day (and sometimes two bottles of wine).”
Johannes Brahms, meanwhile, once got so plastered that he “branded all women with a word so shocking that it broke up the occasion,” according to The Spectator. Of the two, The Spectator goes on to say, “probably only [Brahms] was an alcoholic—though we can’t be sure, because the word ‘alcoholism’ was only invented in 1849 and has never been satisfactorily defined.”
In Good (?) Company
Rest assured, Brahms and Liszt didn’t have the market cornered when it came to the hat trick of booze, composition and debauchery. Franz Schubert, the Austrian composer, left behind many accounts of his “deplorable and embarrassing conduct while a guest at private functions in respectable family homes,” the article said. “Even as a teenager he could be a nasty drunk.” In his later life, he wandered the streets of Vienna and “let himself go to pieces.” It’s probably also worth noting that while he was an extremely prolific composer (he penned seven complete symphonies, in addition to 600 additional pieces of chamber, piano and vocal works), Schubert didn’t even reach the age of 32.
Not to be outdone, German composer Robert Schumann was addicted to a laundry list of mind-altering substances that included “mercury, quinine and arsenic, although there is much conjecture about exactly what he took.” The Spectator article documents a time when the young Schumann “fell down in the street [at a carnival], got tangled up with broken rum bottles and groped around under the skirts of landladies.’ Then he went home to smash up his piano.” (Johnny Depp, eat your heart out.)
Still, Ludwig van Beethoven may set the gold standard for drunk composers. As one site puts it: “However pleasant and calming his music may sound to the ear, so different was he in real life. Van Beethoven was a very antisocial man and the opposite of the social drunkards we all like,” the site observed. “He could be very mean, abusive and downright paranoid. He hardly ever missed a day of heavy drinking in his whole life.” The Spectator piece speculates that Schumann and Beethoven “may even have staggered past each other in the street without realizing it, since they were both short-sighted.”
“Hearing the Drink”
What’s most intriguing about the Spectator’s survey of alcoholic composers isn’t actually the chronicles of their real-life debauchery—it’s about whether you can “hear ‘the drink talking’” in the music itself. The author considers “that it’s easy to talk, write and even play an instrument (badly) when you’re plastered—but difficult to engage in the quasi-mathematical activity of composing.” That said, he takes note of all the artists whose creative output simply began to dry up. “Sibelius wrote nothing of consequence in the last 30 years of his life, worn out by years of drinking that was heroic even by Finnish standards,” he concluded.
Liszt seemed to graduate into “spectral late piano pieces” while Beethoven offered up only haunting string quartets near the end. Of the latter, the author says: “It’s not sufficient to say that they are sublime: they exhibit stunning technical mastery, hard won by a composer who was battling not only deafness but also monster hangovers.” Still, despite their gorgeous, late-period offerings, tinged with the complex desperation that only advanced alcoholism can bring, neither Beethoven or Liszt could survive the inevitable. They left behind not only staggering bodies of work but even more staggering considerations of just how much more they could have shared with the world had they not descended into a third act of alcoholic twilight. It’s a testament not only to creativity and the bottle, but also the delicate, frayed piano wire binding the two together.
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