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7 Strange Classical Composers (Guest post - AleahFlute/Aleah Fitzwater)



Today we welcome AleahFlute/Aleah Fitzwater to the blog!


Often when learning about classical composers, we imagine them as being...well, rather boring. In fact, this impression is far from the truth: many composers both past and present were and are quite colourful characters!


Read on to learn more!

 

About


Hey there! My name is Aleah Fitzwater. I am a classical flutist and music teacher gone awry. I used to teach in public schools and study religiously. But now, well...I’m still a classical cat, but unhinged! I write music blogs about classical composers and music digitising. I also arrange and record classical flute versions of alternative/pop songs, like those by Linkin Park and Panic! at the Disco


Today I am going to take you on a bizarre journey: We will be learning about a selection of strange composers. But believe me, there are many more musicians that should be on this list. There just simply isn’t enough room (or time!).


Let's dive in!

 

Anton Bruckner



Ah, yes, the strange classical composer who kissed skulls...or have you not heard??


While this Austrian composer is mainly known for his symphonies and choral works, there is a little bit more to glean. One of his most popular symphonies (his fourth) is known as the "Romantic" symphony. It is not a typical Bruckner piece, as he was very much into the macabre and this is reflected in his work.



Bruckner somehow got hold of both Schubert's and Beethoven's skulls when they were being moved from cemetery to cemetery, and kissed and held them. Was his obsession with death, or with being a great and venerated composer? Perhaps both...either way, his desire was fulfilled!


After his death, Bruckner was mummified. This was all too fitting for the dark composer. I stumbled upon (and accidentally downloaded!) a few pictures of Bruckner’s mummy. I will save your retinas by not sharing them here.

 

Erik Satie



This umbrella-collecting, suit-wearing musical genius wasn’t very popular during his lifetime (he was, however, known to be quite strange). Someone opened his closets after he passed away, and tumbling out of them came hundreds of handkerchiefs and umbrellas!


His girlfriend wasn’t any less strange, to boot. She wore a corsage made of carrots and fed the paintings she made but didn’t like to her pet (are oil paints edible? I think not).


The couple once got into a fight, and Satie supposedly threw her out of a window...but it all ended well because she landed on her feet. She was, after all, a skilled acrobat!


Oh, and I almost forgot to mention...


He formed a subsection of a religious organisation (and eventually his own church). He also made a rule for himself that he could only "eat white foods". Yep, this quirky composer restricted himself to parsnips, chicken, and other white foods. Personally? I think I’d be going a little hungry here.


In the more normal realm of things, Satie helped form the group of impressionistic composers called Les Six.


If you’d like to honour Satie and his oddities, take a listen to the piece "Embryons desséchés", which roughly translates to "dried embryos’:


Despite his strangeness, Satie's music is usually quite mild and pleasant, and it makes great classical music for studying.

 

Philip Glass



I have a certain soft spot for this composer of minimalist pieces, such as "Metamorphosis". While his habits and collections aren’t nearly as weird as those of Satie or Bruckner, there is something to be said about his brand of oddness.


Glass is known for his repetitive pieces - beautiful, elegant classical piano pieces, for the most part. However, he also wrote an opera entitled Einstein on the Beach - a work which is nothing short of strange. I learned about this one when I was an undergrad in music education. This four-act opera is technically considered an avant-garde opera, and is related to something Glass called a "knee play": an opera or musical that has little bits that hold the larger scenes together (this part is not all that odd).


Anyway...here comes the quirkiness. This opera is truly named after and written about Einstein. The lyrics include numbers...lots of numbers. The composition itself is for SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) choir, with various instruments (and odd combinations, like piccolo being paired with bass clarinet). You can listen to Einstein on the Beach in full here:


 

Dmitri Shostakovich



In my humble opinion, Shostakovich was one of the best classical composers to ever live. He was a Russian composer during the time of the Soviet Union, post-revolution. "Waltz No. 2" is a short-yet-catchy piece that I always seem to find myself listening to:



Dmitri Shostakovich wove his (German-version) initials into his works (other composers such as Bach also did this): DSCH - or D, Eb, C, B. This particular combination of notes is haunting, to say the least.


Dmitri had low self-esteem and was a certified chain smoker. Once we dive in a little deeper, it’s no wonder he was so hard on himself and found this small vice. He often called himself "a puppet on a string". But why?


He had a difficult time expressing his artistry, as he was very busy writing for the government. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin requested a plethora of music from him, and so he ended up writing many nationalistic pieces. I have to wonder, what would Shostakovich's music have sounded like had he not had so many commissions from Stalin?


Shostakovich ended up joining the Communist party to prevent being captured or killed like so many of his friends and family. He went back and forth with the Soviet Union for years, becoming popular, then being accused of writing inappropriate and "formalist" music. Other Russian composers, like Prokofiev, were also under fire.


His 7th symphony, or the "Leningrad Symphony", was about the historical Soviet invasion. It was a phenomenal success. While this "true Soviet" piece kept him safe for a time, his works after the Leningrad Symphony promptly got banned.



Shostakovich’s later compositions can also be considered plain weird. If you listen to his 9th symphony all the way through, it’s pretty clear that he wasn’t taking himself too seriously. The finale sounds like a sad, weird circus. Perhaps he was pointing a finger at the chaotic state of affairs, including the war? Or was he simply a strange composer? I’ll let you decide.

 

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Cécile Chaminade



Most people don’t think that Cécile Chaminade was that odd. But personally? I do. This classical composer was a little bit obsessed with her flute professor. She was so in love with him that she wrote a concerto about him. The beginning of the piano part sounds like ringing church bells: a representation of her daydreams of marriage to her professor. Cringe!


While she didn't have much luck with romantic proposals, she did have quite a lot of success with the piece. (Eventually, she ended up marrying a music publisher - a marriage which some musicologists speculate was purely for business…)


The Chaminade concerto, as we now call it, is performed by flutists everywhere to this day. It truly is a lush daydream. Here is a wonderful performance of it featuring soloist Denis Bouriakov:

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart



Welp. Here’s a name I bet you didn’t expect to see on the "strange composers" list. Mozart was obsessed, not with a person, but rather...with farts.


Is it too uncouth to talk about a composer who loved farts on a classical blog? Amadeus probably would have said “No!”. Not only have there been letters found including this...unique brand of humour, but he also wrote pieces about the topic of backsides.


The piece "Leck mich im Arsch" is just as bad as it sounds. I’m not going to give you the pleasure of translating it into English. But you can listen to it here, I guess…


 

Percy Grainger



Love it or hate it, Grainger’s music seems to be here to stay. Comically enough, I once had a piano professor who said the music of Grainger was decidedly "awful". He couldn’t understand why we were even programming his works. At the time, we were performing his "Irish Tune from Country Derry" which was essentially a thickly orchestrated version of Danny Boy. Personally, I quickly fell in love with Percy Grainger’s reedy orchestration and lush brass chords.



Grainger was a composer from Australia. He had a knack for turning his old conducting batons into whips. I’m not going to go into further detail on that now, so I’ll just leave that fact there. Some of these, er, artifacts, can still be found in the Grainger museum today...along with his dentures, which he insisted be included in the displays.


As well as being a composer, Grainger was interested in fashion design. According to Classic FM, the clothes he designed and wore were so bad that he was "often mistaken for a vagrant" when he wore his pieces out on the town. He even created a type of patchwork bra.


Speaking of creations, he also invented a handful of instruments, such as a mini piano tuned to microtones (intervals between notes which are smaller than a semitone). Some call him crazy, others call him a "synth pioneer".

 

Conclusion


When it comes to strange composers, this is just the tip of the iceberg. So, go on and dig up some more information! But only if you dare...


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