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
Skyhorse Publishing
A review by R.C. Speck

This one was pure fun—of the macabre and twisted variety, sure. But still a lot of fun.

With Beethoven’s Skull, author Tim Rayborn gives us the complete haunted history tour of the dark side of Classical music and beyond. If a figure in music history—major, minor, or barely even a footnote—had something bizarre, mysterious, or even downright disgusting happen to him, well, then Rayborn found a way to include him in this highly amusing tome.

In part one, Rayborn proceeds chronologically. He starts with the ancients (one of them actually died blowing on his horn), and romps his way through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern periods (where the names, of course, become more familiar). Despite the expanse of time, however, some themes keep coming up.

Faustian deals with the devil is one theme, and not only with Paganini. Another appears mostly in the Middle Ages and Renaissance chapters where you often find some rakish troubadour abducting a married noblewoman. Either she falls in love with him or he falls in love with her, but in either case, the cuckolded husband exacts his revenge. One of the chapters involved the embalmed heart of one of these amorous bards.

Another theme involves discomfiting stories about major historical figures like Nero, Richard the Lionheart, and Henry VIII, who had perhaps a more tenuous connection to Classical music than, say, Bach. And speaking of Bach, did you know that the same quack physician who operated on his eyes also operated on Handel’s? Things didn’t turn out well in either case.

Then there’s the grossness of it all. One composer died after eating live spiders. And there is the nasty story of what happened to Jean-Baptiste Lully’s big toe. But Rayborn really goes on a roll with what happens to the bodies of great composers after they die. Let’s just say they don’t always keep their skulls, or monocles, as in the case of Anton Bruckner.

Part two delves into various topics, such as music in mythology, themes of the fantastic in music, superstition in music, and the like. This part of Beethoven’s Skull shifts from fun to fascinating as Rayborn includes everything weird he can think of that has anything to do with music. Did you know that Claude Debussy hung out in occult circles? Or that the Pied Piper of Hamelin story has some basis in rather gruesome fact? Or that one Rosemary Brown claimed she communicated with great composers from beyond the grave and played their newest material?

Beethoven’s Skull was a blast to read. It takes the squeaky-clean image of Classical music and dresses it up for Halloween.

This book review appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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