Is there a classical music history better suited to the modern world than Tim Rayborn’s “Beethoven’s Skull”? Almost every entry in it would have been Tweeted or placed on Facebook the minute anyone caught wind. Yet as far as I know from my own research over the years, readers will get an accurate look at geniuses’ private lives, foibles and bizarre interests.
And there’s a lot I hadn’t heard. I knew Carl Maria van Weber, who wrote the first great German opera after Mozart (“Der Freischütz”), was a respected teacher and a gifted melodist who died of tuberculosis at 39. I didn’t know he mistook a bottle of engraving acid – used by his father in lithography – for something he’d been drinking and burned out his vocal chords, ruining his singing voice and nearly killing himself.
Historians have long acknowledged that Peter Abelard, the great 12th-century poet, was punished for his love affair with Heloise by castration; this even became the subject of a 1981 opera by Robert Ward, which received its world premiere through Opera Carolina (then Charlotte Opera). But I had no idea two of the perpetrators later had their own equipment removed, along with their eyes.
Rayborn starts with the possibly apocryphal story of the Greek musician Terpander; he supposedly choked to death in Sparta in 675 B.C., when a spectator tossed a fig just as he opened his mouth to sing. He comes forward as far as 20th-century British composer Peter Warlock, who lived up to his name: He dabbled in magic, apparently celebrated black masses and died mysteriously of gas poisoning. (The police suspected suicide, as he had put his cat outdoors beforehand.)
The author devotes the first half of the book to composers’ mini-biographies and the second half to chapters with such titles as “Plague and Penitence,” “The Dead Speak,” and “Blood and Guts.” (Who knew that Romanian ruler Vlad Tepes inspired a proto-opera in 1463, “Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia”?) Rayborn, a professional musician specializing in medieval repertoire, saves some of his most illuminating anecdotes for the Middle Ages.
“Beethoven’s Skull” (Skyhorse Publishing, $21.99) comes round at last to its title topic. Surgeons cut open his skull the day after he died in 1827, trying to find the cause of his deafness. (He had asked them to.) Rumors arose that pieces of the great man’s skull had circulated all the way to California, where they were treasured as a family heirloom before being donated to San Jose State University.
Sadly, DNA tests eventually suggested those were fakes. Rayborn reports that, too: He doesn’t want a good tale to stand in the way of facts. That’s another reason this book will find a permanent home on my already crowded shelves.