10 fascinating and perplexing unsolved mysteries in classical music

2 January 2014, 16:30

Drama! Intrigue! Excitement! Never mind Sherlock, here are 10 of classical music's ultimate whodunnits...

1. Death of a violinist 
The great Baroque violinist Jean-Marie Leclair was brutally stabbed to death in a dangerous Parisian neighbourhood in 1764. But whodunnit? Was it his ex-wife, intent on financial gain? Or Leclair’s nephew, appropriately named Vial. Or could it have been the work of another musician envious of Leclair's brilliance? We may never find out.

Jean-Marie Leclair composer violinist Baroque

2. Who was Beethoven’s ‘immortal beloved’?
Beethoven was a bit of a failure when it came to romance, falling impractically in love with elegant, society women, including one he addressed as ‘immortal beloved’ in a famous love letter of July 1812. The recipient of the letter has been the subject of much speculation. The two candidates most favoured today are Antonie Brentano (pictured) - an Austrian patroness of the arts - and Countess Jozefina Brunszvik de Korompa, who received at least 15 love letters from Beethoven in which he swore his eternal devotion to her. 

Antonie Brentano, Beethoven Immortal Beloved

3. How did Tchaikovsky die?
Tchaikovsky died at the age of 53 on 6 November 1893. The official cause was reported to be cholera, most probably contracted through drinking contaminated water several days earlier. However, his death is still a mystery. If he did contract cholera, it is impossible to know precisely when or how he became infected. Or did he commit suicide after facing a 'court of honour' investigating his sexual behaviour? Was the Tsar of Russia himself behind the great composer's death? Or did Tchaikovsky end it all after falling for his nephew, Bob? All possible, all very tragic.


4. The case of the missing Sibelius symphony
Sibelius worked on his Symphony No.8 from the mid-1920s until around 1938, but never had it published. He repeatedly refused to release it for performance, while continuing to assert that he was working on it even after it was claimed it had been burned in 1945. It was only in the 1990s that experts raised the possibility that some of the music may have survived in notebooks. Three short manuscript sketches – comprising less than three minutes of music – have been recorded by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, but will the full work ever be discovered and performed? 

Jean Sibelius

5. Who killed Stradella?
The Italian Baroque composer Alessandro Stradella was stabbed to death in 1682 but his killer was never caught. Admittedly the composer was not without enemies: he had attempted – and failed – to embezzle money from the Church and had enough high-profile affairs with women to make him pretty unpopular among the great and the good of Rome and Venice. 

Alessandro Stradella

6. Where are the remains of Thomas Tallis?
The great English composer Thomas Tallis died at his home in Greenwich in 1585. He was buried in St. Alfege’s Church in Greenwich. To this day, the exact location in the church of Tallis's remains is unknown. It’s feared they may have even been discarded by labourers between 1712 and 1714, when the church was rebuilt. 

St Alphege Church Greenwich

7. What was Elgar’s ‘enigma’? 
For his Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra, Elgar wrote a set of 14 variations on a hidden theme that is, in the composer's own words, 'not played'. Various musicians have proposed theories about what the missing melody could be, although Elgar never actually claimed his theme was a melody. It could be something else - such as a symbol or a literary allusion. Elgar rejected all of the solutions proposed in his lifetime, and took the secret with him to the grave. 


8. The tomb of the two-headed composer 
Eight days after the funeral of Joseph Haydn in May 1809, two phrenologists stole his head hoping to see if the composer's genius was somehow reflected in the bumps and ridges of his skull. Eleven years later, Haydn's patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II wanted to have Haydn's remains transferred and was furious to find they had no skull. The phrenologists gave him a different skull to bury with the rest of the body. In 1895, the real skull turned up again when it was willed to a music society in Vienna. In 1954, it was finally reunited with the rest of Haydn’s body – but the substitute skull was never removed. There are now two skulls in Haydn’s tomb - but which is his?

Haydn tomb

9. The mystery of the women who channeled composers 
In the 1970s, Londoner Rosemary Brown caused a sensation when she claimed that dead composers were dictating new musical works to her. Debussy, Grieg, Liszt, Chopin, Stravinsky, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann and Rachmaninov were all queuing up to get their compositions through to her, she said. Reportedly a mediocre pianist herself, Brown even channelled a 40-page sonata from Schubert, as well as Beethoven's 10th and 11th Symphonies. Experts said the pieces were just sub-standard re-workings of some of those composer's better-known compositions. Well they would, wouldn't they? 

Rosemary Brown








10. Was Beethoven killed by his doctor?
There is much disagreement over how Beethoven died. An autopsy revealed significant liver damage, which may have been caused by heavy alcohol consumption. Then there is the speculation - of syphilis, infectious hepatitis, sarcoidosis and even the gastro-disorder called Whipple's disease. More recently, examination of hair clippings from Beethoven (pictured) have led to the assertion that he was poisoned to death by excessive doses of lead-based treatments administered under instruction from his doctor.

Beethoven hair

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