Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Fluids of Choice and Drinking Songs

We pick up where we left off in yesterday’s Music History Monday.

May 13th – yesterday’s date – has been designated by those fine people who designate such things as “World Cocktail Day” (as well as the first day of “American Craft Beer Week”).  I used the occasions to begin a discussion about the drinking habits of some of our favorite composers.  As I pointed out yesterday and would point out again today, I am in no way promoting the consumption of alcohol, especially in excess.  Rather, as is my usual schtick, I am seeking to render human composers who have been pedestalized and, as such, de-humanized.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Franz Schubert always liked to hoist a glass (or two, or three).  His favorite wine was a rosé called “Schilcher.” It was (and still is) produced in the Austrian region of Western Styria from Blauer Wildbacher grapes.

Schubert in 1827: when in his cups, he was no friend of glassware or crockery
Schubert in 1827: when in his cups, he was no friend of glassware or crockery

Sadly, “self-medication” due to illness put his drinking well over the top.

It was sometime in the late summer of 1822 that the 25-year-old Schubert contracted syphilis, almost certainly from a male prostitute during a pleasure-jaunt with his friend and periodic roommate, the homosexual and sometime female impersonator Franz von Schober (1796-1882).

The first symptoms of the disease appeared in the late fall of 1822 and became pronounced by January of 1823.  Let us make no mistake about it: in those days, syphilis was almost always a fatal diagnosis, something the 26-year-old Franz Schubert was well aware of.

Gratefully, from the fall of 1824 until mid-1827 (or so), Schubert’s syphilis entered its latency, during which he was both symptom free and noninfectious.  Nevertheless, he still suffered from debilitating depression, exacerbated by his fear that the disease would return. Consequently, he self-medicated with vast amounts of alcohol, at which time the ordinarily mild-mannered Schubert became vulgar, abusive, and physically destructive.

While under the influence, the small (5’3”), roly-poly, Teddy bear-like Schubert liked nothing more than to smash glassware and crockery, making him – understandably – a less-than-welcome guest in homes and hostelries across his hometown of Vienna.  Schubert’s friend Wilhelm von Chezy observed that when Schubert drank, he was subject to uncontrollable rage.

“As soon as the blood of the vine was glowing in him, he liked to withdraw into a corner and give in to anger, during which he would create some sort of havoc as quickly as possible, for example, with cups, glasses and plates, and as he did so, he would grin and screw up his eyes tight.”

Franz Liszt at the tender age of 23, showing the ravages of alcohol abuse (just messin’ with you; Liszt in 1886, not long before his death)
Franz Liszt at the tender age of 23, showing the ravages of alcohol abuse (just messin’ with you; Liszt in 1886, not long before his death)

In yesterday’s Music History Monday, we observed that in pre-twentieth century Europe the lack of clean/safe drinking water encouraged (and even necessitated) a routine degree of alcohol consumption that many people today would consider to be unhealthy.   

However, the great Hungarian-born pianist and composer Franz Liszt’s drinking habits went rather beyond a substitute for water.  Writes Liszt’s principal English-language biographer Alan Walker:

“[As Liszt became older] he became increasingly dependent of alcohol, the friend of his youth and the close companion of his manhood.  Whether he was an alcoholic in the medical sense of that term we cannot be sure.  But his consumption of wine and liquor in the course of a single day was considerable.  For the last few years of his life Liszt regularly consumed one bottle of cognac daily and two (or three) bottles of wine as well. And in the early 1880s, he developed a strong liking for absinthe: a powerful distillation of grape-alcohol and wormwood.  Nonetheless, he was never seen to be inebriated, and alcohol seemed to impair neither his piano playing nor his speech.”

The man could hold his liquor, and no broken crockery!  Under these circumstances, Liszt would be a far more amiable drinking partner than Franz Schubert!…

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