Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: They Did Not Go Gently…

9-11; a somber day for us all.  A day for reflection, contemplation and perhaps, still, after 22 years, a day to grieve.  

François Couperin (1668-1733)
François Couperin (1668-1733)

Far more often than not, Music History Monday is about celebrating the life and accomplishments of a musician or identifying and exploring some great (or small) event in music history.  

If I chose to, today’s post could celebrate the lives and music of two wonderful composers.  On September 11, 1733 – 290 years ago today – the French composer and harpsichordist François Couperin (1668-1733) died in Paris, at the age of 65.  The Estonian-born composer Arvo Pärt was born 88 years ago today, on September 11, 1935.  If we chose to explore an event rather than celebrate the lives and music of François Couperin or Arvo Pärt, this post could mark the 173rd anniversary of the first American concert of “The Swedish Nightingale” – Ms. Jenny Lind (1820-1887) – at the Castle Garden Theater in New York City, in a performance promoted by none-other-than P. T. Barnum. 

Jenny Lind (1820-1887) in 1862
Jenny Lind (1820-1887) in 1862

(For our information: Johanna Maria “Jenny” Lind was one of the most highly regarded operatic sopranos of her time.  After a sensational European career, she retired from the opera stage in 1849 at the still-tender age of 29.

But she didn’t retire from singing.  In 1850, at the invitation of the great American showman Phineas Taylor [P.T.] Barnum [1810-1891], Jenny Lind travelled to America to tour.  She performed 93 concerts under the banner of Barnum’s production company, then continued to tour the United States, Cuba, and Canada under her own management.  During her two-year stay, Lind became the most popular musician ever to visit North America to that point in time, and the wealthiest as well: her concerts netted her roughly $350,000; $13,716,900 in 2023 dollars.)

But back to today and this post.

I would begin with an admission. 

I’m feeling my age these days and, for better or for worse, becoming ever-more aware of the brevity of all things as well as the pervasive chaos that lies immediately beneath our perceived veneer of control.  


So, running with the avowedly morbid spirit of this day, I present to you a series of chaotic deaths, unnecessary deaths, stupid deaths – tragic, sudden, accidentaldeaths – from the world of concert music.  (If I were so foolish as to include unnecessary/stupid deaths from the world of rock ‘n’ roll, this post would run for a million-plus words instead of 2293.)  There are no deaths here from chronic illness, suicide, substance abuse, heart attack, stroke, or aneurism; just particularly unnecessary deaths, like being hit by a Boeing 767 while sitting at your desk on the 93rd floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46:40am on September 11, 2001. 

Admittedly, it’s a grim topic but not an uninteresting one, given that death is one of the very few things that we all will have in common.

We begin, then, with the date-related item that anchors today’s Music History Monday.

Betty Stone (1914-1977): Going Up?

We mark the birth on September 11, 1914 – 109 years ago today – of Betty Stone in Norwich, Connecticut. Ms. Stone, whose birth name was Betty Schanker, was an alto and a member of the Metropolitan Opera chorus.  According to her brother, Sidney Schanker of Union, N.J.: 

“Ever since she was a child, she had been wrapped up in opera.  [Our] older sister Rose played the piano and sang and Betty always wanted to.”

Betty Stone studied choral singing in a chorus sponsored by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression – in the 1930s – and joined the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera in 1945, when she was 31 years old. 

Cleveland’s Public Auditorium (also-known-as “Public Hall”), opened 1922
Cleveland’s Public Auditorium (also-known-as “Public Hall”), opened 1922

We read from an article that appeared on page 44 of The New York Times on May 2, 1977:

“CLEVELAND, May 1—A member of the chorus of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company was killed here last night when her flowing costume was caught in the grille of a backstage elevator.

The accident occurred just after the curtain went down on the second act of II Trovatore, the final opera of the Met’s one-week stay in [Cleveland’s] Public Hall. Backstage, some cast members walked upstairs to the dressing rooms, while others lined up for the half-century-old elevator.

The elevator was almost filled when Frank Coffey, a seven‐year chorus member, stepped on. Behind him, Miss Stone was the last to squeeze into the 8‐by‐6 elevator.

It is an old freight‐style elevator, with doors at both ends, and the operator was on the opposite end from Miss Stone. As the car began to rise, Mr. Coffey saw Miss Stone being dragged down. “Stop! Stop,” he yelled. Others took up the shout. There were sobs, shouts of panic.

The robe [Miss Stone] wore as a nun in the cloister scene [had] caught in the door and, as the elevator rose, she was dragged to the floor. ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God!,’ the elevator operator, Norman Reser, heard someone shout. He stopped the elevator, but Miss Stone, dragged down as the cage went up, had caught her head between the side of the shaft and the elevator.  [A stagehand], Joe Bauer took out a pocketknife and cut her loose from the gown.

The elevator was lowered. The stagehand Joe Bauer lifted her out onto the stage floor. Miss Stone was bleeding profusely and was unconscious. She was taken to St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 10:07 P.M.

Frank M. Duman, a member of the Public Auditorium Commission in Cleveland, said the elevator was to have gone out of service [that] night as part of a remodeling of old sections of the building. It had been scheduled to be used for only another hour.”

OMG; that’s just awful.  Singing in an opera chorus should not be hazardous to your health, especially while dressed as a nun.  And for a New Yorker to die this way, in Cleveland of all places; oh, the ignominy of it all!

Happy birthday, Betty Schanker-Stone; you no doubt deserved better.

In the spirit of “misery loves company,” I would offer up a few other egregiously stupid musician deaths.…

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