I must have arisen on the morbid side of the bed today hence the subject of this ghostly tale – all of it true. The typical picture of an elderly maestro is that of a baton waver merrily leading the band as he proceeds through his ninth decade. In truth, many of them overcome with the passion of their craft simply drop dead in the middle of a phrase. This mortem agendo is surprisingly common. This piece is my account of those stricken from the score.
I’ll not attempt to keep to chronological order, as there are so many deaths on the podium that strict order is best discarded. I also make no claim for the completeness of this memento mori.
The Munich Opera House (The National Theater) seems to have been a rough spot for conductors not in tip top condition. On June 21, 1911, the Wagnerian conductor Felix Mottl (1856-1911) collapsed with a heart attack in the theater during a performance of Tristan und Isolde. He died 10 days later. He at least made it out alive, though mortally wounded. Josef Keilberth (1908-68) died on the podium of the theater on July 20, 1968 – also conducting Tristan. Italian conductor Giuseppe Patanè (1932-89) had a heart attack directing Rossini’s Barber of Seville on May 29, 1989 and died that same night in hospital. Hungarian conductor Stefan Soltész (1942-2022) collapsed during a Munich performance of Strauss’ Die schweigsame Frau; he died shortly thereafter.
The Swiss maestro Marcello Viotti (1954-2005), suffered a blood clot at another Munich venue while rehearsing Massenet’s Manon with the radio orchestra in February 2005. He never emerged from the subsequent coma and died a week later in hospital.
Let’s get out of Bavaria. Paul Kletzki (1900–1973) was a Polish conductor and composer. He died after collapsing during a rehearsal at the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
Arvīds Jansons (1914 –1984) was a Latvian conductor and father of conductor Mariss Jansons. He collapsed and died from a heart attack in 1984 while conducting a concert with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester.
Eduard van Beinum (1900-59) was a Dutch conductor who suffered a fatal heart attack on 13 April 1959 on the Concertgebouw podium while rehearsing the orchestra for a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1.
Franz Konwitschny (1901-62) former head of the Dresden Opera, died in a Belgrade television studio in 1962 while rehearsing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.
Giuseppe Sinopoli (1946-2001) suffered a heart attack while conducting Aida at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. He died at the German Heart Center the following day.
Dmitri Mitropoulos, the Greek conductor who was Leonard Bernstein’s predecessor at the New York Philharmonic, expired during a 1960 La Scala rehearsal of Mahler’s Third Symphony. He was also a regular at the Metropolitan Opera.
Conductor Fausto Cleva (1902-71) appeared 961 times at the Met. He died from a heart attack in Athens while conducting Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.
There may be more KIAs among the Flag Rank orchestral musicians, but I haven’t been able to find them. You might think that half a day or so of vigorous upper body exercise might prevent the ravages of cardiovascular disease, but everybody is different. I promise a more upbeat story next time.