Crypto-musicology books to read this Halloween

It’s no secret that I enjoy exploring the dark and spooky corners of clarinet and music history, such as the bizarre deaths of historical clarinetists, final resting places of famous clarinetists, or the curse of the yellow clarinet.

If you’re looking to discover more strange tales from music history (which I’ve officially dubbed crypto-musicology), here are a few of my favorite books to get you started:
  • Beethoven’s Skull by Tim Rayborn. This book explores the “Dark, Strange, and Fascinating Tales from the World of Classical Music and Beyond.” These are the tales you probably never learned in music history!
  • Beethoven’s Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved by Russell Martin. What is it with Beethoven? This fascinating book examines the implications a lock of Beethoven’s hair has for both music history and science.
  • Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius by Colin Dickey. Fun fact: an inordinate amount of composers’ skulls have been stolen and misplaced throughout music history. Read this book to find out how and why this happens.
  • Unfinished Symphonies: Voices from the Beyond by Rosemary Brown. When she was seven years old, Rosemary Brown, an English woman with no musical training, was visited by the ghost of Franz Liszt. Throughout her life, other composers such as Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, and many more communicated with her and used her as a vehicle to write new musical compositions from beyond the grave. This is an autobiographical account of her experiences with the spirits of dead composers. (She also might have held a clue as to the missing Mozart clarinet concerto manuscript!)
  • The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. This novel is based on supposedly true events surrounding a real-life phantom in the famous Parisian opera house, the Palais Garnier. (By the way, there really is an underground lake at the Palais Garnier, but we have no definitive proof that this is where the Phantom hangs out when he’s not creating mischief.)
  • Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage by Albert Glinsky. The theremin is largely considered to be the world’s first electronic instrument, and its inventor, Leon Theremin certainly led an interesting life. He was a Soviet scientist and passed along information to Russia while living in New York before his sudden disappearance in 1938. He was presumed dead for nearly thirty years, but was instead working with Soviet intelligence. This is a great book to learn more about this mysterious instrument and its enigmatic inventor.
  • Shakespeare’s Ear by Tim Rayborn. Although this is centered around tales from the theater, there are many overlaps and stories musicians will find interesting.
  • Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time by Nicolas Slonimsky. Perhaps nothing is more terrifying to musicians than a bad review. Slonimsky collects nearly two centuries’ worth of reviews and music critique sure to horrify (and amuse) any musician.

If you’re looking for some less frightening books to read, here are some books every clarinetist should have on their shelves: part 1 and part 2.

This blog post was updated October 2022.

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