Before taking up music as a serious profession, Schumann wrote novels. Of his two attempts, Juniusabende was completed in 1826; Selene was not completed.

Chopin was a prolific letter-writer and also a keen caricaturist. The Museum of Caricature and Cartoon Art in Warsaw is organising a caricature competition in his memory, named "Chopin's Smile".

Mahler is considered an Austrian composer as he spoke German and was both a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and a pillar of the Viennese music establishment. Strictly speaking, however, he was Czech: he was born in the Czech village of Kaliště.

Schumann switched his ambitions from pianist to composer after permanently damaging his right hand. History doesn't relate exactly how, but it's thought that either Schumann was using a mechanical device to improve his ability to use his fingers independently, or that there was a failed attempt at surgery, with the same object in mind.

There is debate as to what was Chopin's birthday - the record says 22nd February, his family celebrated March 1st. His Scottish benefactress Jane Stirling claimed to be the only one to know the true date: she wrote it down, put the scrap of paper in a sealed box and placed it in Chopin's coffin.

Mahler was a terrible student at his grammar school, described by his teachers as "absent-minded, untidy and daydreaming".

While the legacy of Chopin, Schumann and Mahler is as composers, all three made a living from other things in their lifetimes: Mahler as a conductor, Schumann as a music critic and Chopin as a pianist (admittedly, mainly playing his own music).

Schumann’s name translates into English as Bob Cobbler, Mahler’s as Gus Painter. We couldn’t come up with anything for Chopin...

Our three composers span a range of different backgrounds. Mahler was the son of a country pedlar and carter: he received his first music lessons from the bass player in the municipal band. Schumann came from a solid bourgeois background: his father was a writer, publisher and bookseller. Chopin was brought up with the nobility: although his legal father was not noble, some Chopin experts think that he may have been the illegitimate son of an aristocrat.

Mahler is possibly the only composer who could have come up with idea of a funeral march to the tune of "Frère Jacques". It appears in his first symphony.

Chopin never wrote an opera. However, an opera was written about him (using arrangements of his music) by the Italian musician and critic Giacomo Orefice. It's being played in Warsaw in 2010 (

As far as we know, no-one ever wrote an opera about Mahler, but Ken Russell did make a seriously weird biopic in 1974 (see - if you're in Stockholm on March the 18th, you can catch a showing at the Konserthus). Bachtrack trivia: the movie featured my mother's namesake Miriam Karlin as Mahler's Aunt Rosa.

After his death, Chopin’s heart was preserved in a crystal urn filled with cognac, and now lies inside a pillar of the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. It was rescued from the Nazi bombing of Warsaw by a German general (bizarrely, since the Nazis banned Chopin's music as being a beacon of Polish nationalism). There is a current theory that Chopin died of cystic fibrosis: verifying it will require the friars of the church to permit his heart to be removed for DNA examination. So far, the Polish Culture Ministry has refused to ask them.

In 1956, the East German postal service issued a pair of postage stamps featuring Schumann's portrait. Unfortunately, the score in the background was by Franz Schubert (similar name, wrong country). It was hastily replaced.

During the Polish Uprising in 1863, Russian troops threw Chopin's piano out of a second floor window, presumably as a gesture of contempt to Polish nationalists. This "defenestration" led to a poem "Chopin's Piano" by the Polish poet Cyprian Norwid.

Mahler was a great believer in the "Curse of the Ninth" - the idea that from Beethoven onwards, a composer's ninth symphony will be his last. He labelled various symphonic works as something other than "symphony no. xx" in order to beat the curse. Eventually, this was a failure: his tenth symphony was never finished. Subsequently, Shostakovich did an excellent job of providing a counterexample to the curse theory, completing fifteen symphonies.

Chopin was uncomplimentary about the orchestra of the Philharmonic Society in London: "the orchestra is rather like their roast beef or their turtle soup; excellent, strong, but nothing more".

And finally, for an, er, unusual take on Alma Mahler's love life, Tom Lehrer's "Alma" makes essential listening (check out the line on "Das Lied von der erde")...

David Karlin 23rd December 2009

Credits: thanks to the Chopin Society UK for several of these stories: you can find them in longer articles at Thanks also to the Czech Gustav Mahler Society ( And as ever, wikipedia is a wonderful source of the obscure...