A surprising number of great composers were fond of the bottle – but can you hear it?

The list includes Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Mussorgsky and Sibelius. No reports of Bach getting drunk – but he did once order eight gallons of beer

‘Brahms and Liszt’ is a lovely bit of rhyming slang, but it doesn’t have the ring of authenticity. Can you really imagine cockney barrow boys whistling tunes from the Tragic Overture and the Transcendental Études? Also, the Oxford English Dictionary reckons it only dates back to the 1930s. It always made me snigger, though, because it conjured up an implausible vision of pompous beardy Johannes and the social-climbing Abbé rolling around legless.

Not so implausible, it turns out. The other day I was reading a review of a new life of Liszt by Oliver Hilmes that reveals ‘hair-raising episodes of drunkenness’ in his later years. For some reason these were left out of the three-volume biography by Alan Walker, who admitted that the composer drank a bottle of cognac a day (and sometimes two bottles of wine) but didn’t think he was an alcoholic. Liszt’s pupils were under no such illusion — a ‘confirmed alcoholic’, said Felix Weingartner.

That made me curious about Brahms, who as a young man famously played the piano in brothels and pubs — just to earn money, according to sanitised accounts of his life, but in fact he was a lifelong customer of both types of establishment. Prostitutes found him charming; innkeepers less so, though Brahms reserved his worst behaviour for respectable gatherings. At one party, he ‘got drunk and branded all women with a word so shocking that it broke up the occasion’. Guests at Johann Strauss’s soirées came to dread Brahms’s slurred insults.

So ‘Brahms and Liszt’ is a well-chosen euphemism: both of them were piss artists. Probably only the latter was an alcoholic — though we can’t be sure, because the word ‘alcoholism’ was only invented in 1849 and has never been satisfactorily defined. Applying it to historical figures is bound to be tendentious.

What we do know is that a surprising number of great composers were fond of the bottle. Schubert, for example. There are several accounts of his ‘deplorable and embarrassing conduct while a guest at private functions in respectable family homes’. Even as a teenager he could be a nasty drunk. In later years, according to his friend Schober, ‘he let himself go to pieces …frequented the city outskirts [of Vienna] and roamed around in taverns’.

That sounds awfully like Beethoven, who was doing exactly the same thing; they may even have staggered past each other in the street without realising it, since they were both short-sighted. But you really can’t blame either of them. The older man was stone-deaf; the younger one had syphilis and must have been terrified of the paranoid insanity associated with the disease.

He died before tertiary syphilis could set in, but Schumann lived long enough to go horribly mad. He also drowned his sorrows — though, like Schubert, he was an embarrassing drinker long before he was ill. At the Heidelberg carnival in 1830, the young Schumann ‘fell down in the street, got tangled up with broken rum bottles and groped around under the skirts of landladies’. Then he went home to smash up his piano.

The list of heavy-drinking composers is worthy of Monty Python’s ‘Philosophers’ Song’. It includes Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. There are no reports of Bach getting drunk — but during a fortnight’s trip to Halle in 1713 his beer bill came to 18 grossen, which suggests that he got through eight gallons of the stuff (plus lashings of brandy). Berlioz and Wagner preferred opium, and it’s not fanciful to suggest that you can hear it in the Symphonie Fantastique and Tristan.

Can you hear alcohol in the music of the boozers? That’s less clear. Only Schumann’s music became less inspired towards the end, and that was down to insanity. Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death were written while he was drinking himself into an early grave, and that is surely reflected in their terrifying harmonies. The cycle is a prophetic masterpiece, even if he struggled to finish it.

I suspect the main reason you can’t hear ‘the drink talking’ in the output of heavy-drinking composers is that it’s easy to talk, write and even play an instrument (badly) when you’re plastered — but difficult to engage in the quasi-mathematical activity of composing. You’re more likely just to give up. Sibelius wrote nothing of consequence in the last 30 years of his life, worn out by years of drinking that was heroic even by Finnish standards.

But those who did persist could achieve wonders — one thinks of Liszt’s spectral late piano pieces and, above all, Beethoven’s last string quartets. It’s not sufficient to say that they are sublime: they exhibit stunning technical mastery, hard won by a composer who was battling not only deafness but also monster hangovers.

Despite which, he never lost his taste for alcohol. As we learn from Jan Swafford’s magnificent biography, even on his deathbed Beethoven was looking forward to the delivery of a case of wine from the Rhineland. Alas, by the time it arrived he was semi-comatose. ‘Pity, pity, too late,’ he whispered, and never spoke again.

Brahms was luckier. Just before he died, he managed to lift a glass of wine to his lips. His last words? ‘That tastes nice.’