The Life and Times of the Great Composers, By Michael Steen

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The Independent Culture

Does it assist our appreciation of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony to learn that the composer was obsessed with both numbers (he would count "windows, weather cocks, church crosses, buttons") and dead bodies? Does it enhance Mahler's Eighth Symphony when we know that the composer's "idea of a cosy evening" was to get his "highly sexed and active" wife Alma to report on astronomy lectures he had asked her to attend?

Maybe not, but at least the wealth of personal detail unearthed by Steen reminds us that great music was not God-given but produced by fallible humans. It is curiously reassuring to discover that both Schubert and Rossini were supported by a man who made a fortune "by patenting coffee topped with whipped cream".