Ten composers behaving badly, from kinky Grainger to the murderous jealousy of Gesualdo.
Carlo Gesualdo (1566–1613)
Longing, passion, sex and death – all are intertwined in Gesualdo’s orgies of deliciously daring harmonies. It’s no surprise that the prince of Venosa’s madrigal settings of confessional love poems contain such heart-wrenching, visceral chromaticism: he is infamous for murdering his wife and her lover upon discovering them in flagrante delicto in his Naples palazzo. He had issues, then.
Four hundred years after the brutal crime, the police report still makes for shocking reading. Gesualdo’s wife and first cousin, Donna Maria d’Avalos, was stabbed multiple times. The body of her paramour, the handsome Duke of Andria, was found dressed in her nightgown, and both mutilated corpses were put on display in front of the palace. Some accounts have Gesualdo murdering his infant son, having doubted the young boy’s paternity.
Escaping prosecution because of his noble status, Gesualdo returned to Venosa and lived as a recluse. His guilt, however, was overwhelming: the composer even kept a staff of 20 servants whose job it was to flagellate him daily. He took a second wife who, according to Cecil Gray, “seemed to have been a very virtuous lady… for there is no record of his having killed her.”
Alessandro Stradella (1644–82)
Italian composers didn’t do things by halves when it came to l’amore. Before Casanova was around, Alessandro Stradella was one of the most notorious womanisers stirring up trouble and seducing the ladies of Venice. The lecherous Italian composer and all-round scoundrel left a path of destruction in his wake: after being caught out embezzling money from the Catholic Church, he fled the Vatican city… But not before his numerous affairs with aristocratic women had made him some powerful enemies.
In 1677 he went to Venice, where Alvise Contarini, an influential nobleman, engaged Stradella as music tutor to his mistress, Agnese Van Uffele. His pupil proved eager to learn, and the pair eloped for Turin. In retaliation, the cuckolded Contarini sent two hired assassins after Stradella, who was stabbed in the street and left for dead but miraculously survived his injuries.
Not to be deterred, Stradella fled to Genoa to pursue new conquests. Ultimately, though, his indiscreet flings and licentious lifestyle got the better of him. He was stabbed again – this time fatally – by an unknown assailant in 1682 at the Piazza Banchi. So much did his reputation precede him in future generations that no fewer than three composers wrote operas on the subject of his sexual escapades, most famously Flotow’s 1844 Alessandro Stradella. Collegial penis envy?
Percy Grainger (1882–1961)
Not for nothing is Percy Grainger considered Australia’s most eccentric composer. On his final visit to his homeland, he deposited a trunk of personal belongings in a Melbourne bank, stipulating it not be opened until 10 years after his death. Inside was a treasure trove: homemade whips (some hewn out of conducting batons), an extensive pornography collection and detailed photographs documenting Grainger’s self-flagellation and his wife’s bondage. These S&M artefacts reveal the sexual proclivities the composer believed were inextricably linked to his creative life and comprise the bulk of the exhibits in the “Lust Branch” of the Grainger Museum in Melbourne.
Grainger had begun experimenting with sadomasochistic practices by the age of 16. In 1928, in uninhibited (downright steamy) correspondence to his then future wife Ella, he explains his “hot wish”: “As far as my taste goes, blows [with the whip] are most thrilling on breasts, bottom, inner thighs, sexparts.” Years later, in an autobiographical essay of 1947, he admitted that he was “sex crazy”.
It’s most likely that the sexual satisfaction Grainger derived from punishment and pain stemmed from the harsh discipline he was subjected to as a child, at the hands of his formidable mother Rose. Theirs was an abnormally close relationship that has been the subject of speculation for decades: mother and son shared a bed until Grainger was 36, and Rose referred to allegations of incest in her 1922 suicide note.
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
There has been a great deal of speculation in recent years on Schubert sexuality – musicologists just can’t help themselves. Where did the sensitive outpourings of lovelorn melancholy and angst in his lieder come from?
In his 1989 article Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benevuto Cellini, Maynard Solomon posits that “the young men of the Schubert circle loved each other” and that “it is reasonably probable that their primary sexual orientation was a homosexual one,” with the Austrian composer “in the grip of a hunger for youth and an insatiable sexual appetite.” Scholars have also suggested he may have contracted his syphilis from a male prostitute.
But evidence is scant, and with nothing conclusive one can only wonder at the chasm that might have existed between Schubert’s public and private life. Although there were rumours of an unrequited love for Princess Caroline Esterházy, there is no surviving correspondence between Schubert and a woman. Whatever the case, there was definitely a hedonistic side to Schubert. His contemporary Wilhelm von Chézy wrote that the composer “honoured women and wine”, and Franz Schober, the poet of An die Musik and himself no saint, blamed his friend’s illness on “excessively indulgent sensual living and its consequences”.
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–87)
The Italian-born Lully literally danced his way through the ranks of the French court at Versailles to become one of the closest friends of Louis XIV (also a great dancer and an admirer of Lully’s skills in ballet), and official composer to the Sun King. In 1662 he married a prominent singer, with whom he would have six children, rumours abounded of Lully’s extramarital activities with several young male “students”.
was also well known for his many sexual escapades with both men and women and there has been rumor for centuries of an illicit affair with the Sun King himself.
The celebrated composer of ballet and opera was ruthless with his competitors and fiercely guarded the exclusive status Louis XIV had accorded him as surintendant de la musique de la chambre du roi. For their part, his rivals weren’t afraid to spread gossip about Lully’s homosexual exploits – even a rumoured affair between the annointed composer and the Sun King himself.
In fact, it was Lully’s brazen and indiscreet affairs that finally thwarted what had been a charmed career. In 1685 the king discovered that Lully, by then in his fifties, had seduced a young male music page named Brunet. With Louis’s devout wife Madame de Maintenon breathing down his neck, he could no longer turn a blind eye to Lully’s scandals, the latest of which was so great that there was even a ditty going round:
Un jour l’amour dit à sa mère:
Pourquoi ne suis-je pas vêtu?
Si Baptiste me voit tout nu
C’en est fait de mon derrière.
“One day Cupid said to his mother,
‘Why am I not wearing any clothes?
If Baptiste [Lully] sees me naked,
My backside will be lost.’”
Although the composer was not prosecuted – homosexuality was a capital offense in France at the time – he lost his standing at court and his friendship with the king was never restored.
JS Bach (1685–1750)
Twenty children across two wives? ‘Nuff said. The youngest, Regina, was born to Anna Magdalena and Bach in 1742, when the German composer was 57. Three of his children, Wilhelm Friedmann, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Gottfried Bernhard, became composers.
Nicolas Gombert (c1495–c1560)
He may be credited with some of the most beautiful sacred choral music ever written, but there is a stain on the name of Nicolas Gombert. Little is known about the Franco-Flemish composer: believed to have been a student of the great Josquin Des Prez, in 1529 he was appointed magister puerorum (“master of the boys”) for the royal chapel in the court of Charles V (the eldest son of Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad – great combo). With his young singers in tow, Gombert toured the cities of his employer’s empire. That seems to be where the trouble started.
During the 1530s Gombert became a cleric and probably a priest, holding the title maitre des enfants. But by 1540 his name had left the imperial chapel records. According to the physician Jerome Cardan, Gombert had violated a boy in the emperor’s service, a crime for which he was sentenced to the galleys. During his exile of forced labour on the high seas, Gombert managed to compose what Cardan described as “swan songs” (probably his Magnificat settings) so beautiful and beguiling that the emperor eventually pardoned him.
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
“There is a woman at each crossroad of Debussy’s life,” writes Marcel Dietschy in his Portrait of Claude Debussy. “Certainly women of all ages seemed fascinated by him, and they attached themselves to him like ivy to a wall.”
Indeed, the French composer drove not one, but two women to attempted suicide. First there was Gaby Dupont, with whom he had a stormy nine-year relationship and who was driven to desperate measures when she found a love letter in Debussy’s pocket.
Debussy eventually married fashion model Lily Texier in 1899, but after four years found himself frustrated with her lack of intellect and musicality. Enter Emma Bardac, wife of a Parisian banker and a gifted singer. In 1904, after sending Lily away to visit her father, he secretly holidayed with Emma; upon his return he wrote to his wife informing her the marriage was over. On October 14, five days before their fifth wedding anniversary, Lily shot herself in the chest at the Place de la Concorde. Miraculously she survived, with the bullet remaining lodged in a vertebra under her left breast for the rest of her life.
Debussy’s overt eroticism can be heard in his lush, Impressionistic chords and his sumptuous vocal settings of poems by Mallarmé and Baudelaire.
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
For the composer of the most admired love duets in Italian opera, art imitated life. “On the day when I am no longer in love,” he quipped, “you can hold my funeral.” Unfortunately for his long-suffering mistress (later his wife) Elvira, this meant a string of trysts that never ceased to arouse her jealousy. As he himself put it: “I am a mighty hunter of wild fowl, operatic librettos and attractive women”.
The situation came to a head at the couple’s villa in Torre del Lago when their young housemaid, Doria Manfredi, stood accused of an affair with the Tuscan maestro. In 1909, she swallowed rat poison, but when her autopsy proved she was a virgin Madame Puccini was sentenced to five months’ gaol for slander (her wealthy husband bailed her out with a generous settlement to the Manfredi family). Every year on the anniversary of Doria’s death, Puccini placed a wreath on her grave marked “my poor little butterfly” – he also modelled the virtuous slavegirl Liù after her in Turandot.
The sweeping romanticism and sexual vigour of Puccini’s scores speaks volumes about how he led his life, and his love of women is evident in the strong female characters who proliferate his operas. Towards the end, when the elderly composer’s libido was waning, he wrote to a former lover that he was contemplating monkey-gland to restore his sex drive; in fact, he was suffering by from the cancer that claimed him.
Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
The most photographed man of the 19th century exerted a thrall on all women who crossed his path; the term “Lisztomania” was coined to describe the symptoms of hysteria the virtuoso composer-pianist inspired in the ladies who threw their undergarments onstage as he played.
He had a string of high-profile affairs: Marie Duplessis, the high-class courtesan immortalised by Dumas in La Dame aux Camélias; the scandalous Lola Montez, who danced on a table at the unveiling of Liszt’s Beethoven Memorial in Bonn; Princess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein; the actress Charlotte Hagn (who Liszt boasted was also the mistress of two kings) and Countess Marie d’Agoulet, who described him thus in her Memoirs:
“A wonderful apparition appeared before my eyes. I use the word ‘apparition’ because I can find no other word to describe the sensation aroused in me by the most extraordinary person I had ever seen. He was tall and extremely thin. His face was pale and his large sea-green eyes shone like a wave when the sunlight catches it. His expression bore the marks of suffering… The voice of the young enchanter opened out before me a whole infinity, into which my thoughts were plunged and lost.”
All this belies the religious fervour that compelled Liszt to take holy orders later in life and renounce his former hedonistic ways.