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 delictoin 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,...

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