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7 Bad Boys of Classical Music

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Hogarth's The Rake's Progress


Does everyone like a bad boy? Well maybe, if he's a loveable rogue and there's plenty of those about. But there are those who go beyond the accepted limits - cross the line, though, and you are into shaky territory. Being a rascal may put a wry smile on the odd lip or make you roll your eyes, but when you are shocking or downright harmful, that's another matter altogether.

Carlo Gesualdo 1566-1613


1 Gesualdo - A Prince with Murder in Mind

You might surmise that to murder your wife and her lover was the ultimate bad boy crime.

Don Carlo Gesualdo di Venosa was a Renaissance composer of noble descent, a prince as famed for the inventive harmony of his madrigals as he was for his private life. You could say he was a man of his time and a man far beyond it.1

To discover your other half in bed with another man, is, by and large, not going to put you in a good mood. But when codes of honour and outward appearances are paramount, then the stakes ramp up.

It might be one thing to grab anything to hand in the heat of the moment and bludgeon your wife and lover to death, as the French would put it 'à la crime passionale', but Gesualdo's revenge was a dish served cold. He waited. And he planned.

Gesualdo had learned of his wife's infidelity through his family and friends and set up the whole sorry episode. Knowing his rival, the Duke of Andria was meeting up with his spouse, Gesualdo ordered servants to take up halberds and a gun, enter his unfaithful wife's chamber and hack them to death in her bed. The Duke was also shot. Worse still, Gesualdo declared that his wife was not dead enough and gave her a few extra stabbings himself just for good measure, but so ferociously that the weapon penetrated right through to the floorboards.

Hot footing it from the ghastly deed, Gesualdo confessed his crime to the Viceroy who had no appetite to prosecute. There were mitigating circumstances; a nobleman could not be expected to tolerate one's spouse in bed with another man, he should take action, even if those actions were rather extreme.2

Gesualdo's second wife must have been a game girl. Firstly, she presumably agreed to marry the man who had mutilated her predecessor rather than merely divorce her or banish her to a nunnery. Secondly, she had the courage to seek terrible retribution of her own for his extra marital transgressions and insisted two of his concubines were tried for witchcraft.

Although his mistresses were convicted, they escaped the death penalty. One of them, a certain Aurelia, was even taken back to Gesualdo's castle, where, most likely, normal service was resumed.3

Claude Debussy 1862-1918

Debussy in 1908.

Debussy in 1908.

2 Debussy - Four Proposals and an Attempted Suicide

Debussy, creator of the luscious La Mer and countless ravishing piano works, had severe problems relating to women. Yet according to biographer Marcel Dietschy, "women of all ages...clung to him like ivy to a wall".

Why was that, if he were so odious to women? Because, as documented by the writer Colette, she was too dazzled by his ability to entertain, writing:

"He sang scraps of this on his new piano, accompanied himself with a glissando on the piano, imitated the timpani on a pane of glass, the glockenspiel on a crystal vase. He hummed like a swarm; he laughed with his whole astonishing visage - and we were delighted."

The piece Debussy was taking off was Rimsky-Korsavov's Scheherezade, revelling in the rapt effect he swayed over the ladies.

Which might explain, if a man was living in sin, as it was thought of in the nineteenth century, with someone else, and they asked you to marry him, would your answer be yes?

This was the situation Debussy was in when he popped the question to his first wife, Lilly Texier. He had set up home in 1892 with Gabrielle Dupont, who it was generally surmised he met at some dubious venue or other, very possibly at L'Auberge de clou where Satie, Debussy's friend, played the piano for a living.

However before Gaby there had been another major affair, with a married woman called Marie-Blanche Vasnier, lasting eight years.4 They'd met at Mme Victorine Moreau-Sainti's singing studio where Debussy was earning 60 francs a month as their accompanist. She was thirty-two and wealthy to his eighteen and impoverished.5

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Having trodden the boards of illicit love, it was barely a side step to set up home with the hard-done-to Gaby. From their "dank attic" furnished with a bed, three chairs, a table and a Peyel piano on loan, Debussy set about his double and some might say, triple life.6

His single marriage proposal, but not to Gaby, might be one too many.Two is almost unimaginable, but three? Still, three there were.

The first was directed at Thérèse Roger, a singer who sang the premiere of his Blessed Damoiselle. The engagement was short lived. It might be difficult to believe but it was a blatant press announcement dated March 1894 which flagged the whole escapade up to Gaby who understandably was not best pleased.

A further affair led Gaby (who through all this misery was feverishly working as a milliner to make ends meet) to threaten suicide, though she did not carry it through.

Debussy wrote to his friend about his latest love interest and the effect it had on his live-in lover. "Gaby with her steely eyes found a letter in my pocket which left no doubt as to the advanced stage of a love affair with all the romantic trappings to move the most hardened heart. Whereupon tears, drama, and a revolver and a report in the Petit Journal."7

In due course -1897 - to be more precise, along tripped another proposal, this time to Catherine Stevens.8 She had the good sense to prefer wealth over poverty and kicked Debussy into touch, saying she would have maintained her interest "if I hadn't met Henry." Henry Vivier was a doctor and a far more attractive and financially stable prospect. So at least a little of Debussy's own medicine was administered by way of the medical profession.

Somehow (though it takes a great wad of imagination to do so) Gaby and Debussy carried on. Almost inevitably, it did fall apart, on account of the last proposal, in 1898, which was carried through. To, as it happened, the bitter end.

Gaby even warned the latest woman to be sought out as a wife for the roving Debussy of his peculiar predelictions. Gaby and Lilly Texier happened to be friends and one suspects Gaby will have left no secrets in the closet. Against what must have been her better judgement,, Lilly went ahead.

A line Debussy wrote at the time did not bode well for Lilly and her upcoming marriage.

“Her favorite song is a roundelay about a grenadier with a red face who wears a hat on one side like an old campaigner, not very provoking aesthetically…She does not have much up top.”7

Having such a disparaging opinion of Lilly's cranial capacity, it was little wonder the marriage ended in disaster. For who should show up on Debussy's horizon but the highly intellectual Emma Bardac?

To be fair, Emma comes over as a bit of a minx. Lilly's version of her was, "Elle l'a eu par la guele." (She's hooked him).

Emma was married to a banker and had previously enjoyed an affair with composer Gabriel Fauré, having already entertained Bizet in the bedroom, when Debussy set her in his sights.9 Monsieur Bardac commented about his wayward wife,