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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, "she treats herself to the latest fashion in composers." He believed she would return as he was he was rich. Not this time.10

Unaffected by Emma's own dalliances, Debussy saw Lilly off on a train to visit her parents and set off on holiday to Jersey with his latest paramour. Callously he wrote to Lilly on returning to France to inform her the marriage was over rather than tell her in person.11

“An artist is, all in all, a detestable, inward-facing man,” Debussy wrote to Lilly in 1904, as if brutal candor somehow excused his behavior.12

Scandal ensued when Lilly took herself off to the Place de la Concorde in Paris and publicly shot herself. The incident found its way into one of the leading newspapers Le Figaro. She survived but remarked that the bullet that remained lodged in her spine was all she had left of her husband. The hard-hearted Debussy had nothing to do with her once he learned she was going to live.13

There is an ironic twist to this dreadful termination of the marriage. Debussy had threatened to kill himself if Lilly chose to turn his proposal down some five years previously.

Having divorced the tiresome Lilly, as he viewed her, Debussy married Emma and carried on his old ways. By this time they had a daughter, Claude-Emma, nicknamed Chou-Chou. His doting relationship with Chou-Chou was in direct contrast to his second wife's who wrote to her lawyer of his “inaction, continued indiscretions, moral cowardice, self-pity and much-vaunted hypersensitivity.” At the time she was exploring the possibility of a trial separation.7

Debussy knew full well his limitations on happy domestic life. He was never going to be a fireside and slippers man and said of himself, "I've often felt that being an artist is a detestable, interior kind of man, and perhaps also a deplorable husband. Put another way, a perfect husband can sometimes produce a pitiable artist." 13

The singer Mary Gardner may well have put her finger on Debussy's errant personality. "I honestly don't know if Debussy ever loved anybody really. He loved his music and perhaps himself. I think he was wrapped up in his genius. He was a very, very strange man."7

Peter Warlock 1894-1930

Warlock in 1924.

Warlock in 1924.

3 Philip Heseltine aka Peter Warlock - Wine, Women and the Occult

Old Etonian born Philip Heseltine who preferred the moniker Peter Warlock, was an eccentric character, to put it mildly. Born in the Savoy Hotel, London, no less, he led a short, bohemian and frankly, suspect life.

There have been questions over his mental stability and it's no surprise that Gesualdo came to his attention for study.

Several composers at the beginning of the twentieth century were interested in collecting folk music, locking onto their ancient musical heritage. Warlock too joined in the trend, even meeting up with Bartok, bringing him to London.

With this activity in mind, Warlock was engaged to edit a publication, The Sackbut, championing early music, particularly from the Renassaisance.

The Sackbut had been initiated by Cecil Gray, another composer and musicologist and conveniently, Warlock's landlord, and was a constituent part of Warlock's friendship circle. This also included D H Lawrence, and all three were noted for their hard drinking and womanising.14

In 1917 Warlock became absorbed in the occult, reading about the ignominious Aleister Crowley. Crowley gained a notorious reputation by joining a the Hermetic Order of the Dawn, an offshoot of the Rosicrucians, and claimed he was guided by spirits. He self-styled himself as "The Beast 666" and wrote a novel, The Diary of a Drug Fiend which was viewed as many as autobiographical. Crowley's notoriety was further enhanced after a follower died, it was said, after participating in a sacrilegious ritual in which the mostly female cult members danced naked in a circle at what came to be known as the Tregerthen Horror. The outraged British press condemned Crowley as "the wickedest man in the world."

That Heseltine chose the surname Warlock as his psuedonym when writing music articles could be seen as an indication of this deep curiosity into the occult. Both Gray and Warlock fed into the ritualistic side of Crowley's group, performing rites to immortalise their compositions.15 Of the 'dark side', Warlock said,

­"I have travelled in the dark, often ignorant of the fact I was travelling at all. I have received very definite and detailed communications concerning music from sources which the ignorant and unheeding world call supernatural: and that there is unlimited power behind these sources.''16

Moving from Wales to Eynsford in Kent in 1925, Warlock met up with fellow composer E J Moeran, living it up with copious amounts of alcohol and generally being anti-social. He honed a frivolous interest in dirty Limericks and enjoyed dabbling with cannabis, Warlock even riding naked down the road on his motorbike, incurring a visit from the police.17

Warlock's exploits led his former occultist friend D H Lawrence to cast his distasteful character, Julius Halliday from Women In Love, in his guise. It lead to Warlock threatening to take Lawrence to court. Lawrence retracted and rewrote the most contentious passages.18

It was at Eynsford that he provided his own cheeky epitaph:

Here lies Warlock the composer

Who lived next door to Munn the grocer.

He died of drink and copulation,

A sad discredit to the nation.

He omitted allusions to his occult leanings in his flippant poem, but otherwise it pretty well rounded up his reprehensible existence.

When Warlock's death came, shortly before Christmas, 1930, it was from gas poisoning. The coroner returned an open verdict, though an unnamed girl who was living with him at the time recalled,‘'he had threatened to [take his life], but I thought it was just talk … He said he felt he was a failure … and that he could not go on. He said he seemed not to be able to do any more … He seemed to worry about things’'. He was thirty-six.19

He might have been dead, but Warlock's story didn't stop there. His son Nigel by his brief marriage to Minnie Lucia Canning who earned the nickname 'Puma',15 believed the Dutch composer Bernard van Dieren had murdered his father on account he was named as a beneficiary in his will18 and because Van Dieren was the last person to have seen him before the fateful gassing.21

Then many years later, the British art critic Brian Sewell claimed Warlock to be his father, saying he found out his mother had been one of his mistresses. His mother had, according to her, been pressed by Warlock to take a fiver to pay for an abortion, but kept the money and the baby.3

Considering the breathless race through life Warlock chose it's a wonder he put his head down to compose any music at all. Yet he did, and his Capriole Suite is a delight, merging his love of early British folk style with a twentieth century modern twist.

Richard Wagner 1813-1883

Photograph of Wagner in 1971.

Photograph of Wagner in 1971.

4 Wagner - Backstabber Extraordinaire

While some composers may have earned their dubious reputation behind the bedroom door, one was content to be marked for posterity to be viewed as the composer content to stab his friends and mentors in the back. A shame, as the music he produced from his pen forms a cornerstone of the operatic repertoire. It's just that the same nib also scratched poisonous words onto paper, leaving no doubt at the kind of obnoxious individual he was.

So who was it that Wagner had cause to treat so shamefully? No less than acclaimed opera composer and the man who gave Wagner a foot up to put his own operas on the stage: Giacomo Meyerbeer.

During the time Wagner was making his youthful way in the operatic world, Meyerbeer

basked in the comfortable knowledge that his own opera, Robert le Diable was doing very nicely indeed. A tale about William the Conqueror's father, Robert, who allegedly was the son of the devil, it was a platform for melodrama on a grand scale over a mammoth period of 5 hours. It secured Meyerbeer's position as a leading light of opera composition throughout Europe in the nineteenth century.

Sitting pretty, as he thought, Meyerbeer evidently thought he could be generous to up and coming composers. Wagner easily fitted the bill.

In 1839, while sojourning at Boulogne to improve his health, he met up with Wagner. , Along with his wife, Minna and a dog, prophetically name Robber, Wagner had fled Riga where he was the theatre director to escape his creditors. Evading people he owed money to became a recurring theme in Wagner's life, rather like one of his leitmotifs and he even spent time in a debtors' prison.22 Having crossed the English Channel from Gravesend his path crossed with Meyerbeer at the port city.23

His deference and sycophancy lent the correct amount of prostration before a darling of the opera house and Meyerbeer was so impressed with the score of the opera Wagner was working on - Rienzi - that he agreed to help Wagner up the ladder. Two letters were dispatched to the Paris Opera, one each to the conductor and director recommending they stage a Wagner opera he had already completed - Das Liebesverbot.

For the time being it was expedient for Wagner to acknowledge Meyerbeer's influence. On September 20 Wagner wrote to Apel, "Meyerbeer has remained untiringly loyal to my interests." 24

But Wagner had a problem with returning that loyalty, especially when the object of that entitled allegiance was Jewish. He swapped praise dripping with sickly sugar-coated phrases, writing to Meyerbeer, "But my head and my heart are no longer mine to give away – they are your property, my master; The most that is left to me is my two hands – do you wish to make use of them?; I realise that I must become your slave, body and soul, in order to find food and strength for my work, which will one day tell me of my gratitude..."25 with referring to his former mentor in a volume entitled Opera and Drama, "As a Jew, [Meyerbeer] owned no mother-tongue, no speech inextricably entwined among the sinews of his inmost being..."26

The rapier of hatred was thrust into Meyerbeer's reputation, and it stuck.

Wagner's anti-Jewish stance was not confined to Meyerbeer. Mendelssohn, born into a Jewish family but who was in fact baptised and wrote a wealth of music aimed at the Protestant church, also got it in the neck.

As it happened Mendelssohn had died when Wagner unleashed his savage criticism of him in his racist essay Jewishness in Music. He wrote that Mendelssohn "has shown us that a Jew can possess the richest measure of specific talents, the most refined and varied culture ... without even once through all these advantages being able to bring forth in us that profound, heart-and-soul searching effect we expect from music". and was "a Jew banker to whom it occurred to compose music." Ouch!3

Although Wagner has become synonymous with anti-semitism, it would be balanced to point out that Meyerbeeer was not the only champion he was happy to ride roughshod over. The conductor Hans von Bülow premiered both Tristan and Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nuremburg to great acclaim while Wagner was carrying on an affair with his wife, Cosima, fathering three children with her. Cosima and Wagner eventually married after von Bülow agreed to a divorce.27

A thoroughly unpleasant individual, you will agree, but Wagner wrote some wonderful music, unless, of course, you are in Rossini's camp. He quipped "Wagner is a composer who has beautiful moments but awful quarter hours."

William Walton 1902-198

Walton in 1937.

Walton in 1937.

5 Walton - The Love Rat

Is it intense creativity that induces, at best, unconventional behaviour in some of our best loved composers? Or is it that their behaviour happens to be well documented and this sort of thing was going on all the time, secretly or not so secretly? If we take characters from other creative arts - Charles Dickens, Byron, and most painters, aggrieved wives had to put up with self absorbed husbands because laws favoured men, and with it a license to get away with whatever they could.

Walton was very much one of those selfish husbands, well known for sleeping with just about every woman he met in the society circles he moved in and happy to live at the expense of the wealthy.

From an early stage in his career, he was befriended by the well-heeled Sitwell clan for whom he wrote the music for Façade (Edith Sitwell providing the libretto). The Sitwells viewed Walton as an honorary brother and he lived with them in Chelsea for around 15 years.28

In 1929 Walton become embroilled in a six year relationship with a wealthy widow, Baroness Imma von Doenberg, to whom his first symphony is dedicated, living with her in Switzerland. After the Baroness came a 12 year stint with Alice Viscountess Wimbourne, which Walton was happy to refer to as 'scrounging'.29

In 1948 he visited Buenos Aires a part of a delegation. There he met Susanna Gil Passo. She was 22, he 46. Badgering her for 2 weeks at the conference she agreed to his proposal of marriage, and so embarked on a marriage liberally peppered with adulterous affairs.25

On their wedding night his long-to-be-suffering wife was presented with a sex manual and a warning that if she bore a child he would divorce her. The unwanted pregnancy duly developed (at least on Walton's part) and with it, the demand for a back street abortion. Susana described the ghastly details of the procedure that almost cost her life in her book Behind the Façade, however she was made of strong stuff and the marriage survived until his death in 1983.30

It's quite amazing what people will put up with, but despite everything, they do.

Pierre Boulez 1925-2016

Photograph of Boulez in 1968.

Photograph of Boulez in 1968.

6 Boulez - Brilliant Musician, Incensing Individual

Music that was incredibly difficult to perform and bitingly disparaging comments - Boulez delivered both in spades.

His second piano sonata falls into the infamous category of let's say, of the challengingly technical. Yvonne Loriot reputedly cried at the prospect of performing it.31 The live performance of Maurizio Pollini will give you some idea of the barriers this virtuosic pianist faced. No wonder even Loriot, herself a pianist who could circumnavigate the complexities of her husband's (Messiaen) complicated compositions, almost lost her nerve.

Messiaen himself took Boulez for composition lessons at the Paris Conservatoire, but eventually they fell out over his unbridled remarks. Boulez referred to Messiaen's style as "music of the brothel" 32 and went so far as to say the Turangalila symphony made him vomit.25 Boulez was a maverick hauling compositional techniques into unexplored areas and expected everyone to follow.

Messiaen of course was not the only composer who came in for criticism from the forthright Boulez. He infamously turned his back on Dutilleux at the performance of his first symphony33 and even the great opera composer Verdi did not escape. "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" he repeated.

It may be one thing to be dismissive of Verdi, but to advocate arson is another. In an interview he gave to the German newspaper, Der Spiegel in 1967, Boulez remarked

The most elegant way of solving the opera problem would be to blow up the opera houses.”34

John Adams, also did not escape his tongue lashing with this riposte: “I cannot say I will spit on his music, but I cannot admire it either. His opera The Death of Klinghoffer sounded like bad film music.”

There seemed to be no withdrawals of these provocations, indeed one might conclude that he went out his way to be offensive. Unrepentant he acknowledged, "Certainly I was a bully. I am not ashamed of it at all."35

Throughout all his acerbic insults though, Boulez perhaps felt his victims should be more thick skinned and loved to come out with the opposite of whatever the audience expected, often with a mischievous glint in his eye.3 Not that Verdi could have retaliated, being dead.

Nevertheless we should not forget his phenomenal conducting skills and razor sharp interpretations of French and German music. Boulez might be a name to put you off and creep back under the duvet, but take five minutes to listen to this excerpt from the second sonata. The amazing energy and dynamism is hard to resist and leaves you wanting more from this bad boy.

Karlheinz Stockhausen 1928-2007

Stockhausen rehearsing Michaels Heimkehr 12 June 1980.

Stockhausen rehearsing Michaels Heimkehr 12 June 1980.

7 Stockhausen - Cosmically Controversial

If you were asked to name an avant garde composer, Stockhausen might well be the one that first springs to mind.

He gained infamy for his compositions of extreme dissonance, the use of unusual instruments and puzzling directions. For instance in his 1969 work Fresco, the orchestral musicians were confronted with the instruction 'glissandos no faster than one octave per minute'.

Even more bizarre was one from In Aus den sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days) which asks the players to, "Live completely alone for four days, without food in complete silence, without much movement. After four days, late at night, without talking beforehand, play single sounds without thinking what you are playing. Close your eyes. Just listen." So, no thought for his performers' well being, then.

He had an extremely high opinion of himself, and demanded to own every photograph taken of him 35 and put it about that he dreamed he'd been born on Sirius, his role being to “to bring celestial music to humans, and human music to the celestial beings”. To this end, Stockhausen required some works such as Sterklang (Star Music) to actually take place at night under the stars.36

More controversially he declared that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre as "the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos", a comment he felt compelled to revoke, saying he only meant it allegorically.36After two failed marriages he set up home (designed by himself, naturally) with a flautist and a clarinettist with whom he had a polygamous relationship, and his six children by two former wives.3

Whether you view Stockhausen as a megalomaniac or far sighted composer with the nature of sound at his heart, he was a modernist that couldn't be ignored.




3 The Guardian


5 The Cheltenham Festival

6 The BBC/Radio 3


8 Wikipedia France


10 The BBC/BBC4


12 The New Yorker

13 The BBC




17 Classic FM


19 The Portobello Orchestra

20 Hyperion Records


22 Everipedia



25 The Independant

26 Music with Ease

27 Operamusica

28 Wikipedia

29 Presto Music


31 The New York Times

32 Music Academy Online



35 The Telegraph

36 The Economist


© 2019 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on September 12, 2019:

Thank you Chitrangada for your kind comments. As you can imagine, I enjoyed researching about these bad boys.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on September 11, 2019:

Thank you for introducing me to the 7 bad boys of classical music. Honestly, didn’t know about these facts.

Your article is as usual interesting, informative, well written and well researched.

Thanks for sharing.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on March 17, 2019:

Hello Reginald. Thank you so much for your kind comments. Stockhause is indeed an interesting guy, very complex, but then many composers were - part of being extraordinarily creative, perhaps!

Reginald Thomas from Connecticut on March 17, 2019:

Great article! I knew a few of these things about Wagner, but Walton, wow! Stockhausen is an interesting person!

Thank you for the research.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on March 03, 2019:

Hi Flourish. I completely agree with you. The Me Too movement wasn't around when some of these composers were in their hey day. Even so, it's a wonder what women put up with, and I find it immensely sad, and indignant.

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 02, 2019:

This was thoroughly enjoyable. These people are megalomaniacs and completely dysfunctional but were very entertaining to read about. Some of their behavior rose to abuse of a partner. It’s hard to pick a terrible favorite. I can’t believe others have not commented.

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