Let us celebrate the four hundred and fortieth anniversary of the birth of the composer of madrigals, Don Carlo Gesualdo (1570-1613), Prince of Venosa. He was the only known multiple murderer in the history of Western music. Not only that, but, according to an edict issued by the Vatican, “although divinely talented,” he had also been flirting with sexual perversions and had “set decency and morality at the feet of carnal desires.” Among those Don Carlo murdered was Donna Maria, his wife, a close relative also of noble blood, who was known as il morte bella, “the beautiful death-bringer.” When her own turn came because of unfaithfulness, her fatal wounds were, so a legal document recorded, “confined almost exclusively to those parts of her body which should have been kept honest.”
On the musical front, Gesualdo’s madrigals were so imaginatively composed that, possibly thanks to their “perverted chromaticism,” none of them survived.
We should also celebrate the anniversaries of two more domesticated composers – Chopin and Schumann – whose marvelous works, unlike those of Gesualdi, are among the most frequently performed today, on the concert stage and by music lovers at home. Both were born in 1810, two hundred years ago. Neither killed anybody, but both, being pioneers of the romantic era, were all their lives on friendly terms with death, a common denominator among romantics.
They had good reason: both were ill. Chopin had TB and Schumann suffered from depressions and in later life delusions and hallucinations, so severe that, in 1854 he attempted suicide by jumping into the Rhine. He was rescued but ended his days two years later in an institution. (His wife Clara was not allowed to see him until two days before his death.) His use of multiple personalities in some of his early compositions, now pensive, now wild and tempestuous, suggest that even then he may well have been aware that the conflicts that took place within himself indicated that he was suffering from mental illness.
There was never any suggestion that there was anything wrong with Chopin’s mental health, unless one considers the agonies he endured at the piano while composing – the torment, the tears and the anger, between the initial inspiration and the writing down of the final work. He was thirty-nine when he died. Even in his good days he preferred playing in salons and private homes to appearing on the concert stage. His enormous reputation as a pianist rested on only thirty public concerts in his entire life.
Thomas Mann was not the only writer who had something to say about the connection between genius and illness. But it never occurred to him, nor to anybody else, that the willingness and ability to commit murder – let alone sexual perversion – was an essential attribute of genius.