Take a look through the musical history books and you will find plenty who enjoyed long, happy and devoted relationships with their other halves – such Grieg, Britten or, heading further back, Tallis, for instance. Then, there are those whose affairs of the heart were ardent and turbulent in equal measure, often matching their own music – the likes of arch-Romantic composers Chopin, Schumann and Wagner spring to mind, here.
There were some who simply didn't care. And then, alas, there were the composers for whom, for one reason or another, love brought more than its fair share of pain. Some were cruelly rejected by the objects of their fondest desires, others found themselves lumbered with spouses they could scarcely abide, and others were driven by jealousy to the brink of despair… or worse.
We present six composers who had wretched love lives
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was married for 30 years, but not to whom he’d have liked. As a young man, the Austrian composer fell madly in love with Therese Keller, the daughter of a Viennese wig-maker, but his would-be parents-in-law had other plans – Therese was sent to a nunnery, leaving Joseph to marry her older sister, Maria Anna, instead. Duly wed in 1860, the two were at loggerheads from almost day one. The marriage was childless, both had affairs – she with the painter Ludwig Guttenbrunn, he with the soprano Luigia Polzelli – and gossip about their feuding became standard fare. Several years after Haydn and Maria Anna had died, the Swedish composer Berwald reported that ‘They say in Vienna that Haydn’s rather unhappy and childless marriage is the reason why he composed so much.’
Like Haydn, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) also fell in love with a Therese, but in the then-teenage composer’s case, his hopes of wedlock were shattered not by the will of her parents, but by his own penury – a law at the time prohibited marriage if the man could not prove his financial wherewithal to support a family. Later in his short life, Schubert became smitten with one of his pupils, Countess Caroline Esterházy, but she, it would seem, had little interest in her skint, short, puffy-faced admirer, despite his obvious talents. He, then, had to turn elsewhere for pleasure. Whether or not the syphilis that brought about his death at just 31 was the result of regular visits to prostitutes is not known.
In 1900, Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) became besotted with his piano student, the mesmerisingly beautiful Alma Schindler. She, in return, described him as a ‘chinless, toothless, unwashed gnome’. Nonetheless, she also found him strangely fascinating and a relationship of sorts developed between them, though by all accounts it remained unconsummated. Hovering in the background, meanwhile, was one Gustav Mahler, who eventually made his move. Zemlinsky was devastated when Mahler and Alma married in 1902, and evidently had still not got over it by 1923, when he wrote his Lyric Symphony, a work telling about the woes of unrequited love.
If unrequited love can be painful (see above), it can also be productive. When Leos Janácek (1854-1928) fell for Kamila Stosslova, it inspired some of his greatest music: his String Quartet No. 2 ('Intimate Letters') and his three operas Katya Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropoulos Case. Love also turned him into a fervent correspondent: the married composer wrote over 700 letters to Stosslova, who was also married, 37 years his junior and had no great interest in art or in reciprocating his feelings. Janácek was undeterred. ‘Oh Kamila, it is hard to calm myself,’ he wrote, ‘but the fire that you’ve set alight in me is necessary. Let it burn, let it flame.’
Virginia Woolf remembered clearly the first time she saw Ethel Smyth (1858-1944): ‘Bustling down the gangway at the Wigmore Hall, in tweeds and spats, a little cock’s feather in your felt, and a general look of angry energy, so that I said, “That’s Ethel Smyth!”’ That was in 1919 but they didn’t properly meet until 1930. The British composer, by then in her 70s, fell in love with the novelist. ‘I don’t think I have ever cared for anyone more profoundly and it is I think because of her genius,’ she wrote in her diary. Woolf didn’t feel the same, but the pair became and remained friends, a relationship that was by turns fiery, inspiring and frustrating.
Love turned truly disastrous in the case of the Italian composer Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa (1566-1613). When he was 24, he returned to his castle to discover his wife, Maria d’Avalos, in bed with her lover. He brutally stabbed, slashed and shot the pair, ensuring they were both dead. Despite undoubtedly being responsible for double murder, Gesualdo’s noble status protected him from prosecution. He was, however, plagued by guilt for the rest of his life. Rumours of witchcraft and sadomasochism surrounded him, but he went on to compose music that was extraordinary in its harmonic daring.
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.