Why did composer mutilate his wife?

Why did composer mutilate his wife?


norman lebrecht

March 20, 2015

The world of music knows that Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, murdered his wife and her lover on the night of  16 October 1590. The murder was premeditated and very well-organised. Gesualdo was generally a cold fish. But in the act of murder he deliberately chopped his wife to pieces. Why would a man do something like that?

I Fagiolini, the vocal ensemble, called in a forensic psychiatrist to assist with their forthcoming Gesualdo project. Read her clinical assessment here.




  • Hilary says:

    With the passing of time it’s interesting how this atrocity has a different flavour than had it been committed more recently.

  • Anon says:

    What it shows is that our Western “enlightened” societies are only a few hundred years ahead of the backward societies – e.g. in many Islamic countries – where such cruel punishment for adultery would still be legal.
    Sobering thought, that these few hundred years are only a speck of dust in the greater picture of times and evolution of mankind.

    • Mike Schachter says:

      A remarkably inane comment, typical of liberal guilt for things that are not their fault. It probably matters quite a lot if you are unfortunate enough to live in Syria or Iraq.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Composers’ wives should be VERY careful with expressing opinions about their husbands’ music.

  • El Grillo says:

    It’s interesting that this forensic psychiatrist goes into a detailed account but skips the fact that these killings were, in that time, legal, and says nothing about the society where in these killings were bred. In turn, one might look at the privileges given modern psychiatrists, by the law. Not that it isn’t an interesting analyses speculating on what earlier trauma caused Gesualdo’s behavior, and hopefully leads to understanding in order to be able to look at cause and facilitate prevention; but in these times modern psychiatry and it’s treatments correlate with an epidemic of “mental illness,” as well as violence such as school shootings clearly attributed to psychiatric drugs. Veterans coming home from the war receiving no other treatment than psychiatric drugs are committing suicide at a higher rate than those killed in war.
    In those times a woman was a possession of her husband, and if she didn’t behave right we see what was legal. In these times medical abuse is legal. In regards psychiatry: An international corporate hegemony on treatments controlled by the drug companies correlates with a spike in mental health. When the APA has a meeting, they have to state beforehand that normal rules for conflicts of interest don’t apply (almost if not everyone there has drug company connections and funding). Drugs are approved under quite questionable conditions (to name a few things off the top of my head, although I’m not a real expert, and undoubtedly the majority is hidden): all negative trials are withheld; those getting better in the placebo group in the first two weeks with anti-depressant trials were taken out, although anyone having to leave (which quite often was a majority) because of side effects in the control group also wasn’t counted (that’s everyone that got better in the first two weeks by themselves, or those that were made so severely sick by the anti-depressants that they had to leave weren’t counted); and only when people already on psychiatric drugs were allowed in the trials did anti-depressants show a marginal efficacy (this for drugs that now are forced against the will of the drug companies to have a black box warning stating they can make people homicidal and suicidal); one can add to this that the authority of those facilitating the decision of when someone is healed or not are in collusion with a spike in mental illness, where upon their response is to say they need to let more people know about their treatment and have more control to force it on other people. There is as yet no conclusive proof that any psychiatric medications are treating a proven chemical imbalance, and yet the drug companies do everything they can to make people think this is the case, in the meantime their “medications” do correlate with causing chemical imbalance (scientifically the disease they are treating hasn’t been proven to), loss of life, severe addiction, severe side effects, loss of self initiative, loss of creativity, anosognosia and in the long run a relapsing of symptoms. These drugs are not administered with true integrity towards informed consent. There are alternative methods that correlate more with healing, but anyone promoting these stands the chance of being accused of preventing treatment, because the treatments that correlate with the spike in mental illness are the mainstream method.

    I’m lost already, reeling out things that should have nothing to do with it.

    Why is nothing said about the society that allows a man to legally “hunt” his wife for violent murderous revenge and get his servants to follow his commands? What’s the repressed trauma in such a society? And it wasn’t just women that were treated in such a manner. That could drive anyone crazy. Would someone protest such laws, such “hunts,” such wars, such calumny to harmony, are they then also crazy? Overemotional? Un-analytical? Unreasonable?

    Or are we back to:
    “Get a key and lock her up, drug her up, she might talk…”
    “It’s all for her safety, blah blah blah, blah blah blah…”

    I also don’t think the answer is to find what drug to put into the drinking water that will prevent violence, the answer might actually be in what’s already in the drinking water, and other forms of common practice.

    Beyond all of this, it certainly helps to look at repressed trauma, that’s a real tool in how you heal society, I think. But this has to be applied, not used as an object to…

    we have this stated in the article:

    “What these features suggest to a psychiatrist is that an earlier trauma was being re-enacted which had not been a straightforward loss but a rejection and a betrayal.
    In his mind the person betraying him was hugely powerful – not a naked and defenceless woman but a monster who needed a troop of men, armed to the teeth, to subdue her. This suggests that he felt defenceless in the face of the betrayal. Finally, though, his feelings could not be resolved: even after killing his wife, he immediately had to go back and kill her again.“

    “He felt defenceless in the face of the betrayal.” Somehow, the recourse given him by “society” to murder his wife, this would leave someone defenceless, at a complete loss in how to respond.

    And who is this monster needing a troop of men armed to the teeth, or is it a whole society? Or is it two whole societies, each having troops armed to the teeth, and needing to keep their “prizes” locked up as they fight with each other for dominance territory and ownership . At least that’s where I thought the word troop came from, in this amazingly descriptive rendition of “THE MONSTER.”

    What I actually pick up is that Gesualdo’s wife liked to goad him and he was acting out how so many people were insensitive towards his feelings. That, of course, is no excuse. And I don’t think it preserved or defended the sensitivities he felt were insulted.

    I do make a comparison with legal abuse in two situations. That a woman was a man’s possession in the time of Gesualdo, and medical abuse in this time, both supposedly to maintain a comfortable society.

    • John Borstlap says:

      All this does not seem very relevant. Gesualdo was a monster. In no civilization it is ‘normal’ to kill your wife even if she is adultering. Italian renaissance was quite a rough time but this kind of behavior was certainly not considered OK.

      G’s music is great, nonetheless. It is seductive to think that later guilt inspired him to his wild and painful modulations.

      There is only one other composer who is nailed as a scoundre and a much bigger one: R. Wagner, who caused the Second World War and the Holocaust and STILL seduces music lovers to enjoy his operas.

      • Anon says:

        Richard W. “caused WWII and the Holocaust”? Speechless. This is satire, right?

        • John Borstlap says:

          Well, that’s the impression one gets from the media stories in 2013 (commemoration year). No such ‘indignation’ about Gesualdo.

      • Joshua Clement Broyles says:

        “in no civilization it is ‘normal’ to kill your wife even if she is adultering. Italian renaissance was quite a rough time but this kind of behavior was certainly not considered OK.” What you’re ALL somehow missing is the central legal fact the Gesualdo was a PRINCE. Adultery against a prince is a crime against the state because it stands to produce spurious heirs to royal title. I neither condone nor excuse nor sympathize nor even ethically agree with Gesualdo’s action. But in that year, almost anywhere in the world, to allow an incontrovertible traitor to die before beginning to dismember that person might almost be considered an act of compassion.

    • MWnyc says:

      “It’s interesting that this forensic psychiatrist goes into a detailed account but skips the fact that these killings were, in that time, legal, and says nothing about the society where in these killings were bred.”

      Well, El Grillo, that would be because – especially among the audience for a project like this one – the fact that Gesualdo killed his wife and lived in a society that allowed him to go unpunished for it is considered common knowledge.

      Even punters who attend because they were drawn in by marketing about the-madman-composer-who-murdered-his-wife-amazing-shock-horror would know, or would figure out quickly, that in most of Europe at that time, wives were considered the property of their husbands and that murdering one’s wife and her lover wouldn’t have been illegal (especially if they were in bed together at the time).

      The question Dr. McAllister is addressing (as Norman made clear above) is why Gesualdo felt compelled to bring three men with guns and double-headed axes and to mutilate the lovers’ already-dead bodies when a couple of gunshots or sword thrusts would have done the job adequately.

      That’s a more interesting question to build a concert around than the issue of the unjust and unequal society of late 16th-century southern Italy would be.

      Nevertheless, dear El Grillo, you are a buon cantore, and, to judge from your 1,033-word post, you do indeed, (as I do) tiene longo verso.

  • John Borstlap says:


    “Late in life he suffered from depression. Whether or not it was related to the guilt over his multiple murders is difficult to prove, but the evidence is suggestive. According to Campanella, writing in Lyon in 1635, Gesualdo had himself beaten daily by his servants, keeping a special servant whose duty it was to beat him “at stool”, and he engaged in a relentless, and fruitless, correspondence with Cardinal Borromeo to obtain relics, i.e., skeletal remains, of his uncle Carlo [who was an officially-acknowledged saint], with which he hoped to obtain healing for his mental disorder and possibly absolution for his crimes. Gesualdo’s late setting of Psalm 51, the Miserere, is distinguished by its insistent and imploring musical repetitions, alternating lines of monophonic chant with pungently chromatic polyphony in a low vocal tessitura. – Gesualdo died in isolation, at his castle Gesualdo in Avellino, three weeks after the death of his son Emanuele, his first son by his marriage to Maria. One 20th-century biographer has suggested Gesualdo may have been murdered by his wife.”

    Conclusion: better seek other reasons to get depressed and then write beautiful music.

  • El Grillo says:

    “Gesualdo escaped prosecution not because he was a nobleman, but because what he did was lawful.”

    If this seems not relevant, one can only wonder whether it should have been illegal for him not to murder his wife was she adulterous, which then would have “inspired” him to not do it. Given serious consideration how the legal system works.

    I was simply pointing out that in both cases: The laws in Gesualdo’s time regarding possession of his wife, and what he was allowed to do when she misbehaves; and then present day psychiatry (the “clinical assessment” being written by a forensic psychiatrist) and the privileges they have regarding treatment of people who also are seen to not be behaving properly: in both cases abuse is legal (in psychiatry it can be forced medical abuse which when leading towards death is seen as justified) and this is meant to inspire towards a comfortable society.

    Regarding “Wagner” and….
    This mystery of who caused world war 2
    Was Stradivari also involved, since he helped to develop the instruments I can only assume helped inspire Wagner, or should we just outlaw music in general, or does this also seem not relevant, because would music be outlawed it would inspire people to do the opposite?

    • Anon says:

      Maybe it was Chamberlain’s fault.
      No, wait, Franz Liszt, his daughter… the later Cosima Wagner… biggest Antisemite around from Villa Wahnfried up to the dog shed in front…
      her nanny… Russian… Putin… things are falling in place. Eureka!

  • El Grillo says:

    This whole forensic analyses ends up being interesting post mortem; but is the idea to heal trauma or just analyse is?

    You can see there that the forensic psychiatrist making the clinical assessment http://www.oxleas.nhs.uk/news/2011/6/pillow-case-doctor-dreams-u-1/ has the habit of drugging her patients up to the extent that they can’t sleep for drooling at night. If you read the book by Robert Whitaker: Anatomy of an Epidemic, you can see that such drugs (antipsychotics), which have accumulated billions of dollars in fines for false advertising, do not correlate with recovery or lessening of relapses. Whitaker also has a list of articles here: http://www.madinamerica.com/author/rwhitaker/

    There are people that can relate to trauma to the extent that recovery does happen, but these aren’t the ones drugging people and making pillows for them while their treatments correlate with the spike in mental health.

  • I Fagiolini says:

    The second part of Dr McAllister’s post can be found here.