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Playlist: Dark Sides

There are many mysteries surrounding the lives and deaths of some well-known composers: occult practices, witchcraft and spiritualism, murder and dismemberment – the list goes on. Let us shed some light on the dark sides of composers lives with our Dark Sides playlist, only on Primephonic.


Carlo Gesualdo

carlo gesualdo

Don Carlo Gesualdo, the Prince of Venosa, was a quite successful composer of madrigals and sacred pieces in the late-Renaissance era. He also had a well-deserved reputation as a brutal and violent man, not least for murdering his unfaithful wife and her lover. Police reports tell of a horrific crime scene with mutilated bodies and blood everywhere, but due Gesualdo's noble status he didn’t face any criminal charges. It's also believed that he was beaten to death by a group of young boys in some kind of masochistic ritual. Despite the aforementioned horror stories though, his name as a composer has lived on as remarkably innovative for the time, and still influential today. Pictured here is an altarpiece titled Il Perdono di Gesualdo (The Pardon of Gesualdo). He commissioned it himself. 

Peter Warlock

Another example of nobility and insanity going hand in hand. This twentieth-century English composer's real name was Philip Arnold Heseltine, and he was famous for his vocal music, raucous parties and interest in occult practices. In his letters he writes: “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.” He died at the age of 36 in his own apartment from gas poisoning.

Robert Schumann

There are different hypotheses regarding the cause of Robert Schumann’s tragic death, but there is no doubt he suffered from either schizophrenia or manic-depressive disorder, which resulted in an unsuccessful attempt to drown himself in the Rhine. His Ghost Variations was the last piece he wrote before entering a mental asylum in 1854, where he died two years later.

Modest Mussorgsky

Mussorgsky’s depression and chronic alcoholism cost him a successful music career. The lack of a formal musical education, but also the reluctance to follow the path of the “great Russian composers” caused harsh criticism by fellow colleagues in the Mighty Handful – Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Balakirev and Borodin. In the last 6 years of his life, he wrote a well-received song cycle Songs and Dances of Death and started working on the opera Khovanshina, which was eventually revised and completed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1880, Mussorgsky wrote to a friend, "nothing left but begging", and soon after he died from four consecutive seizures. Even after his death he couldn't catch a break: the Soviets destroyed his tombstone and turned the place into a bus stop, leaving the grave under it.

Erik Satie

Whatever bizarre stories you've heard about Satie, most of them are probably true. In a nutshell, the composer lived quite a fascinating life – he started his own religion, ate solely white food for a time, and amassed a collection of 100 umbrellas for some reason. 

Hugo Wolf

Sometimes referred to as ‘the Wagner of the Lied’, this 19th-century Austrian-Slovene composer became a real sensation in Viennese circles after publishing his first songbook. Unfortunately, his outbursts of creativity were followed by periods of severe depression and growing signs of insanity, which eventually led to a tragic breakdown and death.

Bedrich Smetana

Smetana suffered from hallucinations, depression and insomnia. As his physical and mental state began to deteriorate, he was unable to complete his opera Viola and symphonic suite Prague Carnival.

Gaetano Donizetti

Donizetti wrote 75 operas, 28 cantatas, 19 string quartets and a vast number of songs which made him enormously successful and popular during lifetime. Unfortunately, composer endured a long painful death from syphilis (which took a prolific amount of lives at a time), and severe mental illness. Caterina Cornaro was the last opera Donizetti was able to finish.

Alexander Scriabin

Scriabin once said, “I am God! I am nothing, I'm play, I am freedom, I am life. I am the boundary, I am the peak”. His works are stocked with mystical subtexts, synesthetic metaphors and ecstatic rituals, proving his utter fascination with Theosophy and Theurgy. Scriabin’s unfinished work Mysterium was meant to be a week-long multi-sensory performance in a hemispherical temple in the Indian Himalayas following the end of the world. Scriabin was also obsessed with cleanliness, making the cause of his death kind of ironic – he died from a simple sore on his upper lip.

Anton Bruckner

Bruckner had several weird obsessions: death, numbers and young girls. He loved touching skulls, counting bricks on the pavement and writing love notes to his teenage students. 

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji

The author of one the longest and most technically demanding pieces in the piano repertoire Opus Clavicembalisticum (1930) was Peter Warlock’s friend. They shared the same passion for composition, music criticism and occultism. Sorabji left a decent amount of occult inscriptions in his works, like “... a rite not to be spoken, a deed of high Black Magic”, “may this work not be harmful to you, Redolent Goat of the Sabbath”, “... and in that darkness they come”, and of course, his Black Mass (1922).