Love Lives of the Great Composers from Gesualdo to Wagner


268 pages
ISBN 0-920151-18-3
DDC 780'.92





Reviewed by Desmond Maley

Desmond Maley is the music librarian at the J.W. Tate Library,
Huntington College, Laurentian University.


One of the pleasures of Basil Howitt’s entertaining chronicle of the
love lives of 16 great composers is his vivid prose. For instance, you
can almost see the “eyes across the room” attraction when Franz
Liszt first meets Marie D’Agoult, or feel the mounting tensions inside
the marriage of Clara and Robert Schumann as the composer’s mental
health deteriorates. Love, of course, is one of the great themes of art.
Howitt suggests that unrequited love has been the greatest stimulus to
artistic expression, followed by happiness in love, and love for a
distant muse.

Haydn’s joyful String Quartet in C Major reflected his romance with
Luigia Polzelli. Wagner’s affair with Mathilde Wesendonck impelled him
to write “Tristan und Isolde,” while Antonie Brentano was the
impetus for Beethoven’s song cycle “To the Distant Beloved.”
Howitt demonstrates that there was an “agape” (giving of oneself)
dimension of love to these composers’ lives. Bach, Mendelssohn,
Mozart, and Rossini had solid and supportive marriages, although in
Mozart’s case there may have been a rift near the end.

But the “eros” (physical attraction) dimension could take on a
sordid and seamy face. Jean-Baptiste Lully was married with six
children, but had a lifelong gargantuan appetite for boys and young men.
Schubert also apparently developed a taste for transvestite Viennese
rent boys called “peacocks.” Both Schubert and Donizetti died early
from syphilis, while Beethoven and Rossini struggled with gonorrhea.

Howitt, a cellist and occasional contributor to Classical Music
Magazine in England, makes good use of original sources and also
provides adroit thumbnail sketches of his characters. But the absence of
illustrations is unfortunate. The only gap detected in the research is
that he seems to be unaware of recent scholarly speculation that Handel
was gay.


Howitt, Basil., “Love Lives of the Great Composers from Gesualdo to Wagner,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 30, 2024,