The strangest legal trials in music history

Stories of love, morals and copyright. Poisonings, jealousy and betrayals: the history of music is filled with disputes and confrontations of all kinds.

The strangest legal trials in music history
The strangest legal trials in music history, © Getty / Lambert

By taking an interest in the various affairs that shook the lives of composers is to learn about their epochs, their annoyances and their temperaments. It was only when Lully attained a privileged status that he began stirring up sentiments of jealousy and even an attempt on his life. Only Satie and his insolence could publicly call a critic a salaud [bastard]! As for Vivaldi, the Red Priest, it is only because he preferred music to mass that he ever agreed to work as an impresario at the Teatro Sant' Angelo in Venice. 

Here are seven funny quarrels: famous or confidential cases that all led their protagonists to court.

Lully and the case of the poisoning

In the 17th century, Jean-Baptiste Lully was Louis XIV's favourite composer. Appointed superintendent of the King's music, it was he who composed all of the Sun King's ballets and operas. However, other musicians also desired such recognition and glory... Amongst them a certain Henry Guichard, general steward of Department of the Household of Monsieur, name given to the brother of Louis XIV and the Duc d'Orléans Philippe de France.

Accusation. In 1675, Lully sought the council of Louis XIV: he claimed Henry Guichard tried to poison him with arsenic by pouring several doses of the white powder into the composer's snuffbox. No sooner said than done, Guichard was arrested and imprisoned at the Châtelet.

Context. Regardless of who was guilty, the weapon was well chosen... Under Louis XIV, arsenic was king. It was not a rare occurrence for various members of the court to kill with or be killed by arsenic. Women were often accused and found guilty of such crimes, including Madame de Vivonne, Madame de La Mothe, Madame de Montespan... and the famous La Voisin (seen below) who made her own poisons. 

Catherine Deshayes, dite La Voisin, empoisonneuse arrêtée et brûlée vive en 1680.
Catherine Deshayes, dite La Voisin, empoisonneuse arrêtée et brûlée vive en 1680. , © Getty / DEA PICTURE LIBRARY

Hypothesis: Guichard, envious of Lully's privileges, may have sought to kill the composer, plain and simple. He was first convicted then released after a second trial on appeal, before fleeing to Spain where he eventually contributed for the first time in his career at the age of 70 to the operatic genre by writing a libretto (Ulysse by Jean-Féry Rebel, a forgotten opera).

However, is it possible that Lully fabricated this entire affair? The famously ambitious composer was also known to be particularly avaricious of his privileged position… Could he have found the perfect way to get rid of a potential threat? 

Puccini and Elvira's jealousy

Mister and Madame Puccini had a son, Antonio. They lived together at Torre de Lago, in Tuscany, with a young girl in their employ, Doria Manfredi. They seemingly lived together in the most perfect harmony until January 1909, when the young Doria put a sudden end to her life.

The facts. In 1909, Giacomo Puccini was already a renowned and celebrated composer, working peacefully on his latest opera La Fanciulla del West. His wife Elvira, however, not known for her quietude and trusting nature, suspected her husband of having an affair with their domestic, Doria Manfredi. Humiliated and publicly accused, the young girl seemingly committed suicide. 

The proof. Following the death of the young girl, the Manfredi family launched an inquiry and requested an official autopsy: the jurist eventually testified that Doria died a virgin, and therefore no acts passion took place between the composer and the young girl. The Manfredi nonetheless lodged a complaint against Elvira, forcing her to leave the city temporarily, yet again making the headlines*.

*yet again since twenty years earlier, Elvira Gemignani had already caused a scandal by leaving her first husband and running away with Giacomo Puccini.

Photographie d'Elvira Puccini à Torre Del Lago.
Photographie d'Elvira Puccini à Torre Del Lago., © Getty / De Agostini

Vivaldi and copyright

What happened to Antonio Vivaldi in February 1706 ? The Red Priest suddenly accused fellow composer Girolamo Polaniof not recognising his contribution to the opera Creso tolto alle fiamme, first performed several months earlier at the Teatro Sant' Angelo in Venice. Polani and the theatre allegedly owed Vivaldi another 60 ducats. 

The context. There is nothing unusual at this time for a young composer to complete and finish the score of one of his elders, thereby earning some money and making a name for himself. In 1706, Vivaldi was a renowned virtuoso violinist, but not yet known as a composer. Besides, as an ordained priest and violin master at the Ospedale della Pietà, Vivaldi was not strictly supposed to work for the theatre... 

The trial. Girolamo Polani told the judges that he too had composed for Vivaldi, namely a serenade. However, Vivaldi was stubborn and eventually won his trial (and his 60 ducats).

Satie's insults

Early 20th century: Jean Poueigh was a French composer and critic for various publications including Carnets de la Semaine. In May 1917 he attended the premiere of the ballet Parade at the Théâtre du Châtelet. The choreography was designed by Léonide Massine for the Ballets Russes, the story written by Jean Cocteau, and the stage design and costumes created by Pablo Picasso. As for the music, that was up to Erik Satie

Erik Satie.
Erik Satie., © Getty / API/Gamma-Rapho

The facts. At the end of the performance, Jean Poueigh came to shake the hand of Erik Satie, backstage. Several days later, the composer discovered a critique by Poueigh of the ballet in the Carnets de la Semaine: "This work is an outrage on French taste".

The weapon. "You are an arsehole", riposted Erik Satie to the critic, by post. "Never again offer me your dirty hand". A hand-written and nuanced response that immediately provoked a reaction by Jean Poueigh. He accused Satie of slander, noting that the insult had been written on the back of a postcard, visible to all including his kind concierge. 

The trial. Satie was sentenced to 8 days in prison without parole, a veritable trauma for the composer. The judges also imposed a heavy fine. Following the trial, the composer's friends were more than angry, with Cocteau almost punching the lawyer of the plaintiff, Jean Poueigh. Fortunately some kind (and rich) supporters of Satie handled the fine and tempered the bruised egos, allowing Satie to avoid his prison sentence.

Gounod and the tireless Mrs Weldon

"Pray for this woman who wounded me so well," wrote Charles Gounod regarding the English singer Georgina Weldon. With this short phrase was fully revealed the composer's personality: occasionally bigoted and mystical, and at other times carried away by a sudden passion. 

Introduction. In 1870 war broke out in France and the Gounod family moved to London. The name Gounod was already widely recognised even across the Channel: his famous aria Ave Maria had already been performed countless times, and news of the success of his works Faust and Roméo et Juliette was spreading fast... A young singer of 34 years, Georgina Weldon, wished to become the composer's new muse. 

Gounod, Georgina and her husband (she was unfortunately still married) become inseparable, so much so that the composer eventually began living with them at Tavistock House, whilst Mrs Gounod preferred to return to France, far from this outrageous affair. 

The drama. So far so good. However, the relationship between Gounod and Georgina Weldon soon intensified and became increasingly complex. She wished for him to compose for her, to write for her voice. Gounod, however, grew tired and weary: "Gounod, suffering, came down the stairs wearing slippers and a velvet cap on his head," wrote journalist Oscar Comettant whilst passing through the English capital.

Les yeux de Charles Gounod.
Les yeux de Charles Gounod. , © Getty / Nadar

The composer's friends began to worry, before finally intervening in 1874, bringing him back to Paris. Georgina Weldon was furious: she had been abandoned by her Pygmalion, and her hopes of success gone with him. She therefore held hostage the composer's belongings, refusing to return them, notably the score of Polyeucte. Georgina even threatened Gounod with legal action, who would never again set foot in England, avoiding a lawsuit for 10 000 pounds. 

Epilogue. Angered by her unsuccessful lawsuit, Mrs Weldon poured all her anger into a particularly vengeful publication: "After three years of collaboration, the disappointment was bitter when the tenderness we lavished upon was repaid with insults, ingratitude and slander."

The famous case of the Boléro

It is undoubtedly one of music history's most famous legal affairs. The Boléro by Maurice Ravel has seen its rights pass from hand to hand: from Ravel's brother, Edouard, to Georgette, hairdresser and second wife of Alexandre Taverne, chauffeur and heir to the brother Edouard. Hard to follow? This is just the beginning, since one must not forget the copyright: its prescription, the exceptions, its prolongations… 

Conclusion. In November 2018, Ravel's Boléro celebrated its 90th anniversary. Popular as ever, the work finally fell into the public domain, meaning that the score's monopolisation was finally over, and the Boléro could be performed without prior request for authorisation or copyright payment, but the story may not be completely over...  

Tcherniakov, a recent affair

In October 2015, the Paris Court of Appeal banned the performance of a work of music, namely Poulenc's Dialogue des Carmélites by Dmitri Tcherniakov. In order to fully understand why, one must go back to the work's origins... 

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Past. In the 18th century, during the French Revolution, sixteen Carmelite nuns from Compiegne were accused of fanaticism and sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court. 150 later, in 1949, their story was adapted for the theatre by Georges Bernanos. Then in 1957, the composer Francis Poulenc turned Bernanos's Dialogue des Carmélites into an operatic masterpiece.

Present. In his stage design first presented in 2015 in Munich, Dmitri Tcherniakov brings the intrigue of the Dialogues des Carmélites into a more contemporary setting. But this is not the subject of the disagreement: what profoundly shocked the heirs of Bernanos and Poulenc was the revised ending proposed by Tcherniakov. The nuns are no longer sentenced to death but rather attempt to commit suicide before being saved at the last minute by the main protagonist, Blanche de la Force [Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ]. 

Yet Bernanos was a fervent Catholic, and the idea of a martyr was dear to him, as much as that of hope. His Carmelites are not resigned and welcome Death in peace. By changing the end of the work, Chernyakov would therefore have infringed upon Bernanos's moral rights.

Future. An initial lawsuit was filed by the heirs of Bernanos and Poulenc in 2014, but soon dismissed by the High Court of Paris. However, the plaintiffs appealed and eventually won their second trial, the court's decision sparking a nationwide debate. How exactly would Tcherniakov have undermined the work? Is there a line that one must not cross? A careful balance that must be respected with regards to artistic creation? The justice system has spoken, but the debate continues.