Carlo Gesualdo – Renaissance Composer + More

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by Fraser Hibbitt for the Carl Kruse Blog

The Late Renaissance composer enjoyed a rebirth of interest in the early twentieth century, some three hundred years after his death, with the publication of  Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Musician and Murderer (1926). The murder in the title refers to the night of October 16th, 1590, when Gesualdo caught his wife Donna in bed with another man and slaughtered the pair in an undeniably gruesome way, and according to witnesses, he forced himself to double-check that the pair really were dead. The day after, a delegate from the Neapolitan authorities arrived on the scene, took names, examined the bodies – it was this delegate that noted the disfigured corpses – and acquitted Gesualdo of any wrongdoing.

Gesualdo’s scandal-sensation was attractive to the Neapolitan public – even the famous poet Torquato Tasso put it in rhyme. That much hasn’t changed (i.e. killer documentaries on Netflix), and it is a breeding ground for hearsay, apocrypha: there were rumours that Gesualdo had Donna’s illegitimate child suspended in a bassinet and swung, and swung, until the arc and velocity flushed out its little existence. What Gesualdo thought about his own representation as a gruesome butcher is unknown; “but the lives of these lovers would live on in his tortured conscience and in his wild compositions” is the general idea of how Gesualdo would register his actions. By 1594, Gesualdo inherited his father’s titles and became the third prince of Venosa and the eighth Count of Conza; that means he had a castle at his disposal with the loneliness to ruminate; the separation from the public to delude himself, or to repeat the truth again, and again.

Nevertheless, he went on to arrange a new marriage with a noblewoman from Ferrara, Leonora d’Este, “She seems to have been a very virtuous lady … for there is no record of [Gesualdo] having killed her”, as the 1926 commentators would have her. The interest in Ferrara was two-fold, for marriage and for music, perhaps three-fold: it was far north from his castle in Venosa. Ferrara had become the centre for musical experimentation under the leadership of Luzzasco Luzzaschi and his “New Style” or “Nuovo Maniera”. Luzzaschi’s experiments were largely on the Madrigal form and it was he Gesualdo wished to meet.

Note on the Madrigal form: the madrigal, realised sometime in the late 13th century, of varying influences, is mainly a secular expression; the link lies in a strong interest in Italian vernacular poetry, and with the madrigal, the words are the key; it is a piece traditionally sung acapella with as many as eight voices. The madrigal was the most important musical form in 16th-century Italy and would undergo miscegenation in England and Germany. The Baroque period and the birth of the Opera in the 17th century was its death knoll. What is interesting in the progression of the madrigal form is its obsession with the word. By the time Gesualdo met Luzzaschi and the followers of his Nuovo Maniera, the madrigal form was being forced to follow each word, to attempt to embody each word, which meant that every stanza of a poem needed a different musical pattern. With Luzzaschi, things were getting extreme. To compose a madrigal for a poem that had shifting moods and changing images meant more complex harmonies; even more, down to the very word itself which may involve a complex of feeling; characteristic words that Gesualdo put much musical thought into were: “agony”, “pain”, “death”, and “ecstasy”.

Gesualdo enjoyed a fertile period with his new marriages: one with Leonora and the other with the Nuovo Maniera style. This period (around 1594-96) saw Gesualdo’s six books of Madrigals which seem, to music scholars, to encapsulate the entire history of the Madrigal; from Book I’s standardised methods through to Book V and VI’s experimental juxtapositions and chromaticisms. Gesualdo had by now moved back to his castle in Venosa and was bent on recreating the environment he had found at the Ferrarese court. His considerable wealth bought musicians and cast his castle as a new centre for music, or for his music. Gesualdo’s obsession with music had apparently begun when he was a child and this dynamic between living and music-as-life defines him; here, in his castle, he was free to satisfy every experimental musical pleasure.

His other marriage, however, broke down. Leonora would often leave Gesualdo to stay with relatives to whom Gesualdo would pen angry letters. Divorce was contemplated but never came to fruition. This period, in the opening decade of the 17th century, saw Gesualdo’s religious energies manifest themselves in Sacrae Cantiones, and especially in his musical responses to the Passion of Christ – a kind of music that would not be heard again until Wagner and the tonal experiments of Modernism. Increasingly isolated, depressed, music-obsessed, Gesualdo became frantic. Campanella, theologian and philosopher, writing some twenty years after his death speaks of the end-days Gesualdo as ordering his servants to sit him on a stool and repeatedly beat him as part of some masochistic ritual, and we do know that he beseeched cardinal Federico Borromeo to obtain holy relics in some desperate endeavour to be “exorcised” from his melancholy.

In 1613, after outliving both his sons, Gesualdo died in isolation. He had plenty of admirers but the beginnings of the Baroque largely neglected his work and he was long forgotten in the mainstream of western musical culture. Until the biography came with its consequences. The first rendition of his remembrance appears to be something he had wished to fly from, or perhaps had felt he could compose himself out of; the guilt and torment of murder, of misery and loneliness. Fate could not revive his music with reference to the murder. But how could they be separated; it is, as journalist Alex Ross wrote of him: “the nexus of high art and foul play that catches our fancy”.

Gesualdo the man conjures up images of the blood-stain that cannot be washed away, the involuntary twitch of the eye, and the primal guilt that closes the curtains to the world. However, sensationalism kills the deep interaction between the man and his crime. Gesualdo’s life is very aesthetically attractive; Anatole France and Julio Cortazar both drew inspiration from him for stories. In fact, it is from the aesthetic realm that Gesualdo found redemption; note the countless Operas, a form he possibly had a part in fashioning, based or inspired by him, some not so melodramatic, and the countless musical responses in which you’ll find Stravinsky’s ballet Monumentum pro Gesualdo.

When Aldous Huxley experimented with mescaline, he listened to pieces of music to see what he could glean. After the first movement of Mozart’s C-Minor Piano Concerto, some of Gesualdo’s madrigal were played: “ah… these voices – they’re a kind of bridge back to the human world”, and, Huxley continues “it does not matter that he is all in bits. The whole is disorganized. But each individual fragment is in order, is a representative of a Higher Order. The Highest Order prevails even in disintegration”.  But, and here we have Gesualdo, “but”, Huxley continues, wrapping up the thought: ”It’s dangerous, horribly dangerous. Suppose you couldn’t get back, out of chaos…
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Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other writings by Fraser Hibbitt include Thinking About Realism, Curiosities from the Theater of the Absurd and ChatGPT.
Some old wanderings of Carl Kruse are over on Foursquare.

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