Carlo Gesualdo


In 1590, the nobleman, Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, surprised his wife with her lover and had them both killed by his servants.

Later he married Eleonora d'Este, the niece of Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, whose musical interests coincided with his own.

He composed devotional works and six books of madrigals which are considered to be of a very advanced chromatic complexity and sensitivity.

The sudden changes of tonality, the harmony and intensity of feeling in his music have found particular favour among some modern theorists.

Background to performances

As the performance of early music in the last few decades has increased considerably in frequency, it seems possible to assess a composer like Gesualdo, not as the odd man out as he used to be, but as a genuine and active part of music history. History books tell us that Gesualdo was just an amateur composer, as revealed by his jerky and fragmented writing. They suggest that the musical path he chose to follow was a dead end, that his music was of no consequence for the future, and that the wild gesticulation and abrupt starts and stops in the fabric of his music were futile and desperate gestures from a composer who did not know how to compose properly.

This, surely, has turned out to be completely wrong. But it took the entire 20th century with all its strange and individual composers like Partch, Satie, Webern, Langgaard and Cage, to make Gesualdo fit into the picture of his own time. Viewing Gesualdo as a musical eccentric is further disturbed by the relatively recent discovery that he is only part of a larger movement, a Neapolitan school of composers writing more or less the same kind of extremely expressive and sensual music, composers like Nenna, Macque and Lacorcia, but not quite with the spark of Gesualdo himself.

When Glenn Watkins’ groundbreaking biography appeared in 1973, it had a glowing preface written by Stravinsky in 1968. This very history-conscious Russian composer had written several works in later years based on Gesualdo material, and the aged master’s enthusiasm for the older composer triggered a virtual Gesualdo-renaissance underpinned by Watkins’ sound and thoroughly researched writing.

What kind of man was Gesualdo? We have to realise that he moved in the very highest circles in Italy, his uncle Cardinal Borromeo being one of the most powerful and influential persons in the country. The family was extremely wealthy and this put Gesualdo in a completely different situation from all his composer-colleagues. From his early youth he was something of a musical nerd, having learnt both the lute and the keyboard to virtuoso level and having his earliest compositions printed before he was twenty. His family position ensured that as a composer he had the rare privilege of being able to write exactly what he pleased. His tempestuous and capricious moodiness and his leanings towards sado-masochistic sexuality reveal that he allowed himself to follow any inclination he might have had—and this was also the case in his compositions.

What fascinates us so much in his music, 400 years after it was written, is exactly this incredibly naked honesty we hear in it. And what we hear is a desperate and wretched, but also passionate and loving person who is mad about writing music ‘further out’ than anyone else. His music is in fact so startling that it maintains the element of surprise even on many repeated hearings, much the same way as the music of that other half-mad avant-garde genius, Berlioz.

The exact year of Gesualdo’s birth is not known, but for many years it was assumed that he was born around 1560. When the revised version of Watkins’ book appeared in 1991, he brought forth quite conclusive evidence that he was born as late as 1566. This is still not unanimously accepted, but if it is true it would mean that there was quite an age gap between Gesualdo and his wife. This may have contributed to tensions which ultimately led Gesualdo to kill his wife with his own hands and to have her lover murdered at the same time. It was certainly not unusual that princes had people killed, but normally it would be undertaken by hired assassins. When the political marriage between Gesualdo and Maria d’Avalos was arranged, the young prince-cum-musician would have been a young, inexperienced 19-year-old. Twice widowed at the age of 25, with children by both husbands, Maria was generally considered the most attractive woman in the higher circles in Naples, being a celebrated and adored figure. In the beginning the newly weds seemed to have had a genuine fondness for each other, but Maria’s rich social life soon took over again, and one can easily see how a profound constant jealousy took possession of our young and highly sensitive composer. After four years of this he had had enough and he hired professional murderers to assist him in killing wife and lover while they were in bed together. The detailed medical report tells us that she had been victim to 53 dagger blows, most of them in the lower regions of the body. Gesualdo’s rage must have been Homeric: afterwards he single-handedly felled a considerable piece of woodland at his estate. Four years later he married Leonora d’Este of the celebrated Ferrara dynasty. Both his wives bore him children but they all died young, his last surviving son dying a few months before Gesualdo himself died in 1613, alone and completely desolate at his castle near Naples.

What moved him to compose church music must have been, to quote Bach, Bus’ und Reu’. After the murder of his first wife he suffered from severe and increasing feelings of guilt. Penitence never left him and the whole atmosphere of counterreformational blackness permeates his church music. His choice of texts are characteristic. As with his preferred madrigal texts, these biblical words are full of suffering and self-reproach. Rarely, if ever, do we encounter a renaissance composer whose life and work are so closely interrelated.

Bo Holten, January 2004

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