Prince Of Pain: The Strange Case Of Carlo Gesualdo - by Chris Blackford

Gesualdo, or to give him his full title, Duke Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, was probably born in 1564 (though some scholars set the date at 1560 or 61), the second son of Fabrizio II Gesualdo and Girolama Borromeo. The Gesualdos were feudal landowners with a modest castle in the Italian village of Gesualdo (60 miles from Naples), a larger one in the ancient town of Venosa, plus a palace in Naples. While details of Carlo's early life are scarce, it is known that he published a competent motet in 1585; yet, five years later he would become better known, indeed notorious, for his extra-musical activities.


In 1584, his elder brother died, leaving Carlo with the responsibility of continuing the Gesualdo line. A year later he married (after gaining papal permission) his first cousin Maria d'Avalos who, it seems, within a few years had begun an affair with a young nobleman, the Duke of Andria. Now, Giulio Gesualdo, one of Carlo's uncles, also fancied Maria but his advances were rejected. Consequently, Giulio informed Carlo of his wife's suspicious meetings with the Duke. In what appears to have been a cunningly laid trap, Carlo left Naples on a hunting trip saying he would be away overnight, only to return unexpectedly to catch his wife and the Duke naked in bed in flagrante delicto.

The lovers were brutally murdered, if not by Carlo Gesualdo himself, then certainly by others acting on his instructions. Various reports of this tragic crime passionnel claim that the Duke and Maria were both stabbed and shot, that the latter received wounds "in her belly and especially in those parts which most ought to be kept honest", and that Gesualdo, then convinced of the morality of his actions, publicly displayed the corpses. Whatever the exact details of the murders, Gesualdo fled Naples and, presumably because of his aristocratic position, escaped punishment. Guilt and remorse, however, pursued him for the rest of his life, as did the fear of eternal damnation. He died in 1613, by all accounts a miserable, neurotic figure, yet having composed some of the most boldly inventive, complex and idiosyncratic vocal music of the Renaissance.


If your idea of a 'madrigal' is of a rather staid, old-fashioned vocal entertainment for bourgeois consumption, then think again. Italy, birthplace of the madrigal, witnessed a huge output during the second half of the 16th century, most arranged for four or five voices. Poetic texts used for this music ranged from the epic, philosophical and religious, to the comic, morbid, pastoral and overtly erotic. Some of the genre's composers who set these texts to music, exploring every subtle nuance of their sentiments with intricate contrapuntal and harmonic invention, spiced with adventurous chromatic twists and unexpected dissonances, were regarded as the avant-gardists of their day. Composers such as the resident Netherlanders, Cipriano de Rore (1516-1565) and Giaches de Wert (1535-1596), as well as home-grown virtuosi like Luca Marenzio (1553-1599) and, most famous of all, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).

Gesualdo was also part of the avant-garde, though unlike the aforementioned composers he had not been cathedral trained in composition, nor was he dependant on employment as a maestro of a cathedral or court. Inherited wealth and social position enabled him to explore his own interests without regard for the requirements of a patron or specific audience. These factors, plus a genuinely innovative approach to composition, account for the outlandish and obsessive qualities to be found in his most interesting work.


Nevertheless, Gesualdo did gain valuable insights from the work of other composers, such as his possible teacher in Naples, Pomponio Nenna, and particularly those visiting or based at the forward-thinking northern court of Ferrara. Here he stayed for several years with his second wife, Eleonora d'Este, niece of Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara; and here he encountered the influential Luzzasco Luzzaschi, composer of chromatic madrigals for the virtuoso female ensemble, the 'Concerto delle Dame', researcher into Greek modes and tuning, and chief exponent of Nicola Vicentino's archicembalo, a microtonal harpsichord with split keys and extra notes (Scipione Stella, Gesualdo's court organist, later owned one). The Ferrarese influence on Gesualdo surfaces in his third and fourth books of madrigals for five voices, published in 1595 and 1596; Books 1 and 2, written before his stay in Ferrara, are generally regarded as promising, if somewhat conventional by comparison.

You can hear performances of four madrigals from Book 3 and three from Book 4 on Carlo Gesualdo/Madrigaux (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901268 CD, 1988) sung by Les Arts Florissants directed by William Christie. Texts and translations are provided - always essential for recordings of madrigals if one is to understand how the voices express the emotional subtleties of individual words and phrases. Gesualdo's choice of texts displays a characteristic obsession with the pain and torment of desire and love; 'death/die' in this context can signify orgasm as well as expiry of life, bringing coital and post-coital significance to other words like 'sigh' and 'languishing'. At this level of interpretation, then, 'Arde il mio cor' can be seen to celebrate sexual passion with its light flurries and sudden peaks and sighs from the soprano, countertenor and tenor voices. Its closing couplet ("O my blissful fate!/O sweet, O strange death!") gently subsides in some wonderfully delicate chromatic harmonies. It has to be said, that alone these poems with their extravagant sentiments soon become rather irksome; and yet, it's this very extravagance that fires up the astonishing scope of Gesualdo's uninhibited musical imagination.

In contrast, and in keeping with its sombre religious text, 'Sparge la morte al mio Signor' adopts a reverential tone, including the final, unambiguous "e spira" ("and dies"). This fine madrigal is closer in style to Gesualdo's more restrained early sacred motet writing, where the vocal lines tend to be less agitated, giving a greater sense of textural unity. Even so, the piece is not without unusual harmonic interest when the voices separate, allowing individual gestures to assert themselves. It's possibly the most moving piece on this disc.

After these middle-period madrigals, Gesualdo-Madrigaux includes a selection of later works, published in 1611; three pieces from Book 5 and four from Book 6. These Books, in particular, contain Gesualdo's most radical madrigals, causing some scholars down the ages to question the mental stability of the composer. Even a modern commentator like Howard M Brown (Music In The Renaissance, Prentice Hall 1976, p. 362) resorts to the phrase, "close to harmonic chaos", when confronted by the numerous chromatic notes, chords and progressions which populate these later works.

'Asciugate i begli occhi' reeks of morbid self-pity, the line, "Ah, I am the one who should weep, wretched and alone", declaimed with memorable vehemence in each of its repetitions; ascending higher voices, underlined by dolorous bass, create some fascinating jarring dissonances here. 'Ardo per te, mio bene' recalls 'Arde il mio cor' in its sudden erotic climaxes and fleet moves, again couched in the textual ambiguities of 'dying' and 'languishing', but the most complex structural developments and strangest vocal textures occur in 'Se la mia morte brami' and 'Io parto'. In the former, voices rise out of an almost droning, slow-motion tempo, accentuated by the male singers in their lower registers. Both pieces represent superb examples of Gesualdo's predilection for breaking up the metrical flow of the text into disparate musical events, triggered by particular words or phrases that invite abrupt changes in mood, tempo or dynamics. Phrases like "my soul takes flight" and "I am alive" bring an excitable flurry of semiquavers, whereas a key word like "pain" is sufficient to commence a sequence of dark and anguished chromatic progressions. It's this pervasive sense of restlessness and unpredictability which, when allied to a highly inventive use of chromatic details and dissonances (though chromaticism and dissonance alone are common features of the Italian madrigal tradition) make Gesualdo's madrigals more challenging and strangely expressive than the work of any other madrigalist.

This is a magnificent recording by a group of singers who demonstrate a superb attunement to the idiosyncrasies of this visionary composer. They attack the material with obvious relish and confidence that convey its extraordinary qualities; so much so that one has to remind oneself that this music was composed about 400 years ago. There are parts of these works which sound so modern that one could almost be listening to Electric Phoenix singing from their 20th century repertoire, or, dare I say it, a group of improv vocalists.


After the vigorous experimentation of the madrigals, Gesualdo's more restrained, so-called "sacred style", can on first hearing seem less interesting. But listen closely and you will be rewarded. His first collection of motets based on religious texts, the Sacrae Cantiones, was published in 1603 (between the middle- and late-period madrigals), comprising 19 pieces, most of madrigal length with a few edging towards five minutes. Oxford Camerata conducted by Jeremy Summerly present the whole collection on Gesualdo: Complete Sacred Music For Five Voices (Naxos 8.550742 CD, 1993) - a bargain price disc with, sadly, bargain price presentation. Summerly's sleevenotes offer brief biography followed by brief comments on the motets; texts and translations are not provided. If, as Denis Arnold suggests (Gesualdo, BBC Music Guides, 1984), that Gesualdo's sacred music would have been composed for a small group of monks, one voice taking each part, then it's rather frustrating to find Oxford Camerata's version employing 12 voices instead of the recommended five. While performances are uniformly sensitive, the weight of these additional voices tends to obscure the subtleties of Gesualdo's less forceful chromaticism and dissonances, presenting an expansiveness, even grandeur, where an essentially private, more intimate atmosphere is called for.


What has been sacrificed becomes emphatically apparent when one hears the five-voice versions of two of these motets on Gesualdo: Madrigals & Motets From Renaissance Naples (ASV Quicksilva CD QS 6210 CD, 1997), performed by Gesualdo Consort directed by Gerald Place (this disc also offers a rare opportunity to hear works by several of Gesualdo's neglected Neapolitan and Ferrarese associates). 'O vos omnes', the most dissonant and possibly the most beautifully elegiac, receives a sharper focus in the Gesualdo Consort's performance - soprano, mezzo and countertenor voices striking some gorgeous, surprisingly penetrating dissonant chords, which receive a heavier, hazier treatment by the Camerata's larger forces. The Consort's treatment also reveals with greater clarity the heartrending shades of emotion in this exquisite motet and, most importantly, we hear how skilfully Gesualdo adapts, not compromises, the experimental aspects of his writing to suit a context that requires a more reflective, less energetic approach. However, without another complete recording of the Sacrae Cantiones currently available, the Camerata disc should at least be cautiously welcomed.


The year 1611 saw the publication of Gesualdo's fifth and sixth Books of madrigals; the same year his last collection of sacred motets was also published. Responsoria et alia ad Officium Hebdonadae Sanctae spectantia was composed for the Tenebrae service during Holy Week, when the Christian Church commemorates Christ's betrayal, death and burial on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Tenebrae means 'darkness'; the darkness of the church building as all but one of its lights are extinguished during the service, and the symbolic growing darkness of the world as 'Christ the Light of the World' is taken from us. It's an atmospheric service, a time of sorrow and solemn ritual. Gesualdo's reasons for setting these 27 responsories, plus a Benedictus and Miserere, were partly personal. Holy Week's themes of guilt, betrayal and redemption had special significance for him given his responsibility for the murder of his first wife after her infidelity, and this work provided a further opportunity to explore the trauma of his plight. It's this autobiographical undercurrent that heightens the dark atmosphere of the Responsoria, giving it a compelling edge as humility (his sincere desire for redemption) becomes entangled with self-pity and perhaps hubris (using Christ's suffering as a metaphor for his own private anguish). There certainly is a depth of feeling here, borne out by the emotional intensity of the music, which counteracts the argument put forward by some scholars that the tortured nature of Gesualdo's music is merely a mannerist pose.

The Hilliard Ensemble rise to the challenge of the Responsoria on Gesualdo: Tenebrae (ECM New Series 1422/23 843 867-2 2CDs, 1991) demonstrating once again why they are one of the leading vocal ensembles. Their collective cohesion in conveying the myriad harmonic nuances, prominent and understated, of this often peculiar music, is simply breathtaking. Furthermore, they have supreme control of the fluctuating dynamics of Gesualdo's innovative and highly expressive vocabulary - from subdued introspection to distraught outcry and all points between.

Unlike the earlier sacred motet cycle, the Sacrae Cantiones, the Responsoria shows Gesualdo incorporating his advanced madrigalian style into sacred music with greater fluency and frequency. 'Responsorium 3' from the Maundy Thursday cycle (Feria Quinta) encapsulates much that is wonderful about the work; in particular, the sublime, bittersweet melodic phrases that emerge from unusual harmonic interaction between the voices. There are many examples of Gesualdo's lively madrigalian phrasing throughout the work, including 'Responsorium 2' at the phrase "Ye shall take flight"; also, 'Responsorium 2' from the Good Friday cycle (Feria Sexta) when describing how the veil of the temple was rent and the graves opened; and in 'Responsorium 1' of the Holy Saturday cycle (Sabbato Sancto) at "That He might give life to His people." Particularly affecting is the setting of 'O vos omnes' ('Responsorium 5' from Sabbato Sancto) based on melodic material first used in the motet from the Sacrae Cantiones. It's perhaps no coincidence that Gesualdo was inspired to write possibly his most poignant melody for this text with its obvious autobiographical resonance ("O all ye that pass by attend and see: If there be any sorrow like unto My sorrow."). The Hilliard Ensemble's performance is especially captivating here, as they communicate the mysterious beauty of the chromatic writing, fading so memorably on that entrancing, sombre cadence "dolor meus".

The Responsoria is commonly regarded as Gesualdo's masterpiece, and with an abundance of technical innovation, emotional intensity and subtle shades of tone colour, such as there is here, it's hard to dissent from this conclusion. And you don't need to be religious to enjoy the finer points of this music, just as you don't to enjoy the sacred music of a devout Christian like Messiaen. For sheer idiosyncratic brilliance there's nothing comparable in Renaissance music to Gesualdo's strange, tormented, yet compelling vision. It's high time his extraordinary music was appreciated by many more beyond the relatively small number of Early Music enthusiasts. R

POSTSCRIPT (January 1999)

Since writing this essay, I have managed to obtain two further CD recordings of Gesualdo's madrigals. Carlo Gesualdo: Madrigaux Livre V (Arion ARN 68388, 1996) by Métamorphoses/Maurice Bourbon, and Gesualdo Da Venosa - Libro VI Delli Madigali 1613 (Symphonia SY 94133, 1995) by Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis. To my knowledge, these are the only complete recordings of Gesualdo's fifth and sixth books of madigals currently available on CD, though for some inexplicable reason most record shops (in the UK, at least) seem either ignorant of their existence, or unable to stock them. But don't let this put you off, both recordings are highly recommended, principally because they reveal the quality and imagination of Gesualdo's late madrigals - his most inventive - in the context of their respective books. Hearing a complete book does present a clearer picture of the composer's intentions/obsessions at a given stage in his development, as opposed to hearing individual madrigals plucked from the context of a book for the purpose of a compilation CD. Both recordings come with texts and translations, and feature fine performances - rich tone, delicate harmonic shading, and a persuasive sense of the idiosyncratic drama of the pieces, though in respect of the latter, neither recording quite matches the dramatic delivery and flair of the aforementioned recording on Harmonia Mundi by Les Arts Florissants. UK readers interested in obtaining these two recordings (all the other CDs should be available through the normal classical music stockists) should go directly to the UK distributor - Discovery Records, The Old Church Mission Room, 5 Kings Corner, Pewsey, Wiltshire SN9 5BS, England; Tel: 01672 563931 or 564442; Fax: 01672 563934.

This review essay was published in Rubberneck 28, December 1998

Text © Rubberneck; photos © Symphonia


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