Carlo Gesualdo. A chromatic scale of life.

It’s now generally accepted by scholars that Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa and Italian composer extraordinaire, was born 450 years ago, in 1566. This week’s blog marks that anniversary. Gesualdo was no ordinary musician. First and foremost he was a prince, a rich and powerful man. He became famous for two reasons: first, the bloody double murder of his first wife and her lover (for which he has since been immortalised in a number of plays, operas, novels and even films); and second, his passionate devotion to ardent, expressive music, both sacred and secular, for which he was admired not only by his contemporaries but also by composers closer to our own times. Stravinsky, for example, arranged some of Gesualdo’s pieces (the Tres sacrae cantiones) and dedicated one of his own works to him: Monumentum pro Gesualdo da Venosa ad CD annum.

Gesualdo left us 6 Books of Madrigals. We’ll dip into them in this week’s blog, by the end of which I hope that any readers who are new to the composer will have savoured some ear-popping experiences, featuring harmonies, textures and modes of expression that often hit with intensity, sounding both out of orbit and ahead of their time.

Books 1 and 2 were published in 1594, shortly after Gesualdo married his second wife, an occasion which involved all kinds of merrymaking, including a joust and a grand, twenty-three-course banquet. From Book 1 (8.570548), here’s Danzan le ninfe oneste (Dance of the honest nymphs), the second part of Felice primavera (Happy Spring), that describes the home of his new bride, Leonora d’Este, with its references to the flowery banks of the River Po.

Book 2 continued in much the same vein as Book 1; it’s not until the following two books that Gesualdo’s revolution in musical style took place. With that in mind, we’ll take the opportunity to hear one of only two instrumental pieces that Gesualdo wrote, which are included at the end of the Naxos recording of his Second Book of Madrigals (8.570549). Here’s an extract from Gagliarda, which gives a foretaste of the composer’s quicksilver harmonies that were soon to hallmark his later madrigals.

Gesualdo revels in a noticeable change of style in Book 3 (8.572136). It was published in 1595, only a year after the first two. There’s a striking intensity of contrasts, however, plus new and arresting dissonances and depictions of elements and images that are seemingly irreconcilable. This tells us that Gesualdo, as a rich man, was writing for himself and didn’t have to pander to the tastes of people who might otherwise have been setting the tones of acceptability in their commissions. Was he the first composer in history to have had the luxury of pursuing art for art’s sake? Quite possibly. The opening of Se piange, ohime (If, alas, the lady of my heart weeps) is striking for its unpredictability in harmony and expression and takes us decidedly into Gesualdo’s unique sound-world.

Published in 1596, Book 4 (8.572137) followed hot on the heels of the first three. What’s interesting is that it was reprinted three times, the last occasion (in 1613, the year of Gesualdo’s death) appearing in score form, as opposed to just the usual set of separate parts for the individual singers, often five of them. This enabled people to study how those engaging Gesualdo harmonies were stacked up. The opening of O sempre crudo amore (O love ever cruel) seems to go beyond adventurous harmony, verging on tonal clusters, well ahead of their due date!

Fifteen years separated this music and the madrigals in Books 5 and 6 (8.573147-49). During this time, Gesualdo continued to be tormented by the memory of the murder of his first wife and her lover. Justification for a crime of passion wasn’t acceptable to many in society at the time, and his past deeds gnawed continuously at him. In that context, the haunting sounds of the opening of Se la mia morte brami (If you long for my death) from Book 6 are perhaps unsurprising.

We’ll end with another extract from a madrigal from Book 6, the opening of Moro, lasso, al mio duolo (I am dying, alas, of sorrow). As music that never fails to sear itself onto modern-day listeners, scholars and newcomers alike, one can only begin to imagine what effect it had on Gesualdo’s contemporaries.

Moro, lasso, al mio duolo
Moro, lasso, al mio duolo:
e chi mi può dar vita?
Ahi, che m’ancide e non vuol darmi aita.

[I am dying, alas, of sorrow
I am dying, alas, of sorrow:
and the one who might save me,
alas, is killing me and will not help me.]

3 thoughts on “Carlo Gesualdo. A chromatic scale of life.

  1. I’ve looked for an update on the post “All about bit rates” (search says April 2012). Its not there. With the recent, very welcome, increase in bit rates on the truly wonderful Naxos Music Library, could bit rates be addressed again in the Blog, please – the original blog post was very informative.
    (Sorry to crash the Gesualdo post, BTW

    1. Thanks for your message. Sadly, we recently experienced some significant technical glitches which wrote off a few of our older blog posts, including the one you are interested in. Hopefully we will be able to provide a substitute blog in due course. We do hope so, because your interest in the post is shared by many. Meanwhile, happy [alternative] listening and reading from all at Naxos! Gesualdo is cool, by the way, and sends his regards.

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