Carlo Gesualdo 1566-1613

[16th century portrait, anonymous artist]

[16th century portrait, anonymous artist]

Gesualdo was born most probably in Venosa, part of the Kingdom of Naples, where his family had acquired property. He is best known for his madrigals and, it has to be said, his disturbed and wayward life. He was sent to Rome in the care of an uncle after his mother died when he was seven, and was started on a career in the church. But when his elder brother died he became heir to the title of Prince of Venosa; he married and gave up thoughts of the church, and became entirely engaged in music. His first published pieces appeared in 1585, when he was 19. In 1590 he found his wife in bed with a lover, and killed them both, mutilating the bodies – but was found not guilty of any crime. A year later his father died and he became Prince.

By 1594 Gesualdo had remarried and was living in Ferrara, where he enjoyed the rich cultural environment, and published his first book of madrigals; but a year later he moved to his palace in the town of Gesualdo in Campania, where he stayed for most of the rest of his life. His son Emanuele by his first wife died in 1613 falling from a horse, and he died himself a few days later. His difficult and guilt-ridden life (it was said that he had himself beaten daily by servants) was reflected in his compositions. Pain, agony, ecstasy and death featured frequently in his works, as did chromatic clashes extreme by the standards of his day. Much of his sacred music was titled Tenebrae Responsoria, madrigalian forms with sacred texts, but there were also a number of Sacrae Cantiones for 5, 6 and 7 voices.

What to listen for: Gesualdo's sacred works, like his madrigals, are full of expressive harmony. This takes the form of highly chromatic melodic lines in individual parts, or striking chordal shifts. Both of these can be heard in the video above. At the opening Gesualdo uses two successive shifts of a major third: from C major; to A major; to F major, which have a disorienting affect on the listener. He then goes on to write in a contrapuntal style that is littered with unexpected chromatic alterations. This is most evident at the words 'si est dolor meus'. Lorenzo Bianconi writes that throughout his sacred music 'Gesualdo used the emotive style that his contemporaries reserved for rare single motets.' This is perhaps the most astonishing element in Gesualdo's music: that the style in which he composed was so consistently outlandish, flouting the accepted rules of church music composition in every piece he wrote.

The combination of his life and his music have made Gesualdo the subject of considerable writing and even operas in the modern era. As Alex Ross summed him up in the New Yorker, 'If Gesualdo had not committed such shocking acts, we might not pay such close attention to his music. But if he had not written such shocking music we would not care so much about his deeds.'

Further reading: 

Alex Ross (2011)

Glenn Watkins (1991) Gesualdo: The Man and His Music, Oxford: Clarendon Press (2nd edition).