Passions of the Great Composers: Carlo Gesualdo

Carlo Gesualdo (1566–1613) was Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza.

As a musician he is best known for writing intensely expressive madrigals and pieces of sacred music that use a chromatic language not heard again until the late 19th century.

Gesualdo  published six books of madrigals and three books of sacred pieces. He turned out to be one of the most complexly imaginative composers of the late Renaissance, indeed of all musical history. The works of his mature period—he died in 1613, at the age of forty-seven—bend the rules of harmony to a degree that remained unmatched until the advent of Wagner.

Donna Maria D'Avalos
He is also known for his cruelty and lewdness: the best known fact of his life is his gruesome killing of his first wife and her lover upon finding them in flagrante delicto. The fascination for his extraordinary music and for his shocking acts have gone hand in hand. 

Longing, passion, sex and death – all are intertwined in Gesualdo’s orgies of deliciously daring harmonies. It’s no surprise that the prince of Venosa’s madrigal settings of confessional love poems contain such heart-wrenching, visceral chromaticism.

Four hundred years after the brutal crime, the police report still makes for shocking reading. Gesualdo’s wife and first cousin, Donna Maria d’Avalos, was stabbed multiple times. The body of her paramour, the handsome Duke of Andria, was found dressed in her nightgown, and both mutilated corpses were put on display in front of the palace. Some accounts have Gesualdo murdering his infant son, having doubted the young boy’s paternity.

Escaping prosecution because of his noble status, Gesualdo returned to Venosa and lived as a recluse.

The composer’s most influential fan was Igor Stravinsky, who, in 1960, wrote a piece called “Monumentum pro Gesualdo,” and, eight years later, contributed a preface to Glenn Watkins’s scholarly study “Gesualdo: The Man and His Music.”

The fascination has hardly abated in recent decades. There have been no fewer than eleven operatic works on the subject of Gesualdo’s life, not to mention a fantastical 1995 pseudo-documentary, by Werner Herzog, called “Death for Five Voices.”

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