Carlo Gesualdo

The bizarre story of composer Prince Carlo Gesualdo di Venosa has inspired all manner of books, plays, movies, and more music, a real–life fable of a man cornered by fate and forced into tragic circumstances that would torment him for the rest of his life.

Gesualdo was born into the cosmopolitan court of Naples, where father Fabrizio II and mother Geronima de’ Medici, good friends of Charles V and Phillip II, often hosted gatherings of astronomers, Jesuits, philosophers and intellectuals. Gesualdo was extensively educated in music: he played the lute, and was an adept composer.

In 1586, the second husband of Gesualdo’s first cousin Maria d’Avalos died. Ordinarily under such circumstances she would have spent the rest of her days in a convent. Still only 26, Maria was said to be the most beautiful Carlo Gesualdo
Carlo Gesualdo
(Wikimedia Commons)
woman in the Kingdom. After the pope’s acquiescence she was married to Gesualdo. It seemed a dream come true for him — he had been in love with Maria since childhood. At first they seemed to be happy enough. Maria found her new husband’s retiring nature and devotion to music somewhat odd, but tolerable. But the pleasant days were over all too soon.

Two years into her third marriage, Maria met Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria, and relative of her first husband. He too was extraordinarily handsome, arrogant and self–possessed, and the two began a sordid — and widely tattled — love Gesualdo Castle
Gesualdo Castle
(Wikimedia Commons)
affair that lasted two years, aided by the collusion of servants. Gesualdo at first tried to ignore it and became more withdrawn, but at the urging of his family and other associates, he was compelled to action to preserve the honour of his household or risk becoming an object of ridicule and contempt.

In October 1590, he feigned a hunting trip, but secretly returned to find his wife and her lover in flagrante, where he murdered them both: Carafa was shot, and Maria stabbed repeatedly as Gesualdo shouted “I do not believe she is dead.” Court proceedings have preserved all the gruesome details, but given his social stature and the law of the day, Gesualdo was well within his rights and was completely exonerated. Yet the incident would haunt him the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, Ferrara’s Alfonso II d’Este pursued every avenue he could think of to produce heirs and shore up his political alliances— thereby preventing papal seizure of his duchy — and in 1594 his niece Leonora was betrothed to Prince Carlo Gesualdo Title Page: Gesualdo, Madrigals Book II (Canto)
Title Page: Gesualdo, Madrigals Book II (Canto)
(IMSLP Petrucci Music Library)
di Venosa. The two were married February 21st, two days after Carlo arrived, bringing with him a number of his madrigals, which were published later that year in Ferrara under the supervision of Scipione Stella. His third and fourth books of madrigals from the same collection appeared in 1595 and 1596.

For Gesualdo, it was a chance to publish his work in a progressive centre of music. The work in the first two books is that of an already accomplished composer, while the third and fourth show signs of the radical direction his music would soon take: his financial means and independence from courtly patronage allowed Gesualdo to follow his own instincts in composition without having to answer to anyone but himself.

The last number in Gesualdo’s first book, Bella angioletta (“Lovely little angel”), is a brief little madrigal based on lyrics by Torquato Tasso, with imagery and atmosphere reminiscent of Monteverdi’s Quel augellin che canta (“This little bird who sings”) of almost a decade later.

Bella angioletta, da le vaghe piume,

Beautiful little angel, give your beautiful feathers

prestane al grave pondo

lend them to my heavy body

tante ch’io esca fuor di questo fondo

so that I arise from this deep

o possa in qualche ramo

or can from some branch

di te cantando dire: io amo.

say to you in song: I love you.

On the other hand, the pair of madrigals Ecco, morirò dunque (“Behold then, I shall die”) and Ahi, già mi discoloro (“Alas, already I pale”) towards the end of Gesualdo’s fourth book show signs of where his music was ultimately headed. The lyrics are by an anonymous author. Gesualdo would repeatedly reject verse by Tasso as too conventional, despite the latter’s efforts to conform to the composer’s demands. The imagery of the subject matter — anger, despair, guilt, and above all, death — would become a preoccupation, as would the unconventional dissonance and chromaticism he used to express them.

Ecco, morirò dunque,

Behold, therefore, I shall die,

Né fia che pur rimire,

Do not look again

tu ch’ancidi mirando, il mio morire.

with your killing gaze, upon my death.

Ahi, già mi discoloro. Ohimè vien meno

Ah, already I pale. Alas, fades

la luce a gli occhi miei, la voce al seno.

the light coming to my eyes, and the voice in my breast.

O che morte gradita

Oh how welcome were death

se almen potessi dir: Moro, mia vita.

if only I could say: I die, my love.

Not surprisingly, Gesualdo’s second marriage was not a happy one. It was some time before Leonora joined her new husband at his ancestral home, where he had surrounded himself with a large musical community. She spent more and more time away, accusing her new husband of abuse and prodding her family to press for a divorce, while he wrote angry, futile letters demanding her return, and immersed himself further in his peculiar, introspective world.

⇐ Giovanni de Macque

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