Carlo Gesualdo  
Carlo Gesualdo
Carlo Gesualdo, principe di Venosa, conte di Conza, (born March 30, 1566, Venosa [Italy]—died September 8, 1613, Gesualdo), Italian composer and lutenist. Until the late 20th century his fame rested chiefly on his dramatic, unhappy, and often bizarre life. Since the late 20th century, however, his reputation as a musician has grown, based on his highly individual and richly chromatic madrigals. He is especially noted for what music scholar Glenn Watkins called the “dazzling harmonic style” of his last two books of madrigals.

The title of count of Conza was awarded to Gesualdo’s ancestor Sansone II in 1452. The family further had received the principality of Venosa in what is now southern Italy from King Philip II of Spain in 1561, when Carlo’s father, Fabrizio II, married Girolama Borromeo, the niece of Pope Pius IV. Carlo was the second-born son and was named for a maternal uncle, Carlo Borromeo, who was canonized in 1610. As the second-born son, he grew up without the cares of the primary heir, but, when his elder brother died in 1584, Carlo was expected to shoulder the responsibility for the family line and for the large estate.

In 1586 he married his first cousin, the twice-widowed Maria d’Avalos, who was several years older than he. She bore a son and not long thereafter embarked on an affair with Fabrizio Carafa, duca d’Andria. Informed of her infidelity, Gesualdo laid a trap and, with the help of others, murdered his wife and her lover in bed. The double murder caused a great scandal, and what came to be seen as a tragic outcome of the affair became the subject matter of a number of writers, including Giambattista Marino and Torquato Tasso. Because such revenge was in keeping with the social code of the day, however, Gesualdo was not charged with murder. When his father died in 1591, he assumed the title of prince of Venosa.

About two years after the demise of his first wife, the new prince of Venosa was contracted to marry Eleonora d’Este (i.e., of the house of Este) in Ferrara. Gesualdo was much interested in the widespread musical reputation of the Este court in Ferrara. In 1594 he traveled there as a composer and musician and to claim his new wife. Gesualdo likely had high expectations for this connection, but it soon became evident that he did not have the same expectations for the marriage itself; he left Ferrara without his bride a few months after the wedding and remained away for some seven months. This was a pattern of prolonged absence that he would repeat. Further, according to reports, he also abused Eleonora physically and was unfaithful to her. Yet he found the atmosphere of the Este court and his proximity to several of the leading composers of the day quite stimulating. His first two books of madrigals were published by the Ferrarese ducal press in 1594. His third book of madrigals was first published by the ducal press in 1595 and the fourth in 1596, both apparently written largely during his time in Ferrara and both showing signs of the development of his personal vision.

By early 1597 Gesualdo had again returned to his home. Reluctantly, his wife joined him in Venosa in the autumn. Early 21st-century scholarship revealed that Eleonora during the next several years initiated proceedings for witchcraft against her husband’s former concubine. Testimony was given revealing that both sorcery and love potions were involved, and ultimately two women were tried and convicted. Bizarrely, the guilty parties were sentenced to imprisonment in Gesualdo’s castle. The prince and his wife continued to live together intermittently, though both were unhappy and unwell for long periods at a time. In 1603 Gesualdo published two sacred motet collections.

Gesualdo’s last two books of madrigals (as well as a Holy Week Responsoria) were published in 1611. Although these last two books of madrigals were long considered “late” works because of their dramatic exclamations, linearly driven chromaticism, discontinuous texture, and harmonic license—that is, their generally unusual and experimental nature—Gesualdo himself claimed that they had in fact been written in the mid-to-late 1590s, near the time of his other published madrigals, and that he had been forced to publish accurate copies because inaccurate copies had been printed and some work plagiarized.

Kathleen Kuiper

Encyclopædia Britannica

Detail of the altarpiece at Gesualdo showing the composer, early 17th century

A man of violent temperament and ferocious passions, Carlo Gesualdo was as notorious for having murdered his first wife and her lover as he was famous for his music. One of classical music's great experimenters, he displayed an individual approach seen clearly in his madrigals.

Don Carlo Gesualdo was an Italian nobleman, Prince of Venosa. He lived most of his life in Naples, where his uncle was archbishop (later a cardinal). Although he initially used a pseudonym to disguise his real love of writing music, discretion was not his best trait. His controversial marriage to his own cousin, Maria d'Avalos, came to an abrupt end in 1590 when he discovered that she was engaged in an affair with another nobleman: Gesualdo murdered them both. After this incident he continued his musical career under his own name.

In 1594 he entered a rather more conventionally acceptable marriage with Leonora d'Este, the niece of Duke Alfonso of Ferrara. The couple led largely separate lives; but the Ferrara court, being a thriving centre of musical and artistic activity, was ideal for Gesualdo, and he published his first four books of madrigals there between 1593 and 1596. He returned to Naples in 1597, and as he grew older became distinctly world-weary, turning more and more to his music. Rumours circulated of possible divorce and there was speculation concerning his sanity. He became preoccupied by morbid reverence towards his late uncle; he was also deeply concerned about the end of the family line. His and Leonora's only son, Alfonsino, died in 1600, a tragedy that prompted him to commission the famous altarpiece in the church of the Capuchins at Gesualdo which portrays himself, Leonora, his revered uncle and the purified soul of the child.

Writing during the transitional period when the controlled style of the Renaissance was giving way to the more dramatic expressiveness of the Baroque, Gesualdo brought an extreme, ardent individuality to his music. Nowhere is this more evident than in his madrigals (especially in his fifth and sixth books, published in 1611). To express changes in mood — doubtless a reflection of his unstable emotional state — he used a violent chromaticism. (Chromaticism is the use of chords containing notes not included in the basic scale.) Although he was writing within the strong madrigal tradition, and like his peers producing works for three to five unaccompanied voices, his unorthodox techniques were far in advance of his time and can border on the eccentric. As such Gesualdo's style did not influence future generations (although Stravinsky was intrigued by the chromatic explorations of his madrigals). Nevertheless his compositions display a truly original voice made comprehensible by his mastery of the technical requirements of writing music and by an undeniably compelling emotional power.
Carlo Gesualdo - Miserere
Gesualdo: Ave Dulcissima
Carlo Gesualdo-Moro lasso al mio duolo
Carlo Gesualdo - Peccantem me quotidie
Carlo Gesualdo - Tristis est anima mea
Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa - Canzone del Principe
Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa - Gagliarda
Carlo Gesualdo - Sicut Ovis Ad Occisionem
Carlo Gesualdo - Ave Dulcissima Maria - John de Souza
Gesualdo - From: Sabbato Sancto Responsoria 1
Carlo Gesualdo - From: Sabbato Sancto Responsoria 2
Gesualdo From: Sabbato Sancto {O vos omnes} (3/3)
Carlo Gesualdo - Sesto libro di madrigali: II. Beltà, poi che t'assenti
Gesualdo - Tenebrae Responsories: I. Omnes amici mei dereliquerunt me
Gesualdo - Tenebrae Responsories: IX. Caligaverunt oculi mei a fletu meo
Gesualdo - Io tacerò ma nel silenzio mio. Ensemble Arte Musica
Jerusalem, surge by Gesualdo
Gesualdo - Gia Piansi Nel Dolore - Robert Craft
Gesualdo da Venosa - IO TACERO
Gesualdo - Sacrae Cantiones I 18 Illumina faciem tuam - Score
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