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Carlo Gesualdo

—of Murder, Madrigals, Beauty & Innovation

In the entry on Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, I wrote:
The building is one of those in Naples said to be haunted! In 1590, prince Carlo Gesualdo, famous composer of madrigals, killed his wife, Maria d’Avalos, and her young lover, don Fabrizio Carafa. They say that Gesualdo then killed his own tiny son because of a resemblance, real or imagined, to his wife's lover. (note *) After the murders, Gesualdo went on to compose some of the most beautiful and innovative pieces in the madrigal repertoire. He married a second time and died in Naples in 1613. Tradition says that the ghost of his murdered wife still walks the halls of the building.
I see that I used the phrase "beautiful and innovative"; however, Plato and the Bible tell us, respectively, that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and "There is nothing new under the sun," so I'm no longer sure of that phrase. Maybe they're just empty words. While I vex myself with that, here are further details about Gesualdo's personal life: the murders occurred in 1590; Gesualdo married again in 1594 to the niece of the duke of Ferrara and lived in that city for a couple of years before moving back to his estate near Naples; his relationship with his second wife was not good; and he is said to have grown morose, guilty and depressed in the years before his death in 1613. He was also known as Gesualdo di Venosa, a town about 130 km/80 miles east of Naples. The Gesualdo part of his name is for the town of that name 70 km/45 miles to the east of Naples, where his family had an estate and castle.

Musically, he gets interesting. I said that he composed "some of the most beautiful and innovative pieces in the madrigal repertoire," and that seems to be the general consensus after 400 years. A madrigal was a part song for 3-6 voices sung without instrumental accompaniment. They involved great amounts of polyphony or counter-singing and were very popular in the 1500s and 1600s. Though "madrigal" comes from the Latin word for "mother," the term has nothing to do with the Mother of Christ, but stems from "mother tongue"; madrigals were not ecclesiastical, but secular and sung to texts in Italian, not Latin. (In the case of Gesualdo, he put to music a number of poems by the prominent poet, Torquato Tasso.) Gesualdo and, later, Monteverdi are two well-known composers of madrigal music. Madrigals went out of fashion when opera and orchestras started to get big (physically and culturally) in the 1600s.

Musicological literature is now full of references to Gesualdo as a highly imaginative and bold creator of harmonies and melodies as well as a progressive bender of musical rules, the likes of which would not be seen again until Wagner in the late 19th century. Composers such as Stravinsky have paid lavish tribute to Gesualdo. Most of the "rediscovery" of Gesualdo seems to stem from the mid-1900s although there are a few musicological references to him from the late 1800s as a musical forerunner of Scarlatti. That is high praise.

The praise is not universal, however. We do find this:
The dangers of the madrigal became apparent in the works of Gesualdo...rapid scale passages alternated grotesquely with slow, solemn declamation, or torturously chromatic passages in which harmonies followed one another in extraordinary ways. (Crocker, p.216)
The author goes on to describe Gesualdo's music as extreme but not novel. That perhaps says more about the author's perception than about Gesualdo, since there is an important caveat to "bender of rules"—rules of harmony and such things as major and minor scales and chords as we know them are the result of musical evolution beginning in about 1600 and lasting through 1900. Thus, Gesualdo was breaking rules that did not exist yet. Other faint-praise comments on Gesualdo include:
Gesualdo...stood at the turning point of a new style; it remained for other composers, notably Monteverdi, to carry the madrigal into the seventeenth century and there to change its style and bring it to another peak of development. (Ulrich, p. 183)

In other words, Gesualdo was the end of something, rather than the beginning of whatever was to come.

In deciding whether or not Gesualdo was truly innovative—if that matters—we have to look at what music was like in the 1500s and how musicians viewed their music in relation to their own past. Specifically, we look at Ferrara, the city where Gesualdo lived in the mid-1590s. Ferrara was one of the vital musical capitals of the high and late Renaissance in Italy. Musicians were aware of their city as just such a capital and of themselves as inheritors of a musical tradition going back at least to the 1200s, when rulers of the duchy had started what were to be centuries of inviting, and providing hospitality to, composers from all over Europe. Composers in Ferrara of the mid-1500s were, thus, in a direct chain back to the great traditions of northern European polyphony.

Gesualdo was a passionate musician from a very early age, and in Ferrara he moved into an environment of great experimental and different music; some of it was rather bizarre, but that had little to do with Gesualdo. A lot of it came from the generation just before Gesualdo in the person of Nicola Vicentino (1511-1575). He was obsessed with connecting the music of his day to the principles of Greek music, including the extreme use of chromatic scales and even microtones. He claimed to have rediscovered the old chromatic tone systems of the Greeks. And since the 1500s were all about rediscovering antiquity, wouldn't it be grand, thought Vicentino, to relate our music here in the mid-1500s to that of ancient Greece? What cultural continuity that would be! He then invented new instruments to that end, including a keyboard instrument with 31 notes (instead of twelve) to the octave!

From Levarie (see sources):
The effect on the Ferrara court was great...Gesualdo was so impressed that he began himself to compose in a new vein...he wrote with an amateur's lack of restraint that actually anticipated many harmonic accomplishments of the late-Romantic era... (p. 47)

More mixed praise? "Amateur"? (That's ok, too. Einstein was an amateur physicist who made a living from slogging through patent applications.) In any event, the radical approach of Vicentino—making music the way the Greeks used to (at least according to ancient writers such as Boethius)—came into conflict with the more conservative approach of the Florentine Camerata, the poets and musicians of Florence. Yes, they wanted to rediscover the classical world and were as much in favor of cultural continuity as anyone, but they really just wanted to tell stories set to music—new but non-experimental, singable music. (They also made a conscious decision to sing in Italian and not classical Greek. A very wise decision!) They were at the beginnings of the chain leading from Iacopo Peri to Monteverdi and then to all opera and orchestral music in Europe for the next 300 years. Music went its way along the now familiar path of 12 notes in an octave, major and minor scales and chords.

Gesualdo, thus, did produce "startling" madrigals (a common word in the literature to describe his music) and he may have been impressed by the experimenters. But—and this is important—we "moderns" are much more startled by his music than were his own contemporaries because we have been lulled by centuries of more conventional melodies and harmonies. That fact seems to escape those who want to describe Gesualdo necessarily as innovative and not just a composer of beautiful music. Chromatic passages, for example, wouldn't have bothered anyone in the 1500s. (A chromatic melody is one that employs a row of adjacent notes on a piano, using both black and white keys. Such "chromaticism" is not particularly common in our music although there are memorable exceptions such as Habanera from Bizet's Carmen or the famous circus march by Julius Fuĉik, Entrance of the Gladiators.) Microtonal pianos (microtones are the notes "in the cracks" between adjacent keys on a standard piano) might have bothered some, maybe, but a melody based on a chromatic scale in the 1500s? That would not have startled anyone used to the mysterious and "startling" Aquitane chants from the 1200s, for example.

Thus, you may have to decide for yourself. Assuming that Gesualdo used at least some of what he heard from the avant-garde in Ferrara, does that make him innovative or not? I'm not sure, either. That may not even matter, though. If you listen to his music and think it's beautiful—behold! That should be enough.

When Carlo Gesualdo left Ferrara in 1597, he returned to the family castle in the town of Gesualdo and set up a sort of permanent musical workshop with himself at the center of activity. He hired virtuoso musicians to perform his music. In all, he wrote well over one hundred madrigals, divided into six books, and a number of 5- or 6-part sacred songs set to Latin texts. He is interred in the church of Gesù Nuovo in Naples.

* note to "...murdered his own tiny son..." (added Sept. 2013):

I am indebted to Geo Cosmos of Budapest for reminding me of the “they say” aspect of this rumor. While there is little doubt that Gesualdo murdered his unfaithful wife and her lover and got away with it, I am not aware of any documentation to support the rumor that he murdered his infant son. Researchers want “primary” sources: documents of the event, itself, drawn up at the time in question—things like arrest warrants, statements of witness, etc. (There are extant primary sources that show that Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover.) A “secondary” source is someone who tells you he has seen the primary source and claims to confirm the content. (Such a source is termed “hearsay” by modern standards of evidence and is not deemed trustworthy.) As far as the law goes, you can forget a “tertiary” source:  “I know a guy who spoke with someone who interviewed a witness.” Go beyond that and you are in the realm of “they say”—a rumor.  Many accounts of Gesualdo's life speak of  “a 19th-century source” that says Gesualdo killed the infant by “swinging him around until the breath left his body,” but that source does not seem to have a name. (If you know, please tell me.) Correspondent Cosmos mentions the novel about Gesualdo, Madrigal, by Laszlo Passuth (2nd ed. Szepirodalmi Konyvkiado, Budapest, 1968), in which the author, a stickler for detail in his novels says that the son in question actually lived into his thirties. He adds, “It does matter for me and all of us if [Gesualdo] was acting within the cultural customs of his day [by exacting revenge on his wife] or whether he was completely insane and murdered a baby.”  Fair enough.
  (^back to text)


—Crocker, Richard L. A History of Musical Style. Dover Pub., New York. 1966.
—Gleason, Harold and Warren Becker. Music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Music Literature Outlines Series I). Bloomington, Indiana. Frangipani Press, 1986.
—Levarie, Sigmund. Musical Italy Revisited. Macmillan, New York, 1963.
—Ulrich, Homer and Paul A. Pisk. A History of Music and Musical Style. Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich. New York. 1963.
—Vicentino, Nicola. (1555) L' antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica. Antonio Barre, Rome. Translated by Maria Rika Maniates: Ancient Music Adapted to Modern Practice. Yale University Press.

I am grateful  to Mr. Luciano Mangiafico for suggesting I put up a separate entry on Gesualdo.

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