Is it acceptable to perform the compositions of a murderer? The ethical question carries more than rhetorical weight in the case of Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, whose posthumous fame rests almost as solidly on his status as assassin as on his accomplishments as a musician. Anyone attempting to provide an answer particular to Gesualdo will face moral ambiguities that mirror the extremes of the man and his music. Those who prefer to divide art from life should at least be troubled by eye-witness reports of the night Don Carlo with attendant bodyguards caught his wife, Donna Maria d’Avalos, in bed with the Duke of Andria, of their bloody slaughter and the nobleman’s active role in the double murder. Others ready to condemn Gesualdo in absolute terms, meanwhile, might consider the circumstances of an event prefaced by the longevity and audacity of Donna Maria’s extramarital affair.
The fact that the nobleman’s crimes were committed more than four centuries ago has inevitably lessened their sting. The brazen tale of a man acting in the heat of passion supplies modern listeners with a neat explanation for the extreme chromatic shifts and rhythmic tics of his vocal polyphony. Closer inspection of the work, its influences and development provides a richer story about Don Carlo’s creativity and his profound absorption of ideas forged by professional musicians. And yet there is no doubt that the bloody deeds of one night in October 1590 have cast a shadow over Gesualdo’s. They certainly left indelible marks on his state of mind, which turned from penitence and the hope of divine absolution to melancholy and isolation. The extent to which the composer’s music was touched by the ‘vast horde of demons’ that one early chronicler claimed Gesualdo to be ‘assailed and afflicted’, however, remains an open question.
Gesualdo was born into a society in transition. His father, Duke Fabrizio, had been granted the principality of Venosa by Philip II of Spain in 1560 following his shrewdly chosen dynastic marriage to the sister of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo and niece of Pope Pius IV. The family’s ‘castle’ at Gesualdo, part of the Spanish province of Naples, amounted to little more than a ramshackle medieval fortress overlooking a poor village. Duke Fabrizio’s princely elevation brought with it the richer feudal pickings of Venosa, an ancient southern Italian town that experienced an influx of rural migrants and trade growth during the mid-16th century’s period of inflation. A contemporary Neapolitan historian recorded Duke Fabrizio’s support for the arts and love of music. It is possible that Carlo’s father was a skilled composer and certain that he employed musicians in his household, the Netherlander Giovanni de Macque among them.
Young Carlo was born around 1561, probably in the Gesualdo palace in Naples, about the same time his uncle Alfonso was appointed cardinal by Pius IV. Music surely played a role in his courtly upbringing: one theory has it that he picked up musical skills from Macque; Stefano Felis, who oversaw the printing of Gesualdo’s first published motet in 1586, could also have guided the nobleman’s artistic development.
‘Was [Carlo] indeed, as second son, preparing for a pleasant artistic life free from the cares of state?’ asked Denis Arnold in his brief but perceptive BBC Music Guide to Gesualdo. The game changed decisively following the death in 1585 of Carlo’s older brother. Soon after becoming heir to the family titles, Gesualdo was contracted to be married to his twice widowed cousin, Donna Maria d’Avalos, a famed beauty then in her mid-20s. According to one source, Donna Maria’s first husband possibly died after repeated coitus. Her union with Carlo Gesualdo, marked in 1586 with high ceremony and lavish feasting, eventually yielded a son and heir. The marriage unfolded quietly until the tragic events of October 1590.
Following the murders of Maria and her lover, Don Carlo took to his castle in Gesualdo, more to escape reprisals by his dead wife’s family than to evade the Naples court. The new Prince of Venosa, who succeeded to the title following his father’s death in 1591, also turned to composition. A book of his madrigals was published under an assumed name, the usual authorial conceit used to disguise an aristocrat’s work. Contemporary interest in the murders and anecdotal accounts, literary fictions and verses based on the case raised interest in the musical output of a man with blood on his hands.
Don Carlo’s personal process of atonement included the endowment of a Capuchin monastery in Gesualdo, which contains his only known portrait. The painting depicts Gesualdo as a penitent attended by Cardinal Borromeo, gazing at Christ in majesty on the Day of Judgment and kneeling within a flame’s lick of two naked figures in Purgatory, a man and woman thought to be Donna Maria and the Duke of Andria. Before its recent restoration, the canvass presented Gesualdo as a gaunt figure, his eyes desperately seeking divine forgiveness.
In 1593 Gesualdo contracted a second marriage, opening the doors to one of the most remarkable of north Italian courts, renowned for its patronage of the arts. The Este family, masters of Ferrara, were in need of a male heir to succeed Duke Alfonso II. Thanks to papal politics, Cardinal Alfonso Gesualdo helped broker the betrothal of his nephew and Leonora d’Este, Duke Alfonso’s niece. ‘The obvious objection to Gesualdo’s acceptability in our minds today, namely his reputation as a murderer, was far less a handicap to him than we might imagine,’ says the composer’s biographer Glenn Watkins, who continues to list the Duke of Ferrara’s own murderous activities.
The Neapolitan organist and composer, Scipione Stella, and lutenist Fabrizio Filomarino, members of Don Carlo’s household, travelled north with the Prince of Venosa for the second Gesualdo marriage in February 1594. During the party’s extended stay in Ferrara, Stella edited and compiled two books of Gesualdo’s madrigals, seeing both through the press in May and June 1594. Important evidence of Don Carlo’s growing obsession with music was recorded during his time at the Ferrara court by Count Alfonso Fontanelli, the equerry appointed to serve Gesualdo by Duke Alfonso. ‘He discourses on hunting and music and declares himself an authority on both of them,’ wrote Fontanelli. ‘Of hunting he did not enlarge very much… but about music he spoke at such length that I have not heard so much in a whole year.’ The influence of Ferrarese composer Luzzasco Luzzaschi was swiftly absorbed by Gesualdo, who was moved to abandon his ‘first style’ and imitate the seasoned professional musician’s most adventurous chromatic harmonies, notably so in a parody of the latter’s madrigal Itene mie querele, published in 1611 as Itene, o miei sospiri in Gesualdo’s fifth book of madrigals.
Luzzaschi’s gravity as a composer, performer and music theorist attracted Gesualdo with force sufficient to unlock new ideas and plant a sense of individualism within the Prince of Venosa’s music. Gesualdo’s third and fourth books of madrigals, newly created, appeared in print in Ferrara in 1595 and 1596, and were taken seriously by the professional virtuosos and accomplished musicians of Duke Alfonso’s court. It has been suggested that the chromaticism of Gesualdo’s mature madrigals, those contained in his fifth and sixth books, was also influenced by the madrigal style of his near contemporary Pomponio Nenna. The transfer of ideas, however, might just as easily have flowed in the opposite direction, given Nenna’s position as a musician in Gesualdo’s service from around 1594 to 1599. Another Neapolitan, Scipione Lacorcia, imitated the heightened Gesualdian style of madrigal composition well into the 17th century’s second decade, extending a local tradition.
Surveying musical developments in Italy from the 1570s to the late 1620s, Vincenzo Giustiniani praised Gesualdo’s ability to compose madrigals ‘full of artifice and exquisite counterpoint’. The ear-catching chromatic turns at the opening of Moro, lasso, al mio duolo or pervading works such as Dolcissima mia vita and Beltà, poi che assenti (the latter orchestrated by Stravinsky in his 1960 ballet score Monumentum pro Gesualdo), were a product of the composer’s intricate contrapuntal writing, rooted in past practices, albeit extreme in affect and highly individual in effect. His music was also informed by the mix of personal reserve, a late 16th-century version of Cool, and the avant-garde innovation of a select band of contemporary Italian aristocrats, patrons and creators of the arts. As such, his madrigals and sacred works are neither aberrant nor out of step with the compositions of Luzzaschi and his followers: their complexity rests within the bounds of modal harmony, even in places where they push the ancient system to its limits.
For all that, Gesualdo’s work was anything but usual for its time. His chromaticism, noted by one scholar for its ‘tormented, pathological excesses’, was conceived for the ears of an educated elite of performers and listeners, likewise his intricate counterpoint. His habitual choice of texts dealing with emotional extremes and torments informed his musical language. If the murders pushed him towards composition, it was social privilege and personal wealth that allowed the nobleman to develop his talents. Reports of Gesualdo’s melancholia, feelings of guilt, violent treatment of his second wife and sado-masochistic tendencies suggest strong ties between his mental state and his art. It would be unwise, however, to bury the consistent quality of the composer’s mature work beneath a cloak of post-Freudian psychoanalysis.
It is clear that Carlo Gesualdo found the greatest fulfilment in making music. A secret report prepared in 1600 for the authorities in Naples recorded that the Prince of Venosa ‘does not delight in anything but music’. The point was repeated in various forms by other contemporary observers and underlined by Gesualdo in the works of his final years.
His fifth and sixth books of madrigals and the Responsoria for Holy Week, published in 1611, stand among the finest compositions of a neurotic, strikingly complex individual, works infused with the full force of fin-de-siècle excess, experiment and artifice.