In his day, Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa (c1561 – 1613) was known as “il musical macellaio di Venosa” (the musical butcher of Venosa), not for his provocative musical harmonies but for his unseemly penchant for murder. A man of violent passions, egotistical (and, in all likelihood, unhinged), the savagery with which he killed his first wife and her lover was deeply shocking and he became the subject of much lurid gossip, even after his death. Stravinsky later described Gesualdo, as “this great if disequilibrated composer” – an understatement if ever there were one.
Born into a noble Neapolitan family, Gesualdo’s ruling passion was for music. He seemed destined for a cushy career in the church were it not for the untimely and suspicious death of his elder brother Luigi. He was now thrust into managing the family’s estates, and most importantly, he was required to produce a male heir. Accordingly in 1586 he married his cousin, the renowned beauty Maria d’Avalos who probably in his estimation was good breeding stock: she was twice-widowed, her first husband dying “forse per aver troppo reiterare con quella di congiungimenti carnali” (from an excess of connubial bliss) and she already had two sons. Any marital bliss was fairly short-lived; soon after the birth of their first son Emanuele, Gesualdo buried himself in his music and Maria sought her entertainments elsewhere, in particular with the dashingly handsome Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria.
It is not clear why Gesualdo decided to murder the couple; his own blatant infidelities notwithstanding, the affair was well-known and had been going on for two years. With all his connections, surely a divorce would have been preferable (and somewhat less messy?) Nevertheless, one day he tricked the couple into thinking he would be away on an expedition hunting quails; instead, in the early hours of 16 October 1590, he stormed into their bedroom with three servants armed to the teeth. After brutally dispatching the couple, they left the room (although Gesualdo returned shortly afterwards to further mutilate their bodies). He later made it known that he had stabbed Fabrizio Carafa 27 times, one thrust for each month of the affair.
As a nobleman, Gesualdo enjoyed a fair degree of immunity and so he escaped prosecution (a privilege enjoyed to this day by certain Italian politicians and bankers). His exoneration was reported as being “in the interests of upholding decency and the remembrance that wifely purity is to be maintained at all times”. Shortly afterwards, Gesualdo is said to have murdered his second son as he did not think he was the father and, fearful of revenge, he is also rumoured to have bumped off his father-in-law.
With the death of his own father in 1591, Gesualdo assumed the title of Prince of Venosa and, echoing Jane Austin’s later observation that “a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”, he entered into an arranged marriage with Leonora d’Este, the niece of Duke Alfonso of Ferrara and a great-great granddaughter of Lucrezia Borgia. This was a canny move. It allowed him to escape Naples (and the death threats) but more importantly for him, Ferrara was the bustling centre of musical activity at the time and it allowed him to rub shoulders with creative masters such as Luzzasco Luzzaschi and the madrigal composer, Luca Marenzio. It was a productive period and the Ferrarese ducal press published his first four books of madrigals between 1593 and 1596.
Gesualdo returned to the family estates outside Naples in 1597, followed reluctantly by his long-suffering wife Leonora and their young son Alfonsino. Here they led essentially separate lives, his moods taking an even darker turn following the death of Alfonsino. Aside from his depressive episodes, which he tried to dispel by requesting regular beatings from his staff, he suffered all manner of ailments (real and imagined) and he regularly abused his wife. He also developed an obsessive reverence for his late uncle Carlo Borromeo, the former archbishop of Milan (canonised in 1610) and even tried to get hold of his remains as a possible cure for his torments. In this period he wrote most of his religious works, perhaps as an act of atonement for his earlier crimes. He died in 1613, three weeks after the death of his son Emanuele.
Gesualdo wrote his music in a fascinating climate of artistic and musical upheaval but he was no iconoclast. He composed in the prevailing Mannerist style which represents a bridge between the formal, controlled style of High Renaissance music (based on modal musical scales) to the dramatically expressive Baroque music which is based on a simplified musical system rooted in major and minor keys. Mannerist music is noted for its expressiveness; it follows the contours of speech and uses dissonance, sudden changes of dynamics and unusual harmonic progressions for emphasis. In this tradition, Gesualdo imposes his own unmistakable stamp, employing chromaticism to dramatic effect resulting in compelling music which is unorthodox, often eccentric, and difficult to perform. His peculiar style can be heard in his masterpiece, the madrigal “Moro, lasso, al mio duolo” where unusual harmonic progressions serve to ratchet up the tension.
It’s no wonder that Gesualdo felt at home in the heady, sophisticated atmosphere of the Ferrara court (even if others did not share his own high opinion of his music) but he was determined to make his mark. At Ferrara he was deeply impressed by the writings of the composer Nicola Vicentino; it’s difficult to imagine a time when the musical octave was not divided into twelve tones but Vicentino proposed dividing it into 31 tones and invented a two-manual harpsichord (the archicembalo) on which these musical shadings could be explored. Gesualdo acquired the instrument and it has been suggested that Gesualdo’s own strange harmonic progressions were worked out at this keyboard.
Gesualdo’s music did not represent the “green shoots” of a new musical departure; while the chromaticism evident in his music eventually reappeared in the nineteenth century, his music fell into obscurity after his death only to be rediscovered and championed in the twentieth century by composers such as Stravinsky whose Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa (an orchestration of madrigals by Gesualdo) sounds strikingly modern.
In death, Gesualdo had one more surprise up his sleeve. In his last will and testament, he confessed to the murder of his elder brother Luigi. If this is true, then the crime was completely in vain as he forfeited a comfortable life in the church – a calling where he could have pursued his musical passions, with little interference. There are also rumours that Gesualdo was himself murdered by agents of the Vatican (or possibly by his wife), presumably for his heinous crimes rather than for his music.
Published 11 May 2015 on the primephonic website