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  • Graham Abbott

Who was Carlo Gesualdo?

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

There are two words which are guaranteed to arouse a voyeuristic, if not morbid, curiosity in most people. These words - murder and madness - are used to sell countless tv shows and movies; tv and movies would be unthinkable without these two "ms". So would opera, come to think of it...


Violent death and mental instability touch our deepest fears. Sadness attends both but so does some insatiable fascination.


There is a figure in the history of music who has aroused such a fascination; his life was touched by both murder and a form of madness. The attachment of the third "m" - music - makes him irresistible, but also prone to misunderstanding and grotesque exaggeration. So let's take a look at him, the Prince of Venosa, Carlo Gesualdo.


Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa

Carlo Gesualdo was that rare thing: a composer of noble birth. He was born sometime in the early 1560s, possibly in Naples, but the date and place of his birth are open to much speculation and the evidence is contradictory. His family was invested with the principality of Venosa by Philip II of Spain in 1560 and they had powerful connections. Carlo's mother was Girolama Borromeo, niece of Pope Pius IV and sister of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo. Around the time of Gesualdo's birth, his uncle, Alfonso (who was Archbishop of Naples) was made a Cardinal.


Pope Pius IV
Cardinal (later Saint) Carlo Borromeo

Carlo Gesualdo was the second son of Fabrizio Gesualdo and Girolama Borromeo but when his elder brother died he became the heir to his father's title. In 1586 he married his cousin Maria d'Avalos, daughter of the Marquis of Pescara.


In 1588, two years into the marriage, Maria started an affair with Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria, and this went on for another two years. It seems that the affair was reasonably common knowledge except to Gesualdo himself, but in 1590 he discovered his wife's infidelity.


On 16 October 1590, Gesualdo pretended to go away on a hunting trip, and as he expected, Maria and Fabrizio planned to meet in his absence in the Palazzo San Severo in Naples. Gesualdo returned and caught them in flagrante delicto and, so the salacious details of the story tell us, he murdered them in the bed in which he found them.


The murders were particularly violent. According to the copious witness statements, which still survive, Gesulado was aided in the murder by one or more of his servants. The Prince himself stabbed Maria repeatedly, and Fabrizio, in addition to being run through several times with a sword, was also shot in the head. He was also found to be wearing one of Maria's nightdresses while his own clothes were found, unbloodied, beside the bed.


The gruesome details don't end there. After the murders, Gesualdo left the bodies in front of the palace for all to see. Incredible as it may seem to us, Gesulado's noble birth made him immune from prosecution. But of course, nothing could make him immune from revenge, and in order to escape the relatives of both his wife and the Duke, he fled to his castle in Venosa, about 180 km east of Naples.


Gesualdo's violent act rapidly became widely-known. It was not only talked about all over the Kingdom of Naples (which then covered the southern half of the Italian peninsula) and surrounding regions, but the murder of the tragic lovers was commemorated in documents such as the Corona Manuscript chronicle, and in the work of many poets, including Torquato Tasso. In the centuries since, Gesualdo's vicious act has been romanticised in novels, portrayed in operas and other musical works, and in movies. As always, the fascination with murder never leaves us.


Up to this point in life, Gesualdo's lifelong fascination with music had been cultivated in semi-secrecy, but his new notoriety meant that every detail of his life became public property, much like the cult of celebrity today. Gesualdo's work as a composer started to become better known, ironically, as a result of this act of unspeakable barbarity.


When the scandal of the murders had died down somewhat, Gesualdo retired to his estate in the town of Gesualdo, about 100 km east of Naples. Apart from his occasional travels, this was to be his base for the rest of his life. His musical interests were already highly developed and he'd already had two books of madrigals published under the pseudonym of Gioseppe Pilonij [sic]. He was also an accomplished lutenist. Now, in 1593, three years after the murders, he started to work on his rehabilitation and reinvention in the public eye.


Castle Venosa, Gesualdo

In 1593 Gesualdo also entered into a contract for a new marriage, and it wasn't just any marriage. His new wife was to be Leonora d'Este, niece of Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara. The d'Este family was one of the most illustrious and powerful in Italy and Gesualdo visited Ferrara in 1594 to marry Leonora. The wedding took place on 21 February and, in accordance with Ferrarese custom, music played a large part in the celebrations.


In fact music was possibly a more important reason for Gesualdo's interest in Ferrara than his new wife. Ferrara, about 700 km north of Naples, was major musical centre with a well-developed musical establishment, innovative composers and accomplished performers. Most famous among the latter were a trio of ladies known as the concerto delle donne, an ensemble admired all over the Italian peninsula and imitated in other courts. Apart from two brief return visits to his namesake home town, Gesualdo stayed in Ferrara for two years. He eventually took up residence in Gesualdo in early 1596; Leonora arrived there the following year.


Leonora d'Este

By this time Gesualdo had re-published his earlier two books of madrigals, and published another two. But they were not directly credited to him even now. Books 1 and 2 were dedicated to Gesualdo by a composer called "Scipione Stella". But everyone knew that Gesualdo himself was the actual composer. Madrigals were the most popular form of secular music of the time and composers all over Italy were producing volumes of highly-expressive madrigals by the bucket-load. This is exactly the same period as Claudio Monteverdi was publishing his early books of madrigals; Gesualdo loved the form and excelled at it. And like Monteverdi, Gesulado nailed his colours to the mast of the seconda prattica, the "second practice" of the early Baroque, which broke away from the restrained and pure sound world of the Renaissance and sought to be more expressive, more passionate and more direct, especially when setting a text.


Books 1 and 2 were republished in Ferrara in 1594. In these early books he set poetry that had been set to music by many other composers and much of the actual music borrows ideas from others. But these volumes prove that Gesualdo was able to write works which were absolutely in tune with his times. They also rarely hint at the bizarre and notorious sounds he would commit to paper in the later books. [listen]


In this, the first madrigal of book 1, Gesualdo indulges the usual madrigalian sentiments of kisses, love and death. Given his recent past, though, one can't help thinking that to Gesualdo the concept of death is a little more literal with him than its usual interpretation - orgasm - in the madrigals of other composers.


The dark side is never far away with Gesualdo, even in these early pieces. In O dolce mio martire the poem speaks of sweet torment being a source of joy. There is a powerful ambiguity in the words which go on to say, "This is Love's power, who, by robbing my heart, can make me happy in new and dear manners and ways". It's far from clear if the poet has the woman he desires, and has thereby has lost himself, or if he has lost the woman he desires, and has thereby greater pain which means greater joy. Gesualdo's setting is equally ambiguous. [listen]


The second book of madrigals continues in the same vein but contains some extraordinary pieces. In Candida man qual neve the poem compares the heat of the lover's ardour with the coldness of the woman's response. Fire and snow are the images of the text. In the final couplet, Gesualdo paints the abandonment of the lover in a sequence of chords which shock by their apparent modernity. To set the words "O me misero" (O, woe is me), the composer starts to seriously break the rules. In this respect, he's only just getting started. [listen]


Already in the second book Gesualdo is starting to indulge in more chromaticism, meaning that he starts to introduce more notes that are foreign to the harmonic home of the piece. More shocks, more unexpected turns of harmony, more outright discords infiltrate in order to more passionately express the highly-charged emotions of the madrigal poetry.


Perhaps the most chromatic madrigal in book 2 is Sento che nel partire. The poem speaks of the heart being near death because of the need to be parted from the beloved. The final lines push Gesualdo into unusual, but beautiful, harmonies: "I don't want to part if with my departure I increase my torments". [listen]


Gesualdo published his madrigal collections rapidly. After books 1 and 2 appeared in 1594, book 3 was published in Ferrara the following year. It was about this same time he started to establish a permanent musical ensemble at his castle in Gesualdo, inspired by the musicians he had heard and admired in Ferrara.


Books 3 and 4 again were not directly published under Gesualdo's own name, but dedicated to him by a composer this time called "Ettore Gesualdo". In book 3 Gesualdo chooses poetry to set not because of the fame of the poet but simply because of an abundance of vivid ideas, concepts and emotions which would permit the composer to further indulge his increasingly outrageous harmonic language.


In Crudelissima doglia the poem speaks of cruellest torment, weeping, and gazing on the beloved, and ends with "beauty is like a flower, pleasant to the eyes, painful to the heart". Gesualdo was in his element with words like this. [listen]


Or when the agony of unrequited love gives way to anger, Gesualdo paints the anger of the man towards his unresponsive lover in no uncertain terms. [listen]


Already, in book 3, we're a long way from the music of book 1, and in book 4 of Gesualdo's madrigals, published in Ferrara in 1596, the expansion of his harmonic and expressive vocabulary continues. Until the publication of books 3 and 4 Gesualdo was regarded as a talented amateur composer, but these volumes consolidated his reputation as a "real" composer of professional abilities. This was extremely unusual; members of the nobility were not expected to undertake such occupations, let alone make money from publication. The nobility employed musicians, they didn't work as one. And while members of the nobility may have been talented amateur instrumentalists or singers, it was generally regarded as being in bad taste if they performed publicly; the same strictures applied to composers. But Gesualdo broke the mould, proving that he was not only talented, but that he was an innovator.



Book 4 contains the most astounding two-section madrigal which shows just how far Gesualdo was prepared to go in painting words for their own sake regardless of the harmonic consequences. Ecco, morirò dunque sets a short poem which speaks of almost nothing but death, and again, in Gesualdo's hands death seems to mean death; the thought of orgasm seems as remote as ever from this music. [listen]


Four books of madrigals in three years: Gesualdo's obsession with the madrigal was obvious to all, as was his increasingly individual and expressive style. It would be fourteen years before he published his fifth and sixth books but in the meantime he turned his attention to sacred music.


In the 1590s, in addition to his visits to Ferrara, Gesualdo also visited other major Italian musical centres: Rome, Venice, Padua and Florence. But from 1595 onwards he stayed at home in Gesualdo more and more, and his emotional state grew darker and darker. In the terms of the time he was said to have suffered from melancholia; nowadays we'd probably say he suffered from depression. It has been fashionable, of course, to link this disorder with the murders of 1590 and to say he was tormented with guilt, but in the absence of sound psychiatric evidence such glib associations are not helpful. If Gesualdo was mentally unwell then he was mentally unwell and his illness deserves to be respected as such.


Gesualdo was rich; his estate brought him a massive income. This enabled him to devote himself to his music but also it enabled him to withdraw more and more into his own world. Leonora, his second wife, complained of being bored at the Gesualdo estate, and her husband's obsessions and illness wouldn't have helped. Even more than this, she complained of being ill-treated by Gesualdo, and the d'Este family commenced divorce proceedings.


Gesulado's psychiatric deterioration is attested to in many contemporary documents. Many commentators see his increasingly outrageous music as evidence of his illness but this view sounds too glib and simplistic to me. Gesualdo showed right from the start that he wanted to explore the fringes of acceptable tonality in his music, and in the madrigals especially, and while his illness may have helped him enter his own world later on (just as Beethoven’s deafness did for him), these artistic tendencies are well in evidence long before.


In October 1600, Alfonso, Gesualdo's son from his second marriage, died aged only five. Gesualdo commissioned the painting of an altarpiece in the church of the Capuchins which included depictions of Leonora and himself with the purified soul of their dead son. It is called Il Perdono di Gesualdo (The Pardon of Gesualdo).


Balducci: Il Perdono di Gesualdo (1609). Gesualdo can be seen in the lower left hand corner, comofrted by his dead uncle, Cardinal - now Saint - Carlo Borromeo. His second wife, Leonora d'Este, is in the lower right hand corner.

In 1603 Gesualdo published two collections of sacred music in Naples, a volume of motets for five voices and another volume of motets for six or seven voices. The nineteen five-part motets set texts which emphasise sin, guilt and death, and the musical language ranges from the more conventional (albeit with the odd Gesualdo knife-twist) to the much more expressive and occasionally bizarre. [listen]


Gesualdo's emotional state became more and more focused on religion. His uncle, Carlo Borromeo (who had died in 1584), had been made a saint in 1610, and he desperately wanted relics of his body and a portrait to venerate in his private chapel. His correspondence to another Cardinal in the family, Federico Borromeo, depicts the extent of his obsession with such matters.


Cardinal Federico Borromeo

But whatever the state of Gesualdo's mind, he continued to compose amazing music. In 1611 he published three collections: the fifth and sixth books of madrigals and a collection of twenty-nine motets comprising the Responsories for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The madrigal books are among the most puzzling, most powerful, and most individual creations in all western music. Dolcissima mia vita from book 5 paints the torments of love more...tormentedly...than Gesualdo had ever done before. [listen]


And there are others in the same vein. If ever there was a composer thinking outside the square it was Gesualdo in book 5 of the madrigals. Where that square was in book 6 is anybody's guess; book 6 contains pieces which - apart from being frankly notorious in the audacity of their musical language - are audaciously difficult to perform. In book 5, and especially in book 6, any sense of the overall structure and shape of each individual madrigal is largely forgotten. Gesualdo obsesses about lines, phrases, words, setting each text as a kaleidoscope of little fragments. It's early 17th century music doing in sound what the early 20th century Cubists did in paint.


And like Cubist painting, once taken on their own terms, and once the "shock of the new" is overcome, Gesualdo's miniatures can be seen for the beauties that they are. Io pur respiro from book 6 was the first piece of Gesualdo I ever heard. I don't think I've ever recovered. [listen]


But perhaps the most famous madrigal from book 6 is the astounding Moro, lasso, al mio duolo. The text is typical of the collection: "I die! Languishing of grief, and the person who can give me life, alas, kills me and does not want to give me aid. O woeful fate! that the one can give me life, alas, gives me death!" [listen]



The great sacred collection from 1611, the Tenebrae Responsories, is justly famous and probably Gesualdo's best-known work. This music is designed for the highly-emotive services on the nights of Maundy Thursday (commemorating the last Supper and Judas's betrayal of Jesus), Good Friday (commemorating Jesus's death) and Holy Saturday (commemorating Jesus's burial). In these services the church is made progressively darker through the proceedings and Gesualdo's emotional state clearly resonated with this intense spiritual drama.


As a final musical example we'll with one of the most moving of the Responsories, O vos omnes, from the service for Holy Saturday: "All ye who pass by, attend and see, if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow." [listen]


After the publication of the last two madrigal books and the Responsories in 1611, Gesualdo lived in virtual isolation in his castle in the town which bore his name. The Responsories were sung in Holy Week in his private chapel by his staff musicians for him, completely alone. He became obsessed with the extinction of his family line and this, sadly, proved all too prophetic. In August 1613 his only surviving child, Emanuele, a son from his first marriage, died. Three weeks later, on 8 September 1613, Carlo Gesualdo himself died. He was about 50 years old.


Carlo Gesualdo - the murderer, the man with a mental illness - has fascinated later generations, often for the most non-musical of reasons. But looking at his musical legacy alone, we can see that here was a man who wrote music completely unlike anyone else. It is music of extremes: extreme passion, extreme devotion, extreme potency. He was no proto-modernist or harbinger of the 20th century; he was Carlo Gesualdo. That's quite enough.


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2012.

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