Born today, Don Carlo Gesualdo is a much maligned polyphonic genius


Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (8 March 1566 – 8 September 1613) was Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza. As a musician he is best known for writing intensely expressive madrigals and pieces of sacred music that use a chromatic language not heard again until the late 19th century. He is also known for his cruelty and lewdness: the best known fact of his life is his gruesome killing of his first wife and her lover.

“Irrefutably badass” is not the obvious phrase to reach for when discussing a late-Renaissance lutenist and composer whose output was chiefly a capella madrigals and settings of sacred texts. But it is how Alex Ross, the esteemed critic of The New Yorker describes Don Carlo Gesualdo, who was born 450 years ago today – and badass Gesualdo indisputably was, both as a musician and as a man.

A figure of fascination over the years, the continuing fixation on Gesualdo four centuries after his death is not surprising when you consider the grisly and gruesome details of his biography.


One fateful night in October 1590, Gesualdo discovered her in flagrante with the Duke of Andria, Don Fabrizio Carafa (he was wearing Maria’s silk nightgown at the time). Gesualdo immediately set about slaughtering the pair, slashing their limbs with his sword, mutilating their sexual organs, and puncturing their skulls with the bullets of his gun. He then allegedly murdered the baby boy who may or may not have been his or Don Fabrizio’s child by swinging him to death in his castle courtyard. (Clemency Burton-Hill, BBC Culture Magazine, October 21, 2014.)

51DPMpGT92L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_That’s the myth, at least, but a brilliant new book by Glenn Watkins, The Gesualdo Hex, reveals there’s much more to the story. New lurid details add to our conception of the composer as a murderous aristocratic crank. Having dispatched his first wife on grounds of adultery, Gesualdo himself had affairs throughout his second marriage. Eventually, however, Eleonora had enough, and ordered that his concubines be tried. For witchcraft. Here’s some of the testimony from the inquisition of Aurelia and Polisandra, the accused pair. A word of warning: don’t read this over your sandwich:

That the aforementioned Aurelia made the prince drink her menstrual blood as a purgative is established by four witnesses to extrajudicial confessions by the defendant … Aurelia declared that the aforementioned Polisandra had told her that if she would take a slice of bread and place it inside her “nature” and after it was saturated with her own seed, she would give it to the prince to eat with sauce … It is established through the doctor’s deposition that the seed is harmful.

Despite the dazzling harmonic shifts in Gesualdo’s fifth and sixth books of madrigals, his music was so extreme that some 20th-century critics and composers believed him to be a proto-serialist, going further than any composer before Schoenberg in mining the expressive potential of saturated dissonance. Watkins goes on, fascinatingly, to chart how the story of Gesualdo and his music has enthralled and inspired 20th- and 21st-century creatives, from Stravinsky to Boulez, Andriessen to Brett Dean, Werner Herzog to Ian Rankin.  (Tom Service, The Guardian, March 18, 2010.)

There is one easily available complete recording of the madgrigals by Naxos Records and it is very good as well as budget priced.

713eO7HqkSL._SY355_Label: Naxos
Catalogue No: 8.507013

…the performance quality…is first-rate. The singers of Delitiæ Musicæ, individually and collectively, are fascinating…The clarity of Delitiæ Musicæ’s diction is also enhanced by the recorded sound, which has just enough space around the voices to give them a nice ambience while still keeping them close enough to the microphone to let you hear every single word. I was also enormously impressed with their individual and collective vocal “attack”: The notes do not simply “appear out of the air,” but each has a distinctive and clear consonant beginning that, miraculously, does not disrupt the musical flow.

The real aesthetic question is, unless you are a Gesualdo scholar, do you really need to have this complete set? Based on both the high quality of the music as well as the performances, I would say yes… © 2014 Fanfare Read complete review

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