Gesualdo da Venosa : the music, not the life


Almost exactly one year ago I wrote a short overview of Carlo Gesualdo on the occasion of his 450th birthday, March 8, 1566. I have to admit that I am not entirely pleased with that short article since it played into the recurring stereotype of Gesualdo as an unhinged murdering count. While it is true that he did have his wife and her lover killed, his was not the only case of this type in Italy during the 16th century. In fact, as the article on Gesualdo in Grove Music Online makes clear, a cuckolded party was by the custom of the time required to act as he did.

“Nonetheless, the event, romanticized by novelists from Brantôme to Anatole France, continues to propel accounts of Gesualdo with such titles as Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa: Musician and Murderer (C. Gray and P. Heseltine, London, 1926) or Assassinio a cinque voci (A. Consiglio, Naples, 1967); they show how effective has been his act of retribution in spreading his fame. Because of the notoriety generated by the incident, his passionate dedication to music, which until then had been cultivated in semi-secrecy (his first book of madrigals was originally published under the name of Gioseppe Pilonij), also became renowned.”[1]

I plan to spend the rest of this article on his music and leave the sordid details of the murder alone.

After the events related to the death of his first wife, Gesualdo retired to his estate with the intention to devote himself wholeheartedly to his music. But that intention did not stop him in 1593 from negotiating with Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, concerning a marriage contract with the Duke’s niece. These negotiations were successful and Gesualdo travelled to Ferrara to wed Lucrezia d’Este the following year. The fact that Duke Alfonso was a notable patron of music was not an insignificant aspect of this match.  The city of Ferrara would figure large in Gesualdo’s future because of the active musical scene and the madrigal composers working there.

The official Gesualdo catalog includes six books of madrigals and three books of sacred music; the music can be divided into three sections:

  • the works he formally acknowledged (his six books of five-voice madrigals, the two books of Sacrarum cantionum) but had published anonymously by a courtier, as was the custom of the nobility
  • the Responsoria (Tenebrae), which openly announces his name, title, and family crest on the title page
  • those works not originally intended for publication

To the latter category belong the few works printed after his death:

  • the madrigals for six voices published by Effrem in 1626
  • three canzonettas for five voices (in 1616 and 1618)
  • a psalm in the Salmi delle compiete(Naples, 1620)
  • some works known only in manuscript

This list not only suggests Gesualdo’s versatility in every kind of musical style, including monody, but also clearly underlines his intentional discrimination between the lighter sorts of composition and the deliberate contrapuntal complexity of the works destined for publication.[2]


The first madrigals appeared in the late 13th-14th century; early examples survive by Giovanni da Cascia and Jacopo da Bologna. The form was revived in a very different style in the 16th century by Italian composers and by the Flemish Arcadelt, Verdelot, and Willaert, many of whom had moved and worked in Italy. The earlier kind of madrigal did not adopt a more or less fixed form until the 1340s, some 20 years after its first appearance. From having a musical form that basically followed that of the verse, it settled into a standard length of two or three stanzas, each of three lines and each being set to the same music, the final stanza closing with a ‘ritornello’ of one or two lines, usually in a contrasting meter. The music is commonly in two, sometimes three, parts and is highly melismatic, particularly in the upper voice. The rhythms are often lively, and though imitative textures are rare, some madrigals use canonic techniques.[3]

But the Italian madrigal of the 16th and 17th centuries was an entirely different kind of work.

The madrigal was important in Italy of the second half of the 16th century and into the early 17th century. It began as a polyphonic setting (most often 5 voices) of poetry (usually love poetry) and over the course of approximately 100 years (1530-1630) became increasingly concerned with expressing in music the meaning, and later the melodrama, of the text, sometimes in an exaggerated manner. Gesualdo’s madrigals are a microcosm of this historical evolution, with his first books being relatively mild compared to his 5th and 6th books.

The threat of discontinuity is inherent to the late Italian madrigal. Renaissance Humanists, believing the music of their contemporaries paled beside that of ancient Greece, challenged composers to create music that moved the passions. To realize this ideal, the Humanists argued, music should follow the poetic text. This impulse is encoded in the most basic principle of the madrigal qua genre: “the composer must make every effort to follow the words.”[4]  However, a madrigal composer wishing to put this advice into practice must contend with rapidly changing poetical images and/or the description of shifting emotional or psychological states. Mirroring the text too closely could easily produce discontinuities if composers completely subordinated musical structure to poetic form and content.

Luzzasco Luzzaschi

For a particular strain of late Italian madrigal, this problem was much greater. Anthony Newcomb has documented the close ties between Gesualdo and the Ferrarese Nuova Maniera (New Style) of the 1590s, a select circle of composers led by Luzzasco Luzzaschi.[5]  Three features of the New Style escalated the proliferation and intensity of discontinuities: (1) a brazen willingness to use musical licenses for expressive effect, (2) a preference for epigrammatic texts laden with intense topoi and antitheses, and (3) an extreme interpretation of the Humanist dictum to follow the words, carving the poetic line down to the half-verse and even the individual word. In all three respects Gesualdo went further than his fellow travelers.[6]

Luzzaschi’s Sixth book of madrigals came out in 1596, and in its lengthy dedication to the Duchess of Urbino the following statement of the prevailing madrigalian aesthetic appears:

“Since poetry was the first to be born, music reveres and honors her as his lady, so much so that music, having become virtually a shadow of poetry, does not dare move its foot where its superior has not gone before. From this it follows that if the poet raises his style, the musician raises his tone. He weeps.if the verse weeps, laughs if it laughs; if it runs, stops, implores, denies, screams, falls silent, lives, dies, all these affects and effects are so vividly expressed in music that what should properly be called resemblance seems more like competition. Therefore we see in our times a music somewhat different from that of the previous age, for modern poetic forms are also different from those of the past.”[7]

As is clear from Luzzaschi’s text the goal was for the music to reflect the text fairly specifically and was a crucial aspect of the late-16th century Italian madrigal.  As textural demands were made on the music composers delved further and further into chromaticism and dissonance in their attempts to capture the emotions in the poetry.

Gesualdo’s links with Ferrara also brought him into association with Alfonso Fontanelli, and other composers who were experimenting with chromaticism. In his six books of five-voice madrigals Gesualdo took chromatic harmony to extremes, often creating striking dissonances.[8]  However, Gesualdo’s use of dissonance was never radically outside the tradition of the “rules” of polyphonic counterpoint. In fact, Gesualdo is more accurately seen as the culmination of a style rather than as a revolutionary.  Whereas, Monteverdi could more accurately be seen as the composer who took the madrigal and transformed it into the seed material for opera, bridging the Renaissance with the Baroque era. By the 1630s the madrigal was on the wane and shortly would be replaced with the solo aria.

10489190_10206806903556004_1255910467_nGesualdo’s life, especially the notorious double murder, still inspires composers and writers Alfred Schnittke, Salvatore Sciarrino, Luca Francesconi, and Franz Hummel have all devoted recent works to the Late Renaissance prince-composer. But Marc-André Dalbavie’s first opera, Gesualdo, breaks new ground. Instead of depicting the murder, the libretto by Dalbavie’s French compatriot Richard Millet focuses on Gesualdo’s isolation at the end of his life, locked in a childless second marriage and seeking human warmth from servants.

Dalbavie has said that what attracted him to Gesualdo was the relationship between his personality and his music. He wanted to establish an organic connection between music and narrative, score and libretto. He quotes from three works by Gesualdo, a motet, a madrigal and a responsory, but beyond these quotations, his score is an opalescent refraction of Gesualdo’s anguished chromaticism.[9]

Gesualdo’s music is a rich treasure, his vocal works both reflected his time as well as broke the stylistic norms of his day.

There are three complete sets of the six books of Gesualdo madrigals:

  • Marco Longhini, Delitiae Musicae, Naxos (2000s)
  • Quintetto Vocale Italiano, Newton Classics (1960s)
  • Kassiopeia, Globe Records (sold as individual discs) (2000s)

And some excellent recordings of individual books by La Venexiana, La Compagnia Del Madrigale and Les Arts Florissants.


[1] Lorenzo Bianconi and Glenn Watkins. “Gesualdo, Carlo, Prince of Venosa, Count of Conza.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 28, 2017,
[2] Ibid.
[3] Arnold, Denis and Emma Wakelin . “madrigal.” The Oxford Companion to MusicOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 28, 2017,
[4] See John Turci-Escobar, “Minding the Gap: Interphrase Continuities in Gesualdo’s Six Books of Five-Voice Madrigals.” Indiana Theory Review, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Fall 2009), pp. 155-186.
[5] Anthony Newcomb, “The Madrigal at Ferrara, 1579—1597”, Princeton Studies in Music (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 1:113-53.
[6] John Turci-Escobar, “Minding the Gap: Interphrase Continuities in Gesualdo’s Six Books of Five-Voice Madrigals.” Indiana Theory Review, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Fall 2009), pp. 155-186.
[7] Denis Stevens. “Carlo Gesualdo.” The Musical Times, Vol. 131, No. 1770 (Aug., 1990), pp. 410-411.
[8] Arnold, Denis and Tim Carter . “Gesualdo, Carlo, Prince of Venosa.” The Oxford Companion to MusicOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 28, 2017,
[9] Peter Palmer. “Zurich Opera House: Marc-André Dalbavie’s ‘Gesualdo’.” Tempo, Vol. 65, No. 256 (APRIL 2011), pp. 58-59.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s