Don Carlo Gesualdo’s noble Naples family acquired the principality of Venosa in 1560. He was born around that same time and was an actual prince (as you will discover, only in title. His personality left a little to be desired). His uncle was Carlo Borromeo, who later became a saint, and his mother was Girolama, the niece of Pope Pius IV. Carlo came from a seriously well-connected and ridiculously wealthy family, and it’s no wonder that he may have felt a little entitlement here and there.
He was a late-Renaissance lutenist, and also played the harpsichord and guitar. From all records, it seems that other than a couple of marriages and a few offspring, he was interested in little other than music. He had few friends and was prone to excesses of food and libation.
But let’s pause for a moment and consider his marriages. Today’s soap operas have nothing on young Carlo.
In 1586, 26-ish Carlo married his first cousin Maria d’Avalos, the daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. When she began a secret love affair with Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria, she was able to hide it from Carlo for about two years, although everyone else seemed to know. On October 16, 1590, at the Palazzo San Severo in Naples, when Carlo was supposed to be away on a hunting trip, the two were sufficiently indiscreet that Carlo, who’d made wooden copies of the keys to the palace, caught them in bed and murdered them.
He left their mutilated bodies for all to see in front of the palace. Because he was a nobleman, he could not be prosecuted (imagine!), and to hide from the relatives of his wife or her lover, who were likely to want revenge, he fled to his castle at Venosa.
There’s plenty of information about the murders, and it’s clear that Carlo was aided by his servants, who might also have participated in the murders, but who, at the very least, made the copies of the keys. The story goes that Carlo, as he repeatedly stabbed his wife, shouted “She’s not dead yet!” The Duke of Andria died of many deep sword wounds and a shot to the head. When he was found, he was in Maria’s night dress and his own clean clothes were left neatly folded by the bed.
Many poets, such as Torquato Tasso in Naples, wrote salacious verse about the murders. You can see that the story lends itself nicely to such efforts.
After the murders, reports differed. Some say that he also murdered his second son by Maria, who was an infant, because he looked into the child’s eyes and doubted his paternity. (By one report, he swung the infant around until the breath left his body). Some sources say that he murdered his father-in-law as well, in self-defense when Papa d’Avolos sought revenge for his daughter’s murder. But Carlo had hired a bunch of body guards to protect himself, so this seems improbable.
His second wife, Leonora d’Este, was niece to Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara, and they married in 1593 or 1594. This was a fortuitous marriage in the it gave Carlo contacts with the musical circle of Ferrara and through them, he met the poet Tasso, who became a friend. Ferraro was the home of the d’Este court and one of the centers of progressive musical activity, most notably the madrigal, which became Carlo’s stock in trade.
The new couple moved back to Carlo’s estate in Venosa in 1597. One has to wonder if Leonora was a little nervous about the arrangement.
Back in Venosa, Carlo set up a group of resident musicians, a kind of academy, to sing his own compositions in the privacy of his own home. No other composers were invited to participate, and he rarely left his castle, making music most of the time. He did a lot of composing during this time, as most of his music was published between 1603 and 1611.
But still, his new marriage was bad news. She accused him of abuse, and the Este family tried to obtain a divorce for her. She spent a lot of time away from the estate (and you can’t help but wonder what kind of jealous psychosis that set off), and there are records of Carlo’s angry letters to her at Modena, where she often went to stay with her brother. One contemporary wrote “she seems to have been a very virtuous woman for there is no record of his having killed her.” Heh. Wry.
When Carlo’s second son by his second marriage died in 1600, he had a large painting commissioned with images of his son, his second wife, and his uncle Carlo pictured underneath some angelic figures. It kind of tidily implies familial bliss in with a nice death threat hanging over them all.
It’s likely that he studied with Pomponio Nenna, a renowned madrigalist in Naples. He studied with other iconic musicians in Venosa, too, and the nobleman lutenist Ettorre de la Marra.
His visits to Ferrara and his friend Tasso linked him to the “mannerist” madrigalists of northern Italy. This was a style committed to humanism and naturalism and was popular across all the arts. Other mannerists that you might have heard of include Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo, at least for his early works.
Carlo wrote six volumes of five-part madrigals that were published starting in 1594. He also wrote two books of motets, a book of responsories, and a few keyboard works. There are three distinctive categories for his music: sacred vocal music, secular vocal music, and instrumental music.
His music is distinctive. The melodies vary wildly from fast to slow, and the harmonies are like chromatic scales (all the notes including the half steps, not just a major or minor scale) against the melodies. There’s a lot of passion in the work, and his experiments with chromaticism foreshadow the music that came later—in the 20th century!
For lyrics, he was fond of contemporary poetry that had strong images, and which he dramatized and intensified with the music. He made sharp contrasts between diatonic (the eight notes of a scale, say, all the white keys between one C and the next on the piano) and chromatic (the 12 notes between one C and the next, including all the black keys). He played with the concepts of dissonance and consonance, waffled between chordal and imitative textures, and used slow-moving and active rhythms against one another. He particularly seemed to enjoy breaking up poetic lines to isolate certain words with the music.
He harbored certain obsessions, and a lot of Carlo’s music features the words love, pain, death, ecstasy, and agony. Word painting was common at the time, although Carlo kind of took it a bit further than most. The texts he chose are closely wedded to the music, and in each piece certain individual words are made considerably more conspicuous than the rest.
Unlike other composers of the time, Carlo expected all lines to be sung. Others doubled or replaced a voice with an instrument. Yah, that might be part of what I like about his music. He knew what a voice could and couldn’t do, and he wrote for it.
Carlo’s work was occasionally imitated by composers such as Sigismondo d’India and Girolamo Frescobaldi in terms of polyphonic (multiple interesting melodic lines) madrigals. The chromatic nature of his compositions wasn’t heard again until the late 19th century. I suppose in one sense, he’s not the father of the twelve-tone system, but he’s certainly an ancestor.
For the most part, Carlo Gesualdo fell into obscurity until the late 20th century and when there was a resurgence of interest in the madrigal form.
Late in life, Carlo suffered from depression, possibly caused by a combination of guilt about the murders and the isolation he inflicted on himself. There are records about him ordering his servants to beat him daily, and he also tried to obtain various religious relics that were thought to help with mental disorders. Efforts to obtain absolution for his crimes through the church were unsuccessful.
Carlo died in isolation, at castle Gesualdo in Avellino, three weeks after the death of his son Emanuel, his first son by his first wife. Some biographers suggest that his second wife murdered him.
He was buried in the chapel of Saint Ignatius in the church of the Gesu’ Nuovo in Naples. The sepulcher was destroyed in the earthquake of 1688 and the rebuilt church covered over the tomb. They left the burial plaque visible, though.
Several novels and more than a handful of operas have been written based on his life. There was a short TV film made about his life (“Death for Five Voices”), and there are rumors of a biopic yet to come. Interestingly, 21st century jazz musicians consider him one of their own, and have um, re-interpreted the madrigals from books I, IV, and VI of his publications.
A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi, by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981
A History of Western Music, by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010