Don Carlo Gesualdo, Principe di Venosa, is remembered principally for two things: the murder of his first wife and her lover, the Duke of Andria, and his extreme chromaticism.
Born in 1566 to one of the most noble families in the Kingdom of Naples, Gesualdo was the second son and therefore would have expected a life in the church. However, with the death of his elder brother in 1585, Don Carlo became heir to the family estates and marriage became a priority.
In 1586, Don Carlo married his first cousin, Donna Maria d’Avalos. Already twice widowed, her husbands were said to have died ‘in excess of connubial bliss’. When Don Carlo discovered her affair with Don Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria, he (to use his own words) ‘massacred’ them one fateful night in October 1590 before reportedly killing their (his or Don Fabrizio’s?) son by swinging him to death in his castle courtyard whilst a choir sung madrigals about death.
The story does not end here, Gesualdo married again in Ferrara, to the niece of Duke Alfonso II d’Este. The Duke wanted to make use of Gesualdo’s connections in the church and with the illustrious Borromeo and Medici families to whom he was related. In Ferrara, Gesualdo came across music like the world had never heard before and this stimulated the writing of at least five madrigal books in which he expresses his new chromatic style.
Returning to Gesualdo with his new wife, with whom he shared a complicated relationship (and she with her half brother), he became embroiled in a witchcraft trail and the Spanish Inquisition. From these years come Gesualdo’s finest works, the sacred music.
Living to see all his children die, Gesualdo died shortly after his eldest son. His final years were spent in a masochistic and depressive frenzy and sadly no music survives from this period, although these are some of the most interesting years of his life. Most likely his was beaten to death by his servants in a masochistic rampage.
To gloss over Gesualdo’s life in just over three hundred words is not to do it justice, indeed it deserves a whole book – I haven’t even mentioned the music. Hopefully I’ve captured your interest, so why not read more…