Introduction to Gesualdo

If I were to pitch to you a soap opera that involved witchcraft, masochism and depression, throw in the occasional murder and then tell you it was about the members of the band Radiohead, you’d probably think I was a little bit mad! However, back in the sixteenth century there was such a musician. His name was Don Carlo Gesualdo and he was a Neapolitan Prince in the Renaissance.


Don Carlo Gesualdo – in private collection

To give him his full title would take up far too much space, we need know him only as Prince of Venosa (and Count of Consa). He was born on the 8th March 1566, second son of Don Fabrizio Gesualdo, though he spent most of his early childhood with his mother. When he was aged only seven, his mother died and he moved to Rome to live with his Uncle, who was Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals in the Vatican. He was probably destined for a life in the church like his Uncle until his older brother died and he became heir to the family’s vast estates.

Naturally, he would have to marry to produce a legitimate heir himself and therefore in 1586 he married his first cousin Maria D’Avalos. All seemed to be well for around four years until Maria began having an affair. Infuriated by the shame she was bringing on his family name there was only one course of action Neapolitan aristocratic society dictated. Pretending to go on an all night hunting trip, he and several of his trusted servants hid in his palace. Then, when the Princess’s lover arrived at the palace (a Duke, no less, by the way) he brutally murdered them both before fleeing to his hilltop castle.

The Viceroy of Naples ensured there were no criminal consequences for Gesualdo in view of ‘the manifest justification of his actions’. However, rumours began to circulate about the fate of Gesualdo’s youngest son (we know he had one child by Donna Maria, but not about the second. Doubting his paternity, he supposedly erected a giant silk swing in his castle courtyard and rocked his son do death, whilst a choir surrounded sang madrigals about mortality.

In 1594 he travelled North to Ferrara. There he met the famous musicians of his day, wrote most of his extant music and married again. He travelled several times to Ferrara before finally returned to his hilltop castle in late 1596. Joining him soon after his wife arrived with their new-born son, his son by Donna Maria being estranged to him at this point. He soon began to abuse her and took mistresses from her servants.

One of his mistresses, a girl from the village around his castle, was tried for witchcraft by the Inquisition, tortured and locked up in the castle dungeon. Afterward became isolated and a masochist. Although he made amends with his eldest son, he died soon after in a freak riding accident and Gesualdo locked himself in his music room, where he spent the remaining few weeks of his life. Dying without an heir, thus ended one of the noblest families in the Kingdom of Naples, one that could trace its roots back to the fall of the Roman Empire.


The Town of Gesualdo and Seat of the Gesualdo Family

Gesualdo has been judged by history on account of his murders and his music. In all fairness the first was the product of the society he lived in – it would have been shameful for him not to have – and which Princes in history haven’t indulged in numerous mistresses. It is the music in which he shows he personality, not most of the key events of his life. He should be judged by his art rather than his actions.

So where to begin? Gesualdo wrote both sacred and secular choral music. The sacred is more approachable than the madrigals (secular), their harmonies being more subtle than the chromaticism. There are some nice recordings of the motets by the Oxford Camerata. Also in the sacred music category are Gesualdo’s Responses. They are deep and lamenting and it is worth reading about their original performance context as it can be quite lost on CD.

The madrigals get more and more chromatic as you go from Book 1 to 5 and 6. Stravinsky said that listening to the sixth book of madrigals was like eating twenty-three canap├ęs of caviar! Take each one by itself and take time to follow the meaning of the words as the two are very closely linked. This will result in the most rewarding listening!

For more in depth detail look at some of the articles on this website or across the internet. Please leave comments and/or ask questions!

BTW If you followed the link from the Huffington Post, then you may want to know that the hunting trip rouse is only rumour and didn’t happen, neither did Gesualdo display their bodies to the public. And, interestingly enough, the Duke was wearing a nightdress when he was murdered!