Gesualdo in the Twentieth Century


 At the time of his death, on 8th September 1613, the music of Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, was popular amongst the madrigal repertory. Undergoing many re-prints, his madrigals remained popular into the seventeenth century, and all six books were printed in a single volume in full-score, the first publication of its kind. Gesualdo’s fame spread throughout Europe; even as civil war was tearing England apart in the 1640s, the musicians of King Charles II court at Oxford were performing Gesualdo’s madrigals. Although Gesualdo wrote a corpus of sacred music, only a limited number of copies were printed, securing his reputation as a madrigalist.

Over time, however, fashions change; other musical forms superseded the madrigal and as courtly pursuits changed it became an outmoded form of entertainment. Yet, as Gesualdo’s music disappeared from memory, the rumours about his personal life began to grow; the fact that he was a musician became an incidental aside to his story. Born into one of the richest and noblest families in the Kingdom of Naples, he was destined for a life in the church until the death of his elder brother, when he became the heir apparent, and subsequently married. Only a few years later, finding his wife in flagrante with her ducal lover, he brutally murdered them both, before retreating to the countryside. Travelling to Ferrara four years later, he took a second wife from the ruling Este family and encountered the musical life in the courts of northern Italy. Returning after an intermittent two year stay, he spent the rest of his life in increasing illness and isolation, abusing his wife, taking mistresses and it was said, ‘through the agency of God, he was assailed and afflicted by a vast horde of demons which gave him no peace for many days on end unless ten or twelve young men, whom he kept especially for the purpose, were to beat him violently three times a day, during which operation he was want to smile joyfully. And in this state did he die miserably at Gesualdo’.[1]

As the story of Gesualdo’s life found its way into poetry, literature and theatre, it is no surprise that the rumours grew out of proportion. The story goes that a son of his by his first wife, whose paternity he doubted, he had rocked to death in a giant silk swing erected in his castle courtyard. Then in a manner pre-empting Macbeth he cut down all the trees from the hillside around his castle so that the murdered Duke’s family could not sneak up on him to exact their vengeance. Some people even went as far as to say that he was the devil himself.

Throughout the eighteenth century the story of Gesualdo’s life was still circulating in Naples, but the music became largely forgotten and although in 1706 his music was seen as an influential factor in late operatic style,[2] by 1789, when Charles Burney wrote his General History of Music both musical fashion and theory had changed to the point where the praise given to Gesualdo by his peers was incomprehensible and his music was dismissed as ‘amateurish’. ‘[H]is points of imitation are generally unmanageable,’ writes Burney, ‘and brought in so indiscriminately on concords and discords, and on accented and unaccented parts of a bar, that, when performed, there is more confusion in the general effect than in the Music of any other composer of madrigals with whose works I am acquainted. His original harmony … is difficult to discover … And as to his modulation, it is so far from being the sweetest conceivable, that, to me, it seems forced, affected, and disgusting.’[3]

The dismissal of Gesualdo’s music was so severe that throughout the nineteenth century he is finds only the briefest of mentions in musicological works. Only at the turn of the twentieth century, and in Germany, did musicologists begin to rediscover Gesualdo and in 1914 Ferdinand Keiner published the first study on Gesualdo’s music. The renewal of interest in Gesualdo’s music began out of interest in his chromaticism; Gesualdo’s harmonies, they discovered, would not be out of place in music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After centuries of tonality, it seemed to Hugo Leichtentritt in 1915 that Gesualdo’s ‘harmony is so unusual, even eccentric, that it could not be appreciated before the twentieth century, because it surpassed in strangeness anything that had been produced up to our own age.’[4]

In his sensational book of 1926 Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Musician and Murderer, co-authored with Cecil Gray, Philip Heseltine noted the similarities between Gesualdo, Wagner and even Delius. Acknowledging that ‘Gesualdo was always a polyphonist in his methods,’ he found ‘passages in his work to which we should not find parallels until we come to Wagner.’[5] Opening with a dramatic, yet meticulously researched, account of the Prince’s life story by Cecil Gray, the book concludes with an insightful and informative essay of Gesualdo’s music by Philip Heseltine. What makes the book sensational, however, and perpetuates the myth of Gesualdo as a despotic murdering tyrant, is the middle chapter, Gesualdo considered as a murderer. The essay ignores social convention of the time that compelled Gesualdo to commit the murders and portrayed him as an artistic murderer, spoiling the tone of the research, concluding thus: ‘Gesualdo’s eminence in the art of murder is no less than it is in the art of music, and that his achievement in both spheres has been unduly and deservedly neglected.’[6]

After Gray and Heseltine’s book, it is impossible not to consider Gesualdo’s biography when examining the relationship between Gesualdo and composers in the twentieth century. Although Gesualdo was portrayed throughout the century as a reclusive, insane and tortured individual, there are some aspects about his life that are appealing to a composer. As a Prince he was his own patron, whose music had only to please himself and kept a retinue of virtuoso composer-performers, who played and sung his music for him alone. Few composers in history can claim such ideal working conditions. Therefore, when looking at the various analyses of Gesualdo to understand what twentieth century musicians found in Gesualdo’s music, the story of his life must be born in mind.

Keiner approached Gesualdo’s music as if it were tonal and looked for keys and modulations; the resulting analysis if therefore highly anachronistic, using language such as ‘secondary dominant’, which is inappropriate for music composed in the modal system, as is the case with all Gesualdo’s music. Burney’s inability to appreciate this caused him to dismiss Gesualdo’s music, but Keiner sought to understand how Gesualdo’s chromaticism operated tonally and it was viewing Gesualdo’s music in this manner that caused Egon Wellez, only two years after Keiner’s monograph, to draw parallels between Gesualdo and his tutor, Schoenberg.

Both Schoenberg and Gesualdo found themselves at a turning point in music history. Gesualdo was one of the last composers to be grounded in the modal system, as Schoenberg was in the tonal, and both composers sought the way forward in chromaticism. Gesualdo uses chromaticism to manipulate the mode, morphing it beyond recognition in the same manner that Schoenberg uses chromaticism to manipulate tonal features. To the analyst, tracing the resulting modal ambiguity in Gesualdo is akin searching for the tonal features in Schoenberg.

Wellez was not the only person to notice the similarity; the author Aldous Huxley in his essay The Doors of Perception describes listening to Gesualdo whilst high on mescaline: ‘In Gesualdo, that fantastic character out of a Webster melodrama, psychological disintegration had exaggerated, had pushed, to the extreme limit, a tendency inherent in modal as apposed to fully tonal music. The resulting works sounded as though they might have been written by the later Schoenberg.’[7] Huxley, despite being fascinated by Gesualdo’s biography, is responsible for adding to the fabrication surrounding Gesualdo’s life. Giving talks accompanying Robert Craft’s concerts of Gesualdo’s music, he admitted to fabricating entire biographical episodes.

Another literary response to Gesualdo is more indirect. Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus describes the life of the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn. Mann’s character is a representation of the German composer in the first half of the twentieth century but his ‘most controversial source for Leverkühn was Mann’s contemporary and, until the publication of Doktor Faustus, his friend, the composer Arnold Schoenberg.’[8] The idea of the reclusive genius is integral to the character and when the scholar Patrick Carnegy writes that ‘Leverkühn’s genius is also bound up with a reclusive life, acute physical suffering and eventual insanity’,[9] one cannot help but notice that this description correlates perfectly with how Gesualdo was viewed at the time.

After the Second World War there was a resurgence of interest in early music and with that followed a new enthusiasm for Gesualdo. Although there are too many names to discuss here, there are key figures worthy of particular attention. Pierre Boulez found that Gesualdo had a ‘particular relevance to our time’ as ‘one of the first musicians to make methodic use of chromaticism’ and programmed Gesualdo’s music alongside his own at Darmstadt.[10] György Ligeti considered Gesualdo to be one of the greatest composers of our time, Louis Andriessen wrote a study on Gesualdo and Paul Hindemith, Peter Maxwell-Davies, Brett Dean, Mathias Pintscher and Lukas Foss all claim some influence from the Prince. Nadia Boulanger brought Gesualdo to the attention of her composition pupils and in her illustrious composition lessons her pupils sang his madrigals. By 1962 Wilhelm Weismann and Glenn Watkins had finished the complete modern edition of Gesualdo’s music and for the first time since 1613 it was readily available to study. However, of all the composers of the latter half of the twentieth century, non were so infatuated with Gesualdo as Igor Stravinsky.

It was around 1956 that Stravinsky first became interested in Gesualdo and as early as July that year he made the first of two visits to Gesualdo to view the Prince’s castle. When he arrived, ‘Gesualdo’s castle was the residence then of some hens, a heifer, and a browsing goat, as well as of a human population numbering, in that still Pill-less, anti-Malthusian decade, a great many bambini. … The castle is measly … but as it was greatly in need of a dispersion of aerosol, I did not see much of it. In short, it was difficult to imagine the high state of musical culture that once flourished on this forlorn hill’.[11] He was, however, not dissuaded of his interest by this rather underwhelming experience; instead, harboured by his association with Robert Craft, his interest grew.

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky

For Stravinsky it was not just Gesualdo’s chromaticism that was of interest, but also the Prince’s skills as a contrapuntalist. By examining Gesualdo contrapuntal technique, he was able to complete, in an authentic style, three Sacrae Cantiones of Gesualdo’s to which the Bass part has been lost. Stravinsky’s orchestration of Gesualdo’s madrigals, Monumentum pro Gesualdo, also shows the close attention that Stravinsky paid to Gesualdo’s musical lines. At the same time, and in correspondence with Stravinsky and Craft, Glenn Watkins was writing his monograph on Gesualdo, Gesualdo The man and his music, which forms a cornerstone in the literature of Gesualdo. Watkins’ analysis of Gesualdo succeeds most in its analysis of Gesualdo’s counterpoint and he shows Gesualdo’s music to have ‘no doubt of the presence of a genuine, essentially diatonic contrapuntal style’.[12]

Propelling Gesualdo into the twenty-first century, over the past twenty years ten operas have been written on the subject of the Prince, proving Gesualdo’s continued relevance to composers. The manner in which these operas draw musical influences from Gesualdo elucidates the role that Gesualdo has on composers today. Yet vigilance must be taken in distinguishing actual compositional influence from quotation; the balance between biographical and musical influence must be carefully considered. The use of quotation rather than compositional influence is seen best in the first Gesualdo opera, Maria di Venosa, composed in 1992 by Francesco d’Avalos, a Neapolitan Prince directly descended from Gesualdo’s first wife. The opera quotes Gesualdo’s madrigals and these are the only sung part of the opera, the rest being acted to incidental music rooted in the nineteenth century symphonic tradition for which d’Avalos made his name conducting. Although Gesualdo’s music is integrated seamlessly into the opera, the music also quotes Bruckner’s ninth symphony and it is Gesualdo’s biography, not his music, that has served as the main stimulus for composition.

Two years later Alfred Schnittke completed his opera Gesualdo. Schnittke drew on the rumours surrounding the supposed death of Gesualdo’s son and the opera ends with Gesualdo’s son being rocked to death in a giant swing. The composition of the opera had been interrupted by a three-month coma and the resulting music was sparsely textured and ill received.

Franz Hummel, in writing his opera, also entitled Gesualdo, is the only composer, as he sees it, not to fall into the ‘first seductive trap’ and quote his madrigals; instead he concentrates on taking a more biographical approach depicting ‘the atmosphere of the society he produced and his endless persistant [sic] child-like loneliness that was never allowed to grow up’.[13] Although elements of Gesualdo’s compositional technique find their way into the ‘relentless eddy of [the] … complex counterpoint of the Gesualdo theme.’[14]

Other composers took the opposite view to Hummel and placed more weight on incorporating Gesualdo’s music itself. These include Bo Holten’s 2003 opera Gesualdo, scored for baroque orchestra and with performances of his madrigals and Luca Francesconi’s opera, named after Gray’s essay Gesualdo considered as a murderer, which also quotes Gesualdo. Scott Glasgow’s The Prince of Venosa, composed in 1998, takes a slightly different approach and quotes Gesualdo’s harmonic progressions. The most recent opera on Gesualdo draws more on Gesualdo’s biography and is the only opera not to include the murder of his first wife, instead focusing on the complex relationship with his second.

Salvatore Sciarrino, winner of the first ‘Premio Internazionale Carlo Gesualdo’, wrote two operas on Gesualdo and in Sciarrino one finds the music of Gesualdo having a direct working on his compositional processes. Sciarrino explored Gesualdo’s counterpoint and chromaticism directly, reworking his madrigals in Le voci sottovetro. ‘The cultivated listener feels attracted to him in a special way’, writes Sciarrino, ‘a plethora of sound associations with the most modern composers are thrown at him. Gesualdo reveals the extravagance typical of Vivaldi and Domenico Scarlatti, of Schubert and even of later Beethoven, we recognise the secret of late romanticism or French Art Nouveau, the atmosphere of expressionism.’[15]

Epitomising the view of Gesualdo in the twentieth century, Werner Herzog’s 1995 film Death for Five Voices finds its basis in fact, but extrapolates rumours and mixes complete fabrication with musicological discussion, such that one cannot distinguish between the two. Interspersed with performances of Gesualdo’s madrigals, it portrays the composer as an insane murderer, extravagant, reclusive, and perhaps in league with the devil. Writing only a year after the film was released, the librettist of Hummel’s opera, Elisabeth Gutjahr, identifies with this ‘fascination with the figure of Gesualdo. In a century in which collective blame is intensified daily, in which alarm sounds burn like signal fires, the truth remains unheard in the vivid multicolouredness of sensational reporting. In Gesualdo the fascination with terror is combined with the yearning for redemption and may be a secret hope for a new Renaissance.’

Gesualdo’s music lives on into the twenty-first century, not just through his music but also through the story of his life. Gesualdo’s compositional processes have found their parallels in the twentieth century, and Gesualdo through his chromaticism, counterpoint and expressionism has proved influential and inspirational over the past hundred years. Yet, there is much more to be discovered in Gesualdo’s music; Gesualdo was a composer writing for composers, who wrote his music not just for performance but also for analysis. Many have been lured in by Gesualdo’s life story and this too continues to grow. Recent discoveries place Gesualdo and his peasant mistress at the centre of a witchcraft trail by the Holy Inquisition and a subsequent diplomatic row between Naples and Rome. This, combined with the upcoming anniversary of four hundred years since the composer’s death in September 2013, it will likely see a new surge in Gesualdo-inspired composition.

Joseph Knowles

[1] Gray, Cecil & Heseltine, Philip Carlo Gesualdo Musician and Murderer (London, 1926) p. 49-50

[2] See Spagna, Archangelo Oratorii overo Melodrammi (1706) and Gray & Heseltine, op. cit., p. 89

[3] Burney, Charles A General History of Music first published 1789, quoted from 1955 reprint of 1935 edition by Dover Publications, New York p.180. Online copy accessed 9/11/2011 URL:

[4] From Watkins, The Gesualdo Hex

[5] Gray & Heseltine, op. cit. p. 120

[6] ibid. p. 74

[7] Huxley, Aldous The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (London, 1994) p. 33

[8] Carnegy, Patrick Faust As Musician (London, 1973) p. 8

[9] ibid. p. 7

[10] Watkins, Glen The Gesualdo Hex (London, 2010)

[11] Stravinsky, Igor writing in Watkins p. x

[12] Watkins, Glenn Gesualdo The man and his music (London, 1973) p. 183

[13] Hummel, Franz Liner Note to Gesualdo p. 7

[14] ibid. p. 8

[15] Sciarrino, Salvatore from cover notes of fuoco e ghiaccio p.13

Reappraising the Seicento: Composition, Dissemination, Assimilation

Reappraising the Seicento: Composition, Dissemination, Assimilation, featuring a chapter on chromaticism in Gesualdo’s madrigal ‘Mercè grido piangendo’, has just been published.

Reappraising the Seicento

CSP Website or

Reappraising the Seicento presents new perspectives on some relatively well-researched areas of music history and adumbrates some more arcane aspects of the period, offered by fledgling scholars and early career researchers in the field of musicology. The scope of the title has the potential to warrant a tome on the subject, but it is not the intention to provide a comprehensive survey of music in the seventeenth century. Instead, five essays are presented, divided into two sections, which represent the research activities of young scholars with an interest in the seicento. In the first part of this book, compositional procedure in seicento Italy is examined through two different analytical procedures. Musical styles and fashions changed considerably throughout Europe in the seventeenth century; at the forefront of these changes were Italian composers and performers, who found fame and influence in their native countries as well as abroad. In the second part of this book, the dissemination of Italian music in seventeenth-century England and the appropriation and assimilation of contemporary Italian compositional techniques by English composers are considered. The phenomenal interest shown in Italian music by English patrons and musicians of the seventeenth century is placed into context, and is revealed to be part of a larger historical trend.

‘Breaking the Rules’ – Gesualdo at the Brighton Early Music Festival

On Sunday 3rd November at 7-30, Brighton Early Music Festival presents ‘Breaking the Rules’, unique concert-drama exploring the world of Gesualdo and his music.

Breaking the Rules

This concert-drama explores the strange world of Carlo Gesualdo and his extraordinary music. Close to his final moments, isolated in his castle at Gesualdo, Southern Italy, Carlo Gesualdo struggles to come to terms with his past. Can he exorcise the ghost of his first wife whom he killed along with her lover? His journey towards salvation or damnation takes us back to his childhood, his two difficult marriages, his obsession with retribution and purgatory and his moments of revelation in the musical hothouse of Ferrara.

Includes some of Gesualdo’s startling Tenebrae Responsories as well as madrigals by Gesualdo and Luzzaschi, performed by The Marian Consort, considered one of the most exciting young vocal ensembles on the early music scene.

The Marian Consort
Emma Walshe and Gwendolen Martin sopranos Rory McCleery countertenor and director
Nick Pritchard and George Pooley tenors Christopher Borrett bass
Jadran Duncumb theorbo
Celestial Sirens; Actor TBA; Script by Clare Norburn

Conferences/Performances of Gesualdo

400 years ago today Gesualdo died. To mark the event there are many events taking place; these take the form of festivals, concerts, conferences and at least two new operas. Here is a list of the ones I have some information about.

  • The “Gesualdo 400th Anniversary Weekend” at the University of York on 23rd-24th November. Not just an academic conference, but also a series of singing workshops (for all voices of any ability), concerts and talks by a forensic psychiatrist and conductor/composer James Wood. Details Here.
  • The official celebrations in Gesualdo, probably the largest event. Details in Italian here.
  • Concerts by I Fagiolini around the UK (including at the above conference). Details here.
  • The Copenhagen Renaissance Music Festival will focus on Gesualdo’s music. Details here.
  • There are conferences in Rome and Milan in November too, where a new edition of Gesualdo’s music will be published.
  • A new opera: Gesualdo Prince of Madness (with a wonderful title/poster)
  • Know of any more? Let me know…

And finally, don’t forget Gesualdo’s music after the anniversary!

Gesualdo on the Early Music Show

400 years ago today, Don Carlo Gesualdo died. Therefore, I have decided to post a few more updates about events happening around to mark the occasion. The first of these is Glenn Watkins talking about Gesualdo’s life on the Early Music Show. I’ve posted the link below; it’s a great introduction to Gesualdo and contains a lot of pieces played in full.

View on iPlayer here

Video of the Madrigal ‘Beltà poi che t’assenti’

Animator Gustavo Arteaga has created, with the help of the Gesualdo Consort of London, an animation of the madrigal ‘Beltà poi che t’assenti. It’s made with raw clay and in a strange way it matches the textures in the madrigals. It’s available to watch on along with some of his other exciting animations.

Watch here

‘Neglected’ Gesualdo Motet Ne Reminiscaris Domine (1585)

‘Ne reminiscaris Domine delicta nostra’ (1585) is the only complete surviving composition by Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, written before he brutally murdered his wife and her lover. Neglected in favour of his later works, the motet hints at the idiosyncrasies that dominate his later style. It has been performed by The 24 (a University of York chamber choir) directed by Robert Hollingworth from my edition. Recorded at the National Centre for Early Music, York.

Ne reminiscaris Domine delicta nostra, vel parentum nostrorum: neque vindictam sumas de peccatis nostris.
Remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers, nor take Thou vengeance upon them.

This recording accompanies the call for papers for the Gesualdo 400th Anniversary conference to be held at the University of York on 23-24 November 2013.

You can listen to the recording online here.

Annoucing the Gesualdo 400th Anniversary Conference

Gesualdo 400th Anniversary Conference

Saturday 23rd – Sunday 24th November

University of York in affliation with the RMA

Visit the Conference Website:

Celebrating the music of Gesualdo, the 400th Anniversary Conference will combine academic paper sessions with a series of singing workshops and performances throughout the weekend. James Wood will give a keynote speech on his reconstructions of Gesualdo’s second book of Sacrae Cantiones and forensic psychiatrist Dr Ruth McAllister will present an analysis of the murder of Gesualdo’s first wife based on contemporaneous accounts. On the Saturday, I Fagiolini will give a concert of secular music by Gesualdo and his contemporaries. On the Sunday, The 24 (a university of York Chamber Choir directed by Robert Hollingworth) will give a concert of sacred music, including some of James Wood’s reconstructions and a set from the Tenebrae Responsories. The academic conference will focus on the music of Gesualdo, his peers and their times.

Review: ‘My song is love unknown’ – Nonsuch Singers – 16th March 2013

Review: ‘My song is love unknown’ – Nonsuch Singers – 16th March 2013 – St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey My Song is Love Unknown After visiting the town of Gesualdo in Campania, Gesualdo’s music has somehow made more sense to me and hearing it always seems to take me back, it took the chimes of nearby Big Ben gave me a familiar sense of where exactly I was! The Nonsuch singers put on a splendid performance of Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responses for Holy Saturday, especially the final three, where the polyphonic lines were sung with clarity and enthusiasm. Tom Bullard led the choir with a sophisticated fervency that carried into the music.

James Macmillian’s music is often paired with Gesualdo, I suspect mostly because of the Catholic connection. Whilst I’m not too much of a fan, his Miserere is one of his best pieces, and it sat nicely amongst the Gesualdo motets. I believe that this is their first programme put together by their director Tom Bullard, ‘inspired by the season of lent’. His most ingenious choice for the programme was Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence, which complimented the Gesualdo perfectly. I must admit I’d never heard of L’estrange or Pitts and although their music was well sung, it wasn’t the highlight for me. Effective programming combined with magnificent singing led to a really enjoyable evening! or Facebook or Twitter or Youtube


Gesualdo Sacrae Cantiones Book 2 – Vocalconsort Berlin – Reconstructed by James Wood

Review of Gesualdo Sacrae Cantiones Book 2 – Vocalconsort Berlin – Reconstructed by James Wood

Published in the same year as Gesualdo’s first book of Sacrae Cantiones in 1603, the second book, composed for six and seven voices instead of the first’s five, over the years lost two of its part books to the ravages of time. Reconstructing them is by no means an easy task. The challenge was first taken up by Stravinsky, who did not write the missing parts in his own style, but, in the diplomatic words of Robert Craft, ‘What he has done is to recompose the whole from the point of view of the added parts, with a result that is not pure Gesualdo, but a fusion of the two composers.’ James Wood, known for his conducting and composing, has taken a much more musicological approach and over years of dedicated study has reproduced the missing parts for the entire second book in an authentic style. This he has recorded with the Vocalconsort Berlin and released on the harmonia mundi label.

Liber Secundus CD Cover

The sound world of Gesualdo’s 1611 Responsoria, also for six-voices, is different to that of his motets of 1613 of which only the five-part pieces survive intact. Six-voice polyphony results in a different sound world to that of the five-voice, especially in the balance of chromaticism and dissonance. To judge the reconstructed six-part against the surviving five-part motets would, therefore, be unfair. That is not to criticise the reconstructions (although that is the job of the musicologist); if the missing part books were to reappear it would be surprising if they were very different from Wood’s reconstructions. Another treasure has been brought to the ears of the Gesualdine!

With anticipation I watched the album download from iTunes and I was not disappointed by the result. The Vocalconsort Berlin sing the music with expression and clarity, which carries through into the recording. Perhaps their could have been a little more warmth added in the post-production, but the precision in the singing comes through and one can follow the inner parts with ease. This recording comes highly recommended: through scholarship and musicianship the lost world of Gesualdo’s second book of Sacrae Cantiones is brought to the ears of the modern listener.

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