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Over time, however, fashions change; other musical forms superseded the madrigal and as courtly pursuits changed it became an outmoded form of entertainment.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’.
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, 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.’
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.’
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.’ 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.’
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.’ 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.’ 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’, 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. 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’. He was, however, not dissuaded of his interest by this rather underwhelming experience; instead, harboured by his association with Robert Craft, his interest grew.
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’.
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’. Although elements of Gesualdo’s compositional technique find their way into the ‘relentless eddy of [the] … complex counterpoint of the Gesualdo theme.’
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.’
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.
 Gray, Cecil & Heseltine, Philip Carlo Gesualdo Musician and Murderer (London, 1926) p. 49-50
 See Spagna, Archangelo Oratorii overo Melodrammi (1706) and Gray & Heseltine, op. cit., p. 89
 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: http://www.scribd.com/doc/37240175/Burney-a-General-History-of-Music-1935
 From Watkins, The Gesualdo Hex
 Gray & Heseltine, op. cit. p. 120
 ibid. p. 74
 Huxley, Aldous The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (London, 1994) p. 33
 Carnegy, Patrick Faust As Musician (London, 1973) p. 8
 ibid. p. 7
 Watkins, Glen The Gesualdo Hex (London, 2010)
 Stravinsky, Igor writing in Watkins p. x
 Watkins, Glenn Gesualdo The man and his music (London, 1973) p. 183
 Hummel, Franz Liner Note to Gesualdo p. 7
 ibid. p. 8
 Sciarrino, Salvatore from cover notes of fuoco e ghiaccio p.13