Carlo Gesualdo

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This article is about the composer. For the Italian town, see Gesualdo, Campania.
Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa.

Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (Venosa, 30 March 1566 – Gesualdo, 8 September 1613) was Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza. As a musician he is best known for writing intensely expressive madrigals and sacred music that use a chromatic language not heard again until the late 19th century. The best known fact from his biography is the vicious killing of his first wife and her lover on the spot when catching them in flagrante. The fascination for his extraordinary music and his shocking acts go hand in hand.[1]


Early life[edit]

Gesualdo's family had acquired the principality of Venosa in 1560. He was born on March 30, 1566, three years after his older brother Luigi.[2] His uncle was Carlo Borromeo, later Saint Charles Borromeo. In addition, Gesualdo's mother, Geronima Borromeo, was the niece of Pope Pius IV. Older sources give a birth year of 1560 for Carlo; this is no longer accepted.

Most likely Carlo was born at Venosa, then part of the Kingdom of Naples, but little else is known about his early life. "His mother died when he was only seven, and at the request of his uncle, Carlo Borromeo for whom he was named, he was sent to Rome to be set on the path of an ecclesiastical career. There he was placed under the protection of his uncle, Alfonso (d.1603), then dean of the College of Cardinals, later unsuccessful pretender to the papacy, and ultimately Archbishop of Naples."[2] His brother Luigi was to become the next Prince of Venosa, but after his untimely death in 1584, Carlo became the designated successor. Abandoning the prospect of an ecclesiastical career he married his first cousin, Donna Maria d'Avalos, the daughter of the Marquis of Pescara, in 1586. They had a son, Emanuele.

Gesualdo had a musical relationship with Pomponio Nenna, though whether it was student to teacher, or colleague to colleague, is uncertain. Regardless of this, however, he had a single-minded devotion to music from an early age, and showed little interest in anything else. In addition to the lute, he also played the harpsichord and guitar.[3]

In addition to Nenna, Gesualdo's accademia included the composers Giovanni de Macque, Scipione Dentice, Scipione Stella, Scipione Lacorcia, Ascanio Mayone, and the nobleman lutenist Ettorre de la Marra.[4]

Domestic drama[edit]

Some years into her marriage with Gesualdo, Donna Maria began an affair with Fabrizio Carafa, third Duke of Andria and seventh Count of Ruovo. In the night of October 16, 1590, at the Palazzo San Severo in Naples, the two lovers were caught in flagrante by Donna Maria's husband, and killed on the spot.[5]

Investigations and proceedings[edit]

The day after the killing a delegation of Neapolitan officials inspected the room in Gesualdo's appartement where the killings had taken place, and interrogated witnesses. The delegation's report did not lack in gruesome details, including the mutilation of the corpses, and, according to the witnesses, Gesualdo going into the bedroom a second time "because he wasn't certain yet they were dead".[1]

The Gran Corte della Vicaria found Gesualdo had not committed a crime.[5]


The salacious details of the killings were widely publicized, including in verse by poets such as Tasso and an entire flock of Neapolitan poets, eager to capitalize on the sensation.[citation needed]

Other vicious accounts recounted as having occurred in the wake of the murders, like there being a child of Donna Maria and her lover which was rocked to death by Gesualdo, appear to rely on fantasy.[1]


About a year after the gruesome end of his first marriage Gesualdo's father died, thus he became the third Prince of Venosa and eighth Count of Conza.[1][2]

Ferrara years[edit]

By 1594, Gesualdo had arranged for another marriage, this time to Leonora d'Este, the niece of Duke Alfonso II. In that year Gesualdo ventured to Ferrara, the home of the d'Este court and also one of the centers of progressive musical activity in Italy, especially the madrigal; Gesualdo was especially interested in meeting Luzzasco Luzzaschi, one of the most forward-looking composers in the genre. Leonora was married to Gesualdo and moved with him back to his estate in 1597. In the meantime, he engaged in more than two years of creative activity in the innovative environment of Ferrara, surrounded by some of the finest musicians in Italy. While in Ferrara, he published his first book of madrigals. He also worked with the concerto delle donne, the three virtuoso female singers who were among the most renowned performers in Italy, and for whom many other composers wrote music.

In a letter of June 25, 1594, Gesualdo indicated he was writing music for the three women in the concerto delle donne; however, it is probable that some of the music he wrote, for example that in the newly developing monodic and/or concertato styles, has not survived.[6]

Return to Gesualdo, and final years[edit]

After returning to his castle at Gesualdo from Ferrara in 1595, he set up a situation similar to the one that existed in Ferrara, with a group of resident virtuoso musicians who would sing his own music. While his estate became a center of music-making, it was for Gesualdo alone. With his considerable financial resources, he was able to hire singers and instrumentalists for his own pleasure. He rarely left his castle, taking delight in nothing but music.[7] Most of his famous music was published in Naples in 1603 and in the castle of Gesualdo (with printer Giovanni Giacomo Carlino) in 1611, and the most notoriously chromatic and difficult portion of it was all written during his period of self-isolation.

The relationship between Gesualdo and his new wife was not good; she accused him of abuse, and the Este family attempted to obtain a divorce. She spent more and more time away from the isolated estate. Gesualdo wrote many angry letters to Modena where she often went to stay with her brother. According to Cecil Gray, "She seems to have been a very virtuous lady ... for there is no record of his having killed her."[8]

In 1600, Gesualdo's son by his second marriage died. It has been postulated that after this Gesualdo had a large painting commissioned for the church of the Capuchins at Gesualdo, showing Gesualdo, his uncle Carlo Borromeo, his second wife Leonora, and his son, underneath a group of angelic figures; however, some sources suspect the painting was commissioned earlier, as the identity of the child is unclear.

Late in life he suffered from depression. Whether or not it was related to the guilt over his multiple murders is difficult to prove, but the evidence is suggestive. According to Campanella, writing in Lyon in 1635, Gesualdo had himself beaten daily by his servants, keeping a special servant whose duty it was to beat him "at stool",[9] and he engaged in a relentless, and fruitless, correspondence with Cardinal Federico Borromeo to obtain relics, i.e., skeletal remains, of recently canonized uncle Carlo Borromeo, with which he hoped to obtain healing for his mental disorder and possibly absolution for his crimes. Gesualdo's late setting of Psalm 51, the Miserere, is distinguished by its insistent and imploring musical repetitions, alternating lines of monophonic chant with pungently chromatic polyphony in a low vocal tessitura.

Gesualdo died in isolation, at his castle Gesualdo in Avellino, three weeks after the death of his son Emanuele, his first son by his marriage to Maria. One 20th-century biographer has suggested Gesualdo may have been murdered by his wife.[8] He was buried in the chapel of Saint Ignatius, in the church of the Gesù Nuovo, in Naples. The sepulchre was destroyed in the earthquake of 1688. When the church was rebuilt, the tomb was covered over, and is now under the pavement of the church. The burial plaque, however, remains.

Music and style[edit]

The evidence that Gesualdo was tortured by guilt for the remainder of his life is considerable, and he may have given expression to it in his music. One of the most obvious characteristics of his music is the extravagant text setting of words representing extremes of emotion: "love", "pain", "death", "ecstasy", "agony" and other similar words occur frequently in his madrigal texts, most of which he probably wrote himself. While this type of word-painting is common among madrigalists of the late 16th century, it reached an extreme development in Gesualdo's music.

His music is among the most experimental and expressive of the Renaissance, and without question is the most wildly chromatic. Progressions such as those written by Gesualdo did not appear again in music until the 19th century, and then in a context of tonality.

Gesualdo's published music falls into three categories: sacred vocal music, secular vocal music, and instrumental music. His most famous compositions are his six published books of madrigals (between 1594 and 1611), as well as his Tenebrae Responsoria, which are very much like madrigals, except that they use texts from the Passion, a form (Tenebrae) used by many other composers. In addition to the works which he published, he left a large quantity of music in manuscript. This contains some of his richest experiments in chromaticism, as well as compositions in such contemporary avant-garde forms as monody. Some of these were products of the years he spent in Ferrara, and some were specifically written for the virtuoso singers there, the three women of the concerto di donne.

The first books of madrigals that Gesualdo published are close in style to the work of other contemporary madrigalists. Experiments with harmonic progression, cross-relation and violent rhythmic contrast increase in the later books, with Books Five and Six containing the most famous and extreme examples (for instance, the madrigals "Moro, lasso, al mio duolo" and "Beltà, poi che t'assenti", both of which are in Book Six, published in 1611). There is evidence that Gesualdo had these works in score form, in order to better display his contrapuntal inventions to other musicians, and also that Gesualdo intended his works to be sung by equal voices, as opposed to the concerted madrigal style popular in the period, which involved doubling and replacing voices with instruments.[3]

Characteristic of the Gesualdo style is a sectional format in which relatively slow-tempo passages of wild, occasionally shocking chromaticism alternate with quick-tempo diatonic passages. The text is closely wedded to the music, with individual words being given maximum attention. Some of the chromatic passages include all twelve notes of the chromatic scale within a single phrase, although scattered throughout different voices. Gesualdo was particularly fond of chromatic third relations, for instance juxtaposing the chords of A major and F major, or even C-sharp major and A minor (as he does at the beginning of [1]).

His most famous sacred composition is the set of Tenebrae Responsoria, published in 1611, which are stylistically madrigali spirituali—madrigals on sacred texts. As in the later books of madrigals, he uses particularly sharp dissonance and shocking chromatic juxtapositions, especially in the parts highlighting text passages having to do with Christ's suffering, or the guilt of St. Peter in having betrayed Jesus.

Influence and reputation[edit]

Gesualdo had a limited influence at the time, although Neapolitan composers of polyphonic madrigals imitated his work up to the 1620s.[10] Composers including Sigismondo d'India, Antonio Cifra,[11] Michelangelo Rossi,[10] Giovanni de Macque,[12] Scipione Dentice[12] and Girolamo Frescobaldi[13] wrote polyphonic madrigals in imitation of Gesualdo's style. He was forgotten after the Renaissance and it was only in the 20th century that he was rediscovered. The life of Gesualdo provided inspiration for numerous works of fiction and music drama, including a novel by Anatole France, a short story by Julio Cortázar, and an opera by Franz Hummel. In addition, 20th-century composers responded to his music with tributes of their own: Alfred Schnittke wrote an opera in 1995 based on his life, Igor Stravinsky arranged Gesualdo's madrigal "Beltà, poi che t'assenti" as part of his Monumentum pro Gesualdo (1960), and contemporary composer Salvatore Sciarrino has also arranged several of his madrigals for an instrumental ensemble. In 1997, the Australian composer Brett Dean paid homage to Gesualdo in 'Carlo'—an intense and affecting work for string orchestra, tape and sampler. Péter Eötvös asserts his madrigals were influenced by Gesualdo.[14]

In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley writes of Gesualdo's madrigals:

Mozart's C-Minor Piano Concerto was interrupted after the first movement, and a recording of some madrigals by Gesualdo took its place.

'These voices' I said appreciatively, 'these voices – they're a kind of bridge back to the human world.'

And a bridge they remained even while singing the most startlingly chromatic of the mad prince's compositions. Through the uneven phrases of the madrigals, the music pursued its course, never sticking to the same key for two bars together. 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 opposed to fully tonal music. The resulting works sounded as though they might have been written by the later Schoenberg.

'And yet,' I felt myself constrained to say, as I listened to these strange products of a Counter-reformation psychosis working upon a late medieval art form, 'and yet it does not matter that he's all in bits. The whole is disorganized. But each individual fragment is in order, is a representative of a Higher Order. The Highest Order prevails even in the disintegration. The totality is present even in the broken pieces. More clearly present, perhaps, than in a completely coherent work. At least you aren't lulled into a sense of false security by some merely human, merely fabricated order. You have to rely on your immediate perception of the ultimate order. So in a certain sense disintegration may have its advantages. But of course it's dangerous, horribly dangerous. Suppose you couldn't get back, out of the chaos...'

Though Gesualdo's influence was exceptionally limited during his lifetime, his work has been rediscovered and appreciated as a precursor to later, equally expressive and technically difficult styles of music.

Modern tributes[edit]

In 1985 the French writer Michel Breitman published the novel Le Témoin de poussière based on the latter part of the life of Gesualdo.

In 1995, Werner Herzog made a film for ZDF television about the life and music of Gesualdo, called Death for Five Voices.

Bernardo Bertolucci is said to be working on a biopic of Gesualdo with Joseph Fiennes as Gesualdo.[unreliable source?]It is also known that frequent Bertolucci collaborator Mark Peploe worked on the screenplay at some point.[unreliable source?]Its previous titles include Heaven and Hell and Love Song.[15]

Italian singer-songwriter Franco Battiato wrote a song about him, Gesualdo da Venosa, from the album L'ombrello e la macchina da cucire (1995).

Musician Anna Calvi named Gesualdo as her ultimate cult hero quoting "Gesualdo was an Italian composer who, because of mental illness, murdered his wife and her lover, and wrote music in the 16th century that was so progressive and extreme that no one attempted to recreate his style until the 20th century... It wasn't until centuries later that he was rediscovered, and his work is a huge inspiration to me."[16]

In 1998 Italian jazz arranger and composer Corrado Guarino, of Bergamo, featured in collaboration with Livorno saxophonist Tino Tracanna, released the CD Gesualdo (Splas(h) CDH 677.2). The CD featured Maria Pia De Vito (voice), Tino Tracanna (sax), Claudio Pontiggia (French horn), Riccardo Parrucci (flute), Gloria Merani (violin), Alessandro Franconi (alto), Filippo Burchietti (cello), Paolino Dalla Porta (bass), Francesco Petreni (drums), Fulvio Maras (percussion) and contained arrangements from books I, IV and VI of the Madrigals.

Wesley Stace's 2010 novel, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, concerns a fictional early-20th-century composer who has allegedly committed murders similar to Gesualdo's.

Mexican/British composer Hilda Paredes has arranged three madrigals from Book Six for countratenor and string quartet. Belta, poi che t'assenti, Arditta zanzaretta and Moro lasso, all are published by UYMP (University of York Music Press) and were premiered in Tokyo at the Ishibiashi Memorial Hall by countenor Jake Arditti and the Arditti String Quartet in 2012, who have continued to performed them.

In True Story, a 2015 film, at 1h20m Christian Longo (James Franco) is in jail visited by Jill Barker (Felicity Jones) who plays on her iPhone Se la mia morte brami (If you crave my death) in morbid color explains Carlo Gesualdo's history and remorse.


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Music based on Gesualdo's life and music[edit]


Other musical works[edit]


  • Gesualdo, Madrigaux. Les Arts Florissants: Harmonia Mundi France CD 901268 (selection from madrigal books 4–6)
  • Gesualdo, Complete Sacred Music for Five Voices. Oxford Camerata, Jeremy Summerly: Naxos 8.550742
  • Gesualdo, Madrigali Libri I-III. Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam: CPO 777 138–2
  • Carlo Gesualdo de Verona, "The Complete Madrigals" [Libri I-VI]. 7 discs. Marco Longhini & Delitiæ Musicæ. Naxos 8507013.
  • Gesualdo, Madrigali, Libro I. The Kassiopeia Quintet: GLO5221 (only complete edition of Gesualdo's madrigals currently available)
  • Gesualdo, Madrigali, Libro II. The Kassiopeia Quintet: GLO5222
  • Gesualdo, Madrigali, Libro III. The Kassiopeia Quintet: GLO5223
  • Gesualdo, Madrigali, Libro IV. The Kassiopeia Quintet: GLO5224
  • Gesualdo, Madrigali, Libro V. The Kassiopeia Quintet: GLO5225
  • Gesualdo, Madrigali, Libro VI. The Kassiopeia Quintet: GLO5226
  • Gesualdo, Quarto Libro di Madrigali. La Venexiana: Glossa GCD920934
  • Gesualdo, Quinto Libro di Madrigali. La Venexiana: Glossa GCD920935
  • Gesualdo, Quinto Libro di Madrigali. The Hilliard Ensemble: ECM New Series. ECM 2175 476 4755
  • Gesualdo, Sesto Libro di Madrigali. IL Complesso Barocco: Symphonia SY94133 (deleted), now Pan Classics PC10229
  • Gesualdo, Sesto Libro di Madrigali. La Compagnia del Madrigale: Glossa GCD922801


  1. ^ a b c d Alex Ross. "Gesualdo: 'The Prince of Darkness'" in The New Yorker. December 19 and 26, 2011.
  2. ^ a b c Watkins, Glenn. 2010. The Gesualdo Hex: Music, Myth, and Memory. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 9780393071023.
  3. ^ a b Newcomb, Anthony. "Carlo Gesualdo and a musical correspondence of 1594" in The Musical Quarterly, October 1968, vol. LIV no. 4
  4. ^ Watkins, Glenn (1991). Gesualdo: The Man and His Music (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 297. ISBN 0-19-816197-2. 
  5. ^ a b William B. Ober, M.D. "Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa: Murder, Madrigals, and Masochism" in Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, Vol. 49, No. 7, July 1973, pp. 634–645
  6. ^ Watkins (1991), p. 300
  7. ^ Grove Dictionary of Music, 'Carlo Gesualdo'
  8. ^ a b Gray and Heseltine (1926), p. 43
  9. ^ Cecil Gray, Philip Heseltine (1926) Carlo Gesualdo Prince of Venosa, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., London
  10. ^ a b Brian Mann, The madrigals of Michelangelo Rossi, University of Chicago Press, 2002, p.10
  11. ^ Lorenzo Bianconi. "Gesualdo, Carlo, Prince of Venosa, Count of Conza." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed March 19, 2010).
  12. ^ a b Howard Mayer Brown, Louise K. Stein, Music in the Renaissance, Prentice Hall, p.350
  13. ^ Denis Arnold, The New Grove Italian baroque masters: Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Cavalli, Corelli, A. Scarlatti, Vivaldi, D. Scarlatti, Macmillan, 1984, p.85
  14. ^ Balint Andras Varga, Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers, University Rochester Press, 2011, p.71
  15. ^ Overview of Heaven and Hell; New York Times
  16. ^ Ultimate Cult Heroes: Gesualdo

Sources and further reading[edit]

  • Carlo Gesualdo: Madrigali a cinque voci (Libro Quinto – Libro Sesto), Edizione critica a cura di Maria Caraci Vela e Antonio Delfino, testi poetici a cura di Nicola Panizza, con uno scritto di Francesco Saggio, prefazione di Giuseppe Mastrominico, La Stamperia del Principe Gesualdo, Gesualdo, 2013. ISBN 978-88-906830-2-2
  • Cecil Gray, Philip Heseltine: Carlo Gesualdo, Musician and Murderer. London, St. Stephen's Press, 1926.
  • The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2
  • Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0-393-09530-4
  • Alfred Einstein: The Italian Madrigal. Princeton, 1949.
  • Glenn Watkins: Gesualdo: The Man and His Music. 2nd edition. Oxford, 1991. ISBN 0-19-816197-2
  • The New Yorker: Ross, Alex. "The Murders and Madrigals of Don Carlo Gesualdo." 19 December 2011.
  • Annibale Cogliano: Carlo Gesualdo. Il principe l'amante e la strega. Napoli: ESI, 2005. ISBN 88-495-0876-X.
  • Annibale Cogliano: Carlo Gesualdo omicida fra storia e mito. Napoli: ESI, 2006. ISBN 88-495-1232-5.
  • Annibale Cogliano: Inventario – Centro Studi e Documentazione Carlo Gesualdo. Avellino: Elio Sellino Editore, 2004.
  • Salvatore La Vecchia, La Giostra del principe – Il dramma di Carlo Gesualdo (Prefazione di Ruggero Cappuccio), Atripalda (AV), Mephite Editore, 2010. ISBN 978-88-6320-063-8
  • Sandro Naglia: Il processo compositivo in Gesualdo da Venosa: un'interpretazione tonale. Rome, IkonaLiber, 2012. ISBN 978-88-97778-06-6
  • The Concise Edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. Revised by Nicolas Slonimsky. New York, Schirmer Books, 1993. ISBN 0-02-872416-X
  • Lászlo Passuth: "Madrigál", 2nd ed. Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, Budapest, 1968: ISBN 963-15-1021-2

External links[edit]