Don Carlo Gesualdo

Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa (ca. 1560-1613), was an Italian composer famed for his chromatic madrigals and motets. Few matched him in writing music so removed from traditional modal theory and practice.

Carlo Gesualdo was born in Naples. He studied music at the academy founded by his father, Don Fabrizio of Gesualdo, where he heard the works of Giovanni Macque, Bartolomeo Roy, and Pomponio Nenna. Nenna's madrigals, in particular, influenced Gesualdo's style.

After the death of his older brother in 1585, the composer became heir to the Gesualdo title. With the title came an arranged marriage to his cousin, a marriage that was a catastrophe for both parties. Donna Maria d'Avalos, twice married before she became Gesualdo's wife, openly preferred the love of another. In 1590, to avenge his honor, Gesualdo ordered the guilty pair murdered, together with his second child, whose legitimacy was suspect.

In 1594 Gesualdo married Eleonora d'Este, the daughter of Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, at whose court lived Torquato Tasso, Nicolò Vicentino, and Luzzasco Luzzaschi. On several occasions Gesualdo set to music the lyrics of his friend Tasso, whose morbid nature was so similar to his own; and hearing the chromatic experiments of Luzzaschi and Vicentino may well have reinforced the direction of his own musical development. Gesualdo remained at Ferrara for 2 years, frequently taking trips to Florence, where he heard the music of the Camerata. Shortly before the death of his father-in-law in 1597, Gesualdo left northern Italy and returned to Naples, where he remained for the rest of his life. He died on Sept. 8, 1613.

Gesualdo's extant works in the collected edition issued by Wilhelm Weismann and Glenn E. Watkins (Hamburg, 1957—) comprise 19 sacrae cantiones for five voices and 20 for six and seven voices, 27 Holy Week responsories for six voices, and 125 madrigals for five voices. Not only were the madrigals the most numerous part of his production, but they were also reissued more frequently than the sacred pieces.

Gesualdo's melancholy nature often led him to lyrics of overwhelming sadness. By using chromatic tones, even earlier associated with intense feelings, he heightened the expressiveness of the poetry through music. Although his chromatic passages were sometimes mere pictorial "madrigalisms," Gesualdo more often delineated the overall mood of the text rather than individual words. He employed chromaticism harmonically as well as melodically. By means of chromatic tones he constructed numerous triadic combinations foreign to the mode and then arranged them in unconventional and exciting ways.

Chromaticism in a melodic line was of course not new at this time, but Gesualdo's exaggerated use of it did much to weaken the modal core of his pieces. By so doing, he stretched the limits of the old style even when he remained within the fold of the polyphonists. In this sense Gesualdo was more conservative than the Florentine Camerata, a group who deliberately overthrew the older structures. While their experiments reached forward to the new monodic style, Gesualdo's chromatic madrigals and motets remained the most fevered and impassioned examples of the old practice. To some Gesualdo remains a bizarre experimenter, but to others he is a genius whose art is only now receiving its due recognition.

Further Reading on Don Carlo Gesualdo

Gesualdo's life is outlined in Cecil Gray and Philip Heseltine, Carlo Gesualdo: Prince of Venosa, Musician and Murderer (1926), and in Cecil Gray, Contingencies and Other Essays (1947). Useful background studies are Alfred Einstein, The Italian Madrigal (trans. 1949), and Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959).