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Biography

Carlo Gesualdo, known as Gesualdo da Venosa (?8 March 1560 – 8 September 1613), Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza, was an Italian composer, lutenist, nobleman, and notorious murderer from the late Renaissance. He is famous for his intensely expressive madrigals, which use a chromatic language not heard again until the 19th century; and he is also famous for committing what are possibly the most famous murders in musical history, of his first wife and her lover.

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.

While he was infamous for his murders, he also remains famous for his music, which 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 that prevents them from being directly comparable.

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 Responsories, which are very much like madrigals, except that they use texts from the Passion. 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.

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 A minor and D-flat major (as he does at the beginning of Moro, lasso).

His most famous sacred composition is the set of Tenebrae Responsories, 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.

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