Carlo Gesualdo – Prince of Madrigals


Carlo Gesualdo – Prince of Madrigals, Prince of Murder (1560 – 1613)

The madrigal form has, I feel, been sadly neglected in punk. The four-part soprano, alto, tenor, bass ebb-and-flow lends colour and depth to the most banal of tunes. The great practitioners of English madrigal, Morley, Gibbons, Byrd et al. flourished around the Renaissance period, specifically during the reign of Elizabeth I. The energy and drive, aggression even, that came out of that period, would be mirrored in the musical, poetic and artistic renaissance of the 1970s.

The madrigal was foremost however a European, and not specifically an English musical expression. Wikipedia states:

‘A madrigal is a setting for 2 or more voices of a secular text, often in Italian. The madrigal has its origins in the frottola, and was also influenced by the motet and the French chanson of the Renaissance. It is related mostly by name alone to the Italian trecento madrigal of the late 13th and 14th centuries; those madrigals were settings for 2 or 3 voices without accompaniment, or with instruments possibly doubling the vocal lines.’

Arguably, and there has been much argument, the finest example of Italian madrigals flowed from the troubled mind of one Carlo Gesualdo, known as Gesualdo da Venosa.

Born sometime in March, 1560, he was a nobleman, Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza. He was also a murderer.

This was not a unique ‘double-accomplishment’ in the arts: Michelangelo da Caravaggio & Richard Dadd in painting, François Villon in poetry - all had occasion to kill. The debate on the correlation between the artistic temperament and the propensity for nefarious acts of violence can be left to another arena, but the analogy of the death-camp Kommandant able to elicit tears with a sublime rendition of a Bach Sonata is something to which the human condition must bear testimony. Hitler and his painting, Radovan Karadžić and his poetry – both in their minor flowering of artistic ability – show proof such paradoxes exist within the human spirit.

Gesualdo lived in different times and in a different psychological locus. Honour, revenge, crime passionel were part of the fabric of Renaissance Italy. Violence bubbled under the surface; gangs, often sponsored by noble families, even Popes, sought to gain the upper hand in cities where, simultaneously and paradoxically, the greatest religious and secular art was being created: Florence, Sienna, Rome.

Although only a little is known about his early years, it has been established that Gesualdo took up music from an young age, learning the lute, harpsichord and guitar. He became Prince of Venosa on the death of his elder brother and although the responsibilities of the title impeded his musical progress somewhat, this was off-set by the freedom that inherited wealth allowed him in pursuing his own path artistically.

In 1586 Gesualdo married his first cousin, Donna Maria d'Avalos, the daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. Donna Maria was reputed to be the model for the Mona Lisa, such was her beauty. She had been married twice before, the first husband dying of ‘an excess of connubial bliss’.

The wedding is reported to have consisted of around 125 courses, attended by 1,000 guests. The courses consisted of 2,000 oysters, many varieties of fish baked in eel & tomato sauce, stuffed quails, 25 platters of veal steaks and 120 baby goats grilled. Songs and dances were performed, along with other entertainments: ballerinas, jesters, jugglers. It was a lavish and expensive spectacle.

The marriage was blessed with a son, but it was not a happy union. Within two years a love affair began with Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria. Evidently Donna Maria was able to keep it secret from her husband for almost two years, even though the existence of the affair was well-known elsewhere.

The events of the murder unfolded as follows: Gesualdo’s uncle, Carlo Borromeo, later Saint Charles Borromeo, at that time an earthly and earthy Cardinal, made advances towards Donna Maria. He was thwarted by Fabrizio Carrivar, who was already Donna Maria’s lover. Angry and jealous, the Cardinal told Gesualdo. Gesualdo immediately set his mind to murder.

On October 16, 1590, at the Palazzo San Severo in Naples, Gesualdo acted out the plan. Pretending he was absenting himself on a hunting trip, he arranged for the locks on the doors to be changed, so he could gain ingress even if his wife were to try to lock herself and her lover away. Gesualdo snuck back to the palace, catching the lovers in flagrante delicto. Gesualdo burst in with two accomplices, and it may that these two servants committed much of the ensuing butchery, although from various depositions which have survived, it is clear Gesualdo carried out the stabbing of his wife. Fabrizio was run through by Gesualdo’s sword and then shot through the head. It is said Fabrizio was wearing Donna Maria’s nightgown, another frisson in an already macabre & bizarre narrative.

Gesualdo then set about murdering his wife. After several strikes with his knife, he left the bedchamber. On reflection a few moments later, he concluded he had not killed her. ‘She’s not dead yet!’, he is reported to have shouted. He returned to finish the deed. Eventually, 28 wounds were inflicted on her, some ‘in the parts which it is best for a woman to keep modest’, a grisly contemporaneous account reads. Both bodies were flung out of the chamber to the bottom of the castle stairs, where, horror upon horrors, a passing monk performed an act of necrophilia on Donna Maria’s gore-bespattered corpse.

The four-poster bed in which Donna Maria d’Avalos was murdered survives still, stored away in her ancestor’s, the present Prince d’Avalos’s, palace. Ornate, with golden caryatids supporting crowns of carved and burnished gold, in what more beautiful setting could one wish to be stabbed twenty-eight times?

Gesualdo, amongst his many talents a practitioner of alchemy, had the bodies preserved by injection of embalming fluids before he fled prosecution, (as a Prince he had diplomatic immunity) escaping to his stately pile in his hometown, also named Gesualdo. In the local museum, facing each other in separate glass cases, can still be seen two skeletons, dark & sinister with age, criss-crossed by a patchwork of knotted, black veins, like a pair of hirsute simians. Rumour, always rumour, has it that these are the bodies of the murdered lovers.

Back in his hometown, Gesualdo, in the onset of madness, himself cut down the surrounding forest and greenery of the valley around his castle for some two or three miles. It took nearly three months of frenzied hacking to accomplish.

Calumny heaped upon calumny! His second child Gesualdo now suspected of being the offspring of the adulterous union between Donna Maria and her lover. The child too had to die. From the castle balcony, servants were made to swing the infant as violently as possible. For three days they carried out his orders, taking it in turns to push the terrified boy. Choirs were brought in to drown the sound of the baby’s screams, until he had expired. Gesualdo composed a madrigal on the beauty of death.

In strange juxtaposition, these horrors brought out Gesualdo’s finest musical skills. As mentioned, unmolested by the authorities and free to travel, in 1594 Gesualdo went to Ferrara. There he studied under the great madrigalist, Luzzasco Luzzaschi. The city of Ferrara was a hotbed of modernism and Luzzasco Luzzaschi the foremost moderniser in this milieu. In the two years there Gesualdo published his first book of madrigals.

At first, his work was traditional in style, aping the formal conventions of madrigal writing. However, the guilt of the deeds he had enacted festered in his mind, and, as his mental state declined, and he returned to his hometown of Gesualdo, his work took on stranger, chromatic shadings, leading ultimately to a corpus of work, particularly in books 5 & 6 of his madrigals, that had no real comparison until some 250 or more years later with Wagner, Bruckner and Richard Strauss. Sinuous, atonal lines in one voice were matched with standard harmonic progressions in others. It produced, one might say, the music of incipient madness; not barking, not wild, but a strange and fragile mix.

Possibly you could try searching ‘Gesualdo’ in YouTube © and listen to some modern choristers’ rendering of a few of his later works.

A second marriage followed to Princess Leonora d'Este, the niece of Duke Alfonso II. It seems this marriage was as ill-starred as the first, but without the brutal murder. He mistreated her and made her life a hell. When Gesualdo returned to his hometown, Leonara stayed in Ferrara. She engaged in an incestuous relationship with her half-brother, a Cardinal. Nothing, it seems, of Gesualdo’s life, had any semblance of ‘normality’.

‘Guilt’ became the watchword for the remainder of his life. The monstrous acts played out both by him and under his aegis, wracked him body and soul, until his death. His madrigals emphasized this torment, with their frequent references to ‘death’, ‘pain’, ‘love’, more so than was common among his contemporaries.

There is an odd, one-hour-long film by Werner Herzog, ‘Gesualdo – Death for Five Voices’ - which narrates Gesualdo’s story, and visits his old haunts. Haunts they are; a bagpiper walks the corridors and passageways of the Gesualdo castle, trying to exorcise the evil spirits that pervade the stones and plasterwork. The drone as he parades the vegetation-strewn stairways and halls evokes the misery and torment of the Prince.

In a local mental institution, there are two patients who believe them selves to be Gesualdo. They are kept apart for fear of the consequences of a random meeting.

In the Venosa castle museum, there is a letter written by Gesualdo to a fellow alchemist offering a large sum of money for aid in deciphering certain Linear A symbols on a large stone seal, the Disc of Phaistos. Gesualdo is reputed to have lost what little remained of his reason through insomnia, attempting to understand the 1,500BC Minoan artefact.

Later we meet a Titian-haired beauty, fleeing through the dark labyrinthine passageway of the castle; she is convinced she is the reincarnation of Donna Maria. Does she really inhabit a loge in La Scala, Milan, dressed in crimson damask?

In Gesualdo’s final years, he became a recluse, employing musicians to keep him company while he composed stranger music. Servants were employed to flagellate him, possibly ‘at stool’, and this may well have been his downfall. The prosaic account has it that Gesualdo died of an asthma attack, but another says that the flagellations opened wounds which became infected and from which he finally succumbed in 1613.

What is certain is Gesualdo died alone at his castle in Avellino, three weeks after the death of his first son Emanuele, by his marriage to Donna Maria. Was he murdered by his second wife? He was buried in the chapel of Saint Ignatius, in the church of the Gesù Nuovo, in Naples. Following an earthquake in 1688 Gesualdo’s tomb now lies under a pavement with a burial plaque the only visible testimony to his final resting place.

But the ghost of Gesualdo lived on, not only in his castle. The curse infected Philip Heseltine (1894 – 1930), better known as the composer and musicologist, Peter Warlock. Sunk into alcoholism, and indulging his own taste for flagellation, his studies of Gesualdo’s life & works caused his mental state to take a melancholic turn. He committed suicide.

Gesualdo’s influence has not all been baleful. The great Russian composer, Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) admired Gesualdo and made two pilgrimages to his house. He arranged Gesualdo's madrigal ‘Beltà, poi che t'assenti’ as part of his Monumentum pro Gesualdo (1960).

A musicologist in the Herzog film says of Gesualdo’s music, ‘It is not beautiful: it is fascinating and difficult’. Yet there is a beauty, often strange and terrible, but a beauty nevertheless. Isolation, madness, flagellation, murder – out of this strange brew, an enduring legacy.

Brian Williams – tMx 28 – 02/07
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