About this Recording
8.572136 - GESUALDO, C.: Madrigals, Book 3 (Madrigali libro terzo, 1595) (Delitiae Musicae, Longhini)
English  Italian 

Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (1566–1613)
The Third Book of Madrigals, 1595

 

The Third Book of Madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, was published in Ferrara in 1595 by Vittorio Baldini, who had also printed the First and Second Books. (Book III was later reprinted by the Venetian publishing house Gardano, in 1603, 1611 and 1619.) The anthology was edited by a certain Ettore Gesualdo: as mentioned in the notes accompanying the previous albums in this series, in Renaissance Italy it would not have been deemed proper for Carlo, an aristocrat, to concern himself with the business side of music printing. He was, first and foremost, a prince—a man of wealth and power, the last surviving member of an ancient family and lord and master of a number of properties and large tracts of land in southern Italy, not far from Naples. His namesake Ettore (about whose life we know no more, unfortunately) therefore oversaw the publication of both this volume and the Fourth Book, fulfilling the same rôle as his predecessor, Scipione Stella, in bringing to light this new “most excellent sample of skill and harmony…[works admirable for their] imitation and observance of the words”. If Book II was a continuation of the musical processes worked out in Book I, this Third Book marks a definite change in Gesualdo’s style, featuring as it does intense contrasts, an increasingly innovative and unconventional use of dissonance and expressions of mutually irreconcilable elements and images. He appears to be mining the poetry for the qualities needed to transform it into a “sound event”—considering texts not on the basis of their aesthetic nature or their authors’ fame, but for the potential of their words to inspire aural images of energy and vigour. The way to admire and interpret visual works of art is to consider them carefully and at length, and the way to understand these madrigals is to see them as musical canvases meriting a hearing that takes in something more than their initial superficial impact. Even in Gesualdo’s own day, their written notation was studied: in 1613 his complete madrigals were published in partitura—in score form—enabling them to be examined in detail. Such editions were very rarely produced at the time (Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s Rappresentazione di anima et di corpo was another exception to the rule): the usual practice was to print each part in a separate book, as this was cheaper and afforded greater flexibility and practicality in terms of performance, as well as simplicity in terms of the printing process. The score edition was probably also needed to bring an end to the various discussions about how to perform many of the altered notes that make up the chromaticisms typical of the prince’s idiom.

The reward for studying and listening to these musical canvases so closely is an appreciation of the infinite variety of new and surprising solutions employed by the composer from this moment onwards. This was a time when professional musicians had no choice but to be concerned by the success—ephemeral though it may have been—that resulted from the superficial, hedonistic beauty of their compositions. Whether employed by noble patrons or religious institutions, composers were at the mercy of those who commissioned or were to perform what they produced. Gesualdo, on the other hand, had no need to seek such approval (or the monetary gain or celebrity that “successful” works could provide), and thus was free to focus instead on maturing as a musician and experimenting with his own language. He may have been the first composer in history to have had the luxury of pursuing art for art’s sake.

This context of complete artistic autonomy also extended to the choice of text. While others were having to set poetry suggested or imposed by their patrons, Gesualdo carefully selected his madrigals to suit his own musical purposes, often choosing them on the basis of their potential to inspire new sensations in sound. He frequently commissioned texts from poets and men of letters (no musician could have done so), asking them to come up with words and images that he could then experiment with musically in ways only open to a composer of independent means. Witness, for example, the one-way relationship between Gesualdo and Torquato This context of complete artistic autonomy also extended to the choice of text. While others were having to set poetry suggested or imposed by their patrons, Gesualdo carefully selected his madrigals to suit his own musical purposes, often choosing them on the basis of their potential to inspire new sensations in sound. He frequently commissioned texts from poets and men of letters (no musician could have done so), asking them to come up with words and images that he could then experiment with musically in ways only open to a composer of independent means. Witness, for example, the one-way relationship between Gesualdo and Torquato

Apart from the opening madrigal by Giovanni Battista Guarini (Voi volete ch’io mora, [1] and [2], therefore, the texts set in this volume are not by famous writers. Indeed, many of them are anonymous, but their words, images and scene-setting provide the opportunity for the composer to create atmospheres rich in pathos: Gesualdo took great delight in transforming these texts into his “sound events”.

The second part of Book III is particularly dark and violent in mood, as Non t’amo, o voce ingrata [11] denotes a transition to a new poetic sensibility. Hereafter, the word morte (death) and its synonyms are virtually omnipresent in the songs, reflecting the terrible blow dealt the composer by his wife’s infidelity, under his own roof, and the murderous consequences that ensued. These events (discussed in detail in the notes for the Second Book, Naxos 8.570549) marked the end of a particular phase in Gesualdo’s creative production and inspiration. It seems likely that, having been pushed into the rôle of vengeful wife-killer, he felt equally compelled to express his anger and emotional turbulence through his compositions. His reputation sealed by this violent episode, the music that had formerly made him a happy, charming man was now an outlet for his new state of mind, his genuine suffering and the repressed feelings that had exploded into bloodshed. It had to portray his fate as a betrayed and grieving husband, whose only option now was to retreat into music. His frescoes in sound had to explain why he had acted as he had, why despite having loved his wife since childhood he had felt bound by societal norms to murder her. We shall see in the notes for the Fourth Book (Naxos 8.572137) that although Gesualdo was found innocent of murder, as the killings were judged to be “crimes of honour” (and thus wholly acceptable in the eyes of both the law and wider society of the day), public opinion was divided. Many people felt that it was the lovers, Maria d’Avalos and Fabrizio Carafa, who had been wronged, and that a love strong enough to overcome social mores and ultimately, to be worth dying for, had greater moral value than did the Gesualdo family honour.

The composer had to continue defending himself for the rest of his life, and did so through his musical canvases. The text of Dolcissimo sospiro [19] gives a clear idea of what he had lived through:

…ah, come and sweeten
the bitterness of my pain:
behold, I open my heart to you.
Yet, fool that I am, to whom do I speak of my torment?
To an errant sigh
flying perhaps to the breast of another lover?

And perhaps the anonymous madrigal Non t’amo [11] describes the unbearable response of the beloved who categorically refuses a love so hard fought for:

“I love you not”, o unwelcome words,
my lady did say to me;
and with a barbed arrow
of torment and despair, she pierced my heart.

Thanks to the research efforts of Elio Durante and Anna Martellotti (1987), this text has now been attributed to Ridolfo Arlotti, secretary to Cardinal Alessandro d’Este, and Gesualdo’s brother-in-law. Arlotti was probably also responsible for a number of stylistic “adjustments” made to the Prince’s versions of much older anonymous texts, such as Se vi miro pietoso [17] and the most famous madrigal in this collection, Ancidetemi pur, grievi martiri [16].

As with his setting of Alfonso d’Avalos’s Sento che nel partire in Book II (track [12] on Naxos 8.572135), Gesualdo here is paying homage to a composer he evidently admired—the great Flemish madrigalist Jacques Arcadelt, who had himself set both Sento che nel partire and Ancidetemi pur (in 1539). The text had to be adapted in such a way as to allow his own personal sensibilities to shine through. It is fascinating to compare both the different versions of the text and the different musical settings. This is the original verse, as set by Arcadelt:

Ancidetemi pur, grievi martiri
ch’l viver m’è sì a noia
che’l morir mi fia gioia,
ma lassat’ir gli estremi miei sospiri
a trovar quella ch’è cagion ch’io muoia
e dir’a l’empia fera
ch’onor non gli è che per amarl’io pera.

[Do but kill me, grievous suffering,
for living is such torment to me
that dying would bring me joy,
yet grant that my expiring sighs
may reach the one who has caused my death
and tell that lady proud and cruel
‘tis not to her honour that I die for love of her.]

Fifty years separate the two madrigals and, while they are similar, Arlotti’s updating of the text echoes the musical transformations to be found in Gesualdo’s setting. Gone is the static harmonic and contrapuntal perfection of Arcadelt, replaced by a canvas of contradictions, oppositions, contrasts and chiaroscuro. These are used for word-painting to underline the oxymorons of the poetry, Gesualdo using both texture and harmony to achieve his purpose: thus “gli estremi miei sospiri” are depicted by extended notes, dissonance and sudden changes of mode and therefore atmosphere.

We cannot end without mentioning Se piange, oimè, la donna del mio core [15], a work exceptional in this collection for its quiet intimacy of expression. Although Gesualdo escaped legal censure for the act of extreme violence that defined his life, he nonetheless spent years justifying his deed to those who valued love above legal and social conventions. This he did through his music, devoting himself to redeeming his own image, all the while tormented by the remorse he felt at having killed his beloved wife. The villainous role assigned to him by society must have weighed heavily on him: the madrigals, with their violence but also their heartfelt sense of loss and sorrow, are the ultimate expression of the way Gesualdo saw and wished to portray himself. His music, in all its emotional complexity, is the truest reflection of his life and nature.

Additional Tracks

This album also includes two further tracks: a pair of Canzonette del Sig. Prencipe di Venosa published in 1618 in Pomponio Nenna’s L’Ottavo libro de’ madrigali a cinque voci. Following on from the two instrumental pieces included on our recording of Gesualdo’s Second Book, these complete our recordings of the few secular pieces not contained within the madrigal collections: the six-CD set as a whole therefore comprises not only the six books of madrigals but the complete secular works.


Marco Longhini
English translation by Susannah Howe


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