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8.550742 - GESUALDO: Sacred Music for Five Voices (Complete)

Carlo Gesualdo (c.1561 - 1613)
Sacrarum Cantionum Liber Primus [5 voices] (1603)

Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Count of Conza, was a murderer; he was also one of the most intriguing composers of his generation. These two statements are necessarily interrelated: the received image of a tortured soul writing idiosyncratic music in the aftermath of his wife's homicide is a powerful one. But to suggest that Gesualdo's evident state of mental unbalance affected his fundamental musical competence is both misleading and unfair.

Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover in cold blood in 1590. The Prince's public display of the corpses represents the behaviour of a man who was convinced by the morality of his action. When Gesualdo remarried four years later his declining mental state drove his second wife to attempt divorce several times, albeit unsuccessfully. These are the facts that have led some critics to arrive at an unflattering assessment of Gesualdo's artistic achievements. It is regularly asserted that the music is technically unsound and that the composer's renown depends more on a colourful biography than on a legacy of great music. And while Gesualdo's fame will always rely on the documentation of his wife's murder, it is a poor musician who is incapable of recognizing the consistency and competence of Gesualdo's surviving works.

The nineteen five-voice motets in the Sacrae Cantiones represents mixture of styles. Some are unashamedly madrigalian designed for performance by solo voices whereas others are every bit as expansive as any late-Renaissance examples of the genre. Each motet bears the obvious stamp of Gesualdo's individual musical language; even those motets that make minimal use of chromaticism exhibit unusual part-writing which is at best faintly bizarre and at worst baffling. Gesualdo's choice of texts with in the Sacrae Cantiones is similarly self-indulgent favouring motets whose themes embrace sin, death, and guilt. The calculated use of disturbing chromatic sidesteps at phrases such as 'miserere mei' (have mercy on me),'Iacrimismeis' (my tears), and 'dolormeus' (my sorrow) is self-piteous in the extreme.

It is difficult therefore to empathize with all of Gesualdo's work, peppered as it is with self-conscious mannerisms that are the result of psychological self-torture: it is easy to be blinded by the more superficial elements of the music. But Gesualdo's basic style is as competent as that of Palestrina or Monteverdi; without a sound contrapuntal technique the more extreme gestures would not be as effective as they undoubtedly are. Any early-Baroque composer would surely have been proud to have written the motets 'Peccantem me', 'Laboravi', or 'O vos omnes', while the still life 'O crux benedicta' is an unparalleled model of late Renaissance fluency.

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