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8.570548 - GESUALDO, C.: Madrigals, Book 1 (Madrigali libro primo, 1594) (Delitiae Musicae, Longhini)
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Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (1566–1613)
The First Book of Madrigals, 1594


Gesualdo and the City of Ferrara

The First Book of Madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, was published by a Ferrarese printer, Vittorio Baldini, in 1594. Baldini also issued the Second Book of Madrigals that same year. Both volumes were edited by the musician Scipione Stella, who stated in the prefaces he wrote for each that he had compiled these collections of previously published works by his prince and protector and had corrected the printing errors they contained. At that time, it would not have been fitting for a nobleman to concern himself with publishing books or music (princely occupations in Renaissance society were very different, outwardly at least), and therefore he had had a number of works printed under the name of Giuseppe Pilonii (not a pseudonym, but a “dear friend” of the Flemish musician Jean de Macque, both members of the Gesualdo household in the years after 1586; sadly, all trace of this earlier publication has been lost). Stella’s prefaces are dated 2 June 1594 for Book One and 10 May 1594 for Book Two: the latter therefore appears to predate the former. Two further books followed in quick succession (in 1595 and 1596), both also published in Ferrara by Baldini. As was very often the case in Renaissance Italy, the publication of a book of music simply meant bringing together some of a composer’s best pieces—works he believed would be enjoyed and appreciated by a wider audience of listeners and performers. Hence these madrigals (eighty in all, twenty in each book) are split between four volumes, probably not in accurate chronological order, but all connected by having been printed in Ferrara. Fifteen years were to pass before another Gesualdo publication appeared; Baldini had by then lost interest, and the composer’s last two books were printed in Venice, both in 1611.

How, then, did Gesualdo come to bear his first “musical offspring” in Ferrara, and what made him decide that the time was right for such a publication? What connection was there between that northern city and a prince whose life had been spent between Naples, Venosa and Gesualdo (two small towns in the south of Italy that still bear the name of his patrician family)?

For Carlo Gesualdo, it was a matter of publishing his own works at the court that perhaps cultivated and valued music more than any other at the time, and appreciated the madrigal in particular, as a symbol of the synthesis between the different arts, and as the mature and favourite fruit of a sophisticated aristocratic culture. For Ferrara, meanwhile, the prince represented potential salvation from a dire political fate: Duke Alfonso II d’Este (grandson of the infamous Lucrezia Borgia), the last of the noble family of patrons that had governed the city since 1332, had no children and if there were no male heir (because of a long-standing agreement with the papacy), the family lands would be returned to the Papal States. It must have been felt that marriage between Gesualdo and Alfonso’s niece Leonora might be the ideal way to try and resolve this delicate situation by currying favour with Carlo’s uncle, Cardinal Alfonso Gesualdo, one of the most powerful and influential men in Rome. On 19 February 1594, the Prince arrived in Ferrara: “bringing with him two books of music in five parts, all his own work” (as chronicled by Alfonso Fontanelli, sent out by the Duke to meet the wedding party and report back on his future relative) as well as a retinue of thirty from his own court. The marriage took place on 21 February with all kinds of merrymaking, including a joust, a grand twenty-three-course banquet (details of this, as of all the festivities, have survived) and the exchange of expensive gifts, such as the beautifully engraved ceremonial cuirass which can still be seen today at Prague Castle, and the ode Lascia, o figlio di Urania, il bel Parnaso, written expressly for the occasion by the great poet Torquato Tasso. As mentioned above, three months later the First and Second Books of his beloved madrigals were published, and Gesualdo departed abruptly for Venice. In June he travelled home to his castle at Venosa, and then on to Gesualdo, “a place as pleasant and fair to the eye as anyone could wish, where the air is truly clement and healthful”, but without his new wife, whom he left behind in Ferrara.

Gesualdo, the Prince of Venosa

Carlo Gesualdo was, then, no ordinary musician: first and foremost he was a prince, a rich and powerful man. As will be considered in more depth in the notes accompanying subsequent albums in this series of his complete secular works, he became famous for two reasons: firstly, the bloody double murder of his first wife and her lover (for which he has since been immortalised in a number of plays, operas, novels and even films), and secondly, his passionate devotion to ardent, expressive music, both sacred and secular, for which he was admired not only by his contemporaries but by composers closer to our own times. Prime among these was Stravinsky, who arranged some of Gesualdo’s pieces (the Tres sacrae cantiones) and, in 1960, on what was believed to be the fourth centenary of his birth, dedicated one of his own works to him: Monumentum pro Gesualdo da Venosa ad CD annum. In fact, Gesualdo was not born in 1560: recent research has established that he was born on 8 March 1566, in Venosa. His family had been established there for some time by then, his forebears having come from France, according to some accounts, or possibly having descended from Roger II of Sicily (Roger the Norman). The Gesualdos were related to Carlo Borromeo (the composer’s uncle on his mother’s side, who was later canonised) and were on excellent terms with both Charles V and Philip II of Spain, who at different times during this period ruled over the territories of southern Italy. They owned castles and vast tracts of land—they were, in other words, extremely wealthy. Carlo’s father, Fabrizio II, and his mother, Geronima de’ Medici, were also very cultured and often hosted intellectual gatherings at their Naples residence, inviting Jesuits, astronomers, alchemists and even chiromancers; there were evenings devoted to poetry and literature too, and to music, at which Fabrizio’s own compositions would be performed. Carlo grew up in a world where music was of fundamental importance: he was taught by musicians such as Pomponio Nenna, Gian Leonardo Primavera and Jean de Macque (the latter two both dedicated works of their own to him), frequent visitors to his father’s home. We know that he learned to play the lute as well as to hunt. His first composition was published when he was nineteen, in 1585: a five-part motet (Delicta nostra ne reminiscaris Domine [Remember not our faults, O Lord], issued along with other sacred pieces by Stefano Felis) which gives an indication of some of the themes he was later to develop in both his sacred and his secular works—those of guilt, death, sin and repentance.

The following year, when Carlo was still only twenty, he married Maria d’Avalos, who was older than him, already twice widowed and had two children. His marriage to one of the most beautiful women in Naples was to end in tragedy four years later, when he murdered his wife and her lover as they lay in the bed where he himself usually slept. This episode, which had such a profound effect on the rest of his life, and on his music, will be dealt with in greater detail in volume two of our Gesualdo recordings, which will feature the Second Book of Madrigals and his instrumental works (Naxos 8.570549).

The First Book of Madrigals

The first Ferrara volume opens with a madrigal by Giovanni Battista Guarini: Baci soavi e cari, in two parts, tracks 1 and 2. This text was set to music by various composers, including Luca Marenzio (1591), Adriano Banchieri (in his Barca di Venezia per Padova, 1605, Un per de Marregali alla Venosa—Madrigale capriccioso) and by Claudio Monteverdi in his First Book, 1587 (which we have also recorded: track 5 on Naxos 8.555307). It is taken from the first strophe of Guarini’s Canzon de’ baci (Song of Kisses), which also contains strophes beginning “Baci amorosi e belli…” (Fair and loving kisses), “Baci affamati e ingordi…” (Eager and greedy kisses) and “Baci cortesi e grati…” (Generous and welcome kisses). The sophisticated erotic play throughout this madrigal, with its frequent gasps and sighs, conjures up a scene of love-making, which becomes explicit once we understand the courtly linguistic conventions of the day—the word “morire” (to die) being a euphemism for sexual orgasm. There are many analogies with Monteverdi’s version, especially with regard to their interpretation of the text’s rhythmic-prosodic subdivision, yet even a quick comparison of the two shows that Monteverdi’s (though it bears witness to an astonishing compositional gift) is a juvenile work, while Gesualdo’s is that of an experienced composer, one able to heighten the expressiveness of the words by skilful use of melodic and tonal contrasts. One would therefore suspect that the piece chosen by Stella to open this collection and introduce his patron, was no youthful first attempt, but a far more mature work, aimed at showing off its author’s refined musical talents from the outset.

The very beautiful Tirsi morir volea [12] also sets a text by Guarini (first published in 1581 under the title Concorso d’occhi amorosi in an edition of Tasso’s Rime, and also set by Marenzio in 1580, De Wert in 1581, A. Gabrieli in 1587, Luzzaschi in 1604, and G.F. Sances in 1633) and has to be read with the same erotic sense of “morire” in mind (although, might the tragic sense not be equally valid here?). The second part, Frenò Tirsi il desio [13], represents one of the summits in Gesualdo’s writing, with its contrast between the stunning dissonances on the words “sentendo morte” and the ascending notes on the words “in non poter morire”, to depict an ecstatic ascent to either sensual delight or heavenly redemption. We shall see, however, that in later books, the word “morte” was to lose the erotic sense attributed to it by courtly lyrics and become the expression of “tragedy”, the supreme pain that man must confront.

Another tale of love and eroticism is to be found in Mentre madonna [6] (also divided into two parts), which sets a sonnet by Torquato Tasso, taken from the Rime. With great sophistication, it describes the envy felt by one who sees “a wise little bee” alight on his beloved’s lips as she rests after “erring happily and willingly”. Sì gioioso mi fanno i dolor miei [10], another highpoint of this collection, is an early example of Gesualdo’s liking for texts that juxtapose what appear to be conceptual or linguistic opposites: a Mannerist play on irreconcilable but fatally attracted imagery, a confusion of ideas to defy reason and delight any reader.

Questi leggiadri odorosetti fiori [16] begins to break down the climate established so far in this book of “painful” contrasts (in that joyful and sorrowful atmospheres alternate within it), and leads to four final sunny madrigals whose task it is to restore serenity. Felice primavera! [17] [18] is an overt tribute to the home of his new bride, Leonora d’Este, with its mentions of the flowery banks of the River Po, which runs just north of the city before flowing into the Adriatic. Bella angioletta [20], meanwhile, is a madrigal specially commissioned from Tasso by Duke Federico d’Este to court a lady by the name of Angelica.

Gesualdo’s music for Book One, as mentioned above, is clearly the work of a mature composer, not the first tentative approach of a young musician to the publishing world: it is a book to be loved, read and reread. As early as 1650, Athanasius Kircher quoted from Baci soavi e cari in his Musurgia Universalis, saying that its composer’s music should be studied for its finesse and virtuosity. Many theorists and musicians of the day considered Gesualdo to have played a central rôle in the development of late Renaissance music; Monteverdi himself included him among the members of the radical new seconda prattica. Giulio Cesare Monteverdi, in concluding his defence of his brother against the attack launched by Giovanni Maria Artusi on the works contained in the Fifth Book of Madrigals (see Naxos 8.555311), also wrote of “his Lordship the Prince of Venosa, Emiglio del Cavagliere, Count Alfonso Fontanelli and Count di Camerata and other gentlemen of this noble school”. Ferrara in 1594 was the Mount Olympus of music, and for Gesualdo, this chance to publish his own works there, to gain entry into Ferrarese cultural circles and to mix with the best-known musicians of the day was a dream come true—a brief period of tranquillity in an otherwise impetuous and turbulent life.

My sincere thanks are due to Professor Giovanni Iudica for his fine biography of the “Principe dei musici” (essential reading when it comes to Gesualdo, along with the writings of Glenn Watkins) and also for our pleasant and fruitful meetings in Milan—the happy result of a shared love for Gesualdo’s music.

Marco Longhini
English translation: Susannah Howe

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