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8.572137 - GESUALDO, C.: Madrigals, Book 4 (Madrigali libro quarto, 1596) (Delitiae Musicae, Longhini)
English  Italian 

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


The Fourth Book of Madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo, “Prince of Venosa”, was printed in Ferrara in 1596 by Vittorio Baldini (publisher of his previous three volumes), and was then reprinted by Gardano in Venice in 1604 and 1611. In 1613, Book IV was issued in partitura (in score form—a rare occurrence at this time) in Genoa, by publisher Giuseppe Pavoni, enabling musicians to study the “horizontal” melodies alongside the innovative “vertical” harmonies. This Fourth Book was the last of Gesualdo’s madrigal collections to be first issued in Ferrara, the city that had welcomed him with open arms two years earlier as the bridegroom of the Duke d’Este’s daughter Leonora (Gesualdo’s second wife). As we saw in the notes accompanying the first volume in this series (a complete edition of his madrigals and secular works), it meant a great deal to Gesualdo to have his work published in Ferrara and thereby make his own artistic contribution to the court that had played a greater part than any other in the development of the madrigal, that artistic synthesis which had emerged from a sophisticated aristocratic culture. He was hoping to start his life afresh and draw a line once and for all under his tragic and turbulent past: sadly, this was not to be.

The trial held after the murder

“Don Carlo Gesualdo, son of the prince of Venosa and nephew of his eminence the cardinal, did with intent, on Tuesday at the sixth hour of the night, climb the stairs together with a number of trusted companions to the room of Donna Maria d’Avalos, his wife and blood cousin, deemed the most beautiful woman in Naples, and did first kill Signor Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria, who was with her, and then his wife, thus avenging the injury done to him.” Thus wrote the Venetian ambassador in Naples to the Doge, on 19 October 1590. The drama had taken place in a mansion in the heart of Naples; a few days later, Gesualdo (who, let us remember, was twenty-four at the time) went before the local court. Two witnesses, Silvia Albana, Maria d’Avalos’s chamber maid, and Pietro Maliziale, also known as Bardotti, the prince’s servant, gave detailed testimonies. Their verbatim accounts, parts of which are of interest to us here, have survived to the present day, along with the rest of the trial documents. Carafa, when he was surprised in Maria’s chamber, was wearing a woman’s nightgown which Maria herself had ordered her maid to lay out on the bed before she called down to him as he waited beneath her window, “just as this witness [Albana] had seen the said lady do many times”. Carlo, when he arrived, cried to the maid, “Ah, traitress, I’ll kill you, you’ll not escape me now.” According to Bardotti, meanwhile, “Signor Carlo [had] told him that he wanted to go out hunting, and the witness replied that it was not the hour for hunting, to which Signor Carlo replied: ‘You will see the kind of hunting I shall do!’…[Then] he said to the witness, ‘I want to go and kill the Duke of Andria and that whore Donna Maria’, and as he went up the stairs to her door, this witness saw three armed men…each of whom was carrying a halberd and an arquebus…They opened the door of the chamber in which Donna Maria de Avalos was sleeping…He ordered that the witness put down one of the two torches he was carrying…and with that he heard the sound of firearms and Don Carlo say, ‘Kill them, kill the villain and the whore! Shall a Gesualdo be cuckolded!’…Then the three young men left…and then Signor Don Carlo left, his hands covered in blood, and he asked where the harlot Laura was, and not having found her, he turned back into the chamber of Donna Maria, saying, “I cannot believe they are dead”…He went to Signora Maria’s bed saying, “She cannot be dead yet”, and he dealt her some blows…and he said to this witness, ‘here is a key which I found upon the chair’.” These witness statements could lead to only one verdict: murder committed in a clear case of adultery was not a crime, but a right of which the injured party could avail himself in order to defend his own reputation. It was defined as a “crime of honour”. Furthermore, in such cases of infidelity, double homicide was a husband’s legal right (adultery was seen as a crime committed only by women) in the Kingdom of Naples, whose civil code stated that “the husband is allowed to kill both his wife and the adulterer, provided he find them in the act, and do it without delay”.

The statements given by the two servants are constructed in such as way as to leave no doubt as to the circumstances (hence the significance of the specific sections cited above): the adulterers were caught in flagrante in the husband’s own home; Carafa was wearing Maria d’Avalos’s nightgown (and had not, therefore, simply called in to see her); there was a history of betrayal under this roof, “as she had seen…many times”; shame and dishonour had been brought upon Gesualdo, “Shall a Gesualdo be cuckolded!”; it was Gesualdo himself who had blood on his hands and returned to deal further blows to Maria’s body (the implication being that he himself had committed the murders, not his companions, although we have to wonder whether he could really have done so without any assistance…); and the key was further proof of the adultery having taken place under his own roof.

It was considered shameful and even a crime in itself (that of procuring) for a husband to forgive his wife when she had been caught in the act of adultery and to allow her lover to escape: a whole series of laws precluded such action. Gesualdo therefore had no option but to face up to the harsh reality which was already the talk of Naples and was bringing disgrace on his household, his position in society and his manhood. He may have resigned himself to the situation privately, we shall never know, but it certainly became a problem as soon as it entered the public domain. Gesualdo then had to make up his mind whether to accept his position as a cuckold, do nothing and spend the rest of his life despised by all—family, friends, servants and his peers—or to set about righting the wrong done to him. Either course would involve violence, the former against himself, the latter against the woman he loved. The law, however, gave him a way of resolving this sad situation—all he needed was for everything to be well prepared in advance, for there to be witnesses in place to give credence to this having been a crime of honour: all had to be correct in the eyes of the law and of society.

Unfortunately, although he was acquitted by the legal system, he was not treated so generously by the poets of the day, who drew inspiration from the murderous events for years to come. As we shall see in the notes for the Fifth Book (Naxos 8.555311), a plethora of poems and plays told the tale of a great love affair wrongly punished by an act of violence, rather than that of a betrayed husband legally absolved of guilt.

Gesualdo, however, was assailed by an even more potent enemy than literary fantasy—the torment of remorse. Giovanni Iudica emphasises this in his biography of the composer, Il principe dei musici, writing that Gesualdo, “incapable of obeying his own instinct, his own will, had capitulated to the will and law of the day, to familial expectations. He had sacrificed his love for the sake of his honour, when his entire being would have done anything rather than harm the woman he loved. He had asked God’s forgiveness for his actions; his confessor had granted him absolution, his family was grateful to him, the people of Gesualdo admired him, his subjects had made him a hero. It was his own conscience that had not forgiven him, his own ego had condemned him. All he had left to ease the pain inflicted by this inner conflict was the balsam of music.”

Music as atonement: The Fourth Book of Madrigals

At the heart of the Fourth Book is an anomaly: a sacred madrigal, Sparge la morte al mio Signor [12], a fresco depicting the dying Christ on the cross. The text has just the sort of traits to pique Gesualdo’s interest (we looked at the criteria he used in selecting texts in the notes for the previous volume, Naxos 8.572136): death, sighing and suffering—in other words, the themes of the Gesualdian madrigal are transferred from the merciless beloved to the tormented Christ. The theme is atonement for an unjust death (that of Christ, or that of Maria d’Avalos…): this subject was immortalised by artist Giovanni Balducci (Florence 1560–Naples 1631) in his 1609 altarpiece Il perdono di Gesualdo (see back cover). Preserved in the Chapel of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Gesualdo (also the final resting-place of the composer and his son Emanuele), this five-metre tall painting shows Gesualdo kneeling, with his second wife Leonora d’Este, and awaiting Christ’s judgement. The eternal torments of hell are opening up before him in a dramatic depiction of condemned souls being engulfed by flames. One angel, however, is reaching out a hand to a pardoned sinner, and another is lifting the body of a second forgiven soul away from the flames—the Prince is therefore hoping that his sins too will be forgiven thanks to the intercession on his behalf by the Virgin Mary, the Archangel Michael and his late uncle, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo (1538–84), who by this time had already been beatified (1602) and was canonised soon afterwards (1610). Also watching over Gesualdo, and gesturing in supplication to Christ, are St Francis, St Dominic, Mary Magalene and St Catherine, all of whom the composer worshipped with particular devotion. The “balsam of music” was clearly not enough on its own to help him. He did all he could to alleviate the sense of guilt that had tortured him since the day of the killings: in addition to the altarpiece he also, in 1594, commissioned from the renowned Ferrarese composer and organist Luzzasco Luzzaschi (1545–1607) a book of madrigals (Luzzaschi’s Fourth Book). For the volume’s centrepiece Gesualdo chose a sacred madrigal dealing with the theme of forgiveness:

S’homai d’ogni su’errore
L’alma Signor pentita
Perdon ti chiede e in un ti chiede aita
Tu fonte di pietà tu mar di spene
Per cui pur si mantiene
Questa del mondo rio misera valle
A prieghi miei deh non voltar le spalle
deh no dolce Signore
Ma ver me suoni tua paterna voce
Qual l’udì già il buon ladrone in

[If my repentant soul now
asks you, Lord, to forgive
its every error and come to its aid,
o fount of mercy, o sea of hope,
by which this wretched vale
of the wicked world is kept alive,
do not turn your back on my prayers,
ah no, gentle Lord,
speak to me rather in fatherly tones,
as once you did to the good thief on the cross.]

Two years later, for the halfway point of his own Fourth Book (the coincidences are too obvious to be ignored), Gesualdo placed a sacred piece within a secular work. In order to emphasise this moment of prayer and meditation, we have chosen to provide the vocal piece with an organ introduction in the shape of an intonazione on the fourth tone by Luzzaschi, a work included in Gerolamo Deruta’s treatise Il transilvano (1593) and, furthermore, to give the madrigal itself an organ accompaniment (a one-off in our edition of Gesualdo’s secular works).

The wonderful opening madrigal of this book, Luci serene e chiare [1] (later set by Monteverdi in his Fourth Book of Madrigals, 1603, dedicated to the Accademici Intrepidi of Ferrara [Naxos 8.555310]) is another deferential homage to Ferrara. As is often the case, this introductory piece is full of innovation, drawing attention to the collection’s linguistic novelties: words and music are perfectly suited but, more importantly, the music here has an incredible capacity to transform the energy and vigour suggested by the lyric into images, events, a soundscape to be contemplated and appreciated throughout the listening process. We are no longer talking about mannered “word-painting” as an end in itself, but about true expressiveness—poetry become “sound event”. The dissonances on the words “e tutta sangue si strugge e non si duol, more e non langue” (“A soul filled with…blood is tortured without pain, dies without languishing”) truly drip with blood, as the melodies slowly peter out, like blood draining from a body, in one of the most inspired and tormented closing sections of the entire madrigal repertory.

Acute disparities are the theme of Io tacerò (in two parts [3] and [4]), where exaggerated dynamics on the dramatic words “ma se avverrà ch’io mora, griderà poi per me la morte ancora” (“And, should I die, death will still cry out on my behalf”) trigger sharp contrasts in volume and harmony, giving rise to harsh dissonances and unexpected harmonic progressions—no longer regulated by the compositional schemes typical of the period. The desire to rip up the rulebook is evident in Questa crudele e pia [6], on the words “anco sdegnosa” (“scornful too”) and in the closing passage. The ending of O sempre crudo amore [8], meanwhile, is unprecedented—the dissonances used to depict the distress caused by love on the words “peni il cor” (“whether the heart grieves”) transfix us as we listen, like a dagger blow to the chest.

An example of what we refer to as a “sound event” can be found in the second part of Ecco morirò dunque (Ahi, già mi discoloro [18]) where the word “discoloro” (“I am growing pale”)—in contrast with the immediate, concrete pain expressed by “Ahi”—unleashes melodies into a web of descending chromatic passages that perfectly convey the loss of consistency suffered by apparently tangible, solid forms and colours: the objective truth of the Renaissance world is making way for more elusive, less sharply defined forms, and shimmering colours that shift and develop subjectively depending on our state of mind. The setting of the words “strana morte” (“strange death”) in Arde il mio cor [19] also destabilises the expected harmonic progression, creating a striking contrast with the stabilising, “dolce” atmosphere that immediately precedes it.

The final three pieces of this Fourth Book (the last two of which, exceptionally, have six-part settings) attempt in vain to recapture a mood of joy and serenity: throughout the book there is a sense of a deliberate desire, determination even, to dismantle the perfection that for decades had brought listeners a univocal vision of artistic beauty and of reality. We find asymmetry, exceptions to rules, unusual harmonies, beginnings and endings where the lines fail to “add up” vertically and reach chords “late” (ultimately breaking down into isolated fragments), and irregular cadences that offer no stability. This aspiration to break away from the ideal of the “alla Palestrina” style and a philosophy holding perfection to be “absolute beauty” points to the appearance of a new value in the world of music, art and architecture, namely expressiveness—a force capable of inspiring new ways of creating Art.

Marco Longhini
English translation: Susannah Howe

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