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8.573147-49 - GESUALDO, C.: Madrigals, Books 5 and 6 (Madrigali libro quinto e sesto, 1611) (Delitiae Musicae, Longhini)
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Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (1566–1613)
The Fifth and Sixth Book of Madrigals, 1611


Both the Fifth and Sixth Books of Madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo, “Prince of Venosa”, were published in 1611 in Gesualdo, the village which takes its name from the composer’s ancient aristocratic family (it lies in southern Italy, between Naples and Bari). Towering over the village is the Castello di Gesualdo, and these two volumes were actually printed within the castle bounds, Gesualdo having entrusted Jacopo Carlino with the task of setting up a press there. They were reprinted shortly after the composer’s death, in 1613, by Genoese publisher Giuseppe Pavoni, in an unusual and valuable edition prepared by lutenist Simone Molinaro in score form (enabling all the parts to be read and studied simultaneously, in the manner of today’s music publications). Further reissues appeared in 1614 (Fifth Book) and 1616 (Sixth Book), in the then standard format of five separate part-books (one for each singer), produced by the Venetian firm of Bartolomeo Magni (heir to the celebrated publisher Angelo Gardano).

Gesualdo’s musical “twins” were both prepared for publication by Pietro Cappuccio (sparing the prince a task seen as menial and inappropriate for a man of his aristocratic status, as has been discussed in the notes for previous volumes in this Naxos series of Gesualdo’s complete secular works), and their dedications were signed a month apart from one another. This was not the first time Gesualdo had doubled up on publishing: Books One and Two were issued together in 1594 by Vittorio Baldini in Ferrara (see Naxos 8.570548 and 8.570549). Just as Book Two was a natural successor to the first volume (or vice versa, as some recent research has suggested), the Sixth Book follows on logically from the Fifth, forming a conclusion to the corpus of madrigals composed by a musical genius of boundless invention and creativity. Gesualdo was able to experiment freely and move beyond the conventional limits of composition because his work was not subject to an employer’s demands or any other kind of constraint. This explains the inspired anomalies to be found in his polyphonic writing—music which still has the power today to surprise and enthrall expert musicians and non-specialist listeners alike.

To understand why there was such a long delay between the appearance of the Fourth Book in 1596 and that of these two publications in 1611 we need to investigate the events that ran parallel to Gesualdo’s artistic career: what happened during those long fifteen years of editorial silence? The period in question coincides with the composer’s move away from Ferrara and, eventually, back south to his family estates. In 1594, shortly after his second marriage, Gesualdo (no doubt weary of the ill-natured world of life at court, where his dramatic past and individuality would never be forgiven and forgotten) left Ferrara to explore cultural life elsewhere in northern Italy. Leaving his new bride behind, he went to Venice and lost himself in the labyrinthine streets of that marvellous city. He visited its famous printworks (responsible for publishing most of the sacred and secular music of the day), attracted in particular by the typographical talents of Angelo Gardano. The meticulous chronicler Fontanelli was never far away, tasked with reporting back to the Este family in Ferrara (his lot ever since Duke Alfonso II had sent him to bring news of his unconventional future relative before the latter’s arrival at court (see Naxos 8.570548). Fontanelli documented the warm welcome Gesualdo received from the Doge and the patriarch of Venice, whose guest he was. It seems that the generosity shown by the Venetian nobility towards the composer stemmed in part at least from a desire to see this notorious character at close quarters. Although he declined as many of the offers from the great and the good of the city as possible so that he could devote his time instead to composing, Gesualdo did attend one particular dinner given by the patriarch at which he was invited to listen to a concert in his honour: at the end of the performance he stood up and in front of all present scolded the singer and harpsichordist for their lack of talent, so vehemently that Fontanelli admitted feeling sorry for them. Unfortunately he did not enlarge on the specific failings that so enraged Gesualdo, thus depriving us of a fascinating insight into the composer’s thoughts on performance practice. Although a vast quantity of documents have survived, they contain not a single sentence about the prince’s cappella musicale; we do not even know the identity of the singers who actually sang his madrigals, or what their voice types were. There is still some doubt over whether the madrigals were sometimes performed with instrumental accompaniment or only in their original purely vocal versions. Perhaps he agreed with the observations made about the all-female ensembles of Mantua and Ferrara by Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564–1637) in his Discorso sopra la musica of 1628: “…[The ladies of Mantua and Ferrara] moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light, according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slow, breaking off with sometimes a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, and again with sweet running passages sung softly, to which sometimes one heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feeling of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages and other embellishments. They used many other particular devices which will be known to persons more experienced than I. And under these favourable circumstances the above mentioned musicians made every effort to win fame and the favour of the Princes their patrons, who were their principal support.”¹

Even in his own day, Gesualdo was both a popular and a controversial figure, in demand and feared at the same time: his view on the world was by no means that of the ordinary man, but that of someone with a quite different take on the realities of life, and his music too follows unconventional paths, full of innovative forms of expression and dissonances that a court musician could not (or dare not) put down on paper. His social status, background, sensitivity and keen artistic genius turned him into a cultural celebrity. Yet while at the time it was his notoriety that fascinated worldly society, today we remember and respect Gesualdo the musician, rather than Gesualdo the murderer. Back then, he stood out because he was a prince, a man of high society (brought up with the high aristocratic values of a centuries-old noble family) who restored the honour of his name by killing his most precious possession: his love for his wife, Maria d’Avalos. This was no man of the people giving in to a sudden attack of violent rage (behaviour that would have been condemned): Gesualdo was obliged by contemporary convention to commit a “crime of honour” so as not to be a laughingstock. That act may have saved his honour, but it led to his condemnation by courtly society.

Gesualdo responded to the way in which society depicted him by rejecting life at court and isolating himself and his music. If in earlier works he had been forced to adopt the rôle of violent and vengeful wife-killer, leading him to delve into a musical reality full of rage, anger, fury and tempestuous emotions, he was now keen to portray his fate as a man beset by pain and suffering, victim of a destiny which would torture and eat away at him until the day he died. This man, whose only escape was to withdraw into music, wanted to share his nightmares and obsessions, now that death was playing such a leading rôle in his thoughts and inspiration. Of the twenty-three madrigals in Book Six (making it the longest of all six volumes), a good thirteen contain the word “morte” (death): even if we try and put the image of violent murderer from our minds, it is impossible not to see what a constant and fearsome presence death must have been for him. Like some sort of divine curse, it became an inescapable part of his life. In this set of madrigals (which are unprecedentedly mature and considered in style, but somewhat bitter in flavour), Gesualdo returns to the themes of love and rejection, death and suffering, joy and sorrow, using asymmetrical forms whose writing is deliberately irregular and which are stamped with a pain that makes balance impossible. His chosen lyrics, as well as being a source of inspiration, become a pretext for expiation: the redemption of culture by society. The madrigals portray intimate emotions but not real situations. Even if such feelings had actually been experienced, Gesualdo’s art transports them into an imaginary world made up of emotion, not biographical chronicles. Facts belong to real life, sentiments such as joy, sorrow and grief, and the conflicts between them that torment our hearts, these belong to art. There is no autobiography in his work because reality does not exist—all that does exist is feeling and expression. He used art as a means of reassessing his own image: in these madrigals he was to establish a world that is not reality but simply the essence of life.

Through words, music turns into feeling, touching the emotional cortex of anyone who listens to it. While sixteenth-century music looked to balance for beauty, what we find in Gesualdo’s final works is that this balance is disrupted, the music moving towards harmonic and rhythmic instability which offers the listener only a sense of becoming, never one of motionlessness. The exception becomes the rule. Cadences are never truly conclusive, and we are drawn in by the unpredictable, be it a chain of harmonies that modulates into keys far removed from what the ear expects to hear, or a rhythmic flow in which not even the final chord suggests stability because one line always comes in late or moves in syncopation with the others. To quote Claudio Gallico, “his assumption of expressive responsibility results in a baldly objective observation of different states of mind. His expressiveness, although highly personalised and subjectively determined, lives in the imagination and is stylised in a forest of masks and illusions. This is the point at which Renaissance culture disintegrated.”

In Books Five and Six a new relationship between text and music emerges. The music is no longer inspired by the broader poetic concept, but by a single word: from that word, and it alone, there flows music which is no longer ephemeral “word-painting”, but imbued instead with the deeper meaning evoked by that one word. The musical fresco suggested by a poem’s imagery becomes increasingly fragmented. This results in a far less smooth and continuous musical discourse: these final works are alive with brief, disjointed images that alternate with pauses (used more often here than ever before in the madrigal repertoire), as silence becomes anticipation, meditation or inner suffering. Silence is transformed into musical thought, the true essence of music or perhaps even a much-desired and sought-after negation of itself.

Such hard-won and sophisticated musical experimentation was to reach only a small audience: those who wanted to know the Prince of Venosa preferred him in the guise of jealous killer. Both the Ferrarese court and Venetian high society thrived on gossip, and it was certainly in their interests to have a man with a reputation for homicidal madness walking around unchallenged and absolved by society. Gesualdo had loyal supporters in both places (those who admired him for his musical talent), but he also had to defend himself against the moral zealots who saw only his violent and vengeful side. A large number of malicious rumours grew up around him, stories whose authenticity cannot be verified: he was said, for example, to beat his second wife and to have had a whole host of lovers thanks to the charm he exerted as a shadowy southern artist. Frustrated, perhaps, at not having been able to rebuild his life as he had hoped to do in Ferrara, cultural fulcrum of the world, home of the madrigal, the music of Giaches de Wert and Luzzasco Luzzaschi, and the anomalous all-female singing ensemble the Ladies of Ferrara, he returned to his castle in Gesualdo. Disenchanted with everything to do with life in the court he labelled a “den of vipers”, he could now live among his loyal subjects and devote himself to hunting, composition and the combined pleasure and responsibility of administrating his territory’s private and public affairs, in a place Fontanelli described as “a country as pleasant and agreeable to the eye as could be wished for, with air that is truly sweet and salutary”.

He did return to Ferrara, but only to oversee the publication of his Third and Fourth Books of Madrigals and for the birth of his son Alfonsino (Gesualdo’s first wife, Maria d’Avalos, had also borne him a son, Emanuele). As the city moved inexorably into the grasp of Rome, losing its autonomy, the Este family moved to Modena, but Gesualdo’s wife and child, accompanied by their servants and the ever-present Fontanelli, travelled south to the Gesualdo estates. Sadly, in 1598 Alfonsino died, and some scholars believe that Gesualdo composed no more madrigals after this, only sacred works: the Sacrae Cantiones of 1603 and Responsoria of 1611 (according to this theory, the two 1611 volumes were conceived during his time in Ferrara). In 1602, Cardinal Alfonso Gesualdo also died, leaving his entire estate to his nephew Carlo, who thus became even wealthier and more powerful but, at the same time, more isolated as well. His first son, Emanuele, married the Bohemian Countess Maria von Fürstenberg in 1607. The joy of this event and the subsequent birth of a grandson did not, however, bring the composer happiness and peace of mind: Emanuele had not forgiven his father for killing his mother, and Gesualdo did not go to his wedding. It appears they may have been reconciled in 1609 when the young couple visited Gesualdo, but fate was to deal the family further blows, destroying the composer’s will to live: first the baby died and then, in 1611, when his wife was pregnant again, Emanuele fell while out hunting and he too died. Maria gave birth to a daughter, bringing the Gesualdo dynasty to an end. When the prince heard the news, he closed his harpsichord, made his will and shut himself away from the outside world. He died eighteen days later, on 8 September 1611, after which his widow withdrew to a convent.

Abbé Michele Giustiniani, in his Lettere memorabili, 1667, helped nurture the image of a tortured and guilt-ridden soul, writing that prior to his death Gesualdo was afflicted by “a strange infirmity, whereby he was soothed by blows dealt to his temples and other parts of his body, while he protected himself with nothing but a bundle of rags. It is a strange recompense that the prince, having aroused admiration and delight in listeners with the melodies and sweetness of his songs and music, should himself find relief and comfort for his inner anguish from such savage beatings.” Some scholars claim that this masochism stemmed not only from his guilt at having murdered his wife, but also from a sense of having sinned in terms of his extra-marital relations: he is known to have conceived at least one child outside marriage, Antonio Gesualdo, because he is mentioned in a postscript to the composer’s will. There are also those who claim he was ashamed of his relationship with an attractive, “athletic” young man, Castelvietro da Modena. While the documentary evidence is plentiful, distinguishing the truth from the kind of rumours and gossip that surrounded the celebrities of the day (plus ça change…) is extremely difficult. It is certainly true that a nobleman of his status and wealth could do pretty much as he pleased, which might well have included indulging in extra-marital relationships with both men and women: as his favourites, they would have enjoyed his protection and generosity, even (as in the case of the illegitimate Antonio) an annuity from a rich father. All this, even if it does not quite tally with Giustiniani’s image of a troubled and tormented Gesualdo, could also be true. Did the prince really cuddle up in bed on cold winter nights with pretty young girls, or attractive young men? Personally, such tales remind me more of scenes from Visconti’s cinematic masterpiece immortalising the late Romantic life of Ludwig of Bavaria than they do the life of a Renaissance prince, but they are all grist to the mill of the world of fantasy that has for centuries surrounded a composer who continues to provoke discussion and controversy…or, perhaps, these days, just admiration.

Marco Longhini
English translation: Susannah Howe

¹ English translation taken from MacClintock, Carol: “Giustiniani’s ‘Discorso sopra la Musica’” Musica Disciplina, Vol 15 (1961), p 214

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