Gesualdo, Carlo

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Prince of Venosa, progressive Renaissance composer; b. Naples, c. 1560; d. Naples, Sept. 8, 1613. He lived chiefly at his country estate of Venosa, although his travels in Italy (especially a three-year sojourn in Ferrara) brought him into contact with poets and musicians of the highest rank. He knew Tasso and set several of his poems as madrigals, of which seven books have been preserved. At Ferrara he probably met marenzio, Luzzaschi, and vicentino, whose experiments with subtleties of tuning and temperament may have influenced Gesualdo's sometimes bizarre harmonic vocabulary. This he used as a means of heightening expression in already vivid verbal texts, applying this in some degree to his religious music, most of which he had published in two books of Sacrae cantiones (1603) and a volume of Responsories and other compositions for Holy Week (1611). These are all of excellent quality, although somewhat eclipsed by the subsequent fame of the madrigal books. His reputation has always been clouded by the story, based on substantial evidence, that he ordered the murder of his wife and her lover.

Bibliography: Gesamtausgabe, ed. w. weismann et al. (Hamburg 1960). Tres sacrae cantiones, completed i. strawinsky (New York 1960). c. gray, Carlo Gesualdo (London 1926). g. r. marshall, The Harmonic Laws in the Madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo (doctoral diss. microfilm: New York U. 1956). h. f. redlich, Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, ed. f. blume (Kassel-Basel 1949) 5:4145. "Gesualdo and the Italian Madrigal," Listener 48 (1952) 481. e. lawton, Enciclopedia della musica (Milan 196365) v.1. a. einstein, The Italian Madrigal, tr. a.h. krappe et al., 3 v. (Princeton 1949) 2:688717. d. arnold, Gesualdo (London 1984). l. bianconi, "Carlos Gesualdo" in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, v. 7, ed. s. sadie (New York 1980) 313324. h. meister, "Ausdruck und musikalische Gestalt der Madrigale Gesualdos" (Ph.D. diss. Köln, 1973); "Untersuchungen zum Verhältnis von Text und Vertonung in den Madrigalen Carlo Gesualdos," Kölner Beiträge zur Musikforschung 74 (1973), 1205. d. m. randel, ed., The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music (Cambridge, Mass. 1996) 304. n. slonimsky, ed. Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, (New York 1992) 616.

[d. stevens]

Don Carlo Gesualdo

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Don Carlo Gesualdo

Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa (ca. 1560-1613), was an Italian composer famed for his chromatic madrigals and motets. Few matched him in writing music so removed from traditional modal theory and practice.

Carlo Gesualdo was born in Naples. He studied music at the academy founded by his father, Don Fabrizio of Gesualdo, where he heard the works of Giovanni Macque, Bartolomeo Roy, and Pomponio Nenna. Nenna's madrigals, in particular, influenced Gesualdo's style.

After the death of his older brother in 1585, the composer became heir to the Gesualdo title. With the title came an arranged marriage to his cousin, a marriage that was a catastrophe for both parties. Donna Maria d'Avalos, twice married before she became Gesualdo's wife, openly preferred the love of another. In 1590, to avenge his honor, Gesualdo ordered the guilty pair murdered, together with his second child, whose legitimacy was suspect.

In 1594 Gesualdo married Eleonora d'Este, the daughter of Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, at whose court lived Torquato Tasso, Nicolò Vicentino, and Luzzasco Luzzaschi. On several occasions Gesualdo set to music the lyrics of his friend Tasso, whose morbid nature was so similar to his own; and hearing the chromatic experiments of Luzzaschi and Vicentino may well have reinforced the direction of his own musical development. Gesualdo remained at Ferrara for 2 years, frequently taking trips to Florence, where he heard the music of the Camerata. Shortly before the death of his father-in-law in 1597, Gesualdo left northern Italy and returned to Naples, where he remained for the rest of his life. He died on Sept. 8, 1613.

Gesualdo's extant works in the collected edition issued by Wilhelm Weismann and Glenn E. Watkins (Hamburg, 1957—) comprise 19 sacrae cantiones for five voices and 20 for six and seven voices, 27 Holy Week responsories for six voices, and 125 madrigals for five voices. Not only were the madrigals the most numerous part of his production, but they were also reissued more frequently than the sacred pieces.

Gesualdo's melancholy nature often led him to lyrics of overwhelming sadness. By using chromatic tones, even earlier associated with intense feelings, he heightened the expressiveness of the poetry through music. Although his chromatic passages were sometimes mere pictorial "madrigalisms," Gesualdo more often delineated the overall mood of the text rather than individual words. He employed chromaticism harmonically as well as melodically. By means of chromatic tones he constructed numerous triadic combinations foreign to the mode and then arranged them in unconventional and exciting ways.

Chromaticism in a melodic line was of course not new at this time, but Gesualdo's exaggerated use of it did much to weaken the modal core of his pieces. By so doing, he stretched the limits of the old style even when he remained within the fold of the polyphonists. In this sense Gesualdo was more conservative than the Florentine Camerata, a group who deliberately overthrew the older structures. While their experiments reached forward to the new monodic style, Gesualdo's chromatic madrigals and motets remained the most fevered and impassioned examples of the old practice. To some Gesualdo remains a bizarre experimenter, but to others he is a genius whose art is only now receiving its due recognition.

Further Reading

Gesualdo's life is outlined in Cecil Gray and Philip Heseltine, Carlo Gesualdo: Prince of Venosa, Musician and Murderer (1926), and in Cecil Gray, Contingencies and Other Essays (1947). Useful background studies are Alfred Einstein, The Italian Madrigal (trans. 1949), and Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959). □

Gesualdo, Carlo

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Gesualdo, Carlo

Gesualdo, Carlo, Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza, Italian lutenist and composer; b. probably in Naples, c. 1560; d. there, Sept. 8, 1613. In 1590, his unfaithful wife and 1st cousin, Maria d’Avalos, and her lover were murdered at Gesualdo’s orders. In 1594 he was at the court of the Estensi in Ferrara, where he married his 2nd wife, Leonora d’Este, the same year. Sometime after the death of the Duke of Ferrara, in 1597, Carlo returned to Naples, where he remained until death. Living in the epoch when the “new music” (the homophonic style) made its appearance, he was one of the most original musicians of the time. Like Rore, Banchieri, and Vincentino, he was a so-called chromaticist. His later madrigals reveal a distinctly individual style of expression and are characterized by strong contrasts, new (for their time) harmonic progressions, and a skillful use of dissonance; he was a master in producing tone color through, the use of different voice registers and in expressing the poetic contents of his texts. He publ. 6 vols. of madrigals a 5 (1594-1611; modern ed. by F. Vatielli and A. Bizzelli, 1956-58). A complete edition of his works was ed. by W. Weisman and G. Watkins (10 vols., 1957-67).


R Keiner, Die Madrigale G. s von Venosa (diss., Univ. of Leipzig, 1914); C. Gray and P. Heseltine, C. G., Prince of Venosa, Musician and Murderer (London, 1926); F. Vatielli, II Principe di Venosa e Leonora d’Este (Milan, 1941); G. Watkins, G., The Man and His Music (London, 1973); A. Vaccaro, C. G., principe di Venosa: L’uomo e i tempi (Venosa, 1989; 2nd ed., rev. and aug., 1998).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

Gesualdo, Don Carlo

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Gesualdo, Don Carlo, Prince of Venosa (b Naples, c.1560; d Gesualdo, Avellino, 1613). It. composer and lutenist. Pubd. 4 books of madrigals from 1594 to 1596 when at court of the Estensi at Ferrara. Returned to Naples 1597. Two further books of madrigals pubd. 1611; these contain harmonic complexity and modernity far in advance of his contemps. in the 20th cent., for example, these madrigals inspired and fascinated Stravinsky. Also wrote motets and religious songs. In 1590 his first wife and her lover were murdered on Gesualdo's orders, an event which is explored in a book on Gesualdo by Cecil Gray and Philip Heseltine (1926).

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