Carlo Gesualdo, the Prince of Venosa, is one of the great myths in Western music. He’s remembered for his sinister acts of vengeance as much as he is for penning intensely chromatic and passionate madrigals, which, even today sound terrifyingly modern. However, his music is deceptively anachronistic. At the same time he thrust word painting beyond the pale, he continued to write in multi-voiced styles, even as opera became the rage.
We all have life-shaping musical moments. Discovering the madrigal “Moro, lasso, al mio duolo,” is one of my most memorable. I analyzed it in my first music history paper, losing a bit of my sanity in the process (after all, the title translates to “I die, sinking, in my sorrow”). It’s a psychotic work of genius and if you’re not transfixed after the first few bars, I’d question the existence of your soul.
If you want to know more of Gesualdo’s exploits, Alex’s Ross’ wrote a great article in 2011, and Werner Herzog, an artist to match Gesualdo’s passion, directed a bizarre short film titled Death for five Voices (1995). Glenn Watkins wrote the definitive biography in 1974, and an updated book in 2010 (which I wish I’d had when writing my paper). Gesualdo also wrote religious music that is just as insane as his secular work. The King’s Singers produced a transcendent recording of Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday. Happy listening.