ART/4/LIFE: #6 – Carlo Gesualdo

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.


2 thoughts on “ART/4/LIFE: #6 – Carlo Gesualdo

  1. The subject of descent into madness is obviously a fertile field in the history of the dramatic arts, not to mention that of dramatic artists. “Moro, lasso” is both Gesualdo’s best known work and, despite his anachronistic take on dissonance against the older Renaissance form, is almost archetypal of Baroque affect. One of my all time faves as well. (I prefer a performance with less vibrato and dynamic embellishment which seem to obscure the drama of the exquisite dissonances.)

    Coincidentally, I first heard the piece when visiting your parents in Tampa in the mid-70s when I was in school in Sarasota. Your mother was grading papers (some of which were barely literate) and somehow the subject of Gesualdo came up. I was, of course, floored by the piece. She mentioned the 1926 biography by Cecil Gray and Philip Heseltine (“Carlo Gesualdo, Musician and Murderer), which I read.

    (Later bios are likely much better in almost every way imaginable, but I was fascinated also by the figure of biographer Hesseltine (who was also a composer who used the nom de plume, “Peter Warlock”). He seems to have himself suffered a descent into madness that led to his suicide at age 36.)

    Mad scenes are always delicious. When I was in Perth I herd a performance by William Christie’s gifted ensemble, including a phenomenal performance by young countertenor Carlo Vistoli singing “Ah! Stigie larve” from Handel’s “Orlando”. A scary scene of murderous rage, interspersed with moments of tenderness when he sees his deceitful lover’s eyes (which just make that much creepier). There isn’t a good recording online of Vistoli doing it, but see this scene with a mezzo playing the role (start around 3:00 in):

    • Madness is definitely a fertile topic and Werner Herzog has built his career around exploring it. I’m not totally sold on this performance as well with the excessive vibrato and all but I do think it captures a bit of Gesualdo’s psychotic change in mood. It’s actually from Herzog’s film.

      Thanks for sharing the story of Gesualdo in Tampa. I would imagine most people remember where they first hear his music. It’s like stumbling into the skeleton closet when you’re a young, bright-eyed music student. I had no idea Peter Warlock wrote a book on him. I need to look into it and do some research on his personal life which only adds to the mystery.

      I’m not that familiar with Orlando except that it’s one of Handel’s most famous operas. Opera as a genre is pretty much built on madness so I guess we should be thankful that there are no shortage of tales of jealousy and madness… I’m thinking of you Salome.

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