Monday, May 15, 2006

Gesualdo: Genius and Murderer (1560? - 1613)

The Weird Aryan History Series - Lesson #12

Don Carlo Gesualdo (c.1560 - 1613)

Italian composer. Born of a noble Neapolitan family (he became Prince of Venosa), he probably studied music with Pomponio Nenna.

Gesualdo's output consists of six volumes of five-part madrigals, published from 1594; two books of what became known as polyphonic motets and one of responsories; and a few keyboard works. Though from the south, he is linked by his visits to Ferrara and his friendship with Tasso with the 'mannerist' madrigalists of northern Italy. Wayward harmonies in his earlier madrigals develop, in his later ones, into wild and passionate juxtapositions of fast and slow motion, and of total and extremely chromatic harmony. [I myself have some of his music and it sounds very weird and haunting, even today. - HAC]

One musical commentator wrote "These violent contrasts seem to reflect Gesualdo's neurotic personality; from a stylistic viewpoint his harmonic experiments are more the ultimate outcome of sixteenth century harmonic vocabulary than prophetic of the music that was to come; it was only in the eccentricity of his melodic lines that some monodists followed ." In his lifetime, Gesualdo's music was so odd that it was considered proof that he was insane.

Another of Gesualdo's biographers wrote, "Temperamentally he was given to excess, and the sensational murder of his first wife and her lover in 1590 was one of the great sixteenth century musical scandals."

Er...that's one way to put it, yes. Warning: some really raunchy stuff follows.

Don Carlo Gesualdo was rich, artistic, and - as the second son of a noble Neapolitan family - free to indulge his passion for music. But disaster struck: his brother died, and it was decreed that he must carry on the line. The bride found for him - Donna Maria d'Avalos - was his cousin, and the greatest beauty in town. Older and more experienced, she had already sent two husbands to their graves (one, it is rumoured, from "an excess of connubial bliss.") The marriage between the two of them would have been roughly similar to a marriage between Anna Nicole Smith and Bill Gates, if Gates turned out to be a homicidal maniac.

Gesualdo sired several children, after which he lost interest in sex. But it still interested his wife. One day his uncle told him she was brazenly enjoying a rip-roaring affair with the handsome Duke of Andria, and that whenever possible they would "invite each other to battle on the fields of love", sometimes even in his house. Alerted to the fact that Gesualdo knew about the affair, the Duke tried to persuade Donna Maria that they must end the liaison, but she said she'd rather die. As it turned out, that could be arranged.

Thus was the scene set for Don Carlo's historic act. It was kind of the O. J. Simpson case of Renaissance Italy, without the racial angle.

One night in April of 1590, Gesualdo pulled the old stunt of pretending to leave home on a business trip and came home "unexpectedly" to his castle or villa around midnight to find the two of them together in his marital bed. There are a number of versions of what followed, all of them bizarre and scandalous.

According to one account, Gesualdo did not even enter the room, but sent in some hired thugs of the kind that were a dime a dozen in Naples to do the deed, and they simply hacked the nude couple to death in the bed, with a couple of pistol shots to finish them off.

According to another version, the doomed lovers had some warning and the Duke attempted to escape out the window dressed in the Princess's clothes, most chivalrously leaving Maria behind to face the music. But Gesualdo and his goons dragged him back in, stabbed and shot him to death, tossed the body out the window, and Gesualdo then whiled away the hours until dawn torturing his wife to death with "unspeakable practices," primly left to the imagination by the chroniclers of the time.

Some contemporary accounts have him disemboweling her, some have her both disemboweled and slit at the throat Jack the Ripper style. Another persistent story (they had no National Enquirer back then but the gossip was just as hot) had the monks who were supposed to be chanting Maria's funeral mass ravished her corpse because of her fetching good looks (really, no kidding).

In any event, after he finished murdering his wife, Gesualdo went to the nursery, killed his youngest infant by bashing his head against the wall because Gesualdo suspected the child's paternity, and then killed a nanny who tried to stop him from despatching the oldest boy as well. At this point Gesualdo's servants and a priest restrained him from killing the little boy, pointing out that this was the family heir and hadn't he done enough murdering for one night? Or words to that effect. It should be pointed out that under the moral and legal code of the time, having caught his wife and her toy boy in flagrante delicto, Gesualdo was entirely entitled to do what he did and no one in high society blamed him for the actual killings. They did sneer at his alleged cowardice in having his hired bravos do the actual wet work.

As odd as it may seem, four years later Gesualdo found another noble lady willing to marry him, Eleonora d'Este of the ruling house of Ferrara, and she apparently stepped out on him as well, this time with her stepbrother who was a priest. Gesualdo seems to have mellowed with age; this time he merely had the stepbrother's throat cut and dumped his body in a nearby river, and locked Eleonora up in one of his rural castles.

Gesualdo's music, highly progressive in terms of harmony, imagine Wagner or Hugo Wolf in madrigal form, has often been connected to the composer's dark side. He eventually went insane with guilt over his deed, and in particular was perpetually constipated because of latent then overt horror over how he killed his wife. (Well, so the gossips say.) The actual cause of death was blood poisoning due to this contant state of constipation. (Actually, this is somewhat similar to how Elvis died on the crapper at Gracelands, and in a sense Gesualdo's music was so avant-garde he was kind of the Elvis of the sixteenth century. Maybe it's an occupational hazard for musicians.)

You can still buy Gesualdo's music on CD through Amazon or in any good music store. Check it out if you're into medieval and Renaissance chant and song.


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