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Carlo Gesualdo

Language available : english
Gesualdo's strength was his ability to combine musically a variety of unconventional strategies into the service of a deeply felt and psychologically effective whole. His style, once regarded as unique, has helped to open up an entire field of study relating to the avant-garde of the late 16th century, sometimes referred to by scholars as the "Mannerist Revolution." This movement vanished once Baroque style came to the forefront of music in Italy. However, he continued to influence composers well into the 20th century. Ernst Krenek stated that: "If Gesualdo had been taken as seriously in his time as he is now, music history would have taken an entirely different course." Igor Stravinsky also became an admirer, reflected in his work Monumentum pro Gesualdo, which are arrangements of several Gesualdo madrigals. Carlo Gesualdo was born the second son of the Second Prince of Venosa, probably in the town that bears his family's name. After receiving musical training from Stefano Felis, Giovanni de Macque, and possibly Pomponio Nenna, Gesualdo's earliest known work appears in 1585, when he was 19. That same year, his elder brother died at 20, making marriage an imperative for the younger Gesualdo as the new heir. The bride was his first cousin, Maria d'Avalos, at age 25 already twice widowed. They wed in Naples in 1586, and the following year an heir was born. In the autumn of 1590 Gesualdo discovered d'Avalos in an affair with the Duke of Andria and assisted by three servants, killed them both. The incident attracted public outrage, but there would be no trial, as authorities from both Church and State convened to dispose of the matter. Gesualdo's father died in 1591, and another marriage was arranged to Donna Leonora d'Este, taking place in Ferrara in February 1594. In Ferrara, Gesualdo met court composer Luzzascho Luzzaschi and his "secret music," and became a close friend of the poet Torquato Tasso. Gesualdo's six books of madrigals constitute the main body of his work, and most of them were written while he was in Ferrara. Books I and II (1594) are rooted in standard practice, but when compared to contemporary settings of the same poetry, they reveal a stubbornly individual mind at work. Book III (1595) shows a decreased reliance on pre-existing settings, and by Book IV (1596), all the texts used are original. Here, Gesualdo's mature style begins to emerge. Books V and VI did not appear until 1611, but in these editions, Gesualdo states the madrigals were written "15 years" prior to the date of publication and were printed only to protect the works from plagiarists. Upon returning to his estate late in 1596, Gesualdo resolved to travel no more. In 1597, d'Este bore Gesualdo a second son who died in 1600, an event that plunged the Prince into a deep despair. The couple separated in 1608, and in 1610 d'Este began divorce proceedings against Gesualdo, but changed her mind and returned. During this period Gesualdo published three books of sacred music. The first two, entitled Sacrae Cantiones, appeared in 1603, and in the second book Gesualdo expanded his usual five-part texture into six and seven parts, though two of the partbooks are lost. The third book, Responsoria (1611), represents Gesualdo's final musical statement. It is entirely in his late style, and the responses composed for the Good Friday service contains some of the most assured and eloquent music that he composed. Music historians often refer to Gesualdo's later style as pre-Wagnerian in its foreshadowing -- by more than 200 years -- of Wagner's daring chromaticism. Gesualdo was known to be violently asthmatic his whole life, and obsessive about music. In later years, he would pursue masochistic practices which chronically served to weaken him physically, his spirit already broken by a decade of mental illness and increasing social isolation. In 1613, Gesualdo's elder son died, and he himself followed on September 8 at age 47. Fittingly, the circumstances of Gesualdo's death remain questionable and debatable. It is commonly speculated that his wife had some involvement in the composer's demise.
© TiVo Staff /TiVo
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