Carlo Gesualdo

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Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa

Carlo Gesualdo (?March 8, ?1566September 8, 1613), Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza, was an Italian composer, lutenist, nobleman, and notorious murderer of the late Renaissance. He is famous for his intensely expressive madrigals, which use a chromatic language not heard again until the 19th century; and he is also famous for committing what are possibly the most famous murders in musical history.



Gesualdo was part of an aristocratic family which acquired the principality of Venosa in 1560. His uncle was Carlo Borromeo, later Saint Charles Borromeo. In addition, Gesualdo's mother, Girolama, was the niece of Pope Pius IV.

Most likely he was born at Venosa, but little else is known about his early life; even his birthdate — 1560 or 1561, or 1566 — is a matter of some dispute, though a recently discovered letter from his mother indicates he was probably born in 1566. Gesualdo had a musical relationship with Pomponio Nenna, though whether it was student to teacher, or colleague to colleague, is uncertain. At any rate he had a single-minded devotion to music from an early age, and showed little interest in anything else.

The murders

In 1586 Gesualdo married his first cousin, Maria d'Avalos, the daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. Two years later she began to have a love affair with Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria; evidently she was able to keep it secret from her husband for almost two years, even though the existence of the affair was well-known elsewhere. Finally, on October 16, 1590, when Gesualdo had allegedly gone away on a hunting trip, the two lovers took insufficient precaution at last (Gesualdo had arranged with his servants for the doors to be left unlocked), and he returned to his palace in Naples, caught them in flagrante delicto and brutally murdered them both in their bed; afterwards he carried their mutilated bodies to a public place in Naples and left them for all to see. (Maria was "viciously stabbed in the parts which it is best for a woman to keep modest," read a contemporary account.) Being a nobleman he was immune to prosecution, though not to revenge, so he fled to his castle at Gesualdo where he would be safe from any of the relatives of either his wife or her lover.

The murders were widely publicized, including in verse by poets such as Tasso and an entire flock of Neapolitan poets, eager to capitalize on the sensation; the salacious details of the murders were broadcast in print; but nothing was done to apprehend the Prince of Venosa. The police report (described in reference 1, below) from the scene makes for shocking reading even after more than four hundred years.

Accounts on events after the murders differ. According to some contemporary sources, Gesualdo also murdered his second son by Maria, who was an infant, after looking into his eyes and doubting his paternity (according to contemporary sources he "swung the infant around in his cradle until the breath left his body"); another source indicates that he murdered his father-in-law as well, after the man had come seeking revenge. Gesualdo employed a company of men-at-arms to ward off just such an event.

Ferrara years

In 1594 Gesualdo went to Ferrara, one of the centers of progressive musical activity in Italy — especially the madrigal — and which was home to Luzzasco Luzzaschi, one of the most forward-looking composers in the genre. There he also arranged for another marriage, this time to Leonora d'Este, the niece of Duke Alfonso II. What she thought at the time about marrying a manic-depressive, melomaniacal murderer is not known, though she married Gesualdo and moved with him back to his estate in 1597; in the meantime he enjoyed more than two years of creative activity in the avant-garde atmosphere of Ferrara, surrounded by some of the finest musicians in Italy. While in Ferrara he published his first books of madrigals. Also when he was in Ferrara he worked with the concerto di donne, the three virtuoso female singers who were among the most renowned performers in Italy, and for whom many other composers were writing.

Return to Gesualdo

After returning to his castle at Gesualdo from Ferrara in 1595, he attempted to set up a similar situation to that which existed in Ferrara, with a group of resident, virtuoso musicans who would sing his own music. While his estate became a center of music-making, it was for Gesualdo alone; with his considerable financial resources, he was able to hire singers and instrumentalists for his own pleasure, but he was a solitary man by nature and his estate never became a cultural center the way the Este estate at Ferrara did. From about 1599 until his death in 1613, he hardly ever left his castle, and music seems to have been his only passion. Most of his famous music was published in Naples in 1603 and 1611, and the most notoriously chromatic and difficult portion of it was all written during his period of isolation.

The relationship between Gesualdo and his new wife was not good; she accused him of abuse, and the Este family tried to get her a divorce. She spent more and more time away from Gesualdo's isolated estate, and he wrote many angry letters to Modena where she often went to stay with her brother.

In 1600 his son by his second marriage died. It was after this that Gesualdo had a large painting commissioned for the Church of the Capuchins at Gesualdo, which shows Carlo Gesualdo, his uncle Carlo Borromeo, his second wife Leonora, and his dead son, underneath a group of angelic figures.

Late in life he suffered from depression; whether or not it was related to the guilt over his multiple murders is difficult to prove, but the evidence is suggestive. According to Campanella, writing in Lyons in 1635, he had himself beaten daily by his servants; and he kept a special servant whose duty it was to beat him "at stool" (1); and he engaged in a relentless, and fruitless, correspondence with Cardinal Borromeo to obtain relics, i.e. skeletal remains, of his uncle Carlo, with which he hoped to obtain healing for his mental disorder, and possibly absolution for his crimes. His late setting of Psalm 51, the Miserere, is almost unique in musical history for its insistent and imploring repetition of the line "Have mercy on me, O Lord, for my terrible sin."

Gesualdo died in isolation, at his castle Gesualdo in Avellino, three weeks after the death of his son Emanuele, his first son by his marriage to Maria.

Music and style

The evidence that Gesualdo was tortured by guilt for the remainder of his life is considerable, and he may have given expression to it in his music. One of the most obvious characteristics of his music is the extravagant text setting of words representing extremes of emotion: "love", "pain", "death", "ecstasy", "agony" and other similar words occur frequently in his madrigal texts, most of which he probably wrote himself. While this type of word-painting is common among madrigalists of the late 16th century, it reached an extreme development in Gesualdo's music.

While he was famous for his murders, he also remains famous for his music, which is among the most experimental and expressive of the Renaissance, and without question is the most wildly chromatic; progressions such as those written by Gesualdo did not appear again in music until the 19th century, and then in a context of tonality that prevents them from being directly comparable.

Gesualdo's published music falls into three categories: sacred vocal music, secular vocal music, and instrumental music. His most famous compositions are his six published books of madrigals (between 1594 and 1611), as well as his Tenebrae Responsories, which are very much like madrigals, except that they use texts from the Passion. In addition to the works which he published, he left a large quantity of music in manuscript; this contains some of his richest experiments in chromaticism, as well as compositions in such contemporary avant-garde forms as monody. Some of these were products of the years he spent in Ferrara, and some were specifically written for the virtuoso singers there, the three women of the "concerto di donne".

The first books of madrigals that Gesualdo published are close in style to the work of other contemporary madrigalists. Experiments with harmonic progression, cross-relation and violent rhythmic contrast increase in the later books, with Books Five and Six containing the most famous and extreme examples (for instance, the madrigals "Moro, lasso, al mio duolo" and "BeltÓ, poi che t'assenti", both of which are in Book Six, published in 1611)

Characteristic of the Gesualdo style is a sectional format in which relatively slow-tempo passages of wild, occasionally shocking chromaticism alternate with quick-tempo diatonic passages. Text is closely wedded to the music, with individual words being given maximum attention. Some of the chromatic passages include all twelve notes of the chromatic scale within a single phrase, although scattered throughout different voices. Gesualdo was particularly fond of chromatic third relations, for instance juxtaposing the chords of A major and F major, or even A minor and D-flat major (as he does at the beginning of "Moro, lasso").

His most famous sacred composition is the set of Tenebrae Responsories, published in 1611, which are stylistically madrigali spirituali — madrigals on sacred texts. As in the later books of madrigals, he uses particularly sharp dissonance and shocking chromatic juxtapositions, especially in the parts highlighting text passages having to do with Christ's suffering, or the guilt of St. Peter in having betrayed Jesus.

Influence and reputation

Gesualdo had little influence at the time, although a few composers such as Sigismondo d'India and Antonio Cifra wrote a handful of works in imitation of his madrigalian style; it was only in the 20th century that he was rediscovered. The life of Gesualdo provided inspiration for numerous works of fiction and music drama, including a novel by Anatole France. In addition, 20th century composers responded to his music with tributes of their own; Alfred Schnittke wrote an opera in 1995 based on his life, and Igor Stravinsky arranged Gesualdo's madrigal "Beltà, poi che t'assenti" as part of his Monumentum pro Gesualdo (1960).

While other composers at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century wrote experimental music, Gesualdo's creation was unique and isolated, without heirs or followers, a fascinating dead-end in musical history, and an analogue to his personal isolation as an heirless prince, ruined by guilt.


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References and further reading

  • (1) C. Gray and P. Heseltine: Carlo Gesualdo, Musician and Murderer. London, 1926.
  • The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1561591742
  • Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0393095304
  • The Concise Edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. Revised by Nicolas Slonimsky. New York, Schirmer Books, 1993. ISBN 002872416X
  • Alfred Einstein: The Italian Madrigal. Princeton, 1949.
  • G. Watkins: Gesualdo: the Man and his Music. London, 1975.


External links

de:Carlo Gesualdo eo:Carlo GESUALDO fr:Carlo Gesualdo it:Carlo Gesualdo fi:Carlo Gesualdo sv:Carlo Gesualdo


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