Don Carlo Gesualdo

It's like something out of a Shakespearean drama. The jealous young husband steps out of his wife's bedchamber with bloodied hands, having just caught her in flagrante delicto with her lover, turns around with the words "I can't believe they are dead", goes back and plunges his knife once more into his wife's womb. This actual murder, witnessed on 26th October 1590, makes Don Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) unique in the history of music. Despite its impact on the reception history of Gesualdo it escapes our understanding, because the circumstances are too far removed and too many details remain unexplained.

In essence, Gesualdo's entire life is a unique case in the history of music. He was born on 8th March 1566 as the second son of the Prince of Venosa in southern Italy. Naturally, part of his aristocratic upbringing included various musical studies, which in Gesualdo's case must have been particularly intensive. For dynastic reasons, he married his cousin, six years his senior, in 1586, when he had already published his first compositions in collected works. This marriage must not have been a very happy one, and resulted in the terrible events of October 1590.

According to legal standards of the time, Gesualdo was not prosecuted for the murder. In 1593 he married a second time. The marriage associated him and his principality with one of the most influential families in Italy, the d'Este family of Ferrara, at whose court some of the most important musicians of the time performed, such as the madrigal composer Luzzasco Luzzaschi. Until 1596 Gesualdo published a total of four books of madrigals, after which he gradually disappeared into obscurity. In 1611, two more books of madrigals and Gesualdo's setting of the Responsories of Holy Week were published. He died on 8th September 1613.

For a long time, Gesualdo's music went unnoticed and was regarded as an oddity. The rediscovery, around 1960, showed that Gesualdo, with his excessive chromaticism and expressive harmonies, belongs to a broader trend in Italian music. The powerful effect of these musical means, however, strikes us as unique, such that its power to fascinate remains undiminished.

As of September 2021

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