Steve C Smith and Peter Phillips
Perhaps Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, is better known today for his life-story and for his madrigals than for his sacred music. Indeed one might assume that the very sensuous idiom of his madrigals was not really suitable for sacred composition. Yet, surprisingly, it transfers very well. In this set of Responsories, as equally in the four Marian motets, we find not only the fascinatingly eccentric music that we have come to associate with him, but also a passionate view, not of profane love this time, but of God.
Gesualdo was born in the south of Italy, probably in Naples, around 1561. He was socially very well connected both with the Church and the aristocracy. One of his uncles was Saint Carlo Borromeo, another was the Archbishop of Naples, and a great-uncle had been Pope Pius IV. He married Maria d'Avalos, daughter of the Marquis of Pescara, whom he eventually assassinated in Naples on 16 October 1590 when he surprised her 'in flagrante delicto di fragrante peccato' with the Duke of Andria. This murder made Gesualdo widely renowned both in his own time and ever since. It also, as it were, sets the scene for his music, which in its passionate style seems to confirm the sensibilities of such behaviour. Although the deed was not technically against the law, Gesualdo inevitably became a potential victim of revenge from the two offended families involved, and he retired to his estates at the town of Gesualdo, where he largely remained until his death in 1613. In 1594 he married Leonora d'Este, niece of the Duke of Ferrara.
From an early age Gesualdo was obsessed with music. To begin with it seems that he was ashamed of this, perhaps for social reasons, and cultivated a pseudonym (Gioseppe Polonij). However the general public interest in him brought his secret into the open, and there are many contemporary testimonies to his abilities as a composer. One of the strongest influences on him was the musical establishment of Alfonso II d'Este in Ferrara, especially the virtuoso singing of 'the three ladies' and the avant-garde compositions of such court composers as Luzzaschi. Through his publications Gesualdo became respected as more than an accomplished amateur at composition and from about 1595 he tried to establish his own group of court musicians at his castle of Gesualdo, near Naples. The last years of his life were spent in seclusion at Gesualdo where his intense melancholia drove him to the verge of insanity. His second wife tried several times to obtain a divorce from him.
Gesualdo holds a special place in the history of Renaissance music. Despite the extraordinary waywardness of his style, he ultimately remained an old-fashioned composer. He did not look forward to the Baroque era, with its music for solo voice and basso continuo, though he lived long enough to have had the chance; but instead he intensified and developed characteristics of the old style, continuing to write for unaccompanied choir or vocal groups, in polyphony. For this reason he is one of the very few musicians who may correctly be termed 'mannerist', and like all the mannerist painters and sculptors of the time, his art was a dead end. He had taken all the elements as far as they would go, without coming anywhere near the wholly new music which Monteverdi was developing in Venice. Most composers who find themselves in Gesualdo's position, stuck in a rut at the end of a stylistic epoch, become pathetic figures, hopelessly revisiting the achievements of their predecessors. That Gesualdo was never at a loss with this idiom is a tribute to his extraordinary imagination. It is also possible that he was aware of the difficulties inherent in using an old language and this very awareness may have contributed to the nervousness of his writing.
It is worth listing what is gained and lost in asking singers to perform such music as this. Of course everything is geared towards greater expression of the text. The words of the Responsories have a deeply emotional content, which led Gesualdo continuously to try to depict their meanings, both overt and covert. Unless the listener understands each word of the text, he will find that he is missing the key to what may otherwise seem like compositional anarchy. With a composer like Palestrina, in many ways Gesualdo's opposite, this key is not necessary, except in the most general terms. Furthermore straightforward madrigalian word-painting was not enough for Gesualdo. He often found it necessary to distort the music in the interests of yet greater expression: the melodic lines are given unusually wide leaps, the rhythmic flow is violently interrupted, the harmony is twisted out of any predictable pattern. With Palestrina there is an overall mood, with Gesualdo the mood can change word by word. With Palestrina the smooth movement of the music and balance of the vocal parts ensures a kind of idealised beauty which can never be tiresome, with Gesualdo the basses may sing above the sopranos, the melodies may leap over an octave or by diminished intervals, the underlying rhythm and tonality be destroyed to produce the most vivid colours that a Renaissance musician ever conceived. What Gesualdo loses in choral sonority through these tricks, he gains in deliberate roughness of effect.
Time and again the listener may feel that Gesualdo has at last gone too far, and that his unpredictability has of its nature become predictable. Yet this never quite happens, for buried deep in his febrile brain Gesualdo had a sense of balance and the musical intuition of a genius. This is most clearly shown in the four Marian motets included here and especially in Maria, Mater gratiae, where he could no longer rely on explicit word-painting. Instead in this work he developed an abstract musical idea, highly original and daring as always, yet with such subtlety that no one may doubt that he had one of the most inventive musical minds of his age.
© 1987 Peter Phillips