GESUALDO, Carlo

(c. 1561-1613)
Carlo Gesualdo, prince of Venosa, was both a member of the high Neapolitan nobility and a composer of madrigals and other vocal music. A controversial figure, he is remembered today for his highly expressive chromatic composi­tional style as well as for the notorious double murder of his first wife and her lover. Gesualdo married his cousin, Maria d'Avalos, in Naples in 1586. The murder took place in 1590 and plunged Gesualdo deeper into a melancholia that affected him throughout his life. In 1594 he married Leonora d'Este, the niece of Alfonso II, duke of Ferrara. This second marriage was of great importance for his development as a musician in that it brought him into contact with many of the musicians at Ferrara. There he met Luzzasco Luzzaschi, a composer who profoundly influenced Gesualdo, and Nicola Vicentino, a music theorist whose arcicembalo, an experimental keyboard instrument, permitted performance of chromatic and microtonal intervals. While at Ferrara, Gesualdo had his first four books of madrigals published. These early works won him a reputation as a skilled composer and marked the development of his mature personal style.
The most recognizable aspect of Gesualdo's style is his use of chromaticism and dissonance for expressive effect. His works are complex, are irregular in form, and display the composer's concern to set each verbal image with its own unique musical representation. Gesualdo typically avoided pastoral and narrative texts, preferring short epigrammatic poems that allowed him to focus upon elab­orate musical settings. With his attention directed primarily toward the music, selecting poems of the highest literary quality became a secondary consideration for him.
Gesualdo's compositions consist of six books of five-voice madrigals, two volumes of motets (the Sacrae cantiones), and a collection of responsories for Holy Week. His works, including both secular and sacred compositions, gen­erally seem to be directed toward audiences with somewhat esoteric tastes and to be intended for private, aristocratic performance situations.
The music of Gesualdo seems to have had little immediate impact upon the history of music. His works, though admired by many, were too extreme in style to form the basis for future developments. These compositions, however, make up a remarkable body of work, often strikingly beautiful and strange. This is music of a composer highly skilled in contrapuntal technique, and it demon­strates the potential for intense chromaticism within the linear practice of the sixteenth century. It is music of an eccentric artist whose individual style marked the end of the late Renaissance.
Bibliography
S. Sadie, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1980.
Tucker Robison

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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