Carlo Gesualdo

1566 1613

Carlo Gesualdo



Carlo Gesualdo was a composer of the high Renaissance, a time of rapid artistic and musical evolution. He is noted for his expressive madrigals and chromatic scared works. The extraordinary individuality of his works gained him substantial posthumous recognition.

Carlo Gesualdo was born into a wealthy family near Naples. His father Fabrizio was married to Girolama Borromeo, niece of Pope Pius and sister of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo and the family attained noble rank after being invested by Philip II in 1560. Very little is known about Carlo Gesualdo’s early life – even his year of birth is undefined. He was born around 1561 and lived in Venosa, which was a part of the kingdom of Naples at the time. After the suspicious death of his older brother, who was to be the heir to the management of the family estates, this duty was bestowed upon Carlo.

In 1586, Gesualdo married his cousin Maria D’Avalos, daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. They had a son, Emanuele. Gesualdo’s wife had an affair with Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria, both of whom Gesualdo murdered on 16 October 1590. He later made it a widely known fact that he stabbed Carafa 27 times, one stab for each month of the affair. As an aristocrat from a powerful family, Gesualdo escaped prosecution and was free to live a comfortable life as a composer.

Gesualdo became Prince of Venosa after the death of his father in 1591. He soon married Leonora d’ Este, the niece of Duke Alfonso of Ferrara and the great-great-granddaughter of Lucrezia Borgia. Together they had a son, Alfonsino.

Gesualdo left Naples and moved to Ferrara where he met many prominent musical figures such as Luzzasco Luzzaschi and Luca Marenzio, which led to a very productive period in Gesualdo’s life.Giulio Caccini, an important figure in early opera who was held in high esteem by Duke Alfonso of Ferrara, had also spent time in Ferrara in 1583 and was also inspired by the Ferrarese style of singing and composing.

Between 1593 and 1596, the ducal press published four books of Gesualdo’s madrigals. Gesualdo lived in a time of rapid evolution in artistic and musical practices and his musical style is associated with the bridge between the Renaissance and the Baroque periods. Gesualdo composed in the Mannerist style  which is characterised by its dramatic expressiveness, following the contours of speech, utilising dissonances and sudden changes in dynamics. Gesualdo used chromaticism in ways that were not heard again until the late 19th century. Gesualdo had great admiration for the aforementioned composer Luzzaschi; Alessandro Guarini compared Luzzaschi and Gesualdo to Dante in a 1610 writing by : ‘‘in imitation of the words … they do not avoid harshness, nor shun dissonance itself, artistic against the rules of the art’ and ‘do not fear to employ hard, unusual and strange sounds".

In 1597, the family moved back to the family estate of Gesualdo outside Naples and in the intervening years, although he suffered from extended bouts of depression and ‘melomania’, he composed most of his sacred works during this period. His wife was known to have complained of boredom and was badly treated by  Gesualdo and her family began divorce proceedings. They lived relatively separate lives at the estate and their relationship turned even more dark following the death of their son Alfonsino in 1600. Alfonsino was rumoured to have been murdered by Carlo Gesualdo, out of fear that he was fathered by another man. Gesualdo commissioned a famous altarpiece to be created at the Capuchins church at Gesualdo, depicting his late uncle Carlo Borromeo, Leonora, Gesualdo himself and the purified soul of Alfonsino.

A political document that survives from 1600 states that  ‘he has an income of more than 40,000 ducats-worth of grain. His ancestors were very French [i.e. anti-Spanish] in outlook, but he is opposed to innovation, attends to money-making and does not delight in anything but music. He keeps a company of men-at-arms’.

Gesualdo had a substantial amount of posthumous attention. Besides his personal notoriety, he has been very highly regarded and even influential in his madrigal style and chromaticism. One notable attempt at imitation of Gesualdo’s style was by Antonio Cifra, another transitional composer between the Renaissance and Baroque styles. He set 18 of Gesualdo’s texts to music in hisMadrigali concertati libro quinto (Venice, 1621), using the melodic and rhythmic character of Gesualdo’s musical language.Stravinsky orchestrated the madrigal Beltà, poi che t’assenti, describing Gesualdo, as “this great if disequilibrated composer”.