Renaissance composer mixed music and murder

​Camerata Nova, with guest conductor Christopher Jackson, present Where's Gesualdo? at Crescent Fort Rouge Church on March 7 and 8.

Camerata Nova presents the music of Gesualdo March 7 and 8 at Crescent Fort Rouge Church

Camerata Nova with Andrew Balfour (left, front) and Christopher Jackson (right, front) (Chris Black)

The music and life of Prince Don Carlo Gesualdo have fascinated me for years.  A seriously rich and powerful nobleman who wrote music in 1600 that sounds like it was written yesterday and who murdered his wife and her lover and who went mad at the end of his life?  Hollywood couldn’t dream up anything better…

  • Born in 1560, he was known as Gesualdo da Venosa, Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza.  The Principality of Venosa was part of the Kingdom of Naples. His family was wealthy, powerful and very connected to the Vatican.  His uncle was Saint Charles Borromeo and his great uncle was Pope Pius IV.
  • From an early age, he had a single-minded devotion to music and showed little interest in anything else.  He played lute, harpsichord and guitar. Through private tutors and self-teaching he became a skilled musician and composer.
  • In 1586 he married his first cousin, Donna Maria d’Avalos, daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. Two years later, she started a love affair with Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria. She kept the affair secret from her husband for almost two years, even though it was well known to others.
    Gesualdo returned to the palace, caught them in flagrante delicto and murdered them both in their bed. - Andrew Balfour

  • The brutal showdown happened on October 16, 1590, at the Gesualdo’s palazzo in Naples. He pretended to go away on a hunting trip. He arranged with his servants to have keys to the locks of his palace copied in wood so that he could gain entrance if it were locked. The two lovers took insufficient precaution. Gesualdo returned to the palace, caught them in flagrante delicto and murdered them both in their bed. Afterward, he left their mutilated bodies in front of the palace for all to see.
  • Being a nobleman he was immune to prosecution, but not to revenge, so he fled to his castle at Venosa where he would be safe from any of the relatives of either his wife or her lover. While in hiding in his castle, Gesualdo had an entire forest cut down that lay between the castle and the town of Venosa so that he could see if angry relatives and/or their henchmen or lawmen were approaching.
  • The murders got lots of publicity. Many poets wrote verses trying to capitalize on the sensation. Even though the salacious details of the murders were broadcast in print, nothing was done to arrest Gesualdo. Presumably he was viewed as too powerful. 
  • In 1594 and 1595 he lived in Ferrara where he played a public part in the progressive music scene of the city. He met his second wife there whom he married in 1597. Relations with her quickly turned sour and she spent most of her time with her family in Modena.
    Don Carlo Gesualdo wrote highly innovative, emotional and expressive music. (Smokehouse Design)
  • When he returned to Venosa, he basically became a recluse. He hired his own virtuoso musicians who lived in his castle and sang his own music for him alone in his chapel. It is hard to imagine what it would have been like to be one of the musicians in his employ. It must have been an eerie and dangerous assignment.
  • Gesualdo suffered from huge depression and, one can assume, guilt and remorse. He had himself beaten daily and spent endless time on quests to buy holy relics that he thought would cure his mental illness and give him absolution. 
  • During this time of madness and isolation, he wrote only sacred music, including Marian motets (did he have his first wife, Maria, in mind?) and music related to death and the religious services in Holy Week. His style, which had always been emotional and personally expressive became intensely more so.
  • He died in isolation in 1613.
  • His music lay virtually dormant for 300 years. His reputation became a small footnote for scholars about the Mad Prince or the Butcher of Venosa. In the early 20th century, modern maverick composers such as Berg, Schoenberg and Stravinsky became interested in his innovative, chromatic, radically expressive style.  
  • His music, like that of many Renaissance composers, really started to be performed frequently again with the early music revival of the second half of the 20th century.
    Video: Kayla Jeanson

Camerata Nova, with guest conductor Christopher Jackson, present Where's Gesualdo? at Crescent Fort Rouge Church on March 7 at 8 p.m. and March 8 at 3 p.m.. Preconcert talks will begin 45 minutes prior to the concerts.