Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Gesualdo's Fame: Music or Murder?

Welcome to February! Last year at this time, we looked at the topic “Jealousy in Music.” Because there are so many interesting stories in music history that relate to this topic, I thought it would be fun to dive into a second round and look at how jealousy played a part in the lives of several composers and performers. This week, let’s talk about Carlo Gesualdo.

Gesualdo was an interesting character, the Prince of Venosa and a well-known composer. During the Renaissance period in which he lived, aristocrats did not typically seek to publish their music as this trade was usually associated with those of lower classes. Gesualdo is known particularly for his madrigals. A madrigal during the sixteenth century was a short secular piece for any number of equally important voices that used free form poetry as its text. (The madrigal took on different forms depending on what time period it was written in so it is important to look at the century during which Gesualdo lived). One key feature of the madrigal was the use of music to enhance the meaning of the text. Many madrigal composers, including Gesualdo, would use word painting. This is a musical term used to describe music that literally represents a text. For instance, if a text talks about climbing stairs, the musical line will move up with the stairs.

Many scholars believe Gesulado was ahead of his time in the way he dealt with harmonies. Some believe his last two books of madrigals to be autobiographical in that they convey a sorrowful mood and the pain he likely experienced in life due to unhappy marriages and various ailments. His “Io parto” e non piu dissi from his Book VI of madrigals is a great example of this sorrow as it portrays a woman who mourns for her lover who is about to depart. When the text refers to the man “returning to life,” the music becomes faster and diatonic, exemplifying this concept of word painting. Can you hear this in this example?

Is Gesualdo famous more so for his music or for the horrific event that occurred in his life? Join me next time as we uncover how jealousy overtook this Renaissance composer, leading to tragedy. 

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