Born on 8th March 1566 (1560 or 1561, according to some historians), Don Carlo Gesualdo was the second son of the aristocratic Neapolitan couple Fabrizio Gesualdo and Girolama Borromeo. They were rich landowners, owning a palace in Naples and two castles respectively in Gesualdo village near Naples and in their ancestral town of Venosa.
Don Carlo, who was musically inclined since boyhood, is said to have studied under the brilliant Italian composer, Pomponio Nenna. He began composing conservative madrigals and sacred works, publishing a well-harmonized motet (an unaccompanied choral composition with sacred lyrics) in 1585, but later on, since his wealth made him independent of the whims of any employer, he was able to develop his own innovative musical approach.
Don Carlo’s rather single-minded pursuit of music was interrupted by the death of his older brother in 1584. As the new Prince of Venosa, he was now expected to assume responsibilities for the Family Estates and for consolidating the Gesualdo future. A marriage was arranged with his beautiful, twice-widowed cousin Donna Maria d’Avalos, who already had two children from her previous marriages and who duly produced the much-needed Gesualdo heir, Don Emmanuele.
Don Carlo, who had never been interested in her in the first place and had bisexual tendencies besides, returned soon afterwards to his music and young men. Ignored thus, his frustrated wife turned for comfort to a married man with four children, Don Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria. Their two-year affair, conducted in utmost secrecy with the connivance of the servants, was discovered by Don Carlo’s Uncle, Don Giulio, who had himself propositioned to Donna Maria and been snubbed. Now, driven by jealousy, he informed his nephew of the situation and the infuriated Don Carlo determined on avenging his honor. Ostensibly leaving on a long hunting trip, he lulled the lovers into a false sense of security and then, returning to smash his way into the bedroom and catching them in flagrante delicto, he slew them both in cold blood. Their horrifically stabbed, naked bodies were displayed to the whole city the next morning. It was one of the great scandals of 1590 and became the subject of many poetic odes, but Don Carlo, the perpetrator, was never brought to trial on account of his aristocratic lineage. The murders, however, did not leave him unaffected and, overcome with remorse and the terror of everlasting damnation, he began to show signs of Manic Depression.
Despite his crime and growing instability however, Don Carlo was able to remarry in February 1594. The bride this instance was Eleonora d’Este, the cousin of the Duke Alfonso II d’Este of Ferrara, who suggested the marriage to thwart a papal-takeover of his heirless property. As before it wasn’t the personal charms of the bride, whom he had never as yet seen, that made Don Carlo agree to the match; he was far more attracted by the great musical tradition of the Ferrarese Court, where he remained for two years and where there were daily after-dinner concerts featuring an incredible array of Brass, Woodwind, Stringed, Keyboard Instruments (Cornett, Sackbutt, Trombone, Flute, Recorder, Lute, Guitar, Viola da Gamba, Viele a Roue, Harp, Clavichord, Harpsichord, and others).
Needless to say, his second marriage wasn’t a roaring success either. He openly conducted extra-marital affairs with other people of both sexes and increasingly became physically abusive to his wife. In 1596, after the birth of his new son Alfonsino, he returned to Gesualdo without wife and child, who only joined him upon Duke Alfonso’s death the following year. In the meantime, Don Carlo had not only busied himself with organizing his own musical court, but had also become increasingly deranged with the effects of both asthma and his mental illness. In his madness, he subjected his wife to almost daily violence and also inflicted various tortures on himself, getting himself flogged regularly by servants especially employed for that purpose. His suffering wife eventually began divorce proceedings, but apparently she herself had become so entrapped in the vicious psychological afflictions of her husband that these were never concluded. She left him for some periods and then always returned to withstand more abuse. She remained with him until his death in 1613, which, according to some reports, she herself caused, and later remarried the Bolognese Prince Nicolino Ludoviso, a nephew of the Pope. Until her death at the age of 76, she spent the remainder of her life immersed in holy works. Don Carlo’s sons left no male heirs and the Venosa properties in all probability were integrated with those of the church.
Don Carlo’s early conservative musical style underwent a change after he came in contact with the music of his contemporary, Luzzasco Luzzaschi (1545-1607), one of the first indigenous Italian madrigalists who had studied ancient Greek treatises on music and who wrote a number of original madrigals for the ‘Three Ladies of Ferrera’ (a talented female trio popular all over Europe). Greatly influenced by him and by his two year sojourn in the musical atmosphere of the Ferrarese Court, where he also befriended the poet Tasso, Don Carlo began writing compositions that were more unconventional and erotic, distinguished by extravagant and tormented verse dealing with the painful anguish of desire and love, unusual rhythm, abstract instrumentation, hazy chord sequences, and a combination of counterpoint (a musical form involving the simultaneous sound of two or more melodies) and homophony (part music with one dominant voice). Between 1594 and 1596, before he returned to Gesualdo, he published his famous four books of five-part madrigals, the first two of which he had written prior to coming to Ferrera and which have somewhat unadventurous harmonies in comparison to the tempestuous compositions of the third and fourth. Books five and six, which were published in 1611, were even more stimulatingly expressive, even if reflective of their composer’s restless, unpredictable and neurotic personality.
The madrigal was one of the most important and most admired styles of vocal music during the Renaissance, set in a secular rather than religious poetic format and composed in a way that concentrated on the connotation and feel of each word/phrase rather than on the kind of emotion that they in their entirety evoked.
Don Carlo’s madrigals, which include the outstanding five-voice Moro, Lasso, Al Mio Duolo, Ahi, and Disperata Vita, are amongst the most extraordinarily avant-garde and uninhibited compositions to emerge from the Renaissance, and in fact anticipate the works of Richard Wagner nearly two hundred years later. Stravinsky, although he considered Don Carlo’s style of expression somewhat heavy-handed, was so impressed by the dramatic and intimate intensity of these innovative madrigals that he arranged for their orchestral performance and also completed some of unfinished ones.
Don Carlo’s religious or sacred compositions, when contrasted with the dynamic quality of his secular madrigals, seem particularly tranquil. He wrote a number of them over the years, publishing his first collection, called the ‘Sacrae Cantiones’, in 1603. This collection contained compositions for the Good Friday and Holy Saturday Church services, as well as works venerating the Virgin Mary such as ‘Ave, Dulcissima Maria’ and ‘Ave, Regina Caelorum’. In 1611, along the publication of the last two volumes of his Madrigals, Don Carlo also published his last and brilliantly sublime collection of sacred motets. This contained his dark, emotionally intense masterpiece ‘Responsoria et alia ad Officium Hebdonadae Sanctae spectantia’, which was composed for the atmospheric Tenebrae (darkness) service during Holy Week, which is a solemn ritual in which all the Church lights except one are extinguished to symbolize the betrayal, death and burial of Christ.
The ‘Responsaria’, with its main emphasis on guilt, takes on an additional tormented nuance given Don Carlo’s deep feelings of culpability for the murder of his adulterous first wife.
Startling and eccentric in his compositions and bizarre in his personal life, Don Carlo Gesualdo left behind no school or followers after his death and is valued only by Renaissance devotees in the present age, but his distinctly individualistic vision makes him one of the most outstanding composers in the history of the Music and he deserves a wider appreciation.