- Madrigali a cinque vociby Carlo Gesualdo Principe di Venosa
Carlo Gesualdo stands out among Renaissance composers for the originality of his madrigals, with their "experimental" use of chromaticism, harmony, and dissonance, as well as their fragmentation of the text into discrete and sharply contrasting emotions. Socially, too, he was unusual: not many members of the nobility practiced music as intensely as he did—Count Alfonso Fontanelli, whom he knew at Ferrara, was one, and Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga in Mantua, among a handful of others, but none was as accomplished or as publicly recognized as he. And his personal life, marked by tragedy and psychological as well as physical pain, has contributed to his notoriety and has fueled probing discussions of its connection to the extreme expressivity of his music, both secular and sacred. Glenn Watkins, in particular, has delved into Gesualdo's private life, bringing to light the many contradictory influences of his upbringing, his marriages, affairs, and personal connection to music as a form of escape and emotional release (see his recent The Gesualdo Hex: Music, Myth, and Memory[New York: W. W. Norton, 2010], and his earlier Gesualdo: The Man and his Music[Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973]). Finally, there is the fortuitous resonance that results from the startling similarities between his nearly atonal style and that of twentieth-century composers—most famously Igor Stravinsky, but others as well.
Gesualdo's reputation for modernity was already established during his lifetime even if his virtuosic handling of contrapuntal technique and technically correct treatment of dissonance appeared to some to align him with older practices. (On historical views of Gesualdo's style, see Catherine Deutsch, " Anticoor Moderno?Reception of Gesualdo's Madrigals in the Early Seventeenth Century," Journal of Musicology30, no. 1 [Winter 2013]: 28–48.) As late as the eighteenth century, critics remained divided regarding his contribution to modernity: Padre Martini credited him with a "sublime, expressive, and artful style" (cited by Deutsch, p. 48), while Charles Burney, despite acknowledging Gesualdo's "unlimited praise" from sixteenth and seventeenth-century commentators, found his style "so far from being the [End Page 162] sweetest conceivable, that, to me, it seems forced, affected, and disgusting ( A General History of Music from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period (1789), 2 vols. edited by Frank Mercer [New York: Dover Publications, 1957], 2:180). Gesualdo's modern prominence derives largely from Stravinsky's "discovery" in the early 1950s of his motets and madrigals (thanks to Robert Craft, whose ensemble Gesualdo Madrigalists rehearsed at Stravinsky's house). His fascination with Gesualdo's contrapuntal technique and highly chromatic style resulted in Stravinsky's completion of some of his motets and eventually the "recomposition" of three madrigals as Monumentum pro Gesualdo: two from the fifth book, "Asciugate i begli occhi" and "Ma tu, cagion di quella" (the seconda parteof Poiché l'avida sete), and "Beltà poi che t'assenti" from the sixth. Stravinsky's interest coincided with a spate of editorial activity and helped to spark a veritable "Gesualdo renaissance" that initiated a wave of performances and scholarly interest lasting into the present.
The fifth book (1611) has been central to Gesualdo's "daring cabinet of works" (Watkins, Gesualdo Hex, p. 36) and to the definition of his apparently late, not to mention his "wanton and depraved" style (Watkins, Gesualdo: The Man and His Music, 2d edition [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991], 169). Separated from the fourth (1596) by fifteen years, it and the sixth book (also published in 1611) invite significant questions regarding the dating of their...