Madrigals and murder

The other day I had the radio on while I was eating breakfast and the announcer introduced a piece by “Carlo Gesualdo, composer of madrigals and murderer.”

Madrigals and murder. Now that’s a combination you don’t usually encounter.

I’d heard of Gesualdo as a Renaissance composer but I didn’t know anything more than his name. And I had always thought of madrigals as the sort of things ladies and gentlemen of a Renaissance court sat around singing when they weren’t busy plotting and betraying each other.

But a murderous composer?

Naturally I had to go look him up.

It seems that he wasn’t just an ordinary murderer. He was guilty of a particularly violent and vicious murder.

In 1590, Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, was living in Naples with his wife, Maria d’Avalos. She was a famed beauty, and he was a rather scrawny young man with a long, mournful face. He was obsessed with music. She took a lover, one Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria, considered one of the handsomest men of his time. As is traditional, the husband was one of the last to find out about the affair.

He reacted in dramatically extravagant fashion.

While her husband was supposed to be off on  hunting trip, Maria indiscreetly welcomed her lover into the palace. Gesualdo, accompanied by three servants, burst into the room and slaughtered the adulterous pair. The savagery of the attack, which included sword wounds and bullets, was shocking, even in a time and place where violent death was almost a commonplace. One bizarre note is that Fabrizio, the lover, was wearing one of Maria’s nightgowns at the time of his death. Further lurid tales accumulated over the centuries.

However, since Gesualdo was a prince, there was no punishment for his actions, though he did retreat to the town of Gesualdo, about 60 miles from Naples. That was in case the families of the lovers felt obliged to avenge them.

Eventually he went to Ferrara and married Leonora d’Este. She was a niece of Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, whose court was possibly the most cultivated in Italy. Alfonso was a noted patron of the arts. He was also the duke Robert Browning was depicting in “My Last Duchess.”

Perhaps the contradictions helped Gesualdo feel at home, because he composed music. Experimental, emotional, even tormented music.

The music in his Six Books of Madrigals is fairly conventional in the first books, but increasingly experimental in the later ones in ways that are not heard again until the 20th century. Those later madrigals don’t sound anything like the cheerful ditties I used to think of as being sung in court by ladies in velvet gowns and gentlemen wearing ruffs.

Still, music was not enough to soothe Gesualdo. His second marriage was not happy either. His wife left him to return to her family, complaining of abuse, and he returned to Gesualdo, where he lived and died in solitude.

Should you care to listen to his music, there is an impressive performance of Moro, lasso, al mio duolo from the 6th Book here:




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