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Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Count of Conza (1561 - 1613): This great if disequilibrated composer (Stravinsky)

Entries for Gesualdo in most musical dictionaries are brief. He was acknowledged as a leading composer of madrigals (six volumes) in which he extended the style to extremes with the maximum of expressive intensity anticipating the music of a couple of centuries later. His music exhibited sudden changes of tempo with every emotion being wrung out to maximum effect and the texts were often highly erotic. These madrigals were considered to be so remarkable that they were published shortly after his death as one of the earliest examples of a printed full score. Stravinsky was fascinated by his music and orchestrated and completed some of his works although he stated that

"... as Gesualdo’s mode of expression is dramatic, highly intimate, and very much in earnest, he weights the traditional madrigal of poised sentiments and conceits, of amorous delicacies and indelicacies, with a heavy load."

Stravinsky even took it upon himself to visit Gesualdo’s home town

"...I visited the seat of the composer’s family name (Gesualdo, Avellino), an unpicturesquely squalid town....I had come to Naples by boat - my last such expedition I had resolved. The debarking ordeal alone took longer than the transatlantic flight, not to mention the simultaneous marathon concerts by competing brass bands, the continuous pelting by paper streamers, and the orgies of weeping by separated and reuniting Neapolitans. I remember that on the way to Gesualdo we visited the Conservatory of San Pietro a Maiella, and the Fish stalls near the Porta Capuana; and at Montevirginine, we watched the procession of a parthenogenetic cult, a parade of flower-garlanded automobiles led by boys carrying religious banners and running like lampadephores (racers running with lighted torches passed from hand to hand - books written like this are not easy to read!).

Gesualdo’s castle was the residence then of some hens, a heifer, and a browsing goat, as well as a human population numbering, in that still Pill-less, anti-Malthusian decade, a great many bambini. None of the inhabitants had heard of the Prince of Venosa and his deeds, of course, and in order to explain our wish to peek at the premises, some of its lurid history had to be imparted to at least some of the tenants."

It may be fairly assumed by those who know me that I am not au fait with the music of Gesualdo; five or even six part madrigals are not part of my daily listening. It is that "lurid history" that has driven me to write this article. Gesualdo’s passion for music began at a very young age, as with Mozart, and as a child he had no interests outside his lute and harpsichord and singing, apart from an interest in the other young boys that he sang with. As the second son he could indulge his interest as the running of the estate would fall upon the shoulders of his brother, Luigi, and not himself. But in 1584 his elder brother died and it became incumbent upon Carlo to produce the necessary heir. The bride chosen for him was his cousin Donna Maria d’Avalos and they married in 1586. Marrying one’s cousin was quite common in the Italian gentry as it consolidated the wealth of the family rather than dispersing it. Futhermore the marriage was not for love but procreation. A son was required to continue the line and to prevent the estate reverting to the Papacy. Donna Maria had already been widowed twice before the age of thirty, having been first married at the age of fifteen, and importantly, had already produced two children so was demonstrably fertile (she is also claimed to have been beautiful and charming). The requisite son, Don Emmanuele, was rapidly produced and within a couple of years the Prince had lost interest in her returning to his young men and music.

It is indeed unfortunate to “lose” three husbands when you are still a young and highly sexual Princess (her first husband, Frederigo, was supposed to have died from too much boudoir activity [forse per aver troppo reiterare conquella I congiugiamenti carnali]) and it was only to be expected that within a short space of time she would find a new love-interest in the form of young Don Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria, himself married and father to four children.

In order that they could meet and indulge themselves thay had to bribe the many servants who were in constant attendance and affording no privacy; but they managed a two-year passionate affair before wind of it got to Prince Gesualdo. They were not so much discovered as betrayed by Don Carlo’s uncle, Don Giulio, who had himself approached Donna Maria and been rebuffed on many occassions. "...But when whispers came to his ears concerning the loves and pleasures of Donna Maria and the Duke of Andria, such was the wrath and fury which assailed him on discovering that the strumpet did lie with others, that straightway he revealed all to the Prince."

All might still have been well with Don Fabrizio suggesting that they should cool things as he was aware that knowledge of their dalliance was spreading, but Princess Donna Maria declared that she was not afraid of discovery and if he was then he should be a lackey not a Prince. She would rather suffer the sword than his betrayal. Thus he agreed that they would, if necessary, die for their love. Don Carlo laid a trap for them by announcing that he was departing on an overnight hunting expedition; and hunt he did by smashing down Donna Maria’s bedroom door discovering the pair in flagrante delicto (well they were actually asleep post-flagrante delicto) whereupon he set upon and murdered them both and ordered that their naked bodies be exposed to the public. The next day all the city flocked to see. Donna Maria’s stab wounds were mostly in her belly "..and more particularly in those parts which she ought to have kept chaste" and the Duke had even more grevious wounds. It is even reported that whilst the corpes were exposed a San Dominican monk ravished Donna Maria’s inert body.

Because of his rank Gesualdo was never brought to trial for these murders but it would seem they did affect him deeply and were possibly the start of a manic depressive mental illness. In atonement he, like Macbeth, razed the forest around his castle so that his shame could not be hidden by it and he built a monastery with a chapel for which he commissioned a painting showing himself, the wicked uncle, Don Giulio, the corpses of Maria and her lover and a child who has been thought to be his child by Donna Maria who was also reported to have been murdered, or, alternatively, Cupid representing the murdering of love. Sources are confused over this interpretation and there is no documentation of the birth of a child. However, during the attack a wet-nurse was found to be present who called out that at least the child should be spared. Tradition has it that the child in its cradle was suspended on cords of silk "...The crib was subjected to wild undulations until, through the violence of the motion, not being able to draw breath, the child rendered up its soul to God". Stravinsky sought out the painting and found it very dirty but undamaged but when he returned three years later it had been cleaned but torn just above Gesualdo’s head. A colour plate of it is included in Watkins’ biography.

In spite of having murdered his wife another one was soon found for him. The Duke Alfonso II d’Este of Ferrara did not have an heir and wished to prevent his estate reverting to the papacy. He proposed that his cousin, Eleonora d’Este should marry Gesualdo to circumvent this. Gesualdo was persuaded, not by any beauty of Eleonora whom he had never met, but by the musical riches at Duke Alfonso’s court who was himself fanatical about music. In February, 1594 they were married in courtly splendour and the union was celebrated in many odes, sonnets and madrigals. The next couple of years were very productive for Gesualdo and he composed the four books of five-part madrigals for which he has become known. Every day the court musicians would assemble after dinner and sing for a couple of hours accompanied by an amazing range of instruments described by the chronicler Girolamo Merenda as including cornetti, tromboni, dolzaine (?), piffarotti (?), viole, ribecchini, lute,guitar, harp, clavicembalo, and an archicembalo which had several keyboards and a capacity for producing microtones.

Don Carlo Gesualdo may have become a great musician but he was not a good husband and conducted several affairs (dallying with both sexes) and there were rumours that he was cruel to his new wife, who by now had born him a son, Alfonsino. In 1596 he returned to Gesualdo without his wife and child intent on setting up his own musical court. The next year Duke Alfonso died and with him the musical tradition at Ferrara, and Eleonora and Alfonsino rejoined Don Carlo at Gesualdo. Don Carlo was already ill with asthma but he rapidly became afflicted with a manic depressive illness leading to a deterioration in his behaviour exhibited in sadism and masochism. He began to illtreat his wife, beating her and ignoring her and flaunting a pretty new mistress. Yet whenever Eleonora went away he would long for her and beg her to return only for the violence to start again. Don Carlo became so deranged that he felt he could have no peace unless he was beaten three times a day by a team of ten young men. He "...was unable to go to the stool, without having been previously flogged by a valet kept expressly for the purpose." He found it soothing to receive blows to the temple and other parts of the body.

Eleonora turned to her half brother for support and divorce proceedings were started but never completed as she decided she still had some affection for her husband. Enevtually she became chronically ill herself. She undertook frequent retreats to recover but each time returned to "console" her husband and submit to further beatings. Basil Howitt believes that she must have become addicted to this maltreatment, secretly relishing the thrill of being indispensible to the tyranical psychopath and emotional cripple her husband had become. Gesualdo died in 1610 (there were reports that Eleonora was responsible) and became the inspiration of several odes, plays and novels. His son died leaving only girls and Eleonora renounced the estate which presumably passed to the church. Eleonora was remarried to the Pope’s nephew Prince Nicolino Ludoviso of Bolgna and she died at the age of 76 having spent her last years in continuous prayers, alms and holy works.

Basil Howitt concludes

"...To unjaded ears Gesualdo’s music is startling - and electrifying - in its harmonic wierdness. As you listen your ear is constantly yanked into remote-sounding keys by startlingly abrupt chromatic shifts. Gesualdo seems, in his music, to inhabit an intensely private creative and harmonic world hardly less eccentric and disturbing than his personal life. One feels that he would have been much happier as a non-officiating composer-priest (like Vivaldi), perhaps taking his pleasures when so inclined rather than wreaking and enduring havoc in very unsatisfactory permanent relationships."


Howitt, Basil: Love Lives of the Great Composers. Sound and Vision 1995
Stravinsky, Igor: Themes and Conclusions. Faber 1972
Watkins, Glenn: Gesualdo: The Man and his Music. OUP. 1973

† It would seem the birthdate of Gesualdo may now have been established as Rocco Brancati for details: his Gesualdo web site.

Further to the above I have received the following e-mail 7-7-98

From: Rocco Brancati   E-mail:

Subject: New site Carlo Gesualdo prince of Venosa 1566-1613

The acts of international meeting by Basilicata University entitled  "Carlo Gesualdo- prince of Venosa" will be published within the end of this year in Potenza.

It was Glenn Watkins that preside over this meeting. Watkins is an famous musicologist; he is also a personal friend of Igor Stravinsky. He published "Gesualdo: the man and his music" (Oxford Press 1972). In this international meeting I have officially proposed my works about Carlo Gesualdo.

1.A historical essay entitled: "Bios Athanatos : Gesualdo 1566 - 1613" whit preface by Glenn Watkins and introduction by AntonioCestaro, a teacher of Salerno University (South Italy).

2.A documentary (film) entitled: "Gesualdo: tormenti, tenebre e visioni", with a series of interview with the experts of gesualdian music: the german director Herzog ("La morte a cinque voci", 1997), the italian actor and singer, Milva (protagonist of a theatral work, 1975), the biographers Giovanni Iudica(Milan University, he wrote two essay about Gesualdo by Sellerio editore,Palermo, 1997); Antonio Vaccaro ("L'uomo e il suo tempo" Appia Editrice Venosa 1984) and the american musicologist Alan Curtis, director of "I Febi armonics" (Venice).

After several years of searching I found again,in Borromeo archives of Biblioteca Ambrosiana of Milan, two unpublished documents certifing the right Gesualdo's bicth date.

3.The first letter is dated 21-2-1566; Lady Borromeo, from Venosa, sent this letter to his brother Cardinal Carlo Borromeo in Milan. She wrote that she is frequent and, in the baby will be a male, he will be called Carlo,"for love of your Lordship".

4.The second letter is dated 30-3-1566; don Petro confidential man of Cardinal, wrote to his from Venosa. He said that the 8 of March of 1566 was born a male children of Lady Borromeo, his name is Carlo. I am still working for a Cd-Rom about Gesualdo. I hope ending it within the end of 1998.

I migliori saluti

Rocco Brancati

This article first appeared in ORMS NEWS, The newsletter of the Olton Recorded Music Society
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