Carlo Gesualdo

Italian composer and Prince of Venosa (Venosa 1566 – Gesualdo 1613)

Carlo Gesualdo was an Italian composer of the late Renaissance. His musical production is essentially made of five voices madrigals, gathered in six books published between 1594 and 1611. Carlo Gesualdo left his mark on the history of music as much with his pieces of innovative sounds as with his tormented personality.

Born in an aristocratic family of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Carlo Gesualdo was initiated to music at an early age by his father who had founded a music academy especially focused on composition. There, he met among others the great Torquato Tasso. Designated as the next ruler after the death of his older brother, he married Maria d'Avalos in 1586. Four years later, he committed a double murder: he killed his wife and her lover. This tragedy would mark the spirits and feed the popular rumor. Then he choked his own son, convinced he was illegitimate. He tried to find shelter in the Castle of Gesualdo. But madness took power over him and he isolated himself before leaving Gesualdo for the stimulating city of Ferrare where his encounters would have a big influence on his musicale production. From now on, he would mainly compose sacred-inspired pieces.

The work of Carlo Gesualdo still fascinates today by its apparent modernity. If he used chromatisms and "painful" dissonances in the last books of his madrigals, his music remained far from the deep changes that occurred to the music language of his time. The whole of his work - profane or sacred - was based on contrapuntal and modal polyphony of the Renaissance. In that way, Carlo Gesualdo was more of a conservative composer in comparison to his contemporary Claudio Monteverdi.

For the composers of the 20th century, like Igor Stravinsky who arranged and orchestrated three of his madrigals, Carlo Gesualdo was the archetype of the "doomed artist" who incarnated the "avant-garde of the past"

Five landmark dates in the life of Carlo Gesualdo

1584: inherited of the title of Prince of Venosa
1590: murdered of Maria d’Avalos and Fabrizio Carafa in Naples
1592: met the Italian poet Torquato Tasso dit Le Tasse
1594: Second wedding of Carlo with Leonora d’Este. Met the composers Alfonso Fontanelli and Luzzasco Luzzaschi
1596: final return to Gesualdo

Five key pieces by Carlo Gesualdo

1586: three four voices ricercars
1594: first book of five voices madrigals
1603: Sacrarum Cantionum quinque vocibus Liber Primus
1611: Responsoria et alia ad Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae spectantia
1626: first book of six voices madrigals

Radio France documentation biography