Murder and madrigals

The lurid life of the outlandish composer Carlo Gesualdo has long exerted its fascination. Now, with his music all the rage, he has become the subject of an opera
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The Independent Culture

Why is Carlo Gesualdo - multiple murderer, compulsive masochist, creator of futuristically ear-challenging harmonies - suddenly all the rage? The Hilliard Ensemble have made his sacred work their calling card, while Concerto Italiano have put out a steamy recording of his madrigals; the King's Singers - better known for their Beatles renditions - have just released a superb CD of his music for Holy Week. Last Friday saw the unveiling of Brett Dean's Carlo, a musical fantasy reflecting what might have gone on in Gesualdo's mind as he prepared to commit his celebrated crime. And this evening, Luca Francesconi's opera Gesualdo Considered as a Murderer, which premiered in Amsterdam on Saturday, will have its third performance as part of the Holland Festival. Some critics scorn the idea that Gesualdo's life formed his art, but Dean and Francesconi are part of a long line of composers and playwrights who regard the two as intertwined. For them, what happened on one warm October night in 1590 h

Why is Carlo Gesualdo - multiple murderer, compulsive masochist, creator of futuristically ear-challenging harmonies - suddenly all the rage? The Hilliard Ensemble have made his sacred work their calling card, while Concerto Italiano have put out a steamy recording of his madrigals; the King's Singers - better known for their Beatles renditions - have just released a superb CD of his music for Holy Week. Last Friday saw the unveiling of Brett Dean's Carlo, a musical fantasy reflecting what might have gone on in Gesualdo's mind as he prepared to commit his celebrated crime. And this evening, Luca Francesconi's opera Gesualdo Considered as a Murderer, which premiered in Amsterdam on Saturday, will have its third performance as part of the Holland Festival. Some critics scorn the idea that Gesualdo's life formed his art, but Dean and Francesconi are part of a long line of composers and playwrights who regard the two as intertwined. For them, what happened on one warm October night in 1590 has deep significance today.

Don Carlo Gesualdo was rich, artistic, and - as the second son of a noble Neapolitan family - free to indulge his passion for music. But disaster struck: his brother died, and it was decreed that he must carry on the line. The bride found for him - Donna Maria d'Avalos - was his cousin, and the greatest beauty in town. Older and more experienced, she had already sent two husbands to their graves (one, it is rumoured, from "an excess of connubial bliss"). Gesualdo sired a son, after which he lost interest in sex. But it still interested his wife: one day his uncle told him she was brazenly enjoying a rip-roaring affair with the handsome Duke of Andria, and that whenever possible they would "invite each other to battle on the fields of love", sometimes even in his house. Alerted to the fact that Gesualdo knew about the affair, the Duke tried to persuade Donna Maria that they must end the liaison, but she said she'd rather die. Thus was the scene set for Don Carlo's historic act.

He surreptitiously disabled his locks, then let it be known that he was going out to hunt. He set off, then crept back with a posse of men. The chronicles go into salacious detail about what happened next: about the night-dress Donna Maria asked to be put out on the bed, about the maid posted as sentinel, and the sudden commotion as Gesualdo and his men burst in to find the pair " in flagrante delicto di fragrante peccato". About the shots and multiple sword-thrusts, and the way Gesualdo couldn't convince himself the job was done until his enemy was cut to ribbons, and he had personally skewered his wife to the floor. He dragged the bodies out onto the stairs, posted a notice explaining why he'd killed them, and all the town came to gape at them the next morning. The Duke was still clad in the night-dress, while his paramour's "wounds were all in her belly, and especially in those parts which ought to be kept honest". Gesualdo's rage didn't abate until he'd chopped down a small wood.

Neapolitans were riveted, with as many taking the lovers' side as that of their murderer. All the local poets were spurred into song, including the great Torquato Tasso, whose friendship with the protagonists gave rise to his tear-drenched sonnet "On the Death of Two Most Noble Lovers". Gesualdo's nobility ensured there was no trial, and he quietly withdrew to Ferrara, where he remarried, got cuckolded again, and was finally "afflicted by a vast horde of demons which gave him no peace unless twelve young men, whom he kept specially for the purpose, were to beat him violently three times a day, during which operation he was wont to smile joyfully."

Gesualdo may have been psychotic, and his life a resounding failure, but music was his saving grace. Fastidious in manner, and with features like an El Greco saint, he was a virtuoso on the lute and guitar and surrounded himself with musicians. His favourite form was the five-voice madrigal, a compressed utterance that Italian composers of his day took to extremes of contrapuntal complexity. The madrigal may have been regarded as old-fashioned when Gesualdo fixed on it, but that was beside the point: it allowed him to create a music whose sliding chromaticism and daring harmonic surprises anticipated the music of Wagner. As his biographer Glenn Watkins puts it, the balances he achieved "seem always to suggest the probability of an architectural collapse. When the edifice continues to stand, the result is frequently breathtaking."

His music draws extra strength from its emotional content. The sonnets he favoured were full of jarring ambiguities; the desperate love they hymn never reaches the "little death" of orgasm. The sacred works are morbidly dramatic: the service of Tenebrae, for which he wrote majestically, was intensely theatrical, with the candles lighting the church being progressively extinguished till just one remained. Gesualdo wrote this work for his solitary delectation in his private chapel: this was the solace in his remorseful last days.

For centuries he was regarded as a historical oddity, but he got a brief moment of fame in 1926 when the English composer Peter Warlock, writing under his proper name Philip Heseltine, produced a biography extolling his finesse as both musician and murderer; Warlock's own subsequent self-murder set the seal on his Gesualdo's street-cred. Four decades on, Stravinsky reworked three of Gesualdo's unfinished motets and wrote a rave foreword to the definitive biography; Peter Maxwell Davies was one of several other composers who took this cue to embroider on Gesualdo's sounds.

Listening to this music's present-day exponents, you realise its undimmed immediacy. David James of the Hilliards says they've sung it for 30 years, but the buzz they get now is even stronger. "We don't sing it the way we sing most early music - we sing it as though it was contemporary. Even if you didn't know the facts, you'd still know it couldn't have been written by a completely sane man." Robin Tyson, a countertenor with the King's Singers, makes a similar point: "You get a very strong sense that he wanted to wring out the significance of every word. Our version of the Lamentations is slower and more sensual than the Hilliards', but that's because we were trying to express the guilt and remorse that were the themes of his life at that time." Brett Dean believes Gesualdo embodies "a kind of music where there's no distinction between him as a composer and him and a person. His story is inexorably tied into his music."

For the Danish composer Bo Holten, whose Gesualdo opera has the aged composer singing as young boys flog him on stage, Gesualdo would have found his spiritual home in the 21st century: "We live in sensational times. Classical order isn't right for us now. Our art is constantly striving for extremity, and we are moving towards his. He was dismissed as a weirdo in his own times, but now he fits. His languishing, drunken polyphony feels natural to us."

But the boldest claims for Gesualdo's topicality come from Luca Francesconi: "Gesualdo was at the border between two eras. The great Renaissance polyphonic tradition - where man was the centre of the world - was ending. Gesualdo was the last representative of the old era, but he was trapped as though in a cage. He couldn't break out of it to become a Baroque man like Monteverdi, whose Orfeo came immediately after. He was trapped as we are today."

Asked to elaborate, Francesconi produces an arresting idea. "Working on the opera, I found I didn't like Gesualdo as a person, because he was too close to me, too close to the situation of modern man now, which is a huge metaphor of impotence. We have enormous power, but we don't know how to use it." Are we by any chance talking about Iraq? "Of course we are! Gesualdo was probably the richest man in Italy, and so was a perfect symbol of this impotence. He was hiding in his spiritual world, and social pressures forced him to act. He was forced to commit that murder." Now there's food for thought.

The King's Singers' recording of Gesualdo's Tenebrae is released on the Signum label; 'Carlo' will be performed by the Britten Sinfonia at the Chelsea Festival on 25 June; 'Gesualdo Considered as a Murderer', Holland Festival, Amsterdam, tonight

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