6.24.13 | Gesualdo is Not a Mojito and Bowl of Fresh Strawberries

On June 2, I performed my last concert with the Florilegium Chamber Choir. The announcement of my departure came suddenly, as the offer to direct the orchestra and choir at Rennselaer Polytech in Troy starting in September only came to me a few days before the concert. We sang secular and sacred pieces by Gesualdo along with an admittedly somewhat bizarre collection of other pieces I thought would compliment the Gesualdo. At 4pm, it was between 85 and 90 degrees in Trinity Lutheran Church, which was right when we shut off the fans in order to reduce ambient noise while we sang. Despite the fact that interdisciplinary performances are all the rage, I’m not sure any of us were quite prepared for the part concert, part wet-t-shirt-contest we ended up offering. I had no choice but to burn that set of concert clothes afterward.

The concert was lovely, the audience unyielding, and the choir really sang the madrigals exquisitely, but as I stood in front of the church, watching an inconceivable quantity of sweat pool at the bottom edge of my glasses such that I seemed to be viewing my score from the inside of a goldfish bowl enduring a tiny tsunami, I considered the possibility that perhaps music, like food and beverage, is seasonal. Obviously, we all like a little Messiah at Christmas and a little St. Matthew Passion at Easter, but what happens when we think more broadly about performing and listening seasonally? It’s true that Gesualdo lived in southern Italy, and southern Italy is generally noted for being a warm place where they eat things like cantaloupe and prosciutto (ie: he’s no salt-cod and vodka Sibelius type), but there was something about performing this music on one of the first seriously sultry NYC summer days that left me a little unsatisfied…and all of us a little more than a little dehydrated. The whole experience was sort of like sitting in a sauna, drinking Laphroaig, neat, while snacking on some hearty homemade sheperd’s pie. Now granted, this is no ordinary shepherd’s pie; it was made with organic lamb, maybe some tarragon, some fennel, a thick gravy, potatoes and peas, and that magical combination of both firm and flaky you get in a butter/lard mixed crust, and the Laphroaig is at least of the 18-year-old variety…thick, complex, heady, and so smoky you can smell the uncorked bottle across the room (or in this extended metaphor, across the sauna). Which is to say that it was not a wholly unpleasant experience…it maybe just wasn’t the perfect fare for…y’know…a sauna.

Which got me thinking: what IS the musical equivalent of, say, a mojito and a bowl of freshly picked strawberries? And further, what time of year is Gesualdo “in season?” Clearly the Tenebrae Responses are of the March/April/Easter varietal…but his madrigals completely lack that eager-bursting-forth-of-spring-in-all-its-uncontrollably-verdent-young-glory quality that so characterizes some of Monteverdi’s madrigals and the goof-ball antics of Phyllis and her jaunty compatriots of the English tradition. So when SHOULD we listen to Gesualdo’s madrigals?

The best answer I can come up with is that Gesualdo’s madrigals would make really good break up music: awkward and angular in voice leading, text that is at once introspective and passionately extroverted, to say nothing of angsty (indeed, uncanny) in harmony.

As this graph, based on breakup data scraped from Facebook, shows,


breakups peak in early March and the first two weeks of December…and also see some spikes on Mondays in April. Perhaps THESE are the times to program Gesualdo. Doesn’t shepherd’s pie and scotch sound exactly like the meal you want the first week of December? Or the first (preferably cold and rainy) Monday after the long fast of the Lenten Season? The first week of June, on the other hand, is a real low-point for breakups, bested only by the end of August and beginning of September, aka, Your Last Chance For Inconsequential Summer Love, and the beginning of Hook-Up Season according to the Academic Calendar.

I consider carefully the programs I assemble, both on their own moment-to-moment terms and in terms of pace of programs throughout the year, but it seems that in this case I failed to take into consideration one very important point: Gesualdo is decidedly not a new-summer-love-mojito.

Should you be curious, here is a copy of the program notes that accompanied this concert. I’m particularly fond of the historical survey of composers and cuckoldry that occurs about 1/3 of the way through.


By all accounts, Gesualdo was a man of singular obsession…

“The Prince of Venosa, who would like to do nothing but sing and play music, today forced me to visit with him and kept me for seven hours. After this, I believe I shall hear no music for two months.”

Emilio de’Cavalieri (1550-1602)
composer, organist, choreographer

“…about music he spoke at such length that I have not heard so much in a whole year. He makes open profession of it and shows his works in score to everybody in order to induce them to marvel at his art…[Gabrieli], too, will fall into the nets and, having made an appearance, will not leave without feeling sick of him.”

Alfonso Fontanelli (1557-1622)
composer, courtier… friend of Gesualdo

…and indeed, via that obsession, Gesualdo created some of the most experimental music of the sixteenth century, bringing the expressive language of the mannerist madrigal, like Wagner and Mahler with opera and symphony almost 300 years later, to a kind of aesthetic apotheosis, essentially exhausting the possibility of the form and demanding a shift to a new mode of expression.

Clearly, Gesualdo was not just any other composer working in the second half of the sixteenth century. To begin, Gesualdo did not exactly work. Though we associate many composers and musicians with the ruling class and the locations of great cultural import through history (Palestrina at St. Peter’s, Gabrieli at St. Mark’s, Haydn with the Esterházys), musicians themselves have remained firmly in the artisan class. Even today, James Levine’s $3 million combined yearly salary from the BSO and Met Opera may place him at the top of the classical music economic pyramid, but this figure is a staggering four orders of magnitude shy of the world’s true ruling class…the $50 billion lives of the Warren Buffets and Bill Gateses whose tricklings down support the institutions that employ Levine. But, as the Prince of Venosa and the 7th Count of Conza, nephew of Saint Charles of Borromeo, and great nephew of Pope Pius the IV, Gesualdo was of a truly elite class.

To convey an idea of the extremity of Gesualdo’s position, I would offer a brief comparative study of cases of infidelity of composers and their wives in sixteenth century Italy (which, it turns out, are not so difficult to uncover). At age thirty-five, Giaches de Wert – whose work we will also perform today – discovered his wife was having an affair. Upon the discovery, she fled to Mantua to be with her lover, and he was censured, publicly shamed, and nearly removed from his job for allowing himself to be cuckolded. Alas, what else is a working-class composer to do but keep calm and carry on until it all blows over, as did Wert? At age forty-four, Alfonso Fontanelli (quoted above), who was a composer and diplomat in the d’Este Court at Ferrara, and thus in a higher position than Wert but still quite shy of Gesualdo, also discovered that his wife was having an affair. He murdered her lover, avoiding cuckoldry, but warranting punishment for the life taken. He was banished from the d’Este Court in Ferrara…but then took up a strikingly similar position as diplomat and composer at the Court of Alessandro d’Este in Rome, the younger brother of the Duke of Ferrara, who had banished him. And then there is Gesualdo. At age twenty-six, Gesualdo discovered that his first wife was having an affair. He organized a squad to undertake murdering both the wife and the lover, and then he (and presumably the squad) were completely free of repercussions…although he did have the good sense to remove himself to his other estate for a few months, so that her family might cool off for a bit and not attempt to take revenge upon him. Like any good celebrity tabloid story, rumors of the murder subsequently grew to include gruesome dismemberment, the murder of his first child and his father-in-law, etc…

Moving on.

That Gesualdo was a member of the ruling class with an active life in music is not so odd; his truly formative musical years came at the d’Este Court in Ferrara (following his second marriage to Leonora d’Este). This court was the nucleus around which a good deal of the fashionable musical life of Italy spun in the late 1500s. It was home to some of Italy’s finest performers, and frequented by most of Italy’s renowned composers; it was the very direct link between Gesualdo and Adrian Willaert and his younger compatriot, Wert, who both brought the practice of Josquin and Flemmish high polyphony to Italy in the early 1500s. Here, Gesualdo discovered new horizons in virtuosic performance possibility, as well as an expanded world of musical thought and innovation. It was here that he likely encountered the remarkable legacy of Nicola Vicentino (1511–1576): the archicembalo. A composer, theoretician, inventor and probable student of Willaert, Vicentino built a keyboard with 36 notes to the octave (today we accept 12 notes to the octave as sufficient) in order to achieve just-intoned major 3rd harmonies in all keys. This instrument was the practical application of Vicentino’s theoretical recreation of the ancient Greek tetrachordal (or Pythagorean) tuning system. Gesualdo’s friend at Ferrara (and subsequent musical arch-nemesis), Luzzasco Luzzaschi, actively used this instrument in rehearsals to accompany singers and achieve the purest intonation possible. Without the experience of hearing this instrument and these singers, I wonder if Gesualdo would have achieved the kind of extended chromatic harmony employed in his later compositions.

So what really stands out about Gesualdo (even the murders are not so remarkable, all things considered) is his complete, utter, and apparently obsessive devotion to music, and that, despite being a non-professional musician, he was able to create such a sizeable, unique and eventually influential body of work: seven books of madrigals for which he likely wrote much of the poetry as well as the music, three sets of Responsoria for Holy Week, and around forty other sacred motets for six and seven voices. He may have gone to Ferrara to acquire a (…second…) wife, but what he came away with was a lifelong focus that overshadowed all else (including said rather disgruntled wife).

And here I would conjecture that Gesualdo’s station of nobility was at once his musical blessing and his musical curse.

Because Gesualdo did not need to earn a living through composition, nor be concerned with his standing with patrons, he was free to do exactly as he wished, whether it be murder his wife or write highly chromatic chord progressions. He was free to explore deeply and he was also never compelled to explore broadly, so he explored his world of intense chromaticism, producing work that is exceptionally difficult to sing. Because of his resources, he was able to bring musicians to Gesualdo that were of sufficient skill to realize his music, and this only allowed him to pursue his musical obsessions still further.

On the other hand, it was not considered appropriate for him to publish and sell his work, publishing being an activity of the artisan class. Thus it was virtually impossible for him to disseminate his work and gain recognition beyond his immediate (largely hired) circle of musicians for what, in fact, was truly unique work. His music spread only by way of single copies passed around from hand to hand, sometimes without attribution, which only complicated matters for the Prince, who then needed to assert his authorship in person. Eventually, he did pay for and oversee the publication of his work, but in so doing, published it in full score, a gauche move, the rationale for which was obviously the immediate display of his mastery and originality, since music was generally published as separate parts. And further, he went to the trouble of inventing a pseudonym by which to declare the complete originality and utter superiority of his work (especially when compared to that of Luzzaschi) in the preface of his printed editions.

While speculation about his late-life depression often correlates his melancholy to the lingering guilt from the murder of his first wife, I can’t help but wonder if it was perhaps equally due to another aspect of the social stratification that allowed him to murder his wife in the first place. If Gesualdo was as obsessed with music, as we seem to understand, it would appear that the one thing he seems to have wanted above all else was to be recognized as one of the most expressive and experimental composers of his generation, worthy of consideration with the likes of Palestrina and Wert one generation earlier, and Gabrieli and Monteverdi of his own generation. Despite his manic compulsion to discuss his work with anyone who dared show their face at the Gesualdo Court, and despite the work itself, he could never be on the same tier as any of the cadre of highly talented musicians with whom he surrounded himself. He was utterly trapped between his own remarkable creative vision and the social position that allowed him to pursue that vision to its logical conclusion, and, despite the obvious perks, his nobility ensured that he would remain nothing more than a hobbyist, whose work would be forgotten for the next 300 years.

Based on this experience, I would here propose that it is difficult to accompany Gesualdo with anything and have it turn out to be a really satisfying musical experience, so idiosyncratic is his voice.
Does saline have a greater surface tension than regular water??
Taken from a Nov. 2010 article in The Atlantic
These quotes and other delicious biographical morsels are drawn from Glenn Watkins’ supremely in depth biography, The Gesualdo Hex: Music, Myth, and Memory, of which, despite my having carried it around in my bag for about five months now, I have still only managed to read the first 100 pages. Likewise Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon(first 300 pages), Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames (first 250 pages), Freakonomics (admittedly, I’m listening to that one on CD), and Canetti’s Crowds and Power (50 pages). Perhaps there is a correlation here with the fact that this is my first blog post in 3 months. Hard to say without more data.