Sunday, June 10, 2012

Murder, Melancholy, and Musica: The Complicated Life of Carlo Gesualdo (Part II)

After his death in 1613, much of the prince’s legacy centered on his notorious life and the murders of his wife and her lover. Even today, as in this current article, the interest in his aberrant behavior and its relationship to the Browning poem lingers.

Gesualdo, undoubtedly, would have preferred to be remembered not for his uxorcide, but for his musical ability. From an early age, the young prince showed a proficiency in music, learning to play several instruments and moving on to composition in his young adulthood. He composed six volumes of madrigals, or unaccompanied choruses, -- initially without attribution, which was customary for a nobleman – and roughly fifty works on sacred topics.

“Moro lasso,” one of Gesualdo’s many madrigals.

Frontispieces to two volumes of Gesualdo's madrigals

Gesualdo’s reputation as a composer fluctuates, and critics have not always been kind. “Stillborn,” decries one modern critic. “Sadly amateurish,” “ended up in a blind alley,” claim other classical music critics.[1] The Italian composer was relegated to libraries of music schools until Igor Stravinsky discovered and championed him – an intriguing connection since Stravinsky was also not well-regarded early in his career. In 1955, Aldous Huxley – a friend of Stravinsky’s – hosted a Gesualdo madrigal presentation in California. Stravinsky’s interest in the composer on his own merit encouraged listeners to consider the prince as a composer, not just a puppet in the lurid dumbshow of his life.

There appears to be a correlation between Gesualdo’s approach to his interest in music and the psychological profile of a the prince as killer. Any attempt to reconstruct this portrait relies on knowledge of Renaissance assessments of character as well as contemporary Italian Renaissance law.

The Gesualdo coat of arms

Biographer Glenn Watkins questions whether or not Gesualdo can be labeled as a psychopathic killer since Italian tradition and law favored a husband who enacted revenge on an unfaithful wife. Women living during the Renaissance were forbidden from committing adultery, and some city-states – Naples, for example – promoted honor killings in such instances. Gesualdo’s cries at the scenes of the murder to protect his family name indicate that he may have simply been heeding a Renaissance social imperative by killing the lovers.

Gesualdo’s cruel treatment of his second wife, however, suggests that the prince had a violent temper. In a 1597 letter to her brothers, Eleanora d’Este worries about the possibility of “being poisoned.”[2] While Watkins interjects that modern readers cannot know whether she was referring to servants or to her husband, the letters predating this one also attest to Gesualdo’s cruelty, providing strong evidence that she suspected her husband. After all, she certainly would have known about the murder of the prince’s first wife and may have feared for her own life.

In another surviving letter, Eleonora writes to her brothers in 1603 about physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband. She reports that Gesualdo “now enjoys his mistress under the eyes of the Princess, and all others in the castle without regard and without temperance.”[3] Gesualdo’s reluctance to dispatch Aurelia D’Errico, the mistress sentenced to death for “poisoning” him with her menstrual blood, as well as his insistence on keeping her in his castle, points to emotional cruelty toward Eleonora as well.

Renaissance depiction of melancholia

During the Renaissance, artists were expected to demonstrate signs that they were somehow different from the rest of society at large. Under Renaissance physiognomy, this meant musicians, poets, and artists were to be melancholic, particularly if the world did not embrace their works as they had hoped. While many of Gesualdo’s madrigals suggest melancholia – since they often deal with despair, loss, and death – this may well have been an artistic pose. One of the prince’s contemporaries, Alfonso Fontanelli, said of Gesualdo that “he talks a great deal, and gives no sign, except in his mien, of being a melancholy man.”[4]

Gesualdo may have felt some artistic hindrance since he could not publicly name himself as a composer of the madrigals – such an occupation would have been perceived as unfit for a person of his position. Yet, even here the evidence suggests the contrary: subjected to several weeks with the prince, Emilio de’Cavalieri said, “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.”[5] Is this account indicative of someone with an obsessive “mania” – something Renaissance doctors would have mistakenly attributed to his melancholic nature?

Gesualdo's "Death for Five Voices"

There are several biographical elements that may aid researchers try to understand Gesualdo’s behavior. His mother died when he was seven, so the young prince was taken from his family and placed under the care of an uncle in Rome to begin ecclesiastic training. Torn from his family after the death of his mother, Gesualdo may very well have developed a phobia of being alone. Also, the influence of an all-male environment, such as the one he encountered under the influence of the Church, may have influenced his disdain for the feelings of women.

Gesualdo was reluctant to sleep alone and often shared his bed with young men. This facet of his character has lead historians to suggest that the prince engaged in homosexual affairs, an intriguing possibility, but one that does little to illuminate his murderous history. An account written after his 1613 death reveals that the prince had his servants flagellate him and that he tried to have his uncle Cardinal Carlo (later Saint Charles Borromeo) send him relics to relieve him of his madness.

Massive statue of Gesualdo's Uncle Charles,
Later Saint Charles Borromeo

Written later in his life, “Misere” is one of Gesualdo’s more somber madrigals. Based on Psalm 51, the verses are attributed to the period of David’s life when the biblical king regrets his adultery with Bathsheba. Translated, the verses include sorrowful lines such as, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest… .” In these lines, was the prince expressing the regret that led him to beg his uncle for relics, to relieve him of the mania that drew him into moments of extreme despair, violence, creativity, and murder?

Tomb San Martino, Gesualdo's tomb

[1] Ibid, 12.

[2] Ibid, 25.

[3] Ibid, 32.

[4] Ibid, 46.

[5] Ibid, 43.

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