8 March 1566 - 8 September 1613 (age 47)

Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Italian Renaissance composer, lutenist and murderer.

What a story!

- Family

- Marriage and murder

- His music

- Documentary video

- Links

Portrait of Gesualdo


Born: Carlo Gesualdo, March 8, 1566, Venosa, South Italy.
Grandfather: Luigi, made First Prince of Venosa by King of Spain.
Father: Fabrizio
Mother: Girolama Borromeo, niece of Pope Pius IV
Uncle: Saint Carlo Borromeo, cardinal and Archbisop of Naples
Siblings: Elder brother Luigi who died aged 20. Two sisters: Isabella and Eleonora.
1st wife: Donna Maria d'Avalos, his first cousin, daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. She had been widowed twice.
Children (by first wife): son Emanuele
Step children: two
2nd wife: Leonora d'Este, the niece of Duke Alfonso II.
Children (by second wife): one son, died in childhood, Alfonsino
Died: 8 September 1613
Grave: Buried in the church of the Gesù Nuovo, Naples. see findagrave

Marriage and Murder

- After the early death of his elder brother in 1584 his father arranged for Carlo to marry his twice widowed first cousin Maria with a view to producing a male heir in order to prevent the estate reverting to the Papal States.. She had already had two children and so was considered suitable for childbearing. She was 25, talented and beautiful and they married in 1586.
- They were happily married for the first couple of years and produced a son Emanuele.
- Carlo then apparently lost interest and spent more time pursuing his musical interests and friends.
- Maria began an affair with the handsome Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria, who was already married.
- The affair went on in secret for over two years with the knowledge and help of some of the servants.
- Carlo's uncle Don Giulio also fancied Maria but she would have nothing to do with him. He eventually found out about her affair with Fabrizio and decided to tell Carlo.
- Carlo decided to set a trap by telling his wife that he was going on an all night hunting trip, then instead caught them 'in flagrante delicto' and promptly killed them both and ordered that their naked bodies be put on public view.
- Carlo was never taken to court for the murders because of his noble rank and it was considered an honor killing
- The murders affected Carlo mentally and he went through a period of manic depression. In reparation he built a monastery and chapel. The depression also had a big influence on his music.
- Amazingly another marriage was arranged for Carlo in 1594. This time to Eleonora the cousin of the Duke Alfonso d'Este II of Ferrara, again for reasons of keeping the estate in the family. For Carlo the attraction of this was not Eleonora but the rich musical environment as the duke was mad on music. The following few years were very productive musically, also a son, Alfonsino, was produced.
- After a couple of years he decided to return to his Gesualdo home to set up his own musical court.
- Carlo soon tired of Eleonora and he had several romantic affairs. His mental condition deteriorated and he began indulging in sado-machism including beating his wife. In addition he was asthmatic. Eventually he died in 1613, some say Eleonora was responsible.
- His son Alfonsino died so presumably the Duke of Ferrara's estate was lost.
- Eleonora remarried, to a nephew of the Pope.
(for a more detailed account of the above see Len Mullenger's article on MusicWeb-International

Moro, lasso al mio duolo
sung by Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam

O Vos Omnes

Dolcissima Mia Vita
PDV Vocal Ensemble. Japan

A Biography - by Glenn Watkins

The Gesualdo Hex:
In this vivid tale of adultery and intrigue, witchcraft and murder, Glenn Watkins presents a riveting investigation of one of the most provocative musicians of the Renaissance. He explores the life of Renaissance composer Gesualdo - a life suffused with scandal and bordering on the fantastical - as well as the undeniable impact of his music on a host of later musicians and artists from Stravinsky and Schnittke to Abbado and Herzog. Tracing the vitalising force of Renaissance chromaticism to our own day, this multifaceted account weaves together the cumulative experience of some of the most vibrant musicians of the past half century. "The Gesualdo Hex" considers how music inevitably takes on a new guise as it is revisited by subsequent generations and how history plays with the evidence. This compelling book asks us to grapple with our understanding, not only of art and the artists who create it, but also of history itself.
Amazon.com (USA)

Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices -
a film by Werner Herzog

So Gesualdo was already the focus of a good deal of interest when the Munich-based director and film producer Werner Herzog also developed an interest in the composer at about this time. Herzog seemed somehow predestined for the job. His preference for eccentric protagonists, amply attested to in films such as Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo starring Klaus Kinski, went hand in hand with a musical streak that has won him a great deal of admiration since the mid 1980s with regular opera productions at the Bayreuth Festival, the Opera Bastille in Paris and La Scala, Milan. Of course, one was never to expect a creative artist of Herzog's talents to produce a conventional documentary film. (Amazon review)

Herzog's film has just been reissued on DVD (see above) .

Or excerpts can now be viewed on YouTube - see here above

Modern projects

Bernardo Bertolucci was working on a film, provisionally titled Heaven and Hell, with a script by Mark Peploe and with Joseph Fiennes cast as Gesualdo, Emily Watson and Joely Richardson as his two wives.
Unfortunately the project has been suspended for health reasons. Let's hope it will be made eventually.
The life of Gesualdo provided inspiration for numerous works of fiction and music drama, including a novel by Anatole France, a short story by Julio Cortázar, and an opera by Franz Hummel.
In addition, 20th century composers responded to his music with tributes of their own; Alfred Schnittke wrote an opera in 1995 based on his life, Igor Stravinsky arranged Gesualdo's madrigal "Beltà, poi che t'assenti" as part of his Monumentum pro Gesualdo (1960), and contemporary composer Salvatore Sciarrino has also arranged several of his madrigals for an instrumental ensemble.
In 1997, the Australian composer Brett Dean paid homage to Gesualdo in 'Carlo' - an intense and affecting work for string orchestra, tape and sampler.

Links - where to go for more information:

Answers.com collected reference sites, including Wikipedia

MusicWeb-International good article about the murders

ClassicalArchives.com a bio

The Gesualdo Consort a London early music group which
features in Death for Five Voices

The Gesualdo Six a vocal sextet specialising in the performance of renaissance polyphony

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