Carlo Gesualdo (1566 – 1613) was an Italian composer of the late Renaissance era. His father was prince of Venosa, and his mother was the niece of then-current pope Pius IV and the sister of Cardinal Borromo, who would later be canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church. From an early age, Carlo showed an interest in writing and playing music. He learned to play several instruments but his favorite was the lute. As a composer he is best known for writing expressive madrigals and pieces of sacred music.
His music is among the most experimental and expressive of the Renaissance, and without question is the most wildly chromatic. Progressions such as those written by Gesualdo did not appear again in music until the 19th century, and then in a context of tonality. Although widely admired as a composer, the best known fact of his life is his brutal and violent killing of his first wife and her aristocratic lover when he caught them in the act of infidelity. As a nobleman, Gesualdo was not formally charged with a crime. However, his high societal rank provided virtually no protection from potentially vengeful relatives of the deceased. His former wife and her lover had belonged to two of the most powerful and wealthy families in southern Italy, and so Gesualdo immediately made provisions to fortify his castle and hired guards to protect himself. This refuge became his permanent residence.
The evidence that Gesualdo was tortured by guilt for the remainder of his life is considerable, and he may have given expression to it in his music. Simone Molinaro (a contemporary of Gesualdo and also featuring in this website) greatly admired Gesualdo. In 1609 Molinaro met Gesualdo in Naples. Two years later Molinaro published Gesualdo’s six-volume collection of madrigals for five voices. The publication of the Gesualdo madrigals was ground-breaking because it presented Gesualdo’s music in full score as opposed to partbook format.
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