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Carlo Gesualdo
Portrait of Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, 16th century
Born(1566-03-30)March 30, 1566
DiedSeptember 8, 1613(1613-09-08) (aged 47)
WorksList of compositions by Carlo Gesualdo

Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (c. 30 March 1566 – 8 September 1613) was Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza. As a composer he is known for writing madrigals and pieces of sacred music that use a chromatic language not heard again until the late 19th century. He is also known for killing his first wife and her aristocratic lover upon finding them in flagrante delicto.


Early life

Gesualdo's family had acquired the principality of Venosa in what is now the Province of Potenza, Southern Italy, in 1560.[citation needed] He was probably born on March 30, 1566, three years after his older brother Luigi,[1] though some sources have stated that he was born on March 8.[citation needed] Older ones give the year of birth as c. 1560 or 1561, but this is no longer accepted.[citation needed] A letter from Gesualdo's mother, Geronima Borromeo, indicates that the year is most likely 1566.[citation needed] Gesualdo's uncle was Carlo Borromeo, later Saint Charles Borromeo. His mother was the niece of Pope Pius IV.[citation needed]

Most likely Carlo was born at Venosa, then part of the Kingdom of Naples, but little else is known about his early life.[citation needed] "His mother died when he was only seven, and at the request of his uncle Carlo Borromeo, for whom he was named, he was sent to Rome to be set on the path of an ecclesiastical career. There he was placed under the protection of his uncle Alfonso (d. 1603), then dean of the College of Cardinals, later unsuccessful pretender to the papacy, and ultimately Archbishop of Naples."[1] His brother Luigi was to become the next Prince of Venosa, but after his untimely death in 1584, Carlo became the designated successor. Abandoning the prospect of an ecclesiastical career,[citation needed] he married in 1586 his first cousin, Donna Maria d'Avalos,[2] the daughter of Carlo d'Avalos, prince of Montesarchio and Sveva Gesualdo.[1] They had a son, Don Emmanuele.[2]

Gesualdo had a musical relationship with Pomponio Nenna, though whether it was student to teacher, or colleague to colleague, is uncertain.[citation needed] Regardless of this, however, he had a single-minded devotion to music from an early age, and showed little interest in anything else.[citation needed] In addition to the lute, he also played the harpsichord and guitar.[3] In addition to Nenna, Gesualdo's accademia included the composers Giovanni de Macque, Scipione Dentice, Scipione Stella, Scipione Lacorcia, Ascanio Mayone, and the nobleman lutenist Ettorre de la Marra.[4]


Some years into her marriage with Gesualdo, Donna Maria began an affair with Fabrizio Carafa, third Duke of Andria and seventh Count of Ruovo.[2] On the night of October 16, 1590,[5] at the Palazzo San Severo in Naples, the two lovers were caught in flagrante by Gesualdo, who killed them both on the spot.[6][2]

The day after the killing, a delegation of Neapolitan officials inspected the room in Gesualdo's apartment where the killings had taken place, and interrogated witnesses. The delegation's report did not lack in gruesome details, including the mutilation of the corpses and, according to the witnesses, Gesualdo going into the bedroom a second time "because he wasn't certain yet they were dead".[7]

The Gran Corte della Vicaria found Gesualdo had not committed a crime.[8]


About a year after the gruesome end of his first marriage,[citation needed] Gesualdo's father died and he thus became the third Prince of Venosa and eighth Count of Conza.[1][7]

Ferrara years

By 1594, Gesualdo had arranged for another marriage, this time to Leonora d'Este,[9] the niece of Duke Alfonso II.[citation needed] That year, Gesualdo ventured to Ferrara, the home of the d'Este court[9] and also one of the centers of progressive musical activity in Italy, especially the madrigal; Gesualdo was especially interested in meeting Luzzasco Luzzaschi, one of the most forward-looking composers in the genre.[citation needed] Leonora was married to Gesualdo and moved with him back to his estate in 1597.[9] In the meantime, he engaged in more than two years of creative activity in the innovative environment of Ferrara, surrounded by some of the finest musicians in Italy.[citation needed] While in Ferrara, he published his first book of madrigals.[9] He also worked with the concerto delle donne, the three virtuoso female singers who were among the most renowned performers in the country, and for whom many other composers wrote music.[citation needed]

In a letter of June 25, 1594, Gesualdo indicated he was writing music for the three women in the concerto delle donne; however, it is probable that some of the music he wrote, for example that in the newly developing monodic and/or concertato styles, has not survived.[10]

Return to Gesualdo and final years

Castle of Gesualdo

After returning to his castle at Gesualdo from Ferrara in 1595, he set up a situation similar to the one that existed in Ferrara, with a group of resident virtuoso musicians who would sing his own music.[citation needed] While his estate became a center of music-making, it was for Gesualdo alone.[citation needed] With his considerable financial resources, he was able to hire singers and instrumentalists for his own pleasure.[citation needed] He rarely left his castle, taking delight in nothing but music.[11] His most well-known music was published in Naples in 1603 and from the castle of Gesualdo (with printer Giovanni Giacomo Carlino [it])[12] in 1611.[citation needed] The most notoriously chromatic and difficult portions of it were all written during his period of self-isolation.[citation needed]

The relationship between Gesualdo and his new wife was not good; she accused him of abuse, and the Este family attempted to obtain a divorce. She spent more and more time away from the isolated estate. Gesualdo wrote many angry letters to Modena where she often went to stay with her brother. According to Cecil Gray and Peter Warlock, "She seems to have been a very virtuous lady ... for there is no record of his having killed her."[13]

In 1600, Gesualdo's son by his second marriage died. It has been postulated[by whom?] that after this Gesualdo had a large painting commissioned for the church of the Capuchins at Gesualdo, showing Gesualdo, his uncle Carlo Borromeo, his second wife Leonora, and his son, underneath a group of angelic figures; however, some sources suspect the painting was commissioned earlier, as the identity of the child is unclear.[citation needed]

Late in life he suffered from depression.[citation needed] According to Campanella, writing in Lyon in 1635, Gesualdo had himself beaten daily by his servants, keeping a special servant whose duty it was to beat him "at stool",[14] and he engaged in a relentless, and fruitless, correspondence with Cardinal Federico Borromeo to obtain relics, i.e., skeletal remains, of recently canonized uncle Carlo Borromeo, with which he hoped to obtain healing for his mental disorder and possibly absolution for his crimes.[citation needed] Gesualdo's late setting of Psalm 51, the Miserere, is distinguished by its insistent and imploring musical repetitions, alternating lines of monophonic chant with pungently chromatic polyphony in a low vocal tessitura.[citation needed]

Gesualdo died in isolation,[citation needed] at his castle Gesualdo in Avellino,[15] three weeks after the death of his son Emanuele, his first son by his marriage to Maria.[citation needed] One 20th-century biographer has raised the possibility that he was murdered by his wife.[13] He was buried in the chapel of Saint Ignatius[citation needed], in the Church of the Gesù Nuovo, in Naples.[15] The sepulchre was destroyed in the earthquake of 1688.[citation needed] When the church was rebuilt, the tomb was covered over, and now lies beneath it.[citation needed] The burial plaque, however, remains visible.[citation needed]

Compositions and style

See also: List of compositions by Carlo Gesualdo

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. One of the most obvious characteristics of his music is the extravagant text setting of words representing extremes of emotion: "love", "pain", "death", "ecstasy", "agony" and other similar words occur frequently in his madrigal texts, most of which he probably wrote himself. While this type of word-painting is common among madrigalists of the late 16th century, it reached an extreme development in Gesualdo's music.[citation needed]

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 Western music until the 19th century, and then in a context of tonality.[citation needed]

Gesualdo's published music falls into three categories: sacred vocal music, secular vocal music, and instrumental music. His most famous compositions are his six books of madrigals, published between 1594 and 1611, as well as his Tenebrae Responsoria, which are very much like madrigals, except that they use texts from the Passion, a form (Tenebrae) used by many other composers. As in the later books of secular madrigals, he uses particularly sharp dissonance and shocking chromatic juxtapositions, especially in the parts highlighting text passages having to do with Christ's suffering, or the guilt of St. Peter in having betrayed him.[citation needed]

The first books of madrigals that Gesualdo published are close in style to the work of other contemporary madrigalists. Experiments with harmonic progression, cross-relation and violent rhythmic contrast increase in the later books, with Books Five and Six containing the most famous and extreme examples (for instance, the madrigals "Moro, lasso, al mio duolo" and "Beltà, poi che t'assenti", both of which are in Book Six, published in 1611). There is evidence that Gesualdo had these works in score form, in order to better display his contrapuntal inventions to other musicians, and also that Gesualdo intended his works to be sung by equal voices, as opposed to the concerted madrigal style popular in the period, which involved doubling and replacing voices with instruments.[3] In addition to the works which he published, he left a large quantity of music in manuscript. This contains some of his richest experiments in chromaticism, as well as compositions in such contemporary avant-garde forms as monody. Some of these were products of the years he spent in Ferrara, and some were specifically written for the virtuoso singers there, the three women of the concerto di donne.[citation needed]

Characteristic of the Gesualdo style is a sectional format in which relatively slow-tempo passages of wild, occasionally shocking chromaticism alternate with quick-tempo diatonic passages. The text is closely wedded to the music, with individual words being given maximum attention. Some of the chromatic passages include all twelve notes of the chromatic scale within a single phrase, although scattered throughout different voices. Gesualdo was particularly fond of chromatic third relations, for instance juxtaposing the chords of A major and F major,[citation needed] or even C-sharp major and A minor, as he does at the beginning of "Moro, lasso, al mio duolo".[16]


Portrait of Carlo Gesualdo, Painting by Francesco Mancini, c. 18th century

The fascination for Gesualdo's music has been fuelled by the sensational aspects of his biography. In 2011 Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker:[7]

If Gesualdo had not committed such shocking acts, we might not pay such close attention to his music. But if he had not written such shocking music we would not care so much about his deeds. Many bloodier crimes have been forgotten; it’s the nexus of high art and foul play that catches our fancy.

In his own lifetime, the salacious details of Gesualdo's killing of his first wife and her lover were widely publicized, including in verse by poets such as Tasso and an entire flock of Neapolitan poets, eager to capitalize on the sensation.[citation needed] The accounts of his cruelty were expanded with apocryphal stories such as the alleged killing of an illegitimate child of Donna Maria and her lover, which according to one variant of the made-up story was "suspended in a bassinet and swung to the point of death".[7] Until the 1620s his music was imitated by Neapolitan composers of polyphonic madrigals such as Antonio Cifra, Michelangelo Rossi, Giovanni de Macque, Scipione Dentice, Girolamo Frescobaldi and Sigismondo d'India.[17][18][19][20]

After the Renaissance Gesualdo's life story and his music were largely forgotten until the 20th century: in 1926 Gray and Warlock published their book on Gesualdo.[7][21] The life of Gesualdo provided inspiration for numerous works of fiction and musical drama, including a novel by Anatole France[citation needed] and a short story by Julio Cortázar.[22] Several composers responded to Gesualdo's music: In 1960 Igor Stravinsky wrote Monumentum pro Gesualdo, containing an arrangement of Gesualdo's madrigal "Beltà, poi che t'assenti".[citation needed] In 1995 Alfred Schnittke wrote an opera based on Gesualdo's life.[citation needed] Another Gesualdo opera was written by Franz Hummel in 1996.[23] Salvatore Sciarrino arranged several of Gesualdo's madrigals for an instrumental ensemble.[citation needed]

Music based on Gesualdo's life and music

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Operas based on Gesualdo's life and music:

Other music inspired by Gesualdo or his music includes:


The Conservatorio di Musica Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa ([State] Conservatory of Music Carlo Gesualdo do Venoza), Potenza, in the region of Basilicata, Italy, was founded in 1971 and named for the composer.[27]

In The Doors of Perception (1954), Aldous Huxley writes of Gesualdo's madrigals:

Mozart's C-Minor Piano Concerto was interrupted after the first movement, and a recording of some madrigals by Gesualdo took its place.

'These voices' I said appreciatively, 'these voices – they're a kind of bridge back to the human world.'

And a bridge they remained even while singing the most startlingly chromatic of the mad prince's compositions. Through the uneven phrases of the madrigals, the music pursued its course, never sticking to the same key for two bars together. In Gesualdo, that fantastic character out of a Webster melodrama, psychological disintegration had exaggerated, had pushed to the extreme limit, a tendency inherent in modal as opposed to fully tonal music. The resulting works sounded as though they might have been written by the later Schoenberg.

'And yet,' I felt myself constrained to say, as I listened to these strange products of a Counter-reformation psychosis working upon a late medieval art form, 'and yet it does not matter that he's all in bits. The whole is disorganized. But each individual fragment is in order, is a representative of a Higher Order. The Highest Order prevails even in the disintegration. The totality is present even in the broken pieces. More clearly present, perhaps, than in a completely coherent work. At least you aren't lulled into a sense of false security by some merely human, merely fabricated order. You have to rely on your immediate perception of the ultimate order. So in a certain sense disintegration may have its advantages. But of course it's dangerous, horribly dangerous. Suppose you couldn't get back, out of the chaos...'

David Pownall's play Music to Murder By (1976) juxtaposes the life of Gesualdo with that of twentieth-century composer Peter Warlock.[28] In 1985 the French writer Michel Breitman published the novel Le Témoin de poussière [fr] based on the latter part of the life of Gesualdo.[citation needed] In 1995,[29] Werner Herzog directed the film Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices about the life and music of Gesualdo.[30]

In the NME musician Anna Calvi named Gesualdo as one of her ultimate cult heroes:[31]

Gesualdo was an Italian composer who, because of mental illness, murdered his wife and her lover, and wrote music in the 16th century that was so progressive and extreme that no one attempted to recreate his style until the 20th century... It wasn't until centuries later that he was rediscovered, and his work is a huge inspiration to me.

Score editions


Gesualdo's madrigals and his Tenebrae Responsoria are often recorded.


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Further information: Tenebrae Responsoria (Gesualdo) § Recordings




Further reading