Carlo Gesualdo: Biography & Music

Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

This lesson explores the life and music of Carlo Gesualdo, one of the most intriguing composers of the Renaissance era. He is chiefly remembered for his highly innovative music and for his reputation as a murderer.

Early Life

Carlo Gesualdo (b. 1561) was an Italian composer of the late Renaissance era (1450 - 1600 C.E.). Carlo's 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 music and learned to play several instruments. His favorite was the lute, a forerunner of the modern guitar. He also studied music composition and was very passionate about playing and writing music. However, he had a gloomy and morose personality and tended to sink into severe depression.

16th-century portrait of Carlo Gesualdo. Anonymous artist.
Painting of Carlo Gesualdo.

Carlo was the second son, and therefore was not expected to inherit his father's land or titles. However, the untimely death of his elder brother suddenly made Carlo the heir. This created an urgent need for him to marry and have children to ensure the security of the family's position. A marriage was arranged between Carlo and his cousin, Maria d'Avalos. Carlo and Maria's marriage appeared to have been successful for the first few years, and Maria gave birth to a son, Emanuele.

The Murders

At some point during their marriage, Maria began an extramarital affair with another Italian nobleman. Gesualdo began to suspect that his wife was being unfaithful to him and prepared a trap to see if his suspicions would be confirmed. On October 16, 1590, Gesualdo left the palace under the pretext of going on a hunting trip. He hid at a relative's house for a few hours, then secretly returned home. His servants had helped him damage the keyholes on the bedroom doors so that his wife was unable to completely lock them. Gesualdo burst through the doors and caught his wife and her lover in the act of infidelity. In a mad fury, he drew a dagger and stabbed them to death. Gesualdo dragged the bodies outside so that the town could see the punishment for their betrayal. Maria's throat had been slit while her lover's body, clad only in one of Maria's ruffled nightgowns, was riddled with gashes.

The story of these murders was highly publicized and a few widely circulated sensationalized versions still persist. For example, one account states that Maria had a second son. Allegedly, Gesualdo scrutinized the child's facial features and decided that the baby bore a closer resemblance to his dead wife's lover than to himself, and so he had the infant's cradle hung from the ceiling and swung so violently that the child died. While almost certainly false, some still believe this elaborate version of the story.

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.

Later Years

In 1593, Gesualdo arranged to remarry. His intended bride, Leonora, was a member of the powerful d'Este family, but perhaps the real attraction for Gesualdo was that the d'Estes were from the city of Ferrara, a vibrant hub of musical activity. From the time of his second marriage until 1596, Gesualdo spent over half of his time in Ferrara listening to, performing, and composing music. This marriage was not a happy one, and his new wife frequently complained of boredom and sought any excuse to leave the estate. Despite their incompatibility, the couple had a son, Alfonsino, who died while still a baby. Gesualdo already suffered from severe depression, and this blow sent him still further into melancholy which is reflected in the dark themes that dominated his musical compositions from this time period. As a tribute to his dead son (and possibly as a means of atonement for his earlier crimes), he commissioned an altarpiece for the local Capuchin chapel depicting himself and his wife Leonora offering up the soul of their dead son, accompanied by St. Carlo Borromeo, Gesualdo's uncle.

Image of the altarpiece commissioned by Gesualdo in memoriam of his deceased son and as tribute to his uncle.
Altarpiece commissioned by Gesualdo.

Gesualdo's mental and emotional state steadily deteriorated. His wife was unhappy and petitioned the Pope for a divorce, which was denied. Eventually, Gesualdo purchased a separate estate for her while he remained in his gloomy fortress until his death in 1613. The exact cause of death is unknown. One report claims that it was due to intestinal troubles (which the author of said report believes was caused by demonic possession), while another source poses the theory that the frustrated Leonora, unable to be rid of her husband by divorce, arranged for him to be poisoned. In any case, his early death was doubly tragic, as it occurred only three weeks after the untimely death of his only surviving son, Emanuele, thereby ending Carlo Gesualdo's family line.

Gesualdo's Music

Gesualdo's only true passion was music. Many of his lyrics matched his dark disposition, focusing on subjects of pain, death, emotional agony, and love lost. When he was not in the throes of depression, he invited other musicians and poets to gather for an evening of musical performances, intellectual conversations, and to critique each other's work. These types of artistic gatherings were common during the late Renaissance era, and were known as cameratas, a word which is derived from the Latin word for 'chamber,' referencing the fact that cameratas were private gatherings that took place in a chamber of the home and not for public entertainment.

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