Entertainment Music

Thursday 21 November 2019

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition -- least of all Carlo's lovers

Down the years the arts have produced plenty of stories that are stranger than fiction, but there can't be many to beat the tale of Carlo Gesualdo, an Italian nobleman and composer, who died on this day in 1613.

Gesualdo's father was a duke; his mother a niece of Pope Pius IV, and he was the second son. Carlo was in his 20s when his elder brother died, leaving him heir to the title and the family fortune, and, given the times that were in it, now in need of a son and heir of his own.

A match was made with his cousin who'd been twice widowed, but when a baby boy duly arrived, Carlo lost interest in the marriage. His wife, though, hadn't lost interest in men, and she began a lengthy affair.

Carlo found out, and set a trap for his wife and her lover. They were caught in the act, and murdered.

The fact that this was clearly a crime of passion, and that he was a prince, got him off, but did nothing for his state of mind. Masochistic and depressed, his work kept him going.

Gesualdo's speciality was madrigals, those secular part songs of the late Renaissance and early Baroque. His were searingly different from the norm, pushing back the harmonic boundaries, experimenting with sound.

He practised what's known as chromaticism, music that doesn't restrict itself to a major or minor key and the seven notes that they use, but involves others from the rest of the range of the 12-note octave.

Anybody who's ever learnt to play the piano will know all about chromatic scales that twist and torture fingers and thumbs, taking in every single note, the white and the black.

The results were startling, dissonant, though not all together out of keeping with what others were trying at the time. It's just that Gesualdo's circumstances -- he was involved in a series of unhappy relationships -- lend credence to the view that his experiences were driving his output.

He expanded into sacred music, and his life continued on its colourful way.

By now he had a second wife, but also a number of illicit liaisons. His wife got the Spanish Inquisition involved and had Gesualdo's paramours put on trial -- for witchcraft!

After he died, it would be hundreds of years before his music would find a ready audience. The Classical and Romantic eras had come and gone, and the 20th Century had already arrived when composers like Stravinsky started to take an interest, and sparked a revival.

Now, performances of early song are as likely to feature Gesualdo, as Monteverdi, Palestrina or Dowland, though none of them had quite Carlo Gesualdo's tale to tell.

RTÉ lyric fm features The Hamilton Scores from 9.30 each Saturday morning, and George Hamilton's Full Score on Sundays at 3.00pm.

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