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Gesualdo: when Really Bad Men write Really Good Music


I’ve been communing with a crazed murderer lately, and it’s actually been an uplifting experience.  It’s not often I write something like that.  We often put composers and artistic performers up on pedestals.  They are somehow closer to the angels.  More in touch with Source.  A channel for divinity.  And this closeness with the Divine must be echoed in the kind of person they are.  Often, though, this can go the other way.  We’ve all seen the story of Mozart play out tragically in Amadeus.  We know that artists often do incredibly dysfunctional things.  It’s almost as if being that close to the Divine makes it impossible to live with humanity in any semblance of normalcy.  Carlo Gesualdo was a prime example of this.

Listen to the first minute or so of the video above.  Moro, lasso, al mio duolo (I die, languishing of grief).  It was written as the Italian Renaissance was starting to die down, and within a century, the baroque personified by Telemann, Bach, and Gabrielli was all the rage.  The beginnings of the Enlightenment thought, brought to life in music with phrases that show order and, while decorative, make sense to the listener.  There’s not very much about the first minute of Moro, lasso that makes sense. It’s dissonant, it grates at your ears, and it’s uncomfortable to listen to.

But damn, it’s good music, and has inspired other composers like Stravinsky.  It almost represents the ending of the Renaissance period itself.  That time when, to simplify, Western Europe came back to life after the thousand years since Rome fell, when civilization fell into tribal clans making war, and serious debates about how many angels could dance on the end of a pin.  Within two hundred years of when this piece was written, the world will have shifted again as the new ideas of the Enlightenment infused society – a brand new country would have established itself based on the ideals of liberty, the French Revolution created chaos, and they glory of the Italian Renaissance was long gone.  It’s almost like Moro, lasso is a lament about the changing times.

That would all be lovely, except one then remembers that Carlo Gesualdo was a murderer, and the picture shifts again.

Gesualdo was born in Italy in 1566.  His uncle is now a saint, and his mother was the niece of the Pope.  He was put on the path to an ecclesiastical career, but from his earliest days, he was devoted to music.  When his brother died and he became heir to his father’s estates, he gave up the religious life and married his cousin, Donna Maria d’Avalos.  Here’s where things get messy for him, though.

Donna Maria was having an affair.  And at one point Gesualdo came home to find her and her lover in an uncompromising position.  He murdered them both.  Apparently this was standard, and expected, of Italian noblemen, when faced with such indignity as a wife who had the hots for someone else.  It was grisly.  The bodies were mutilated, and witnesses said that he left but then went back to make sure they were both dead.

And, in part because he was wealthy and had connections, Gesualdo was found to be not guilty of having committed any crimes.

Then he got married a second time.  And he had lots of affairs.  Eventually his second wife got fed up with the situation and had the two main other women tried.  For witchcraft.  The two women were found guilty after confessions obtained through torture, but their punishment was to be kept in prison…in Gesualdo’s castle, where he could presumably carry on doing whatever it was he was doing with them in the first place.

It’s hard to listen to his music, knowing what there is to know about him.  And it makes me wonder, on a deeper level, how much we associate the art with the artist who created it.  I enjoy pop music, and listen to the Hits 1 countdown on Sirius with Spyder Harrison every week (I really do).  And I think about this when I listen to Chris Brown.  The song Fun he did with Pitbull this summer is totally catchy – a perfect summertime soundtrack.  Can I bop around listening to it in the car without thinking about Rihanna’s face?  Do I owe a duty to her, as part of the Sisterhood, to not support the man who gave her the bruises?  Or can I listen to the song for what it is; a poppy upbeat song.

Gesualdo is the same way.  The man was a murderer who got off because he had connections and a lot of money.  He was also a pioneer in musical experimentation and created sounds that hadn’t been heard before, and wouldn’t be heard again until the 20th century with artists like Schonberg.  Can you listen to him without thinking about his crime?  Does it change things when it happened over 400 years ago?