Gesualdo: Cruel Ecstasy
As part of its Chamber music cycle, the Auditorio de Tenerife is offering the concert Gesualdo: Cruel Ecstasy by Exaudi Vocal Ensemble.
James Weeks, director
Emma Tring, soprano
Jessica Gillingwater, mezzo
Tom Williams, countertenor
David de Winter, Stephen Jeffes, tenor
Jimmy Holliday, bass
Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613)
Madrigals (from Books V and VI)
Gioite voi col canto (Book V)
Se la mia morte brami (Book VI)
S’io non miro non moro (Book V)
‘Io parto’, e non più dissi (Book VI)
Asciugate i begli occhi (Book V)
O dolorosa gioia (Book V)
Patrick Hegarty (*1996)
Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613)
Madrigals (from Books V and VI)
Itene, o miei sospiri (Book V)
Moro, lasso, al mio duolo (Book VI)
Languisce al fin chi da la vita parte (Book V)
Gesualdo: Madrigals from Books V and VI
Four hundred years after his death, Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, remains the most tantalising of musicians, the most alluring of myths. We are drawn back to the dark flame of this strange, obsessive music like moths to the candle, like lovers who can’t let go. At the heart of his work we sense a mystery, an inward-turning, a kind of silence: its extreme chromatic harmonies and wild polarities no mere artifice or exoticism, but emanating from a soul whose nature is other, lying apart from us, outside our cosmology, orbiting a different sun.
This is music which begets myths, and its composer’s sad and troubled life supplies plenty. In his time, Gesualdo was recognised to be of odd character. He was widely described as melancholic (a catch-all term), although we also hear that he ‘talks a great deal, and gives no sign, except in his mien, of being a melancholy man.’ Music was a consuming obsession for him: he would speak of nothing else, driving listeners to distraction and showing his works ‘in score to everybody in order to induce them to marvel at his art.’ The scholar Glenn Watkins hypothesises bipolar disorder; others have suggested that the diagnosis of an underlying Type B personality disorder (typified by instability of self-image and tendency to see things as all-good or all-bad) might illuminate his behaviour (and art). It would certainly be simplistic to assume that his notorious uxoricide, committed in 1590 when Gesualdo was 24, was the sole, or even main trigger for his psychological traits; rather, a picture emerges of a man whose underlying personality disorder is exacerbated by various physical and mental traumas at different points in his life into a final state of severe and constant mental torture. The music cannot help but reflect this, and without a doubt the polarities – of mood, texture, harmonic style – on which Gesualdo’s style is based are indicative; but this is not incoherent, ‘mad’ music: it remains, for all its non-normative behaviour, lucid, communicative (albeit in a very extreme way), artfully structured and technically virtuosic.
The madrigals of the Fifth and Sixth Books, from which all the pieces in this concert are taken, are often described as ‘late’ works, having been published at the end of Gesualdo’s life in 1611. Yet by Gesualdo’s own assertion they were composed around the time of his extended sojourn at the court of Ferrara between 1594 and 1597, withheld from publication in the manner of musica reservata (a private music for the exclusive appreciation of connoisseurs) and only finally published in order to set the record straight and confound his several imitators and plagiarists. Gesualdo was, like many aristocratic composers of the time a natural avant-gardist, and the importance of his visit to Ferrara cannot be overstated. Since Vicentino’s Ancient Greek-inspired experiments in chromatic and microtonal music in the 1550s, Ferrara was the undisputed capital of chromaticism: Vicentino’s microtonal harpsichord, the archicembalo, could still be heard here in the 1590s, played by Luzzasco Luzzaschi, the madrigalist and maestro of the fabled Concerto delle donne. Gesualdo was highly struck by Luzzaschi’s music, and it would seem that the two composers became engaged in some sort of madrigal-publishing duel, or at least mutual artistic exchange. If it is true that these works were written by the 30-year-old Gesualdo in Ferrara, we must jettison some of our most cherished ideas about his isolated, ‘late’ style and embrace instead the idea that these are works written by a young man in the blazing heat of inspiration, working in the very epicentre of musical innovation. (Comparison with Monteverdi, making a similarly radical transition in Mantua towards his own books IV and V over the course of the same decade, is inescapable.)
But the sounds of these pieces are not like those of Luzzaschi, still less Monteverdi. Gesualdo has taken the innovative premise of Ferrarese chromaticism to a place that is overwhelmingly personal and profoundly subjective; in these works he seems to be speaking to himself, composing in order to converse with his own melancholy rather than to portray or palliate it for others. Io pur respiro, Io parto, io moro…the focus on the first-person singular, the ‘I’ of the introspective self, is relentless. Emotions oscillate between extremes, of manic joy and lugubrious despondency. Equilibrium is sought but never found, consummation is continually yearned for yet remains fleeting if not entirely illusory.
Ungraspable and elusive, too, is the experience of the music. Once is never enough: the consummation we desire, the sense of emotional wholeness and completion, continually evades us, slips away, luring us back again and again, just as almost every madrigal treads and retreads the same expressive ground, the same unreconcilable extremes of emotion, circling and obsessive. We are drawn in, fascinated, haunted – the music blazes then evaporates into the air – we are left to wonder at these strange messages while they last, and let them fade into the silence which surrounds them.
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