Listening Log- [Pt. I- Proj.1]- Carlos Gesualdo da Venosa – ‘Belta Poi Che t’Assenti’ in ‘Il seto libro di madrigali. No. 2’ W. 6/16 Published in 1611.

Listening Log- [Pt. I- Proj.1]- Carlos Gesualdo da Venosa – ‘Belta Poi Che t’Assenti’ in ‘Il seto libro di madrigali. No. 2’ W. 6/16 Published in 1611. Cat No. ICG 7

Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa  (c 1566 – 1613) was an Italian composer of both secular madrigals, sacred vocal music such as Tenebrae and instrumental music. He was from Southern Italy, from what was then the kingdom of Naples and later in life became the Prince of Venosa. A couple of years prior to succeeding to his position he brutally murdered and mutilated his unfaithful wife and her lover, when he had caught them red handed. His second wife also accused him of abuse and tried to divorce him. There were rumours and stories of Gesualdo’s depraved nature which still abound today. He was seen as a very wicked man, the devil incarnate and accused of anything from alchemy, necromancy to killing one of his children. It seems clear from a multitude of evidence that Gesualdo suffered from some sort of mental disorder his entire life and spent his time emotionally tortured and racked with guilt. He did engage in some very morbid activities including self flagellation, which might have eventually resulted in his death. As always, this type of tragedy combined with an exceptional musical talent has lent itself to being the subject matter for a plethora of novels, stories, poems, operas, films and music throughout the ages. The combination of a dangerous lifestyle and great music has always resulted in the creation of legends.

His music very evidently expresses this torment and extremely negative volatile emotions. His madrigals in particular are very expressive and full of anguish and pain. His method of conveying his distress is by using a highly chromatic style of counterpoint and really underpinning the text, ie. word painting with dissonance to put his sentiments across.

In ‘Belta Poi Che t’Assenti‘ this is very evident. ‘Belta..’ is a Madrigal from his 6th book of Madrigals published two years before his death. It is written in G Dorian (starts, ends and cadences on G, with one flat) for 5 voices, SAATB in his typical style of contrasting homophonic versus imitative polyphonic contrapuntal sections. Equally it is highly chromatic in some sections, whilst completely diatonic in others. He contrasts consonant sections with dissonant ones and uses dissonances to accentuate emotionally charged words such as ‘Tormentato’ in bar 11.

Fig. 1. Tormentato Bar 11 (2019)

Both his use of dissonance and chromaticism tends to stay within the Renaissance rules of counterpoint. Dissonance is generally prepared and resolved appropriately and approached/quit by step. When there are leaps they tend to be counterbalanced by stepwise movement in the opposite direction, the above example is a rare exception. The chromaticism sticks within rules too and is mainly used to avoid tritones, but because of the sheer number of altered notes it can be hard to perceive the underlying structure. Unusually for the time he also uses some older compositional techniques such as fauxbourdon. The passage in the example above could be interpreted from this viewpoint as the top three voices form parallel 6/3 chords and parallel perfect 4ths between the two top voices. This ‘retro’ approach was actually very modern for his time.

The overall sonic effect of this extreme use of chromaticism and dissonance is very unnerving and unsettling. It also has the effect of creating very odd and distant chord progressions/keys as a byproduct. This degree of chromaticism and resulting chord progressions were not to be used again until the late 19th Century and Gesualdo can very much be seen as a visionary 400 years ahead of his time. Strauss, Bruckner and Igor Stravinsky were greatly influenced by him and there are clear similarities in their music. Although the 19th century works (Stravinsky’s in particular) has been interpreted in a vertical, harmonic context whereas the unusually dissonant chordal texture in Gesualdo’s work has to be explained in terms of his polyphonic, chromatic horizontal melody lines and the context and compositional technique are different, the sonic result is the same.

Stravinsky did in fact arrange this particular madrigal within his 1960’s ‘Gesualdo Monumentum ad CD Annum’ ballet in homage to Gesualdo of whom he was a big fan. Stravinsky orchestrated several of Gesualdo’s madrigals for Gesualdo’s 400th birthday.(Dickey, s.d )

My own response to this piece is very strong. I find the highly chromatic soprano line extremely beautiful and the word painting very effective and quite overwhelming. All the chromaticism gives the feeling of the rug being pulled from under you, which is perhaps how Gesualdo himself might have felt. It disintegrates in the most sublimely painful way. Like a musical free fall, both exhilarating and utterly frightening at the same time. I really love this madrigal but it makes me question myself since it is clearly the product of a deranged mind. Is there some deeper psychological reason why I am so much more attracted to Gesualdo’s madrigals than other Renaissance madrigals which I often find too perfect and a bit twee? Do I perceive more beauty in music when it’s tinged with pain?

Original Italian text (by Anonymous)
Beltà poi che t’assenti
Come ne porti il cor
Porta i tormenti.
Ché tormentato cor 
può ben sentire
La doglia del morire,
E un alma senza core,
Non può sentir dolore.

English text (translated by James Gibb)
Beauty, since you depart,
as you take my heart, 
take also my torments.
For a tormented heart 
can surely feel 
the pain of death,
but a soul without a heart
can feel no sorrow.


Figure 1. Lazic, S.  Toremantato Bar 11 (2019)


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