by James Stovall
Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (1560-1613) was a late renaissance Italian nobleman, lute player, composer, and murderer.
In music he is particularly remembered for his chromatic harmonies that were ahead of their time. Indeed the eccentric qualities of his music would not be embraced for three hundred years, chromatics not coming into their own until the Late Romantic Period. He was largely unknown in his own time and his works have been the subject of scholarship during the 20th century alone.
In 1586 Gesualdo married Maria d’Avalos, the daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. Sometime during the next several years Maria embarked upon an affair with the Duke of Andria.
As far as we can tell they managed to keep their affair secret from Gesualdo despite the fact that most of the community seemed to know about it. By 1590 however Gesualdo had apparently learned of the affair.
The lovers met believing that Gesualdo was out of town, but Gesualdo arrived with an extra set of keys to the locked palace. He found them in bed together and brutally slaughtered them.
He stabbed the Duke multiple times with a sword and shot him in the head. The servants who aided and abetted him and witnessed the attacked reported that he violently stabbed Maria multiple times as he shouted, “She’s not dead yet,” repeatedly.
He then dressed the Duke in Maria’s nightgown and then dragged their mutilated corpses and left them to rot in front of the palace. Being an aristocrat in his time, he was immune to arrest and conviction.
It has been suggested that the act of killing weighed on him heavily. Later in life he suffered depression and we have records suggesting that he would routinely have his servants beat him.
He also seems to have suffered from mental illness. Many have attempted to create a link between his guilt and the deeply emotional nature of his musical composition. In his madrigals he uses text like “pain,” “death,” and “agony” a disproportionate amount even for an era distinguished by this type of poetic language. In addition his highly dissonant and discordant harmonies suggest inner turmoil or conflict, possibly related to the murders.
Check out one of Gesualdo’s most otherworldly madrigal, Moro Lasso al Mio Duolo, linked below.