Overtones: Welcome To The World Of Classical Music And Mayhem

Gesualdo's story to be told in Bernardo Bertolucci film 'Heaven and Hell.'

In the Renaissance and for a couple of centuries afterward, most professional composers were hired hands, turning out music on demand for a church, a nobleman's private orchestra or a theatre.

As a rule, they ate with the servants, and some of them had other jobs when they weren't making music.

Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa (1560–1613), was one of the rare exceptions. As an Italian Renaissance nobleman, he didn't have to please anyone but himself; he could and did break any rules he chose — not only in music but in life.

He literally got away with murder in 1590. Not with his own hands; a Renaissance prince hired people for his dirty work. But he arranged for not only the murder but also the mutilation of his adulterous wife, Maria d'Avalos, and her lover, Fabrizio Carafa.

The murder was no secret; poems were written about it and it kept gossips' tongues wagging, but apparently nobody thought about punishing Gesualdo. He was a member of a social class immune to such treatment.

And besides, at that time — and much earlier and later — assassination was an accepted punishment for adultery (adultery by women, that is).

A memorable example, from an earlier century, was Francesca da Rimini, whose violent death in the arms of her lover is commemorated in Dante's Divine Comedy, a tone poem by Tchaikovsky and an opera by Riccardo Zandonai.

Salieri-Mozart Rumor

Gesualdo is the most notorious composer associated with violent death, but not the only one. Antonio Salieri, two centuries later, was the subject of rumors that he had murdered Mozart. Unlike the rumors about Gesualdo, these reports were unfounded. Salieri specialized in Italian opera and tried to steer Mozart away from Italian and toward German texts, but he was not a murderer.

Compared to Mozart, he was not a great composer (who could be?), but he was a capable one, highly and justly respected, and a very distinguished teacher whose students included Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Still, the rumors about him persisted, even after his death, and inspired more than one notable theatrical work: first a play by Alexander Pushkin, Mozart and Salieri, which was made into an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, and more recently the play and movie Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer.

The effect of Shaffer's play on Salieri's reputation was essentially negative, not so much for raking over the old gossip about murder, but for branding him as a mediocrity. On the other hand, the notoriety has led to a revival of some of Salieri's music that had been forgotten for nearly two centuries.

Another composer who became the subject of an opera was John Taverner (1495–1545), a leading English religious composer in the age of King Henry VIII. He stopped composing and not only abandoned the old religion but became one of its most vigorous opponents, taking a leading role in the destruction of the monasteries.

In the opera Taverner by Peter Maxwell Davies, he is accused not of murder but of a more metaphysical crime: destroying that which was best within himself.

One major composer found himself fatally involved in a violent death — not a murder but an accidental homicide. Anton von Webern, one of the most original and, after his death, one of the most influential members of the 12-tone school of composition, spent World War II in Austria although his music was banned by the Nazi government and he had to leave his teaching position.

He survived the war, but not the postwar occupation. On Sept. 15, 1945, at about 9 p.m., he stepped outside his home in Salzburg to take "a few puffs" on a cigar. He was mistaken for his son-in-law, who had just been arrested as a black marketer; his effort to spare his family the smell of cigar smoke was mistaken for an attempt to escape, and he was fatally shot.

Webern and Gesualdo have not yet been made the subject of operas, but Gesualdo's story has been chosen by Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci as the subject of a movie with the working title "Heaven and Hell." The project was announced two years ago and is now reported to be "in production." It will be interesting to hear what Bertolucci does about soundtrack music.

Progression Of Gesualdo's Style

Gesualdo's musical style, in six books of madrigals and three collections of religious music, shows a striking progression from a conventional style in the early works to a radically chromatic and dissonant technique in the last two books of madrigals.

Except for a few brief episodes (for example, the 12-tone harmonies representing primeval chaos at the beginning of Haydn's The Creation), his harmonic style in these late works is the most daring of any composer before Richard Wagner. His example inspired Igor Stravinsky in the composition of the harmonically daring Monumentum Pro Gesualdo (1966), composed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his birth.

Music graphically reinforcing the meaning of individual words was in vogue during Gesualdo's lifetime (you can hear it in many of Claudio Monteverdi's madrigals), but it reached unique levels of power in Gesualdo's work, particularly when the text gave him words like "death" and "torment" to illustrate.

The latest recording of Gesualdo's music, issued last week, is seasonally appropriate Tenebrae Responses for Good Friday, on the Sony Classical label with Andrew Parrott conducting the Taverner Consort (an ensemble named for that other violent and unruly Renaissance composer).

Gesualdo's style is less extreme when he is writing religious music, but this collection of psalms and texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah generates impressive levels of intensity, enhanced by magnificent performances. Parrott likes to record religious works in the context they would have in an actual ceremony. In this case, Gesualdo's polyphonic motets alternate with timeless, traditional interludes in simple plainchant, and the contrast enhances the effect.

Those who want to hear a good selection of Gesualdo's madrigals should try Gesualdo: Madrigaux on the Harmonia Mundi label, with William Christie directing Les Arts Florissants. It has been around for years and remains unsurpassed.