Thursday, April 5, 2007

Carlo Gesualdo: Composer, Cuckold, Killer

I sing in the choir at my church, and since this is Holy Week that's pretty much ALL I've had time to do. I love the Lenten music, it's so dramatic, so overwrought, so sorrowful and agonized and just dripping with despair. It really appeals to this dark side of mine. Plus it's really fun to sing, full of dissonance and resolution, swelling from a whisper to a cry, with all those high notes sopranos like me love to show off on.

Anyhow last week, on Palm Sunday, we sang a piece by late-Renaissance Italian composer and nobleman Carlo Gesualdo. Our choir director included a small biographical blurb on him in the mass program, that referenced family connections (his uncle became Saint Charles Borromeo, and his mother was the niece of Pope Pius IV) and the beautiful innovation of his compositions, which used chromaticism well before pretty much anyone else did. The paragraph ended with: "Gesualdo was also famous for several murders."

Well, ok, this piqued my interest. Besides it being a rather abrupt shift in tone, how often do you read about murderers in the Sunday mass program? Plus, Simon rather coyly left out any detail whatsoever about these famous murders. Who'd he murder, and why, and how? So a'Googling I went.

Gesualdo lived from around 1566 to 1613, and besides being a musical prodigy, composer, and murderer, was the Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza. He married his first cousin (with special papal permission according to some sources), and apparently that was his first big mistake. At least one source references Gesualdo's usual having been "the other young boys that he sang with" but apparently that was considered such a terrible problem by his family until his older brother died, leaving Carlo as the last great hope to produce a male heir and continue the line. If they didn't get quiet Carlo a wife and get them down to their babymaking duties, the family fortune could have ended up with the papacy instead of with the rest of the clan, and no one wanted the pope to get all their loot. That's where Donna Maria D'Avalos came in.

Cousin Donna was already a widow twice over with demonstrated fertility in the form of two children. As one of the victims of Gesualdo's famous murder she comes in for a pretty bad rap, because she was having an affair with the Duke of Andria, Fabrizio Carafa. Who, unsurprisingly to any of us who feel we've heard this kind of story before, was the other victim, stabbed with his married lover after the two were caught in bed together by the wronged husband.

I'm not one to condone infidelity, but on the other hand, it's easy for me at least to sympathize with Donna Maria to some extent. She was stuck in an arranged marriage to a homosexual workaholic (Gesualdo, by all reports, was more interested in his harpsichord than in his home life). And maybe Fabrizio was a dish, who knows. She certainly must have been lonely. Carlo was paying so little attention to his marriage that he didn't even notice the affair going on for two years under his own roof until his uncle, Don Giulio (NOT the saintly uncle), ratted out Donna in a fit of pique over her refusal to sleep with him as well.

Regardless of Donna and Fabrizio's motivations for the affair--lust, boredom, true love?--they certainly didn't deserve what happened when Gesualdo caught them red-handed and bare-assed. He stabbed them repeatedly, probably with help from his servants. The Duke of Andria died of "deep sword wounds, as well as by a shot through the head." Donna Maria was mutilated "in those parts which she ought to have kept chaste," according to court documents of the time. Fabrizio was found dressed in Donna Maria's nightgown, almost certainly put on him as a form of posthumous humiliation. Both bodies were displayed at the local church for everyone to see. There was even a rumor that a a San Dominican monk ravished Donna Maria’s corpse while it was displayed.


What fascinates me about this case is not so much the murder, as the aftermath. As a nobleman, and a wronged husband, there was no question that Carlo Gesualdo would get away with the crime. Contemporary accounts called Donna Maria a "strumpet," and it seems that Gesualdo had nothing to fear from the law, only from his late wife's family who might have sought revenge. There were whispers of course--even claims that Gesualdo went on to murder his and Donna Maria's infant son and Donna Maria's father--but no one ever brought him to justice.

In a way however, he brought himself to justice. This is the part of the story that intrigues me, especially now, during Lent, which is a time for penitence. Penitence has a major role in the history of criminal justice; that's where the term "penitentiary" comes from after all. But mostly, criminals don't seem very penitent in the accounts you hear these days. Especially men who have committed violence against women, especially cheating wives, especially cheating wives caught naked in bed with their paramours.

Some criminals don't feel sorry because they are sociopaths, and lack conscience, which is the capacity to feel sorrow or guilt. Others, I'm convinced, aren't necessarily incapable of feeling guilt by nature, but instead cannot allow themselves to do so because that would mean first admitting that they were wrong, and second opening themselves up to the despair of knowing that they have done something truly evil that they cannot take back. They must maintain their innocence, or justify their actions, in order to construct the denial that gets them through the day, the year, the life sentence.

Gesualdo is interesting to me because he couldn't maintain that denial, and he didn't entirely lack conscience. No one punished him, so he punished himself. He became a virtual hermit, rarely leaving his castle for the last decade and a half of his life. He did remarry when forced to by his family, but the union was, unsurprisingly, unhappy. He had the forest on his estate cut down, leaving his surroundings barren and lifeless. Even more disturbingly, he required his servants to beat him daily. There was one servant for whom this was a primary duty. What a job to have!

And then there's his music. We can't prove, of course, that he took his compositions from the Bible's most difficult and painful source texts because of his guilt, but it's pretty suggestive. The motet we sang on Sunday oozes pain and conflict. It speaks of suffering beyond measure, supposedly that of Christ on the cross, but possibly Gesualdo's own suffering as well.

Don't get me wrong, none of this excuses him, and none of it makes it ok that he got away scotfree. And I'm certainly not one of those people who thinks that mental imbalance is necessary or even all that helpful for artistic brilliance. However I do think that our destructive impulses and our creative impulses spring from the same place within us, from the sum of our experiences and personal idiosyncracies.

And I wonder, is punishment meted out from society good for the soul, not only the soul of the murderer's victim, but the soul of the murderer himself? If he had been punished by his community, would he have felt the need to continue punishing himself? Would he have composed the motet we sang last Sunday?

O vos omnes, o vos omnes... oh you people passing by, attend and see, is there any sorrow, any sorrow, like unto mine?


My sources for this entry:

1 comment:

Malcolm said...

"One is limiting art much too severely when one demands that only the composed soul, suspended in moral balance, may express itself there. ...there is in music and poetry the art of the ugly soul...and in achieving art's mightiest efforts—breaking souls, moving stones, and humanizing animals---perhaps that very art has been most successful."
-Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)