Music Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa
Alexandra Amati-Camperi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0164


Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Count of Conza, and so on (b. 1566–d. 1613) is perhaps the most interesting of the late Renaissance musicians, as nothing about him is “standard.” His life was unusual on a number of counts, from the fact that he was a nobleman and thus by definition (or necessity) an amateur musician, to the fact that he murdered his first wife and her lover in his own bed (and got away with it), from his surrounding himself with witches and other “healers,” who in fact poisoned him, to his premature death, less than three weeks after the death of his estranged son and last of the Gesualdo heirs. Having become an orphan and the heir to the Gesualdo line, he was expected to produce an heir of his own, and he was made to marry first his first cousin (whom he killed) and thereafter into one of the most famous and powerful families of the peninsula (the Este Dukes of Ferrara, closely linked to the papacy). This second marriage wasn’t much happier than the first, as he mistreated Eleonora d’Este to the point that divorce proceedings may have been started. Unfortunately, however, we know virtually nothing of his musical education, other than the fact that some musicians, like Giovanni De Macque, Pomponio Nenna, Muzio Effrem, and Scipione Stella, among others, were very closely tied to the Gesualdo court of the composer’s father, forming a kind of unofficial accademia, and may have taught the young prince. It was suggested for a while that Pomponio Nenna may have had that role but because they are of the same age that is probably not the case. De Macque may have taught Gesualdo, but he only arrived to the court when the prince was in his thirties (most of these facts are detailed in Watkins 1991, cited under Monographs). His life has fascinated historians and musicians more than his music has, to the point that much of the literature, unfortunately, while purporting to discuss or outline his life and works concentrates most vexingly on the gory details (often incorrect) of his “honor killing.” His music was also unusual, not only for the mere fact of having appeared in print but for its daring and extreme chromaticism, especially in his later works. Too long dismissed, he and his music are finally being brought back to the serious attention of scholars and performers alike. The interest was probably reignited in the 1950s by Stravinsky’s (and his collaborator Craft’s) curiosity about the musician’s chromatic experiments, which he, however, viewed with a 20th-century eye, distorting the late renaissance technique of driving counterpoint. Gesualdo’s music is all vocal (except for a couple of short pieces), both secular and sacred. His secular music, the madrigals, has attracted the most attention, especially the last two volumes, published in 1611. Another issue that complicates the picture is that, because he was a nobleman, he felt it was not proper for him to publish his works (as Watkins points out, he had to avoid the impression of being a professional musician, in the business for financial gain, see Watkins 1991), and thus he issued them anonymously, under someone else’s name, or, in the end, with his name and allegedly only to stop plundering and plagiarism. His madrigals were so interesting even at the time that shortly after his death they appeared collected and in score format, an absolute novelty.

General Overviews

Although Gesualdo is mentioned in virtually every source dealing with the 16th-century madrigal, the most extended treatment is found in the sources listed here. The first is in Einstein 1949, but much of what the author offers has been revised, as it is based on faulty or limited sources and material (all that was available, besides primary sources, was Gray and Heseltine 1926, cited under Monographs). Einstein’s work remains, however, worthwhile for his critical analysis. Bianconi 2001 is the most comprehensive study in English, while Niedermüller 2002 is much shorter and in German but includes a more up-to-date bibliography. Pirrotta 1986 (in Italian) tries to put in context what we know about the composer, taking issue with modern literature. Burney 1935 is included because it is worth seeing what an early music historian from a then-distant land, made of the prince and his music.

  • Bianconi, Lorenzo. “Gesualdo, Carlo, Prince of Venosa, Count of Conza.” In Grove Music Online, 2001.

    An extended presentation of Gesualdo’s life facts (in chronological order) and works as well as the posthumous reputation, although not devoid of errors and some conclusions that seem arbitrary and have been challenged by later scholars. Available online through Oxford Music Online by subscription. Revision of Bianconi, Lorenzo. “Gesualdo, Carlo, Prince of Venosa, Count of Conza.” In New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 9. Edited by Stanley Sadie, 775–786. London: Macmillan, 1980.

  • Burney, Charles. A General History of Music from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period. Vol. 3. Edited by Frank Mercer, 177–182. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935.

    Burney dismisses everything Gesualdo did as the ramblings of an amateur and is mightily baffled by all the praise bestowed upon the prince. Nonetheless he dedicates more space to him than to other larger figures and includes the score of “Moro lasso.” Originally published 1776–1789.

  • Einstein, Alfred. The Italian Madrigal. Translated by Alexander H. Krappe, Roger H. Session, and Oliver Strunk. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1949.

    The first relatively extended treatment of Gesualdo and his madrigals (see pp. 688–717). Some of the biographical details are erroneous, and Einstein’s analysis should be read in conjunction with later studies because, due to the dearth of material available to the author, he lacks some context for the music.

  • Niedermüller, Peter. “Gesualdo, Don Carlo, Graf von Consa, Fürst von Venosa.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart: allgemeine Enzyklopädie der Musik. 2d ed. Personenteil 7, cols., 834–846. Edited by Ludwig Finscher. Kassel, Germany: Barenreiter, 2002.

    A short analysis, in German, of the life and works of the composer, including a detailed work-list and a relatively recent bibliography.

  • Pirrotta, Nino. “Gesualdo, Carlo, principe di Venosa.” In Dizionario enciclopedico universale della musica e dei musicisti. Le biografie 3. Edited by Alberto Basso, 174–178. Torino, Italy: UTET, 1986.

    Pirrotta tries to put in context what we know about the composer and provides a unique view of him, discrediting the claim of thoroughness by Gray and Heseltine 1926 (cited under Monographs). A short article on life and music, with a special section on the third and fourth books of five-voice madrigals.

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