Monday, January 20, 2014

The Darker Side of Genius

One never knows where an idea for a blog post will crop up. For this week's contribution, the idea came eight days ago while listening to a piece by an Italian composer of the late Renaissance of whom - in my near-encyclopedic ignorance of things musical - I had never heard. His name? Carlo Gesualdo.

Gesualdo was born in Venosa, Italy, in March 1566 (the year of his birth is disputed); he died in September 1613. After his place of birth, he is also known as Gesualdo da Venosa. An Italian nobleman, he was Prince of Venosa, and Count of Venosa. In addition to being a composer of a large and respected body of madrigals and sacred music - most, possibly all, of it a capella - he was a talented lutenist. And in addition to all that - the principal subject of this post - Gesualdo was an infamous murderer. The victims were his wife, her lover, and a child who might, or might not, have been his own son.

Gesualdo was married in 1586, at age twenty, to his first cousin, Donna Maria d'Avalos, the daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. Donna Maria was said to be the most beautiful woman of her era; there is even a rumour that she was the subject of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. She was four years older than Gesualdo, and she'd been married twice before, the first time at age fifteen; it was said that both of her husbands died as a result of "an excess of connubial bliss". (I am almost certain I can hear someone out there saying, "You can't make this stuff up, so it has to be true.")

It's also known that two years after her marriage to Gesualdo, she began a love affair with Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria. A contemporary of Fabrizio described him as a “model of beauty,” one of the handsomest young men of his time. Presumably, then, the ill-fated lovers were very well-matched. Donna Maria managed to keep the affair secret from her husband for almost two years, even though the affair was well-known to others. (The spouse, almost by tradition, is always the last to know about these things.) Gesualdo did find out about the affair, however, and:

"...on October 16, 1590, at the Palazzo San Severo in Naples, when Gesualdo had allegedly gone away on a hunting trip, the two lovers took insufficient precaution at last (Gesualdo had arranged with his servants to have keys to the locks of his palace copied in wood so that he could gain entrance if it were locked). Gesualdo returned to the palace, caught them in flagrante delicto,and murdered them both in their bed. Afterward, he left their mutilated bodies in front of the palace for all to see."

The details of the murders are well-documented, and would not be out of place in modern-day slasher films:

"... it is apparent that Gesualdo had help from his servants, who may have done most of the killing; however, Gesualdo certainly stabbed Maria multiple times, shouting as he did, "she's not dead yet!" The Duke of Andria was found slaughtered by numerous deep sword wounds, as well as by a shot through the head."

Adding a touch of the bizarre to the killings, Fabrizio was found dressed in women's clothing - specifically Donna Maria's nightdress - which had fringes at the bottom, and ruffs of black silk. His own clothing was found in a pile near the bedside, and was not bloodied.

The horrors did not end there. Gesualdo apparently suspected, or believed, that the child he thought was his second son by Donna Maria, might have been Fabrizio's child. He allegedly murdered the baby boy by swinging him to death in a cradle for three days in his castle courtyard. He might also have murdered his father-in-law after the man came seeking revenge for his daughter's death.

The purpose of this post is not just to catalogue some gruesome murders from antiquity - although murder, in one form or another, is the reason Type M exists - but to speculate on the whys and wherefores of the deeds. An interesting aspect of the Gesualdo history is that he went on, from the murders and from their geographic location, to write the bulk of the music for which he enjoys enduring fame. From vicious (and possibly deranged) murderer, he went on to do some great things. There is no question that he was gifted; as an indication of that, listen to one of his most famous and beautiful pieces, Moro, lasso, al mio duolo, which translates - almost appropriately - as "I die, alas, in my suffering":

There appears to be some debate about whether Gesualdo would be as famous and remembered as a composer had he not committed the gruesome murders in 1590; the counter-argument being that the murders would not be so clearly remembered had he not been such a brilliant composer. The link between horrific violence and creative genius and beauty is a tantalising one.

It is also said that Gesualdo's creative musical innovations would not be matched until the time, and the compositions, of Richard Wagner in the 19th century. Bringing Wagner into the discussion, as students of musical composition have done, is interesting in itself, given Wagner's alleged anti-Semitism, and his adoration by Adolf Hitler. For this reason, the associations of Wagner with anti-Semitism and Nazism, the performance of his music in the State of Israel remains a source of controversy to the present time.

There is an interesting documentary on Gesualdo by Werner Herzog, the German director, producer, screenwriter, actor, and opera director. You can view it on YouTube:

An interesting sidebar to the Gesualdo murders is that, as a nobleman, he was immune from arrest and prosecution.

Which, in a way, brings us to the present era. These days, it's unusual that the privileged in our society will escape prosecution for capital crimes, although it's a fact that the poor and underprivileged are much more likely to be prosecuted and imprisoned - and in some countries, notably the United States, executed - than the wealthy and privileged. In this context, too, one thinks back to the aftermath of the near-collapse of the world economic system because of the greed and recklessness of the "gnomes of Wall Street", and the terrible impacts on the lives of millions of people. How many arrests and prosecutions can you list for that series of major crimes?

Finally, it is somewhat comforting to note that Gesualdo, although he went on to create great musical works, did not live a happy and contented life. For one thing, he did not live to a great age; he died at forty-seven. Late in life, so history records, he suffered from depression, and the evidence suggests that this was related to his guilt over the brutal murders he committed. Apparently, also, Gesualdo descended into a deep well of masochism, and had himself beaten daily by his servants; he even kept a special servant whose duty it was to beat him regularly. He reportedly died as a consequence of serious infections of the wounds created by these beatings.

A kind of justice, one supposes.

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