Analysing Gesualdo in the Twenty-first Century

Musical analysis in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has much in common with that of the sixteenth century, namely that no theoretical treatise exists adequate enough to explain contemporary practice. Whilst the analyst of twentieth century music may find practices such as serialism a suitable departure point for the analysis of some composers, for a great many others this would be totally inadequate. Not that this has any bearing on the composer, who can be completely satisfied with their own methods, but rather it forces the musicologist to provide a more individual analysis to suit a specific composer. Once developed, these methods can be applied and/or juxtaposed with the works of other composers to create a comparison.

Unlike the analyst of present day music, the analyst of sixteenth century music faces the added danger of becoming anachronistic. For example, the description of ‘major’ and ‘minor’ triads did not attain their modern meanings until the seventeenth century. However, given that their actual existence in sixteenth century music is undeniable, their usage is justified. In contrast, terms such as ‘secondary-dominant’ and ‘German-sixth’ have been used to describe music of the sixteenth century and these terms, having strong tonal connotations, are inappropriate in a world in which tonality does not yet exist. A balance must therefore be struck; should a technique subsist within sixteenth century practice, but the vocabulary to describe it is not within sixteenth century nomenclature, then it is acceptable to name it with modern terminology. Therefore whilst it is acceptable to refer to ‘major’ and ‘minor’ triads, it is not acceptable to refer to ‘secondary-dominants’ and ‘German-sixths’ because the tonal hierarchies that they denote did not exist.

Gesualdo’s harmonic language typifies this problem and thus is of particular interest to modern musicologists.