At the Radical Music History Symposium at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, 8-9th Dec 2011, I will be delivering my paper: Gesualdo, composer of the twentieth century. See the abstract below:
Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, throughout the four centuries since his death, has suffered a mixed reception and was eventually dismissed in the eighteenth century as ‘amateurish’. Although not the first to re-discover Gesualdo, in 1926 Cecil Gray and Philip Heseltine’s sensational book Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Musician and Murder was to bring to the attention of the most prolific composers of the day the music of this long-forgotten Prince.
Murder, witchcraft, depression and masochism all mark Gesualdo’s life, yet this fact alone did not make him attractive to the twentieth century composer. Rather, it was the ambitious nature of Gesualdo’s compositional process. Whilst working within the confines of the old modal system, he sought to push contemporary theories beyond their limits, both in terms of harmony and dissonance. Here, he finds a kindred spirit in Wagner, which may have sparked the initial rediscovery, even if his extravagant life story popularised him.
Amongst the names of composers who found inspiration in this long-dead prince, aside from Philip Heseltine, are Schoenberg, Boulez and most prolifically Stravinsky, who made two ‘pilgrimages’ to Gesualdo’s hilltop castle. This is accompanied by a series of operas on the subject of Gesualdo’s life, the ultimate amalgamation of his dramatic biography and music: these are composed by (again, amongst others) Hindemith, Schnittke and a descendent of the Gesualdo family himself, Francesco d’Avalos.
What are the qualities in Gesualdo’s compositional process strike a chord with composers of the twentieth century? Is it just these processes that are relevant, or does the music itself still play an integral role? And, as we head into the twenty-first century are these still relevant? These are the questions that I answer in my paper: ‘Gesualdo, composer of the twentieth century?’