All posts by Joseph Knowles

Radical Music History Symposium 8-9th Dec 2011

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?’

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.