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Carlo Gesualdo, or the Prince of Venosa, lived from 1516-1613. He was one of the most intriguing figures of the Late Renaissance period, as much for his music as for his personal life. His involvement in the heinous double murder of his wife and her lover in 1590 colored much of his life and especially his musical compositions. He is best known for a form of chromaticism and harmonic progressions that were unusual in his time, and not seen much again for several hundred years after his death. Many of his compositions are believed to reflect his torment and remorse for his role in the murders, through the text painting and the chromaticism. His madrigal “’Io Parto’ e non piu dissi” was published in 1611, although most likely composed some time before, after the murders. It is part of Book 6 of his collection of Madrigals.
“Io parto” e più non dissi
“Io parto” e più non dissi, che il dolore
privò di vita il core.
Allor, proruppe in pianto e disse Clori
con interrotti omèi: “Dunque a i dolori
io resto. Ah, non fia mai
ch’io non languisca in dolorosi lai.”
Morto fui, vivo son, che i spirti spenti,
tornàro in vita a sì pietosi accenti.
“I am leaving,” was all I said
“I am leaving,” was all I said, for pain
did deprive my heart of life.
Then did Chloris burst into tears and say,
amid her lamenting, “Thus do I remain
in sorrow. Ah, may I never cease
languishing in mournful lays.”
I was dead, but now I live, for my departed spirit
returned to life at such pitiful words.
In reading through the text, one can see that pain and sorrow is on Gesualdo’s mind, through his choice of words such as “pain,”, “tears,” “lamenting”, “sorrow”, “languishing”, and “mournful”. The speaker of the poem upon which the madrigal is based, is leaving…perhaps taking his own life because of the pain of living is too great. Through “leaving”, the speaker’s “departed spirit returned to life at such pitiful words.” The “pitiful words” appear to be the words of Chloris, who remains in sorrow, and says “may I never cease languishing in mournful lays.”
“Io Parto” is written for 5 voices: Soprano, Alto 1 and Alto 2, Tenor, and Bass. It immediately opens with a progression from E major-d minor-B major-e minor. The tonal center is hard to pin down as one can see in the score the many chromatic “accidentals” and dissonance. He uses rhythm to enhance and the text, particularly on the word “spenti”, or “departed”, which is sung as a 4 16th note descending figure, to sound like sighing. The meandering path and instability of the chromaticism perhaps is meant to show the depth and breadth of emotions the text is meant to convey.
In a brief comparison between Gesualdo’s “Io Parto” and Monteverdi’s “Les Arts Florissants,” the harmonies in Monteverdi’s madrigal are still colorful, but much more “musically stable” than Gesualdo’s. It is clear that Gesualdo’s compositional style is much more “daring” in his use of chromaticism and dissonance. Perhaps because Monteverdi led a much calmer life, his music is more harmonically calm. Without a doubt, Gesualdo’s life influenced his work.
Carlo Gesualdo was most definitely one of the most interesting characters to emerge from the Late Renaissance period. His music is truly a mirror of reflection to his soul. Like most composers, he wrote what he heard in his head and his heart, and Gesualdo was a man who was musically ahead of his time. To quote Alex Ross in his article “Prince of Darkness” in The New Yorker, “The lingering question is whether it is the life or the work that perpetuates the phenomenon. If Gesualdo had not committed such shocking acts, we might not pay such close attention to his music. But if he had not written such shocking music we would not care so much about his deeds.”