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Dana Telsrow Further Reading Assignment 11/2/12

Where’s Gesualdo? My early searches for this paper circled around keywords like “chanson”, “popular music”, “madrigal”, and “impact”. As a composer of music, I am always trying to relate lessons in music history to my preferred genres and styles which reside in the world of pop music. As the University of Iowa Library search results came back continually vague, I tried shifting my paradigm from that of a music maker to that of a music fan. What I love about music, at times perhaps more than the music itself, is the incredible ways in which artists’ lives become an inseparable part of their creative output. A great album will typically leave me desiring more and I will consequently surround myself with books and documentaries about the artists. I am eternally fascinated with the madness of Brian Wilson, whose drug and eating binges took on a controlling role in the songwriter’s life after he released one of the best albums in pop music history in 1966: Pet Sounds. He continued to work on the follow-up between bouts of his varieties of ailments, but the album could never be fully realized and lived only as myth until it was released decades later in 2011. This congealing of blood, sweat and tears, with the output of that blood, sweat, and tears has been creating similar stories throughout the history of music. Alex Ross examines this topic in relation to the Renaissance composer, Carlo Gesualdo, by stating that, “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.”1 In Prince of Darkness, an article from the New Yorker, Ross goes on to describe some of the shocking events of Gesualdo’s life, making sure to note which are mostly myth and which are accepted as truth. He points out musical correlations to these real life extremities explaining that, “if a piece is in A minor, one would expect to hear such related chords as D minor and E major, whose notes overlap with the A-minor scale. One would not expect, say, C-sharp major, which is alien to the key. That chord sounds defiantly at the outset of one of Gesualdo's greatest works, the A-minor-ish madrigal ‘Moro, lasso, al mio duolo.’”2 Gesualdo may have intended for his works to be even more harmonically astounding than we already perceive them. According to the article, he may have been influenced by the composer Nicola Vicentino who published a treatise and developed instruments that allowed for the division of the octave into 31 microtones. 3 I would be greatly interested in hearing a performance of Gesualdo in this Vicentino style. Or better yet, perhaps, to hear Gesualdo performed on one of the instruments invented by Harry Partch. As we are wont to interpret the myth of Gesualdo in a manner that suits our imagination, Ross encourages us to do the same with his music. He introduces new ways of approaching the performance of Gesualdo’s work and provides insight on the events of the composer’s life. All of this combines to become a propagator for deeper appreciation in music makers and fans of music alike.


Alex Ross, “Prince Of Darkness”, New Yorker Vol. 87, Issue 41 (12/19/2011): p84-92. Ibid. 3 Ibid. 2

Where's Gesualdo  

Music History Paper

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