Sadly Gesualdo is often better known for the fact that he murdered his wife and her lover. It was in 1586 that Gesualdo married his cousin, Maria d’Avalos, daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. On 16th October 1590, Maria was discovered ‘in flagrante delicto di fragrante peccato’ with Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria, by her husband. The notoriety caused by the murder compelled him to retire to his estate at Gesualdo. It was only his marriage to Leonora d’Este, the niece of Duke Alfonso II, in 1593, that rehabilitated Gesualdo, enabling him, in 1594, to travel to Ferrara, at the time a brilliant musical centre. Apart from occasional visits to his estate in Gesualdo, he stayed in Ferrara until 1596, mainly occupied with music making.
It was in Ferrara that Gesualdo’s first two books of Madrigals were published (1594) by Baldini, followed by his third and fourth books in 1595 and 1596 respectively. From around 1599, Gesualdo spent most of his time at his estate with only infrequent visits to Naples. It is known that he tried to establish a group of court musicians at the castle of Gesualdo. The Prince’s melancholia, already known before 1594, grew deeper. A secret political document remarked in 1600 that ‘he has an income of more than 40,000 ducats worth of grain. His ancestors were very French (apparently meaning anti-Spanish) in outlook, but he is opposed to innovation, attends to money making and does not delight in anything but music. He keeps a company of men at arms.’ There were reports of ill-treatment of his wife and divorce proceedings were begun by the d’Este family.
Gesualdo died only three weeks after that of his only descendant, Emanuele, his son by his first marriage, who had been entrusted with the management of the family estates.
Gesualdo’s surviving compositions include six books of Madrigals, Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, each for six voices (1611) and Sacrae Cantiones I, for five voices (1603). There is no doubt that Gesualdo’s music can be highly individual, with unusual part writing and odd chromatic shifts. Nevertheless, his music produces some fine effects in uplifting settings that can match any music from the period.
Gesualdo’s Sacrae Cantiones II, for six and seven voices (1603) only partially survive as, sadly, the bassus and sextus part-books were lost. James Wood www.choroi.demon.co.uk has undertaken the painstakingly difficult task of reconstructing the missing parts. This work took nearly three years and the resulting achievement has now been recorded by him with the VocalConsort, Berlin www.vocalconsort-berlin.de on a new release from Harmonia Mundi www.harmoniamundi.com .
James Wood is not the first to attempt a completion; Stravinsky ‘completed’ three of the Sacrae Cantiones II motets in the Tres Scarae Cantiones (1957-59) but these were never a serious attempt at any sort of stylistic reconstruction.
Sacrae Cantiones II commences with an opening Canticle, the Miserere (Psalm 50) (Responsoria 1611) with plainchant combined with the unusual harmonies of Gesualdo that immediately stand out. VocalConsort, Berlin make much of the lovely harmonies in a beautifully paced performance. In the following Virgo benedicta the music rises up in a gentle flowing texture with the VocalConsort always keeping a lovely balance of voices.
The upper voices move the O oriens along with a beautiful ebb and flow, handling the oddly varying harmonies extremely well. The choir are perfectly controlled as they quieten towards the end. After a richly swirling tapestry of sound in the O beata Mater, the Verba mea has complexities that would challenge the vocal abilities of any choir, but VocalConsort cope wonderfully.
Veni Creator Spiritus moves forward in another swirl of vocal effect, with Gesualdo creating more challenging music and ending with ever more intricate passages. With the Ave sanctissime Maria the music finally slows to a slower, steady and reflective nature as the text would require. Here there is more opportunity to bask in the glorious textures and harmonies in this beautiful setting.
Sana me Domini also keeps to a more stately pace, again allowing the mellifluous sounds and textures to emerge in this lovely flowing section. Discedite a me omnes opens with an ascending figuration providing a slightly faster flowing section with, towards the end, some distinctive harmonies. O anima sanctissima, with a moderate tempo, has a beautiful richness and Gesualdo’s way of weaving the texts over each other by varying the tempi is a lovely touch, indicating how difficult it must have been to reconstruct the missing parts. Again control of dynamics is beautifully done.
Ardens est cor meum has some effective opening passages for individual voices almost in a madrigal style. Halfway through the music slows to a kind of lamentation. Da pacem Domini is beautifully paced with the mellow blending of voices creating a wonderful sound, with lovely rich basses sounding through. Ne dereliquas me, whilst being a penitential text, keeps up a pace with terrific woven textures.
There is interesting use of voices in Franciscus humilis et pauper, with great clarity of vocal parts. James Wood has done a terrific job of reconstructing such great part writing. There is an uplifting Gaudeamus omnes that pushes joyfully forward in a section of tremendous singing, superb blending of vocal sounds, spot on pitch, balance and dynamics. A beautiful Adoramus te Christe follows, sung with a simplicity and intimacy that is quite affecting.
The slow O sacrum convivium has an intimacy, in singing of fine sensitively, with beautiful control of dynamics as the various parts rise and fall. In the Ad te levavi, warm textures weave around in this lovely setting. There are no odd harmonies or devices, just a beautifully flowing melody written exquisitely for the voices. Likewise Assumpta est Maria keeps a gentle, steady pace full of flowing, beautifully integrated, vocal lines.
In Veni sponsa Christi, the way Gesualdo weaves his sounds is remarkable, creating such a richly entwined vocal tapestry. Illumina nos with the words ‘Enlighten us, God of mercies’ lifts us to a feeling of exaltation in this seven part setting, the voices weaving around each other, in a fittingly inspiring piece, before the closing canticle. The closing Canticle is a Benedictus (Responsoria 1611) that returns us to plainchant set within Gesualdo’s own distinctive musical idiom.
James Wood has done us a wonderful service in bringing to performance, music that probably hasn’t been heard for over 400 years. Sacrae Cantiones II is shown to be a striking collection of motets that add enormously to the catalogue of works by Gesualdo and, indeed, 17th century sacred music.
Wood must have immersed himself completely in the stylistic world of Gesualdo in order to so effectively re-construct the missing parts for this harmonically unusual collection. This must have been a tremendously difficult task. The choir are excellent, blending beautifully in this wonderfully attractive work.
The recording made in the Teldec Studio, Berlin, provides an intimate sound around the choir, rather than the large sound of a church acoustic. The booklet notes by James Wood are excellent and there are full texts and translations.
Anyone interested in early sacred music and indeed interested in choral music generally will want this exciting new disc.