COPENHAGEN RENAISSANCE MUSIC FESTIVAL 2013 is dedicated to the Italian prince and visionary composer, Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), commemorating his death 400 years ago. 

Today Gesualdo is mainly recognised for two things: composing highly expressive and chromatic music and for having murdered his first wife and her lover in an act of jealousy in his palace in Naples on a fatal October evening 1590.

Gesualdo is one of the most fascinating figures in late Renaissance Italy. His life story is full of bizarre, dramatic, and tragic events and reflects many of the aspects that characterised the period, highlighting the struggle between old and new ideas, as well as political and religious changes. 

Born into a rich and noble family in Venosa, within the Kingdom of Naples in southern Italy, he was secured both position and wealth already as a child. 

In 1586, at the age of 20, he married his flirtatious cousin Maria d’Avalos and only four years later the famous murders took place. His elderly brother had died in 1584 so with the death of his father in 1591 he suddenly found himself being the head of the family. At only 25 years of age, he was entitled the Prince of Venosa.  

Four years after the killings, in 1594, he married Leonora d’Este, the niece of Duke Alfonso II of the d’Este court in Ferrara. At this time, Ferrara was one of the leading centers of progressive musical activity in Italy. Here Gesualdo met composers like Luzzaschi, de Rore, Monteverdi, Rasi and others, which had a great impact on his own musical development.  

After his return to his castle in Gesualdo he spent most of his time composing and making music in solitude, only surrounded by his private musicians, a handful of mistresses later accused and convicted for witchcraft, and from time to time his second wife which he abused and neglected. 

He had two sons, one with each his two wifes, but both children died before him. Thus he died, weakened by long illness, without a male successor of the family. 

Gesualdo wrote six books of madrigals, all most likely composed already in the 1590's, even though the last ones were published first in 1611. There are also two books of Sacrae Cantiones, both published in 1603, and three Tenebrae Responsories for each of the days of Holy Week, published in 1611.  

Since the 'rediscovery' of Gesualdo in the middle of the 20th c. by composers like Stravinsky and Schönberg, many contemporary artists have been inspired by Gesualdo's extraordinary music and dramatic life story, resulting in operas, books, films and musical works by Peter Maxwell Davies, Alfred Schnittke, Wolfgang Rihm, Salvatore Sciarrino, Bo Holten, Aldous Huxley, Werner Herzog, to name only a few.  

Gesualdos biography has been thoroughly recounted by Glenn Watkins in several books. His latest book, “The Gesualdo Hex: Music, Myth, and Memory” from 2010 includes the most recent research and discoveries. 


Gesualdo - "The Prince of Darkness"
by Alex Ross (The New Yorker, Dec. 19 and 26, 2011)