November 2, 2016

The Hilliard Ensemble - Carlo Gesualdo: Tenebrae, 1991


Another expert overview of a favorite composer's work from the venerated Hilliard Ensemble. Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) was an Italian prince, count, and renaissance composer, who is mostly known for his madrigals, particularly those that disregarded the tonal conventions of the time and explored extreme chromatic progressions and unprepared changes of harmony, i.e. changes without a harmonic bridge. This was arguably without precedent, and wasn't really seen again until late 19th century impressionism. The music is notoriously difficult to perform live, with careening harmonies making it particularly easy to veer off-key. In spite of the daredevil compositions, the songs are stunningly beautiful, if a bit nervewracking. Stravinsky was a big fan. Aldous Huxley, who once listened to Gesualdo while under the influence of mescaline, wrote the liner notes for a 1956 LP of Gesualdo's work. Herzog made a pseudo-documentary about him called Death for Five Voices.

Perhaps somewhat relatedly, Gesualdo was also known to exhibit characteristics of serious mental illness, was a repeat murderer, and a masochist, leading some to suspect demonic possession. After the murders, the story goes that he was so paranoid that he went on a tree-cutting rampage around his castle so as to be better able to see potential threats from far away. It's also believed that he may have ordered his own death. He's become a vampire-esque figure of fascination for many (I can't help but think of Gilles de Rais), an interest that seems a bit fraught to me--but I can't argue with the music. Enjoy!

buy / download: disc 1, disc 2

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