Carlo GESUALDO. Responsoria / Musica Antica di Padova
Sacrae Cantiones Responsoria et alia ad Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, FERIA VI


argo 430 832-2 DECCA/London

Carlo GESUALDO (c.1560-1613)

Sacrae Cantiones

1. Ave, Regina coelorum   [2:37]
2. Ave, dulcissima Maria   [3:14]
3. Dignare me, laudare te   [1:45]
4. Precibus et meritis beatae Mariae   [2:16]
5. Maria, Mater gratiae   [2:50]
6. Miserere mei, Deus (Psalm 50)   [8:25]

Responsoria et alia ad Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae spectantia

7. Resp. 1. Omnes amici mei   [3:47]
8. Resp. 2. Velum templi   [3:48]
9. Resp. 3. Vinea mea electa   [4:31]
10. Resp. 4. Tamquam ad latronem   [2:57]
11. Resp. 5. Tenebrae factae sunt   [3:52]
12. Resp. 6. Animam meam dilectam   [6:26]
13. Resp. 7. Tradiderunt me   [2:38]
14. Resp. 8. Jesum tradidit impius   [3:47]
15 - Resp. 9. Caligaverunt oculi mei   [5:28]

Conductor: Livio Picotti

Anna Maria De Filippo (A, B, C)
Hélène Kuhn (C)
Patrizia Sartore (C)
Bianca Simone (A, B, C)
Elisabetta Tiso (A, B, C, c)
Ulrike Wurdak,(A, B, C, c)

Paolo Costa (A, B, b, C, c)
Luisa Fontanieri (A, B, C)
Viviana Giorgi (C)

Augusto Bellon (A, B, C)
Vittorino Ciato (C)
Stefano Dal Cortivo (A, B, b, C)
Alessandro Gargiulo (A, B, C, c)
Alessandro Magagnin (C)
Alberto Mazzocco (A, B, b, C, c)

Adriano Calzavara (C)
Daniele Carnovich (A, B, b, C, c)
Roberto Moro (A, B, C)

B: Miserere— b: Gregorian chant in the Miserere
C: RESPONSES — c: Response verses


Carlo Gesualdo, Musician and Murderer

For most of us, the eye-catching title of Cecil Gray and Philip Heseltine's biography of Gesualdo represents what we remember most clearly about the composer: that he was a Neapolitan nobleman for whom music was a ruling passion; that in his late twenties (on 16 October 1590) he contrived the murder of his first wife, Maria d'Avalos, and her lover the Duke of Andria, whom he surprised 'in flagrante delicto'; that he wrote madrigals characterised by apparently wayward changes of harmony and rhythm and chromatic writing of a particularly daring kind; and that he showed symptoms of mental derangement during the final years of his life. Nevertheless, the romantic notion that murder, madness and chromatic madrigals are somehow inextricably bound together is altogether too simple a view both of Gesualdo's output and of his development as a composer.

Gesualdo's second marriage, to Leonora d'Este, brought him into contact with the musical establishment at the court of Ferrara, and on his visits there between 1594 and 1596 he seems to have spent much of his time in composing and music-making. At Ferrara there was already a well-established tradition of composing chromatic madrigals, and Gesualdo seems to have learned much from his contact with composers such as Luzzasco Luzzaschi and Count Alfonso Fontanelli, as well as stimulating them to publish their own music. The first four of his madrigal books were published at Ferrara, and in the third and fourth of these we can see Gesualdo seeking new ways to capture the emotional content of the texts that he set. In his fifth and sixth books, which were not published until 1611, towards the end of his life, we can see him carrying to extremes the devices of chromaticism and disrupted textures that he began to explore at Ferrara.

Madrigals, however, form only one part of Gesualdo's output. They represent his 'private' voice, his attempt to extend the expressive possibilities of musical language in a form that was reserved for connoisseurs. And if he explored further than his contemporaries dared, the explanation may lie not in psychopathology, but rather in the fact that he was answerable to no patron but himself. Certainly in his settings of sacred texts Gesualdo seems deliberately to have adopted a more restrained and easily approachable 'public' voice. This is evident in the two volumes of Sacrae cantiones that he published in Naples in 1603. The first of these, from which the five Marian motets on this recording are taken, contains works for five voices only; the second is devoted to music for six and seven voices. A few of the texts that Gesualdo chose belong to the liturgy — as in the antiphon 'Ave, Regina coelorum', which is sung after Compline from 2 February to the Wednesday in Holy Week — but most are extraliturgical, and were probably used either for private devotions or for insertion into the liturgy at opportune moments. In setting these texts Gesualdo did not forgo chromaticism altogether, but he contained it within a generally long-breathed and limpid contrapuntal style. Above all, he avoided the sudden changes of rhythm which so disrupt the later madrigals.

Given Gesualdo's interest in trying to find musical expression for the most deeply-felt emotions, it is not surprising that he was drawn to setting the texts of the responsories for Holy Week, which convey the anguish of Christ's betrayal, suffering and death. In his Responsoria, published in 1611 (the same year as the daring fifth and sixth books of madrigals) Gesualdo included settings of all twenty-seven of the responsories appointed for the office of Matins on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, together with settings of the Miserere (Psalm 50; Authorised Version 51) and the canticle 'Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel'. The nine responsories recorded here are those for Good Friday.

Gesualdo did not intend his responsories as concert pieces, nor were they meant to be heard one after the other. In their original context — the pre-dawn office of Matins — they would have been separated by items sung in plainsong. In the Counter-Reformation Church, Matins consisted of three units known as 'Nocturns', each of which consisted of three psalms chanted to a plainsong formula, followed by a versicle and response and three lessons, likewise intoned in plainsong. Each of the lessons were followed by one of the responsory texts that Gesualdo set. After the third Nocturn, the service was completed by a performance of the Miserere, which Gesualdo set in the traditional manner (alternating plainsong and polyphony). In Gesualdo's time, Matins in Holy Week would have been followed immediately by the dawn office of Lauds, with five further psalms and the canticle 'Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel'. And to symbolise Christ's descent into the shadows (the 'tenebrae' from which this extended service takes the name by which it is often known), candles on a sixteen-branch candlestick were extinguished — one after each of the fifteen psalms, and the final one after 'Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel'.

Despite their positioning as postludes to the Lessons, it is in fact the responsories that carry the Passion narrative and the Psalms and Lessons that form meditations upon it. In the Good Friday service, the first three responsories followed Psalms 2, 21 (AV 22) and 26 (AV 27) and Lessons drawn from the Lamentations of Jeremiah (2:8-11; 2: 12-15; 3: 1-9); the second three followed Psalms 37 (AV 38), 39 (AV 40) and 53 (AV 54) and Lessons drawn from St Augustine's interpretation of Psalm 63 (AV 64) as a commentary on the Passion; and the final three followed Psalms 58 (AV 59), 87 (AV 88) and 93 (AV 94) and Lessons from St Paul's letter to the Hebrews (4: 11-15; 4: 16 and 5: 1-3; 5: 4-10). Over the three final days of Holy Week, then, the 'Tenebrae' services formed a large-scale presentation of, and meditation upon, the Passion story, and Gesualdo's responsory settings are a distinguished contribution to the history of Passion music. Far from being the eccentric outpourings of a deranged mind, they are cogent, persuasive and powerful. In particular, Gesualdo's setting of the words 'Videte, omnes populi, si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus', which forms the climax of the ninth Good Friday responsory, must rank as the equal of any setting of this most moving text.

John Whenham