The Ge­su­aldo Hex: Mu­sic, Myth, and Me­mory

by Glenn Watkins, W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pany, 384 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — James M. Keller

Quite a few com­posers have earned stripes for shock­ing be­hav­ior, but prob­a­bly none has come close to ri­val­ing Carlo Ge­su­aldo. Noted for his au­da­ciously har­mo­nized madri­gals and sa­cred com­po­si­tions, Ge­su­aldo (1566-1613) in­her­ited the ti­tle of prince of Venosa (a city east of Naples) in 1591. By that time he had been mar­ried for five years to Maria D’Ava­los, who was al­ready a princess twice wid­owed, and things were go­ing badly. Learn­ing that Maria was hav­ing an af­fair with a duke, Ge­su­aldo sur­prised them in

fla­grante delicto and, as­sisted by ser­vants, mur­dered them both. Ac­cord­ing to de­tailed court records, Maria was re­peat­edly run through with a sword. The duke also suf­fered mul­ti­ple stab wounds and was shot through the head with a har­que­bus. The duke’s corpse was dis­cov­ered clothed in Maria’s night­gown; since his own clothes sat nearby in a pile com­pletely un­blood­ied, it ap­peared that this re­flected an idiosyn­crasy of the love­birds’ mat­ing habits rather than a part­ing touch from Ge­su­aldo.

As a prince, he was largely im­mune from pros­e­cu­tion, but he tact­fully re­moved him­self to Fer­rara for a while be­fore re­turn­ing south to live out a life in­creas­ingly given over to what we would prob­a­bly deem de­pres­sion. He re­mar­ried, again un­hap­pily. His cas­tle be­came the hot­bed of a witches’ coven (at least so peo­ple swore to the court, helped along by tor­ture). He sur­rounded him­self with 10 or 12 young male ser­vants whose job was to beat him vi­o­lently three times a day, in­clud­ing at es­pe­cially in­ti­mate mo­ments; dur­ing these ses­sions, a wit­ness re­ported, “He was wont to smile joy­fully.” Po­ets and au­thors em­broi­dered his tale through the cen­turies. In 1926, he was the sub­ject of a life-and-works study co-au­thored by Philip He­sel­tine, a com­poser bet­ter known by the pseu­do­nym Peter War­lock, which re­flected the in­ter­est in witch­craft he shared with Ge­su­aldo. With that vol­ume the Ge­su­aldo story be­came of­fi­cial­ized in all its macabre de­tail.

The mu­si­col­o­gist Glenn Watkins has ded­i­cated much of his ca­reer to scru­ti­niz­ing the data that fed into the Ge­su­aldo tale. When his schol­arly bi­og­ra­phy of the com­poser ap­peared in 1973, no less a per­son­age than Igor Stravin­sky penned the first words of its pref­ace: “Mu­si­cians may yet save Ge­su­aldo from mu­si­col­o­gists, but cer­tainly the lat­ter have had the best of it un­til now.” By the time Watkins is­sued the greatly re­vised sec­ond edi­tion of his book in 1991, the com­poser’s mu­sic had in­deed be­come fa­mous, the bold­ness of its chro­matic jux­ta­po­si­tions leav­ing lis­ten­ers daz­zled and per­plexed.

Now Watkins re­turns to the com­poser with The Ge­su­aldo Hex, and I wish he hadn’t. First of all, the ti­tle: Just what is the Ge­su­aldo hex apart from a sen­sa­tion­al­iz­ing at­tempt (re­in­forced by a ca­bal­is­tic cover de­sign) to se­duce buy­ers who might think this book bears some sem­blance to The Da Vinci Code? A hex is a spell be­lieved to bring bad luck, of course, and as best I can tell, Watkins chose the word to sug­gest that bad things hap­pen in Ge­su­aldo stud­ies and par­tic­u­larly that some­times schol­ars have been messy in deal­ing with the facts. The word “hex” fig­ures in pre­cisely six of the book’s sen­tences and is cer­tainly not the over­rid­ing topic. The text it­self is as hard to plumb as the ti­tle. Its goal is re­vi­sion­ism. Watkins tosses out as un­sub­stan­ti­ated quite a few de­tails that have ac­crued to the Ge­su­aldo leg­end, in­clud­ing that a monk mo­lested the corpses of the mur­dered lovers and that the com­poser also mur­dered his pre­sum­ably il­le­git­i­mate son by sub­ject­ing him to “vi­o­lent un­du­la­tions.” He ar­gues that Ge­su­aldo was re­ally a nor­mal guy, out­landish though his ac­tions ap­pear to us at a re­move of four cen­turies. In Re­nais­sance Italy, a prince dis­cov­er­ing that his wife was un­faith­ful would be ex­pected to kill her. In that era, treat­ments for mal­adies (such as Ge­su­aldo’s melan­cho­lia) could in­clude what we would view as sor­cery, with mag­i­cal spells be­ing con­sid­ered part of the avail­able phar­ma­copeia. Med­i­cal texts of the time re­veal that beat­ings could “be read­ily in­ter­preted as ther­a­peu­tic mas­sages in­tended to al­le­vi­ate in­testi­nal and res­pi­ra­tory dif­fi­cul­ties.”

The wor­thy ob­jec­tive of his­tor­i­cal clar­ity is not abet­ted by Watkins’ pre­sen­ta­tion, which seems doled out al­most at ran­dom, with­out re­gard to the chronol­ogy of events. A reader who does not al­ready know the ba­sic Ge­su­aldo story may have dif­fi­culty jump­ing into this pre­sen­ta­tion, which be­gins mid­stream; the author seems to be fur­ther­ing a com­pli­cated on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tion that makes no con­ces­sions to ease the en­try of new­com­ers. Watkins ekes out his book with chap­ters on how later com­posers have re­sponded to Ge­su­aldo’s rad­i­cal scores. Even here the dis­cus­sion’s pos­ture is odd: a chap­ter on what Schoen­berg pre­sum­ably learned from Ge­su­aldo skirts the fact that he had noth­ing to say about his Re­nais­sance pre­de­ces­sor, and it un­ac­count­ably fails to men­tion the only Schoen­berg piece that ac­tu­ally sounds as if it could have been in­spired by Ge­su­aldo, the 1930 song “Ver­bun­den­heit” for male cho­rus. When it comes to Ge­su­aldo, I’d skip the book and go straight to the mu­sic.

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