The Gesualdo Hex: Music, Myth, and Memory
by Glenn Watkins, W.W. Norton & Company, 384 pages
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.