Cutting edge

Thoughts on Gesualdo and his music: part four

Robert Hollingworth

Also in the 1550s and also probably at Ferrara, the Netherlander Cipriano da Rore wrote his few harmonically experimental madrigals. This was the reason that he was singled out by Monteverdi’s brother as the first of the composers of the seconda prattica mindset, a new way of composing in which music’s purpose was to describe the text vividly rather than allow the musical process to dominate.

At the same court in 1579, the Duke married a princess from the neighbouring court of Mantua. As part of her retinue, Margherita Gonzaga brought with her some virtuoso singers. The ensemble they set up gave its first concert during Carnival 1581 but these performances were for the favoured few, though word soon got around. The speciality of this expert ensemble was both for virtuosic ornamentation and highly expressive performances which included music by the court maestro, Luzzasco Luzzaschi.

Very little of the music written for them has survived but its effect on one listener, the Mantuan court composer Giaches de Wert, is documented through his road-to-Damascus style-change on hearing the ensemble very early on. De Wert abandoned his safe middle-of-the-road polyphony for a highly descriptive one for both madrigal and even some church music, traditionally a genre which required emotional reserve. Look up his ‘Vox in Rama’ and hear the voice of lamentation appearing low in the texture, gradually building up to a repetitive crying motif (ululatus multus) before letting loose a descending chromatic phrase on ‘Rachel weeping for her children’. Most daring from a theoretical point of view, the motet breaks the rules by not ending on the home chord but instead the dominant which leaves the music ‘unfinished’, representing the sense of desolation.

Other posts on this subject from Robert can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6

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This blog accompanies Betrayal: a polyphonic crime drama, a music and dance-theatre project inspired by the life and works of Carlo Gesualdo with shows in London, Cambridge and Salisbury May/June 2015. More information here and via the links on the left.