Spare keys

Thoughts on Gesualdo and his music: part three

Robert Hollingworth

The home of such harmonic experimentation was the court of Ferrara whose Duke was obsessed with music. The court had a history of employing top composers: Josquin, Obrecht and Brumel had worked here earlier in the century and later Willaert. It was the lesser-known Neapolitan musician Vicentino, though, who was present there in the 1550s and who fostered an interest in chromaticism. He invented a keyboard instrument with extra keys to allow differentiation between notes represented on a modern keyboard by one key (such as C# and Db) but which are actually slightly different notes if tuned to the acoustically pure intervals (which sound sweeter than the slightly out of tune intervals you hear on a piano). The chromatic keyboard didn’t catch on (and those learning their grade 8 scales may be glad of this) but the understanding of how to tune pure intervals – especially in a solo-voice ensemble – is a crucial part of unlocking the colour or chroma in Gesualdo’s music.

Archicembalo keyboard

Other posts on this subject from Robert can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 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.