Monday, March 5, 2012

Carlo Gesualdo

This Sunday, the Hartt Symphony Orchestra will perform Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra and Saint-Saens' Symphony no. 3, "Organ." Late in the rehearsal process, I realized that starting the program with Strauss might be a bit much to ask of an audience. Sure, most people will be thrilled to hear the Introduction, made famous by Stanley Kubrick, Elvis Presley, and countless others over the past forty years or so. But most programs don't begin with a 35 minute work, right out of the box. You have to get your listeners ready . . . whet their appetite, as you would with a fine meal.

Then I thought of a composer whose music I adore, but who never wrote anything for orchestra -- Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). O vos omnes is a hauntingly beautiful work, set for five voices. It's just over three minutes in length, and I can hardly wait to hear what it will sound like in the magnificent Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford. To take advantage of the vast and reverberant acoustic of the Cathedral, I have cast it for three ensembles -- five strings, five woodwinds, and five brass. First rehearsal is tomorrow, and I can hardly wait!

Unfortunately for Gesualdo, he will remain most famous for having murdered his wife and her lover, and having gotten away with it. (A sixteenth century nobleman was not subject to the same laws as his subjects.) The story behind the story is that the Prince of Venosa was a deeply disturbed man who suffered from depression and mental illness. Lucky for us, he was also a composer of great genius.

Of Gesualdo, Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker, “The works of his mature period bend the rules of harmony to a degree that remained unmatched until the advent of Wagner. The lingering question is whether it is the life or the work that perpetuates the phenomenon. If Gesualdo had not committed such shocking acts, we might not pay such close attention to his music. But if he had not written such shocking music we would not care so much about his deeds.”

O vos omnes is a responsory, originally sung as part of Roman Catholic liturgies for Holy Week, adapted from the Latin Vulgate translation of Lamentations 1:12. Gesualdo’s plangent setting is borne out in the text, which translates: “O all you, who walk by on the road, pay attention and see: if there be any sorrow like my sorrow. Pay attention, all people, and look at my sorrow.”