Digital Recording, March 1990
Douai Abbey, England
In 1611, two years before his death, Gesualdo published his most important and most atypical works. Although they contain some avant-garde features fashionable in Italian courts, in his last two books of madrigals and in these Holy Week Responses, Gesualdo's use of them (the radical intensiveness of these features) is completely unique. If the idea of darkness pervades all his output, in the Office of Tenebrae, this real-life prince of the shadows reaches the deepest penumbras. Several very good interpretations are available, although not of all three Officium (Feria V, Feria VI and Sabbato Sancto) and of the Benedictus and the Miserere with which they conclude - Peter Phillips on Gimell, Andrew Parrott's recent version on Sony. But the Hilliard Ensemble's recording (on this occasion the group is made up of the countertenors David James and Ashley Stafford, the tenors John Potter, Rogers Covey-Crump and Mark Padmore, the baritone Paul Hillier and the bass David Beavan) is truly unsurpassable, both in precision and dramatic intensity. The recording, made by the engineer Peter Laenger for ECM at Douai Abbey is outstanding for its realism and spatial conception.
Carlo Gesualdo - Tenebrae Responsories (27), for 6 voices
No account of Carlo Gesualdo's life omits the scandal of 1590. In that year, Gesualdo, the Prince of Venosa, caught his young wife and her lover in a compromising situation; he murdered them both, also killing his child for good measure. The Prince remarried and continued to compose Italian madrigals in the most advanced chromatic fashion. Later in his life, however, a somewhat lesser-known religious mania seized him. Gesualdo maintained a coterie of young men whose principal duties were to ritually flagellate their master. It was from the pen of this later, perhaps even more twisted mind that the 1611 Tenebrae Responsories emerged. In this series of 27 penitential Holy Week motets, Gesualdo applies to the religious realm the same passionate chromatic style he used throughout his life to express eroticism.
Liturgically, the Responsories serve the three days that climax the penitential season of Lent. On the evenings of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, the church commemorates the passion of Christ with the offices of Tenebrae. Each service comprises three "nocturns," each of which in turn contains trios of Psalms, Lessons, and Responsories. The service ends in poignant darkness as the candles are snuffed one by one. Gesualdo set the texts for all nine Responsories on all three days, texts that detail in often dramatic detail the suffering and sacrifice of Christ. Though he rigidly follows the liturgical responsory form, however, Gesualdo probably did not intend this music for the public Catholic liturgy. These intensely personal and idiosyncratic pieces can only have been intended for his own ears.
Gesualdo omits very few facets of the avant-garde madrigal style. In the tradition of Wert and Luzzaschi, he alternates between homophonic and imitative writing based on local text details. Harmonically and melodically, however, he surpasses their wildest efforts. He fills the music with awkward leaps and sudden chromatic shifts; voices continually enter on dissonant suspensions and leap away from the harmonic resolution. Images in the text - lamenting tears, swords and spears, the earthquake, the deep lake into which Christ descended - conjure up extraordinarily expressive musical gestures from him. Numerous passages describing Jesus' journey to death swim in a murk of nearly twelve-tone chromatic harmonies; the crucifixion itself inspires a piercing series of cross-relations. To hear this music is to experience the wounds and the despair of Christ on the cross.
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Who knows whether the real Tynset - why do I say "real"? - I mean the material Tynset, the Tynset of stone and wood and flesh and blood and deed and thought - who knows whether this Tynset will not vanish before my eyes or dissolve like a mirage as I approach it? And there I should stand, horribly deceived, and my thoughts would once more possess that freedom they no longer desire, for they have become unused to it. They no longer stray, they have come to a standstill, in Tynset.
Yet I should - and I shall - go there, even though it is winter. Tynset: it sounds like winter, sounds like the bells of a sleigh coming from somewhere, points to a track leading somewhere, a track I shall take without regard to other directions, letting it lead me in whatever direction it chooses, even if only to a place where there is nothing to be found, but just -again -something to be sought, even if that is nothing better than a forking of two or a crossing point of several tracks, the setting for a dilemma, a place of choice between two or many possibilities. A dilemma would in fact be welcome, for then I should, with slow deliberation and pedantic thoroughness, choose a track that promised a destination, I should set out with confidence and, while pursuing it, should contemplate with a calm mind the possibility of losing it, secure in the knowledge that, at the crossing I have left behind, there are other possibilities to which I can always return, forks and branches indicated there on which I might always set out, should this track give up or I lose sight of it. This, however, only on the assumption that I shall still have time enough, a condition I have taught myself to include in all my plans.
But now I am speaking of plans. I have no plans, I have just one single plan, still unformed, called Tynset, and Tynset ist the only place for which I would leave my house, and only with heavy heart would I leave my bed, my winter bed, the white domain.
Here I lie, on a cold November night, in this bed on which, one other November night, a murder took place - in this bed in which, ten years after the murder, the murderer lay, having returned to the scene, to the bed of the crime, whithout risk of retribution, from which his rank protected him, the bed in which the murderer, Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, lies in the last years of his life, restless, rejecting sleep, detached from the things of his life, the passions and the sports of love, withdrawn from everything including his sin, resentful, discontent, with half an eye on his God, in this bed in which the murderer, Don Carlo Gesualdo, lies during his last nights, his attention now wholly fixed on his God in his demand for forgiveness, in which the murderer Carlo lies on his final night, in yearning, vain expectation of a word from his Maker - I am not saying that his Maker should have spoken this word, no, I do not say that - in this bed in which the divine Gesualdo lies in his final hour, hovering, lost to the world and to all else, including his Maker, alone, lies in his final hour, the wavering black eyes in the El Greco head not extinguished but directed to the far corners of the room, a room that a burning torch darkens rather than lightens, a silent velvety darkness like a heraldic field, a princely feudal darkness of a kind unkown to the poor, above the doorway a coat-of-arms, in the doorway, behind the door, a halberd leaning diagonally, placed there by a sentry who is asleep on the floor outside, lies and listens, and behind him lies-though not as part of the harmonious dark peaceful-ness of a Dutch still life, but as if put down roughly in sudden anger and with a final discord - his lute, lies there wounded, pierced, upturned, fingerboard downwards, the playing board for his agitated, dangerous fingers, the seismographs of his cruelty, servants of his unpredicatable will, of his moods, and in another room, for years unvisited, lies his crossbow with loosened strings, the instrument of his wild, untargetted chase, beneath the earth by the Gesu Nuovo,their longing for physical union long stayed, stretched out now as almost indistinguishable skeletons, lie his nymphomaniacal first wife and her last lover, the nephew of a Pope, and somewhere on the path to the east along which he fled the murder instrument, the stiletto, lies rusting, so all is in its final resting-place, as he in his last minutes lies and stares at this skull beneath the wooden heaven that I do not see, for it has disappeared, probably faded, he sees the skull, and behind the skull a glow, a wild flashing that is not there, for it is inside him - he lies and suddenly laughs, then falls silent again and hearkens, but no longer to his own creations, his own voices, not to soprano and falsetto and tenor and the bass he himself not seldom sang, since no other could sing it as he wished, but he is no longer listening to himself and to his voice, no longer to the dying breath, the whispering, the shrill rapture, the sforzato, the headlong rise to a climax of benumbed ecstasy, to the point where beauty is no longer bearable, where death and love melt and unite in a single consummation, where the unforseseen turns into unimaginable occurrence, and no longer to chords, modulations, the harmonic and the enharmonic, the bold and uninhibited, forbidden progression from A-flat minor to C major, his making no more progressions, nor gliding any longer over his chromatic scale F - E - E-flat - D - o morire - F-E-D-E- E-flat -D-C-B-C-o mori - i - i - re - morire, yes, now he has reached that point - but he is not hearkening to that, not to death, not to love, no longer to God, not to his crux benedicta, not to these disembodied voices - he lies and hearkens to other things, lies in expectation, whether he will hear it, something unknown, but he does not hear it, he hears nothing, he lies here, his head in the place where my head lies, hearkening to emptiness, staring into emptiness, and so he died, the immortal, the inexplicable, the great man, the enigma, the marvel, the murderer, inter mortuos liber, here in this bed, the winter bed in which I am now lying, on a cold November night.
- Wolfgang Hildesheimer