Here's a chapter from Barber's book, Bach, Beethoven, and the Boys: Music History As It Ought To Be Taught
. Go buy the book, too (or check it out from a library) - it really is quite hilarious! (and veritable, too)
In the general scheme of music history, Don Carlo Gesualdo is not a terribly important figure. On the other hand, he is remarkable for two reasons: he is the only famous musician to be a true-born member of the nobility, and he is the only one (that we know of) ever to have murdered his wife. A few other musicians have been murdered. (Not as many as there should have been, some might say.) But Gesualdo is the only one to have been a murderer himself. Besides, his music is strange. Even the right notes sound funny. Wrong ones are awful.
Gesualdo was born in 1560 into a family of Italian nobility. He was a Prince of Venosa, Count of Consa, Lord of Gesualdo, Marquis of Laino and a whole bunch of other high-sounding things besides. (Although his wife called him something else entirely.) His family tree went back all the way to before Charlemagne. His ancestors had a habit of either fighting a lot in wars or becoming bishops. They didn't believe in the middle ground.
Gesualdo grew up in very comfortable surroundings. There was nothing he liked better as a young man than to get together with a bunch of his friends, go away to the family castle outside Naples and sing madrigals all night. It disturbed the neighbors, but since he was a prince they couldn't complain.
The party ended for Gesualdo in 1585. His older brother Luigi died, leaving Gesualdo heir to the family name. This meant getting married - something he wasn't keen to do. (Being a bachelor was more fun.) Gesualdo married his cousin Donna Maria d'Avalos, who at the age of 25 had married twice before already. That should have told him something.
The wedding celebration was a big bash that lasted for days. Everyone drank too much and Gesualdo and his buddies sang off-key well into the small hours.
The marriage went along all right for a few years. Well enough for the couple to have a baby boy, anyway. But pretty soon Donna Maria began to resent the fact that Gesualdo was more interested in composing madrigals than in her. She began spending more time with a certain Fabrizio Carafa, who was a duke and a count and rather dashing.
After that, they found excuses to be together most of the time, and pretty soon people were beginning to talk. (Carafa was lonely too. His wife was a religious fanatic and was inclined to shout in her sleep. It kept him awake.) Word of the affair eventually got to Gesualdo, who changed all the locks on the palace doors. This only worked for a while. Donna Maria had new keys made, which she gave to Carafa.
Finally, one day in October, Gesualdo told his wife he was going out hunting and made a big show of riding off to the country. He had told her not to expect him home that night. She knew a good chance when she saw one and invited Carafa to come over. She said she needed a big, strong man to open jam jars or something.
That night, Gesualdo returned secretly to the palace and caught his wife in bed with her lover. (Carafa was wearing Donna Maria's nightgown at the time. It was white, with black lace collar and cuffs.) He shot them both and then stabbed them a few times for good measure. Historian Cecil Gray agrees with the English essayist Thomas de Quincey that murder should be considered an art form. Gray gives Gesualdo points for the pistols and swordplay, but says he should have hit her a few times with a club. "A few judicious blows with a bludgeon," he says, "impart a variety, expressiveness and rich charm." (I'm not making this up, you know.)
After the murder, Gesualdo worreid that people might be angry at him - his wife's family, for instance - so he escaped to his family castle and cut down all the trees so no one could sneak up on him. Gesualdo had good cause for concern: the murdered duke had a nephew who had once hit a monk over the head and killed him, just for reciting a poem too loudly.
Not only did Gesualdo kill his wife and her lover, he also killed their small baby. The boy was his wife's second child. Gesualdo noticed that the baby's face looked similar, but it didn't look like him. In a fit of anger, Gesualdo put the baby in a cradle suspended on ropes from the ceiling and rocked it to death. (Afterwards, he felt guilty about the whole thing and had a monestary built on the site. Then he felt better.)
Needless to say, the murders were cause for much gossip. All the poets wrote about the event, but they tended to side with Gesualdo's wife, not him. They said he over-reacted.
Gesualdo married again a few years later. His second wife was Donna Eleonora d'Este, and she outlived him. But their marriage wasn't exactly rosy. Gesualdo may have not known it, but she was probably having an affair with Cardinal Allesandro d'Este, who aside from being a man of the church was her half-brother. (Might as well get hung for a sheep as a lamb, she must have figured.)
After his second marriage, Gesualdo spent most of his time at the court of the Duke of Ferrara, who liked to have musicians and composers hanging around the place. Over the years, he'd have such famous composers as Josquin des Prez, Orlando di Lasso, Cipriano de Rore, Obrecht, Marenzio and others. Palestrina stayed there for a few years and even John Dowland dropped in once for a visit.
Gesualdo had published his first book of madrigals under the pseudonym of Gioseppe Pilonij, but now began publishing them under his own name. Maybe being an infamous murderer improved his sales. (Gray points out that the bulk of his compositions came after the murders. He says music was a more satisfying creative outlet.) Altogether, Gesualdo published six books of madrigals, almost all of them characterized by daring and unusual harmonic progressions. (Composer Igor Stravinsky called him "the crank of chromaticism.")
Maybe Gesualdo's peculiar harmonies had something to do with his chronic bowel troubles. According to one Don Ferrante della Marra, writing in 1632, Gesualdo was unable to defecate "unless ten or twelve men, whom he kept specially for the purpose, were to beat him violently three times a day, during which operation he was wont to smile joyfully." That probably explains everything.