Gesualdo: Rebel or Rogue? [with Audio]
On February 16, at 7:30 p.m. at St. Francis of Assisi Church, the University Musical Society presents the Tallis Scholars. This British group of about ten singers has spawned a whole industry of a cappella ensembles that aspire to sonic purity, contemplative calm, timelessness. What could the Tallis Scholars—Scholars!—possibly have to do with this season’s Pure Michigan Renegade Series, of which they are a part?
Let’s start with the gruesome facts associated with the composer at the center of the night’s program. Carlo Gesualdo (1566?–1613), the nephew of Counter Reformation enforcer Carlo Borromeo, was a prince and landholder in Venosa in southeastern Italy. Around 1588 his wife, the noblewoman Donna Maria d’Avalos, began an affair with a gentleman in the vicinity. In 1590 Gesualdo, using wooden copies of room keys he had had made, found the pair in bed together, stabbed them both, and hung their corpses in front of his castle for all to see. The story was retold repeatedly by poets of the day in a sixteenth-century equivalent of headline news.
Gesualdo, as a nobleman, was immune to prosecution, although he had plenty to fear from the relatives of his wife and her lover. He was never arrested, but he spent most of the rest of his life either on the road, investigating new musical developments, or, later on, locked up in his castle, writing music for concerts at which he himself was the audience.
The madrigals he wrote during his later years lay buried for three hundred years, but they fascinated musical modernists who unearthed them. Filled with hyper-expressive settings of texts about searing jealousy and betrayal, they seemed to push the boundaries of dissonance that was possible under the rules of Renaissance polyphony, and to anticipate music that was centuries in the future. The first performers of the madrigals, in fact, were mostly not early music specialists but the group of performers led by Robert Craft, the prominent American champion of Igor Stravinsky’s music.
Gesualdo wrote less sacred music, but the Tenebrae Reponsories (“tenebrae” means “shadows” and refers to Christian services celebrated in the days before Easter; a responsory is a setting of a text that contains an answering section) that he composed at the end of his life are among his very greatest works. In these pieces the thorny question of how Gesualdo’s life and music are related reaches an especially sharp point. Consider this setting of “O vos omnes” composed by Gesualdo in 1611, two years before his death:
“O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus,” says the responsory text—”O you who walk down the road, pay attention and see whether there is any sorrow like my sorrow.” The text comes from the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah and originally described the sack of Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E. It was repurposed for the Passion story. But it’s hard not to think of Gesualdo himself as the subject when the words “similis sicut dolor meus” are repeated in tonal regions unthinkably distant from the piece’s home base.
Was Gesualdo really a renegade as well as a murderer? Was he even a “modernist” of his time? Some would say no — his chromaticism did not lead to a new language but only explored the strangest corners of an old one. The truly new music of the first decade of the 1600s was opera, which he did not touch. Gesualdo’s music was closed up in an emotional hothouse, and one word that’s been used to describe it is Mannerist — looked at from a certain angle, the jarring contrasts in his works were musical equivalents of El Greco’s light and shade. Or perhaps his artistic counterpart was Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the Italian who painted surreal human heads made up of vegetables, plants, and even books.
Photo: Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Vertumnus.
What is a renegade, anyway? Does change in the arts come from an avant-garde, or does it bubble up from below? Do musical traditions tend to shock most when they begin, or when they’re coming to an end?
Whatever your ultimate answers to these questions may be, the music of Don Carlo Gesualdo has lost none of its ability to shock as it enters its fifth century of existence. If you’ve never heard Gesualdo at all, or if you know him only through the few tortured madrigals that circulate among college singing groups, hear how the language of his last years was refracted through sacred texts in the magnificent Tenebrae Responsories, somber Holy Week thoughts from a prince whose life and music intertwined in profound ways.
Renegade Series will shake up your mud months
Some renegades: 1. Einstein on the Beach and 2. Random Dance.
A friend from Minneapolis was visiting earlier this summer, and we got to talking about the dreaded “mud months” up here in the icy north—February, March, alas, even April. Our friend mentioned that she’d spent a week in Arizona last February, but when I said I envied her, she shook her head. “Actually,” she said, “I cut my trip short. I couldn’t wait to get back.”
“What made you do that?”
The cultural life, she said. “There’s no cultural life down there.”
With apologies to the Heard Museum and Ballet Arizona, I think she’s got a point. And I’ve promised myself that this year, no matter how bad it gets, I’m not going to complain when it’s mid-March and I’m shoveling snow for the third time in a week, because the cultural offerings in Ann Arbor more than compensate. (Of course nothing about winter seems bad right now, so long as there are no mosquitoes.)
I’m actually looking forward to the mud months of 2012, because that’s when UMS—in what’s either a brilliant move or a potentially ruinous gesture of faith in the weather gods—is presenting its Renegade series. For me it’s the most tantalizing thing on offer this season, and I’ll be tracking it here on the Lobby, hoping to answer some of the questions I’ve long had about the process of art and art-making, and what makes some artists true outposts of genius and others mere followers. The series starts in January with a reconstruction of the 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach and winds up in late March with the San Francisco Symphony’s “American Mavericks” series, and in between covers a wide and intriguing arc of genres and eras. Beethoven, Gesualdo, Robert Lepage, Jessye Norman, Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson, Philip Glass—they’re all part of it, and they’ll all be here, in spirit or person, as we hunker down under Michigan’s gray skies and count the days until the crocuses bloom.
Because he has as much to do with the evolution of this series as anyone on the planet, I’m starting my personal Renegade “journey” with UMS Programming Director Michael Kondziolka:
LS: What’s the genesis of the Renegade series?
MK: I’ve been having a conversation for 10 years about Einstein on the Beach. And I was also having a conversation with the San Francisco Symphony about a remount of their American Mavericks festival—the first one they did was 10 years ago, in San Francisco. Both of these conversations were long-term and ongoing. And there was a moment when I realized, “Huh! It appears that both of these projects are going to land in the same season.” And when I realized that, I started thinking about the commonalities.
The American Mavericks festival is really all about Michael Tilson Thomas’s vision for a certain kind of American sensibility and “mavericky-ness” when it comes to orchestral music composition—what it means to be American, and what it means to be an innovator and an experimenter. And how can that not in some way relate to Einstein on the Beach, which is, of course, an American work of music, theater, or opera that very much embodied those same ideas of risk-taking, innovation, scale, in creating something really new.
That, strangely enough, collided with another moment that I had last season, where I’m sitting there listening to Pierre Boulez talk about his life, his ruminations on the 20th century, and his role in that. And a student asked a really wonderful question about what the new electronically based media means for music and composition. And Boulez said, “Je ne suis pas un prophète.” “I’m not a prophet. ” And he started to expound on artistic works that are truly important, that are game-changers—works we could never, ever have possibly anticipated, and once we’ve experienced them, could never imagine living without. This was his definition for something that’s truly important.
And I guess it was that statement from such an important intellectual, about art and culture, and these two projects that were long-term conversations, coming together and forming the possibility of a thread of performances devoted to this idea of work that really has changed the direction of the form.
LS: I like the term “game-changers.”
MK: It also felt very zeitgeisty to me. That these things came together at a time when our popular discourse, and our popular political discourse, is just polluted with vocabulary about innovation. “Innovating our way out of the difficulties that we face today.” “Being a maverick.” “I’m the real maverick.” All of this bullsh!t that’s kind of like wallpaper, but there’s no real there there. And of course there are lots of examples of real mavericks, of people who are really innovating, but it also seems kind of … cheap. We’re cheapening the meaning of some of these ideas, of what it means to be a real change-agent.
LS: Why “renegade”?
MK: Ultimately we wanted to choose a word that hasn’t been overused, a word that maybe made people feel both a little bit curious and a little bit uncomfortable. I like the word, because it toggles between the artists, their artistic output, and the audience. What does it mean if you’re an audience member who chooses to go to these sorts of events? Are you a little bit of a renegade? Are you taking a risk? How do you feel about taking that risk, and what do you get out of taking that risk? As consumers of the arts—as listeners and observers—it is the moments when we take risks, or step into something that we have no idea what it is, and are completely bowled over and changed, that matter. Period.
LS: In an ideal world, what do you hope audiences might take away from this?
MK: In a dream world, I want the takeaway to be something really simple. I want people to leave the experience with some sense of that quality of innovation, or change-agency, or specialness, that defines the work as part of this series.
LS: You start with a bang—Einstein on the Beach—and end with another bang, the San Francisco Symphony’s Mavericks series. So how did you decide to flesh out the middle?
MK: How did I want to fill in that time between those two bookends (which is what we’re calling them)? The one thing that was really important to me was that it not focus only on work of the last 50 years. I didn’t want this to feel like a quote-unquote contemporary music series. I wanted to tell a much larger story about moments of extreme change. So I asked Peter Phillips of the Tallis Scholars to put together a Renaissance mavericks program. And we’ve included the Hagen String Quartet’s all-Beethoven concert as a wonderful way of creating an opportunity to understand how Beethoven really changed classical music aesthetics. That’s an obvious concert to include in a series like this. I think Beethoven’s the ultimate maverick.
LS: Beyond just having an interesting cultural experience, and coming away saying, “Wow, I was there for that,” does a series like this have the potential to change our culture by changing the audience? In the best of all possible worlds, how might this shake people up? What might they get from this that goes beyond just the bragging rights, and the curiosity factor?
MK: Obviously, if entering into an unexpected experience opens those kinds of ideas up in an audience member’s mind, that for me would be a very important, possibly transformative takeaway—because we’re reminded, ultimately, of the intrinsic value of the arts and not just the instrumental value of the arts. Now: is that any different from the experience I want people to have when they go to the all-Brahms program with the Chicago Symphony? Probably not.
LS: It does seem that when you’re packaging this as “renegade,” you’re focusing on the process of creating this art, rather than just, “Let’s go hear these great works that are part of the canon.” I mean, how did they get to be part of the canon in the first place?
LS: And what does that mean for us, and how and where we need to move our culture forward?
MK: That’s right. I think you’re right. I also think that accessing a lot of work really ultimately has everything to do with giving yourself permission. Einstein on the Beach, for example, is a five-plus hour work without an intermission …
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In my next post: More from Michael Kondziolka on Einstein on the Beach.
What do you think? Do renegade works fill audiences with renegade spirit? Have you attended a ‘renegade’ work?