Etha Williams – Gesualdo, Stravinsky, Sciarrino : On some affinities of the "early" and the "new"

Since my two principal interests lie in early music, on the one hand, and new music, on the other – and having met numerous others with similar interests –, I spend a lot of time thinking about what common affinity such temporally distant eras might share. The very phrases “early music” and “new music” – common parlance in the world of concert programming, CD marketing, and the like – are perhaps a good place to start. The modifiers “early” and “new” both define their respective eras not in terms of compositional practice (as does, for instance, the phrase “common practice period”) nor in terms of an aesthetic (as do “baroque,” “classical,” or “romantic”), but rather in terms of their relative temporal position. In that one is “early” and the other “new,” they appear to be opposed; but in that both lie temporally outside the canonical works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they share a common “otherness” that composers, performers, and listeners – myself included – have seized upon.

The explicit correspondences between these two fields of music are manifold – including, to name a few, Anton Webern's dissertation on the Renaissance composer Heinrich Isaac, the extraordinary confluence of early and new music programming in Los Angeles's Monday Evening Concert Series and in Paris's Domaine musicale during the 1950s and 1960s, and the Ensemble Recherche's “In Nomine” project, which has commissioned works based on the Renaissance “In nomine” melody from numerous contemporary composers. Having largely faded from cultural memory, such “early” influences become sites at which composers can find new ways of thinking about pressing musical questions such as those of contrapuntal procedures, of unfamiliar sounds, and of borrowed musical material and intertextuality.

Rather than trying to enumerate such correspondences comprehensively, though, I want to focus on just one site of such an interaction of the “early” and the “new”: Carlo Gesualdo, a Renaissance composer who has occupied a particularly prominent place in the modern musical imagination. Gesualdo's figure has loomed large in the twentieth century – a legacy detailed comprehensively in Glenn Watkin's study The Gesualdo Hex, from which much of the information presented here is drawn –, provoking a film by Werner Herzog (Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices) in addition to musical works by numerous composers including, but by no means limited to, Igor Stravinsky, Klaus Huber, Alfred Schnittke, and Salvatore Sciarrino. Examining just two of these works – Stravinsky's and Sciarrino's – can cast light on Gesualdo's legacy for modernity as well as the manner in which Stravinsky and Sciarrino used his music to rethink issues such as the relationship between vocal and instrumental music, affective expression and sonic abstraction, and the immediacy of text-music relations.


The standard narrative on Gesualdo runs something like this: during his life, at the twilight of the Renaissance, Gesualdo composed music of extraordinary chromaticism and dark expressivity, a darkness often read as stemming from the the composer's murder of his adulterous wife. As a courtly amateur, Gesualdo's music had only limited influence during and immediately after his life and was thus more or less forgotten until being rediscovered in the twentieth century, when it came to be prized for its anticipation of the radical chromaticism of Wagner and, even, of atonality itself.

While largely historically accurate, this narrative engages in a fair bit of exaggeration, particularly concerning Gesualdo's status as a neglected (until the twentieth century, that is) genius. While his influence during his own time may not have been as great as that of, say, Monteverdi, Gesualdo was indeed recognized and seen as a modernist then as well as now – albeit for somewhat different reasons. In the early- and mid-seventeenth century, commentators praised Gesualdo's ability to bring out the affective content of a text in a rhetorically eloquent manner, both through the extensive chromaticism for which he is now renowned and also through contrapuntal artifice, and saw him as a precursor to Monteverdi's quintessentially modern seconda prattica.

Nevertheless, Gesualdo's prominence waned in the subsequent centuries (without his being entirely forgotten – his figure persists at least as far as the later eighteenth century in writings and engravings!), and Gesualdo's renewed importance in the twentieth century did indeed mark a qualitative, as well as quantitative, change in the composer's historical fortunes. Putting a precise date on the modern renaissance of this late Renaissance composer is, like most such ventures, impossible, but the 1910s (the same time at which Schoenberg was making his forays into free atonality) saw an increase in both publications regarding Gesualdo (Ferdinand Keiner's dissertation [1914] and an edition of his madrigals by Ildebrando Pizzetti [1919]) and citations of him. One of the earliest such remarks came in 1915, by Hugo Leichtentritt, who praised Gesualdo's prescience thus: “Only at present, in the age of Richard Strauss, Debussy, Scriabine, Busoni, can one see that this great impressionist Gesualdo is akin to these modern masters, their brother. He is three centuries ahead of his time in his novel and extremely daring use of tonality or rather lack of tonality, his bewildering manner of modulation, his fine sense of colour in harmony.” And Egon Wellesz likewise, one year later, compared Gesualdo to Schoenberg, citing the former for chromaticism of a sort “which we cannot observe again until we reach the later works of Richard Wagner.”

Gesualdo, then, who during his own time was regarded as at the forefront of efforts to restore the affective-rhetorical power that music presumably possessed in antiquity, throughout the twentieth century gradually gained a reputation as a precocious practitioner of a chromaticism that would only find its ultimate fulfillment centuries later in the works of Wagner and Schoenberg. It might seem strange, then, that one of the first composers to extensively draw on Gesualdo's influence in his own music was a composer who had been aggressively diatonic during much of the first half of the twentieth century: Igor Stravinsky.


Stravinsky composed his Monumentum pro Carlo Gesualdo (1960) at a time when Gesualdo's prominence was growing both in general concert life and in Stravinsky's particular compositional imagination. The work consists of three movements, each a setting of one of Gesualdo's madrigals from his last two (and most extravagantly chromatic) published books: “Asciugate i begli occhi” (Book V No XIV), “Ma tu, cagion di quella” (Book V No XVIII), and “Belta poi che t'assenti” (Book VI No II).

The most notable difference between Stravinsky's setting and Gesualdo's originals is, of course, Stravinsky's elimination of the voice: what had been works in a preeminently vocal genre – the Renaissance polyphonic madrigal – have been made purely instrumental. To this end, Stravinsky evokes another baroque tradition – that of Venetian polychoral church music – in the way he deploys “choirs” of instruments in antiphonal contrast with one another. (Indeed, as Watkins has shown, the third madrigal subtly references Giovanni Gabrieli's famous polychoral Sonata Pian e Forte.) Thus the first and third movements constantly alternates wind and string textures (a practice, moreover, that sounds distinctively Stravinskian as well as faintly baroque), while the second makes use of the contrast between woodwinds and brass. Such alternation between instrumental choirs, along with other free alterations of voice leading and octave displacement on Stravinsky's part, qualitatively alters Gesualdo's sinuous chromatic voice leading, removing much of its vocal lyricism and shifting the aural focus further towards the (now wordless) vertical sonorities.

Stravinsky's transcription was not the first transformation of Gesualdo's madrigals from vocal to instrumental media; as early as 1635, just over two decades after Gesualdo's death, Giovanni Battista Doni proposed that, in incidental theater music, “for action of a melancholy nature one plays a madrigal of the Prince of Venosa on the viols.” Yet there is something qualitatively different from the theatrical use that Doni suggests and the instrumental settings Stravinsky prepared. In Stravinsky's setting, the affective connotations of Gesualdo's chromaticism are heavily suppressed, and the alternation of instrumental choirs and changes in voice leading serve to foreground the way that individual phrases balance and contrast with one another rather than the affective content of Gesualdo's pungent dissonances. Too, the treatment of phrases in blocks of relatively static color and dynamics contributes to this sense. Indeed, Robert Craft reported that Stravinsky described the work as “no less than a 'definition of what is vocal and what instrumental'” – a quintessentially metamusical abstraction if ever there was one. If Paul Lang's judgement of Craft and Stravinsky's approach to Gesualdo as “arctic” may seem somewhat harsh, it is nevertheless hard to deny that in Monumentum, the molten lava of Gesualdo's expressive chromaticism has hardened, over the centuries, into something akin to igneous rock.

In this regard, it is instructive to note that while it originated as a concert work, Stravinsky's Monumentum found a place – indeed, probably its most enduring place – in the theater. Balanchine, who saw the element of dance as central to Stravinsky's style in the composer's balletic and non-balletic works alike, choreographed a ballet to Stravinsky's music and premiered it just months after the concert premiere of the work. A clip of the ballet, following Balanchine's staging, can be found starting 4:13 in the video below:

What is perhaps most noteworthy here is the degree to which the theatrical setting corresponds with and, indeed, enhances the music's sense of abstraction – through the simple black and white costumes, the degree to which the dancers' choreography often follows the interweaving of the polyphonic lines, and the lack (typical in much of Balanchine) of narrative or even overt affective content. Such an understanding of Gesualdo's music – in terms of abstraction of sound and movement alike – would likely have seemed stranger to the composer's contemporaries than would the chromaticism itself.

Stay tuned for PART II, to be released next week. For information about Etha Williams, click here.

Sources Consulted/Further Reading:
Balanchine, George. “The Dance Element in Stravinsky's Music.” Reprinted in Opera Quarterly 22(1) (2007), 138-43.
Crawford, Dorothy. Evenings on and off the Roof: Pioneering Concerts in Los Angeles, 1939-1971. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Deutsch, Catherine. “Antico or Moderno? Reception of Gesualdo's Madrigals in the Early Seventeenth Century.” In The Journal of Musicology 30(1) (2013), 28-48.
Mason, Colin. “Gesualdo and Stravinsky.” In Tempo 55/56 (1960), 39-48.
Watkins, Glenn. The Gesualdo Hex. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.