Etha Williams – Part II of Gesualdo, Stravinsky, Sciarrino

Stravinsky may have been the first to write works inspired by Gesualdo's music, but he would be far from the last; to examine the fate of Gesualdo's music in a later work, we can turn to Sciarrino's Le voci sottovetro (1998). Le voci sottovetro, like Stravinsky's Monumentum, arose out of a sustained engagement with the earlier composer's work and counts as one of several Gesualdo-inflected works that Sciarrino has written. Sciarrino had initially planned an opera about Gesualdo (Luci mie traditrici) but, upon learning that Schnittke was in the process of writing a similar work, Sciarrino amended his opera to center around the French Renaissance composer Claude le Jeune. Nevertheless, Sciarrino's interest in Gesualdo persisted, and he eventually formed the four-movement concert work Le voci sottovetro out of “crumbs left over from Luci mie traditrici.”

Le voci sottovetro, whose title translates to “the voices behind glass,” takes a somewhat more elaborate form than Stravinsky's work, with four musical movements – two transcriptions of Gesualdo's instrumental music (for Gesualdo did write instrumental music, albeit not in nearly as prolifically as vocal music!) alternating with two transcriptions of madrigals – between which troubled “lettere poetiche” by Torquato Tasso, a famous contemporary of Gesualdo who wrote many of the composer's madrigal texts, are read. The work as a whole thus runs as follows:

I. Gagliarda del Principe di Venosa (instrumental work)
A Girolamo Mercuriale, Padova (lettere poetiche)
II. Tu m'uccidi, o crudele (vocal madrigal)
A Maurizio Cataneo, Roma (lettere poetiche)
III. Canzon francese del Principe (instrumental work)
A Giovan Battista Cavallara (lettere poetiche)
IV. Moro, lasso (vocal madrigal)

In arranging his work thus, Sciarrino engages with questions of vocal and instrumental music and text-music relations in a rather different way than does Stravinsky: interspersing purely instrumental works and purely verbal, spoken ones casts new light on the sung texts that come in between. Too, as we shall see, Sciarrino's manner of recasting Gesualdo's madrigals throws new light on their aesthetic assumptions as well. (The choice to end with the madrigal Moro, lasso is interesting as well – it is by far Gesualdo's most well known work, and one of his most chromatic.)

For the sake of scope, I'll focus in the rest of this discussion on just Sciarrino's settings of Gesualdo's madrigals (“Tu m'uccidi, o crudele” [Book V No XV] and the renowned “Moro, lasso” [Book VI No XVIII]). These two movements, set not for vocal ensemble but rather for solo female voice, bring Gesualdo's hyperexpressive variety of the Renaissance madrigal in a strange and, to my ears, enticingly uneasy rapprochement with the Italian operatic tradition (a stylistic combination that no doubt owes its origins to Sciarrino's initially planned Gesualdo opera). Unlike Stravinsky's setting, the vocal, textual element remains, but the solo vocalist's melodic line is taken so freely from different voices of Gesualdo's original madrigal as to be nearly unrecognizable; in the opening of “Tu m'uccidi,” for instance, the first phrase comes from Gesualdo's Tenor part, the second from Gesualdo's Alto I and Tenor, the third from the Tenor again, and the fourth from the Alto I and Soprano. In constantly moving between voices (often to lines that are least prominent in Gesualdo's setting) as well as removing some lines of text entirely by giving them over to the instruments, Sciarrino creates a solo setting of these madrigals in which their melodic content and stylistic context are both profoundly defamiliarized. (The accompanying instruments, too, borrow freely from the original work, and – somewhat similarly to the Stravinsky – often alter voice leading without substantially altering Gesualdo's harmonic palette.)

Even beyond these profound alterations, however, the most distinctive aspect of these settings must be the extravagant instrumental effects (sometimes so out there as to seem in potentially questionable taste – to excellent effect) that, true to Sciarrino's title, cast the low solo voice as though “behind glass.” This occurs perhaps most strikingly at the opening of “Moro lasso,” in which the voice enters on the G# below middle C amidst high register pedaled piano counterpoint, sul tasto viola and cello, and bass flute and bass clarinet – all at a pppp dynamic. The effect is distinctively strange, and Gesualdo's most famous work, too, suddenly sounds strange again – is defamiliarized. Its chromaticism and affective resonances here, in contrast to in the Stravinsky, remain present but are refracted as though through a prism.


To my mind and ears, one of the most intriguing things about both Stravinsky's and Sciarrino's Gesualdo settings – situated nearly 40 years apart from one another, and over three centuries after Gesualdo's own works – is that in bringing the “early” into productive dialog with the “new,” they cast into question one of the very musical precepts that Gesualdo's music seems to accept unquestioningly and, indeed, upon which it relies: namely, the relationship of text and music, and off concrete affective expression and compositional technique. While in Gesualdo's madrigals – much as in Monteverdi's seconda prattica not much later – particularly poignant aspects of a text call for particularly pungent chromatic effects (and while even when performed in viol consort, they would have had such a tragic affective connotation), Stravinsky's and Sciarrino's settings either refuse such assumptions altogether, in Stravinsky's case, or musically reexamine and defamiliarize them, in Sciarrino's. In this way both provide vivid musical expressions of how we understand the distant past in our present, such that – to quote Proust, remarking on a somewhat different aspect of this past-present relationship – Gesualdo “is made to play upon the keyboards of several ages at once.”

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.