I was pretty much fascinated by Gesualdo and his music from the first moment I read anything about him in my "Literature and Style" class when I was an undergrad. Once you know something about him it ought to pique your interest a little bit too.
Gesualdo was born in Venosa, a part of what is now Italy. If my memory serves me right, he was the second son of a nobleman and when his older brother died, he was forced to become the prince. This was most unfortunate for Gesualdo as his main interest in life from a young age was music. He had melomania -- a "mad passion" for music. In some ways, being a prince was a GOOD thing. It meant he could write music as he wanted to and did not have to please a patron. Had he needed to please someone else, there's a good chance we wouldn't have the amazing musioc
But doing his duty was also required and to that end, he married his first cousin, a woman who was supposed to have been uncommonly beautiful during her time. Now, it appears that Gesualdo might have neglected her a bit, preferring the company of his music (and, as rumor had it, men and young boys). So his wife took a lover. This didn't sit too well with Gesualdo and so he devised a plot. He made copies of all the keys to their apartment in Naples and "left" on a hunting trip (almost sounds like a Mozart opera plot doesn't it?). He entered the apartment with three men, found his wife and her lover in the middle of the deed and proceeded to kill them both. It seems that he used sword, dagger, AND pistol. When he left, he told his men "I do not believe they are dead!" and went back in to continue his assault on two people who were most assuredly dead. The wounds described are HORRIFIC.
This, of course, led to all sorts of crazy conjecture about him: stories abounded about his dragging the bodies to the bottom of the stairs and leaving them there, to his killing their child by putting him in a swing and essentially swinging him to death while he had people sing him madrigals. One that seems to possibly have been true was his cutting down the trees around his palace after the murders.
This last one actually makes sense. The law could not touch a prince. But he was not safe from revenge.
Ultimately, Gesualdo remarried, though his second marriage was no happier than the first. She accused him of abuse and spent far more time away from him than with him. In his later years Gesualdo suffered from depression (there are some thoughts that it was due to guilt over the murders) and had his servants whip him daily. He started a rather fruitless correspondence with a cardinal in an attempt to obtain skeletal remains of his uncle. He believed they would heal his mental disorder and perhaps even absolve him of his crimes.
He died alone at his caste. There have been some rumors that his second wife murdered him, though I don't believe there's likely any truth in that (though it sure would be a bit of karma there wouldn't it?).
Gesualdo's music is as interesting and unique as his personality and life. I still remember a really bad philosophy teacher I had who made the claim that no composer was truly creative as they were all just imitating what came before them. I used Gesualdo as an example of someone who veered quite far off the beaten path (one might say the same thing about Charles Ives in the 20th century -- both were able to do it because they did not rely on their musical endeavors for money). I saw that same professor at the music department the next day holding onto a bunch of CDs. Amusingly enough, he never brought it back up. I assume I proved my point.
Gesualdo wrote some sacred music but the real heart, the real MEAT of his output were his six books of secular madrigals. Most of these madrigals were extravagant settings of the extremes of emotion. Many deal with the pain of love, of death, of agony and ecstasy alike. It is incredibly experimental and chromatic music. The chromaticism of it was not really matched until Wagner came along, some 200 years later. His madrigals are rife with extreme examples of text-painting (where a composer depicts what is going on in the text musically) and tend to be sectional in nature: alternating slower, very chromatic sections, with faster diatonic sections. Some of this can be incredibly jarring.
I do believe his music truly represents who he was. It's beautiful and jarring and amazing and hard to listen to all at the same time.
The example I'm going to share is the one I usually use with my class. It's called "Moro Lasso, al mio duolo." The text (and translation) is as follows:Moro lasso, al mio duolo grief,
E chi mi può dar vita,
Ahi, che m’ancide e non vuol darmi aita!
O dolorosa sorte,
Chi dar vita puòm ahi, mi dà morte!
I am dying, wretched, in my grief,
And [the one] who is able to give me life,
Alas, it is killing me and is not willing to give me aid!
O painful fate,
[The one] who is able to give me life, gives me death!
You can listen to it here