Prince Don Carlo Gesualdo: Sublime Renaissance Composer or Mad Butcher?

The music and life of Gesualdo have fascinated me for years. A seriously rich and powerful nobleman who wrote music in 1600 that sounds like it was written yesterday and who murdered his wife and her lover and who went mad at the end of his life? Hollywood couldn’t dream up anything better…

Il perdono di Gesualdo (Giovanni Balducci, 1609). The composer is kneeling, at the bottom right, in front of his uncles Saint Charles Borromée, who is wearing a cardinal's robe.

Il perdono di Gesualdo (Giovanni Balducci, 1609). The composer is kneeling, at the bottom right, in front of his uncles Saint Charles Borromée, who is wearing a cardinal’s robe.

Following are some highlights from his life:

  • Born in 1560, he was known as Gesualdo da Venosa, Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza. The Principality of Venosa was part of the Kingdom of Naples.
  • His family was wealthy, powerful and very connected to the Vatican. His Uncle was Saint Charles Borromeo and his great uncle was Pope Pius IV.
  • From an early age, he had a single-minded devotion to music and showed little interest in anything else. He played lute, harpsichord and guitar. Through private tutors and self-teaching he became a skilled musician and composer.
  • In 1586 he married his first cousin, Donna Maria d’Avalos, daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. Two years later, she started a love affair with Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria. She kept the affair secret from her husband for almost two years, even though it was well known to others.
  • The brutal showdown happened on October 16, 1590, at the Gesualdo’s palazzo in Naples. He pretended to go away on a hunting trip. He arranged with his servants to have keys to the locks of his palace copied in wood so that he could gain entrance if it were locked. The two lovers took insufficient precaution. Gesualdo returned to the palace, caught them in flagrante delicto and murdered them both in their bed. Afterward, he left their mutilated bodies in front of the palace for all to see. Being a nobleman he was immune to prosecution, but not to revenge, so he fled to his castle at Venosa where he would be safe from any of the relatives of either his wife or her lover.
  • The depositions of witnesses to the magistrates have all survived and give plenty of gory details. Gesualdo had help from his servants, who may have done most of the killing; however, Gesualdo certainly stabbed Maria multiple times, shouting as he did, “she’s not dead yet!” The Duke of Andria was found slaughtered by numerous deep sword wounds, as well as by a shot through the head. When he was found, he was dressed in women’s clothing (specifically, Maria’s night dress). His own clothing was found piled up by the bedside, unbloodied… The police report from the scene makes for shocking reading even after more than four hundred years.
  • The murders got lots of publicity. Many poets wrote verses trying to capitalize on the sensation. Even though the salacious details of the murders were broadcast in print, nothing was done to arrest Gesualdo. Presumably he was viewed as too powerful.
  • While in hiding in his castle, Gesualdo had an entire forest cut down that lay between the castle and the town of Venosa so that he could see if angry relatives and/or their henchmen or lawmen were approaching.
  • Accounts on events after the murders differ. According to some sources, Gesualdo also murdered his second son by Maria, who was an infant, after looking into his eyes and doubting his paternity (according to a 19th-century source he “swung the infant around in his cradle until the breath left his body”); another source indicates that he murdered his father-in-law as well, after the man had come seeking revenge. Gesualdo had employed a company of men-at-arms to ward off just such an event. However, contemporary documentation from official sources for either of these alleged murders is lacking.
  • In 1594 and 1595 he lived in Ferrara publishing his first book of madrigals and playing a public part in the progressive music scene of the City. He met his second wife there whom he married in 1597.
  • When he returned to Venosa in 1595, he basically became a recluse. He hired his own virtuoso musicians who lived in his castle and sang his own music for him alone in his chapel. Relations with his second wife quickly turned sour and she spent most of her time with her family in Modena. One historian wag wrote: “She seems to have been a very virtuous lady…for there is no record of his having killed her.”
  • Gesualdo suffered from huge depression and, one can assume, guilt and remorse. He had himself beaten daily and spent endless time on quests to buy holy relics that he thought would cure his mental illness and give him absolution. It is hard to imagine what it would have been like to be one of the musicians in his employ. It must have been an eerie and dangerous assignment.
  • During this time of madness and isolation, he wrote only sacred music, including Marian motets (did he have his first wife, Maria, in mind?) and polyphony related to death and the religious services in Holy Week. His style, which had always been emotional and personally expressive became intensely more so. His Tenebrae Responses for Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday are among the most experimental (and brilliant) of sacred Renaissance works displaying sharp dissonances and shocking chromatic juxtapositions. We will be singing parts of these two works in our concert.
  • He died in isolation in 1613.
  • Today, Venosa is a sleepy town east of Naples in the center of the ankle of the boot of Italy. Gesualdo is still a major, infamous legend there. After 400 years, they are quietly proud of him.
  • His music lay virtually dormant for 300 years. His reputation became a small footnote for scholars about the Mad Prince or the Butcher of Venosa. In the early 20th century, modern maverick composers such as Berg, Schoenberg and Stravinsky became interested in his innovative, chromatic, radically expressive style. Stravinsky made a pilgrimage to Venosa and unearthed additional unknown works. Aldous Huxley wrote a review of his music, referring to “…psychosis working on a late medieval art form.”
  • His music, like that of many Renaissance composers, really started to be performed frequently again with the early music revival of the second half of the 20th century. At first, the interest was centered on his passionate madrigals but since the late 1980s more and more attention has been paid to his final sacred masterpieces.

There are now many fine recordings of Gesualdo’s music. Also, In 1985, Werner Herzog made a movie/documentary about Gesualdo called Death for Five Voices. You can watch it on You Tube – I recommend it.

Apparently, in 1998 a jazz arranger/composer and a saxophonist from Italy released a CD called Gesualdo Splash… I can’t imagine…

Andrew Balfour


Les Voix humaines

Susie Napper is one of the two viola da gamba players (the other being Margaret Little) who form Les Voix humaines, the distinguished guests of Camerata Nova for the upcoming concert Perchance to Dreame… The concert, also featuring renowned tenor Charles Daniels and lutenist Sylvain Bergeron, will take place on Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 8:00 pm at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church. See links below to hear music by these excellent musicians.

In her blog, Susie Napper explains briefly the evolution of song-writing (not so very different from today!) and perhaps also the origin of the name chosen by the duo of gambists (“Les Voix humaines” is French for “Human Voices”).


Summertime, and the livin’ is easy….

We’re all wishing for a little easy living as we suffer the biting cold of this winter in  Canada and particularly, I gather, in Winnipeg! I’m looking forward to my first visit to the city that is renowned for its cultural life as well as its spectacular natural setting.


Before the late 20th century, music-making was the most popular form of home entertainment. Poems and tales were, more often than not, set to music, just as they are today, and sung on a cold evening around the fire.

Popular tunes, as in the 21st century, were often originally songs that were arranged as purely instrumental pieces to be repeated and transformed over centuries. Today’s equivalent could be a jazz standard like Autumn Leaves (originally Les feuilles mortes, melody written in 1945 by Joseph Kosma, with the words of French poet Jacques Prévert) that is covered by any number of groups and reinvented in as many ways!

Entertainment for the entire family might take the form of songs sung in several parts or a single voice accompanied by one or more instruments “in consort” or simply played on instruments.

In the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau considered that the viol was the instrument that most closely imitated the human voice. It is hardly surprising that so many of the greatest composers from the early Renaissance to the late Baroque wrote songs to be accompanied by viols. Poetry set to music was the rap of the day and poets advertised their latest creations that could be heard sung to music written by popular composers.

Love was THE subject! Isn’t it always? Nature and the seasons were the most common metaphor for the springtime blooming of nascent love and the withering of autumn leaves and barren cold of winter for the desperation of lost love! Summertime embodies the fullness of love!


For two centuries the bowed lute was all the rage throughout Europe. From middle-eastern roots, the vihuela del arco, as the Spanish called it, arrived from North Africa in the late 15th century. Europe embraced the new bowed instrument.

Brilliant Italian luthiers quickly adapted it to create a useful European-style instrument playable by lutenists and guitarists alike. The viol could be considered an enhanced version of the most popular plucked instruments. Fretted and with similar tunings, this newfangled instrument enabled easy access to chords, but had the added advantage of the option to sustain a melody using a bow.


Composers often made several arrangements of their songs for different instrumentations. The practice of rearranging either traditional melodies or popular songs for whichever instruments were at hand was part of any good composer’s life. Exotic examples of arrangements include Mozart’s own arrangement of his operas for wind band or Corrette’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s Primavera for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra.


Susie Napper was born in Britain and has travelled the world as a vagabond musician lugging her viol around since the 1960s! She calls Montreal home and enjoys coming back to her kitchen where she is as experimental with flavors as she is with musical ideas! She cooked up the Montreal Baroque Festival a decade ago and encourages her students at the Copenhagen Royal Conservatory, McGill and the University of Montreal to get creative….

More videos:

Tenor Charles Daniels

Lutenist Sylvain Bergeron

Camerata Nova’s 2013-2014 Season

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something red…?

President of the Board, Sandi Mielitz, gives her own spin on the upcoming season.


Camerata Nova has two mottoes: “a group without fear” and “you never know what you’re going to get…” They both apply, in spades, to our 2013-2014 season! Following is an inside look into the process and the concerts for this year.

Preparing for the season…

Part of our MO is that we spend lots of time planning our programming for each season. We are lucky to have this talented and serious-but-twisted core of musicians – Andrew Balfour, Ross Brownlee, Mike McKay and Mel Braun – who have more programming ideas than we know what to do with. Everyone gets together with Ange Neufeld, Chair of the Music Committee, and submits their ideas. The Committee starts by nailing in key concert themes, core repertoire, commissions, venues and guest artists. Once this is done, one or two curators are assigned to each concert. The curator(s) are responsible for shaping and developing these initial ideas, finding all the repertoire and finalizing the program.

Lest you think this is an entirely serious process, take a look at the picture below taken at a recent programming think tank in the country… Also included is the program created later that evening… If you are intrigued, join us for the 2020-21 season!

The Music Committee hard at work...

The Music Committee hard at work…

A Season for Sousa: Music of John Phillip Sousa and contemporaries
• Date: May 2020-2021
• Concept: A celebration of the marches of Sousa, arranged for mostly a cappella choir with libretto by Dr. Seuss. Vocalizations to be coached by WSO wind players. The group will sing in marching band routines and dress in hats with plumes.
• Commissions: Eric Whitacre, Andrew and Mike M.
• Venue: Investors Field
• Repertoire:
Stars and Stripes Forever in style of Debussy – McKay
March of the Belgian Paratroopers
Liberty Bell à la Schoenberg – Balfour
Semper Fidelis in the style of Schütz
Standard of St. George

THE 2013-14 LINE-UP

Noël of the North
Saturday, November 30 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, December 1 at 3:00 pm
Crescent Fort Rouge United Church (corner of Nassau and Wardlaw)
FREE!! Please bring some food for Winnipeg Harvest

Ross Brownlee and Mike McKay, the masters who brought us Christmas in Early America last year, have designed another stunner. This one has kind of morphed with time. We started out narrowly thinking of a largely Baltic and Canadian program, but new opportunities came our way…

First, through Winnipeg flautist Haley Rempel, we came across Grace Cloutier, a harpist from New York, who has done some great arrangements of Christmas music for harp and choir. We are bringing Grace in to play with us and Haley will join us for a couple of numbers, too! Second, we have been talking to the fabulous Rose Ensemble who set the gold standard for early music performance in Minneapolis. Thanks to them, we have discovered some strong Slavic Christmas pieces including a Zielinski that will knock your socks off!

The potpourri continues… some R. Murray Schaefer, three new arrangements of The Little Drummer Boy by Sid Robinovitch, Andrew Balfour and Mike McKay and a piece for Spoon Choir – see below. Eclecticism reigns but the end result will be fun, surprising and always beautiful…

Become a member of the Camerata Nova Spoon Choir! Through ethnomusicologist Lynn Whidden in Brandon, Andrew was given access to a raft of early Métis music. He has arranged one of the fiddling tunes for choir and we are inviting members of the Camerata Nova audience to join in the performance by playing the spoons. Sets of spoons will be available for sale at a low price at the door (or you can bring your own). There will be a short performance training session at Intermission.

NEW CD!!! Last year’s Christmas concert was recorded and broadcast by CBC Radio 2. Since then, lots of people have suggested that we issue it as a CD. We listened to them! In late October, we will be releasing our first Camerata Nova Live CD called Christmas in Early America. It’s a worthy successor to Nova Noël and will make a great Christmas present for Camerata Nova fans!

Les Voix humaines: Perchance to Dreame
Tuesday, February 4 at 8:00 pm
Crescent Fort Rouge United Church
Adults and seniors $25, students $12

Camerata Nova is playing the role of impresario, bringing one of the top early music groups in Canada for their first concert in Winnipeg. Les Voix humaines features two viola da gamba (early cello) players (Susie Knapper and Margaret Little) and a lutenist (Sylvain Bergeron). Founded in 1985, this group have toured the world, played with the finest musicians of their genre and produced more than 40 recordings. Their special guest is tenor Charles Daniels.

(An aside here… I was in London this past May attending an early music festival. The best concert I attended was at Westminster Abbey with the Cathedral Men and Boys’ Choir, the St. James Baroque Orchestra and 7 soloists singing an entire program of Purcell. The individual performer who blew everyone away and got rave reviews in the paper was the very same Charles Daniels. Getting him here is a coup!!)

This will be the first time that we have sponsored another group to come to Winnipeg. If we can attract a large enough audience to make this work, we’re willing to do it on an ongoing basis.

Where’s Gesualdo?
Saturday, March 8 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, March 9 at 3:00 pm
Crescent Fort Rouge United Church
Adults $28, Seniors $23, Students $12

Andrew Balfour is the devilish designer of this program. Our group has always loved the music of Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, nobleman, murderer and genius maverick composer. His strange, chromatic harmonies also attracted attention from the rebel composers of the twentieth century, such as Berg, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Speaking of rebels, Andrew and Mike McKay are also writing short works for this concert. The music will be beautiful but darkness and drama will be in the air.

We are honoured that Christopher Jackson, the top early music choral conductor in Canada, will be coming for a week to coach, rehearse and conduct these concerts. Join us for one of our pre-concert talks with Chris and Andrew!

FILM FLASH!!! Director Werner Herzog made an amazing movie about the life of Gesualdo called Death in Five Voices. We are working to arrange a public screening around the time of the March 8-9 weekend.

 Red and White Unplugged

Thursday, May 15 at 8:00 pm
The Garrick Centre, 330 Garry Street
Adults $28, Seniors $23, Students $12

Here’s where the “and now for something completely different!” comes in. Andrew and Vince Fontaine, leader of the Aboriginal rock band Eagle and Hawk, have talked about the possibility of a joint concert for several years. Vince now has a new band called Indian City with well-known stars like Don Amero and William Prince. The timing is perfect for Vince and Andrew to explore each other’s worlds. Andrew, Mel Braun and Richard Moody will be arranging some of Vince’s songs for choir and band. Also, traditional Aboriginal singer and drummer Cory Campbell will perform in a new work by Andrew called White Buffalo. Indigenous chant, rock and classical music will mix it up. It’s high time Winnipeg musicians (and audiences!) reached out in this way!

Sandi Mielitz, September 2013

DID YOU KNOW? In 2012, Camerata Nova volunteers contributed 2,500 hours of their time, energy and skills. They provided leadership on boards and committees. They lent production and administrative support. They advised and mentored. They enabled Camerata Nova to deliver exceptional programming to more than 2360+ audience members in the 2012-2013 season.

Empire Étrange – An Oratorio based on the Death of Louis Riel

For several years, I’ve been thinking about writing a score based on Louis Riel. His story is dramatic, even astounding. The tragedy and controversy surrounding his life sink deep into our Canadian identity and the echoes of his legacy are still being felt 123 years after his execution. What better subject for a dramatic choral work?

Letter from Louis Riel to his mother, written the day before his execution. (ASHSB, Fonds Louis, Ref. 1092-431)

Letter from Louis Riel to his mother, written the day before his execution. (ASHSB, Fonds Louis, Ref. 1092-431)

And so… after pitching the idea to Camerata Nova’s board, and after receiving a generous Commission Grant from the Manitoba Arts Council, I started in the summer of 2012 to delve deeply into the history of his life and times.

The more I read, the more excited I got. Riel is a dramatic subject worthy of any Wagnerian libretto! As a composer, the initial instinct is to approach this story in operatic form, but for this particular project it wasn’t feasible. For our purposes, I decided that an oratorio would be the best way to approach the story. There have been many plays, songs, poems, books (even comic books!), films and the celebrated opera by Harry Somers written in the 1960s, but I believe this is the first oratorio about Riel.

The idea of an oratorio also appealed because of the religious overtones in Riel’s story – visions came to him and he was, or viewed himself to be, the prophet in the New World – the new King David leading his people to the Promised Land. A prophet who led a rebellion, he was exiled to the United States (where he made a strong impression on people) and fought with issues of mental stability – he is just as powerful a subject for an oratorio as Elijah!

I have focused on Riel’s execution as the basis for this work, with a strong undercurrent of the trickster spirit coming in and out of the text and music. Along with singing, the choir will be producing sound effects using an eclectic assortment of evocative percussion instruments. The collaboration with the Correction Line Ensemble allows us to add the fantastic artistry of violinist Cristina Zacharias, cellist Leanne Zacharias, percussionist Ed Reifel, composer Robert Honstein and singer/songwriters John K. Sampson and Christine Fellows.

I’ve added a quasi-baroque foundation to the structure of this work, using an overture, arias, instrumental interludes (ritornelli), polyphony and plenty of dramatic chorus. Cristina and Leanne will even be using gut strings on their instruments à la period performance. The musical language, however, will be a bit more 21st century than 18th… To give us that troubadour/aria presence, I have inserted songs by John K. Samson and Christine Fellows into the body of the work.

I’m pretty excited about Empire Étrange. I feel I am bringing new musical drama to one of Canada’s greatest stories. I’m also really pumped about this whole concert, Tricksters and Troubadours. I believe our collaboration with the Correction Line Ensemble finds new ways to express our prairie reality, old and new. As our tag line for this performance says: Manitoba may never be the same…

Andrew Balfour, April 2013

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