Carlo Gesualdo Composer
Asciugate i begli occhi, W5.57
Musicology:Our popular image of Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, stresses his eccentricities. His murder of his first wife and her lover colors (perhaps justly) our assessment of his personality; the depression and possible psychosis of his later years seems clearly reflected in the bizarre music of his Tenebrae Responsories and the final two books of his madrigals. At the same time, the Prince did manage to fashion a second marriage and maintained until the very last years a relatively stable social and courtly life. Both scholars and performers of his music, furthermore, have demonstrated that the stylistic break between "classical" Renaissance counterpoint and his late madrigals is not as wide as it first appears. In many cases, even a piece rich in superficially shocking harmonies can be seen to revolve around a musically simple concept. The mournful five-voiced setting of Asciugate i begli occhi, from his Book Five, offers an excellent example.
Asciugate i begli occhi, W5.57Year: 1611
Pr. Instrument: Chorus/Choir
On the surface, Asciugate i begli occhi completely accords with the popular notion of the dark and demented Prince. Gesualdo chooses a text that describes the deep sorrow of two parting lovers; the lady weeps and even as he tries to comfort her, the poet claims that his pain will "kill him." The reference to murder between lovers is unmistakably personal, and the composer's musical reflection of the dolorous sentiments is predictably astringent. Each of the many mentions of weeping, wretchedness, loneliness, and sorrow, evokes some rich and chromatic harmonic clash. Even the piece's principal cadences, often the most stable harmonic points in Gesualdo's music, are unusual and shot through with dissonances.
Yet the dissonances so heavily populating Asciugate i begli occhi remain unified in an almost Beethovinian manner. The madrigal opens on an open D major sonority, cadences on E flat at the text of the lover's distance, and closes on a D major chord, colored by clashes with an E flat chord. The D major/E flat dissonance is also the first major dissonance in the piece, as the lover asks the lady not to weep. The point of imitation on se lontano da voi ("if I am far from you") crests on the pitches D and E flat in the top voice, and even the most dissonant horizontal line, the bass on ahi, che pianger outlines an augmented triad reaching above D to D sharp (E flat). Musically speaking, there is complete method to Gesualdo's madness here.
© Timothy Dickey, All Music Guide