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Carlo Gesualdo Composer

Io pur respiro in cosí gran dolore, W6.44

Performances: 3
Tracks: 3
Musicology (work in progress):
  • Io pur respiro in cosí gran dolore, W6.44
    Year: 1611
    Genre: Madrigal
    Pr. Instrument: Chorus/Choir
Carlo Gesualdo's music challenges us all—singers, listeners, analysts, and historians. His perplexing style oscillates, apparently without warning, between classic points of imitation and wildly erratic melismas, between straightforward Palestrinian counterpoint and chromatic passages so extreme that Edward Lowinsky called Gesualdo a composer of "floating atonality." Yet the jarring discontinuities of Gesualdo's musical surface almost always find justification in his text. An earlier generation of Italian madrigalists had sought to reflect subtle nuances of their texts in the music they wrote; when setting Petrarch, this frequently caused them to embody contrasting concepts in their music. Gesualdo, in one sense, is merely reflecting less subtle textual nuances with more overt musical gestures. His music, as Stravinsky noted, may just be "normal" Renaissance music intensified. Thus a madrigal such as his five-voiced Io pur respiro in così gran dolore, published in his Sixth Book of Madrigals of 1611, takes the great sorrow of its text and gives it detailed and physical manifestation in music.

The text itself of Io pur repiro in così gran dolore intensifies the conventional lover's despair. In the poem, the lover asks his heart why it continues to live, and petitions death to come end his life of sorrow. Gesualdo, as always, reacts carefully to individual words, and composes music which vividly reflects each change. Already in the first measure of the piece, he inserts a stereotypical rest in the middle of each voice's singing of the word re- spiro ("breathe"). And though he reaches a surprising cadence on f-sharp, he immediately shifts musical gesture in the middle of the first line of text: "I still breathe/ in such great sorrow:" the second half of the line he presents in ascending imitations of a painfully chromatic melody. This line does not even cadence, but merely releases after reaching two highly dissonant chords. As the poet asks his heart why it lives, the composer reflects again two different words: "live" takes a sprightly syncopated motive, but the "despised heart" indeed floats atonally through unrelated chords. The entire piece proceeds in such disparate gestures, from a hopeful G major arrival mentioning the beloved to sheer half-step motion on "come, death;" from ornamented tutti cries of "pity" to a solo on "single blow." Finally, the music droops into a descending chromatic line, as each voice slowly resigns itself to the final cadence in "great despair."

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