A night with Gesualdo

Clare Norburn tells us how she dramatised classical music history’s goriest murder in her concert-play Breaking the Rules

A night with Gesualdo

Clare Norburn is a writer, singer and co-artistic director of Brighton Early Music Festival. Recently, she has been working on Breaking the Rules, a play which reflects on the life of Carlo Gesualdo, the Italian composer who in 1590 earned eternal notoriety by murdering his wife and her lover after catching them in flagrante. In Norburn's play, which tours the country from 19 May, the spoken dialogue is interspersed with Gesualdo's music. Here, she tells us about re-imagining the world of music's bloodiest composer…

There are two things people tend to know about Carlo Gesualdo: that he wrote extraordinarily chromatic music - and that he murdered his first wife. Over the past six years, I have been experimenting in writing 'hybrid concert/plays' that are half play/half concert. So for me, Gesualdo was an obvious subject matter. Here was classical music’s goriest murder story, writ large. THE murderer-composer par excellence.

But bringing Gesualdo’s story to life was, admittedly, a bit terrifying. The mere idea of Gesualdo had purportedly sent the admittedly fragile composer Peter Warlock over the edge. And the sheer amount of source material was overwhelming. The murder captured the creative imagination at the time and for the next generation. How could I bring it to life coherently? 

And could I do it? I am first and foremost a musician and a concert promoter. Writing was something I did as a child – but it got totally subsumed by singing and then by co-founding and co-running Brighton Early Music Festival.  Until 2010, I hadn’t written anything creative for nearly 30 years. Breaking the Rules was also the first time I had been commissioned by another ensemble, the wonderful vocal ensemble The Marian Consort, whose interpretation of Gesualdo, to my mind, is unsurpassed by any recordings currently in circulation (I await their new Gesualdo CD, due any day, with bated breath!)  

Like many things in life, it might never have happened but for a deadline. 

Back in 2013, the Marian Consort approached Deborah Roberts, my partner in crime at Brighton Early Music Festival, and pitched a Gesualdo concert to us. Rather tentatively, I came back with the question: might they be open to a dramatic collaboration?  Rather than putting on a straight concert, could we combine his music with new writing to give the audience a way into Gesualdo’s mind and sound world? The result is Breaking the Rules which, after a pilot at Brighton in 2013, has been significantly reworked and is now touring 13 festivals in 2016. 

The answer to how to make the story coherent was to cut back detail. But also to give an insight into the motivations and actions which set up the story and lead inexorably towards the murder. Breaking the Rules is set on the final day of Gesualdo’s life: 8 September 1613.  He is alone in his chapel in his family estate in the hilltop village of Gesualdo, near Napes. He has been living at the castle as a recluse for some time. He is haunted by memories of his first wife, Maria, whom he murdered 23 years before. 

Gesualdo’s consort of singers are there with him, but they are also the 'soundtrack of Gesualdo’s mind'. Music acts as a trigger, prompting Gesualdo to remember key scenes in his life, including his mother’s death when he was seven, his first marriage and unsuccessful wedding night. After procrastinating for most of the play, he finally unlocks the drawer containing his memories of the night he murdered Maria, 23 years earlier.   

Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) wrote six books of madrigals (mostly on erotic texts) and three books of sacred pieces including his monumental Tenebrae Responsories. Although he lived at a time when Italian composers were exploring tonality and chromaticism in order to find a new musical language and framework, his music stands alone in its own soundworld – it is emotionally taut in its chromaticism and intensely personal. The music critic Alex Ross calls him 'the most complexly imaginative composers of the late Renaissance, indeed of all musical history. The works of his mature period… bend the rules of harmony to a degree that remained unmatched until the advent of Wagner. They constitute a "kind of musical no man's land…"'.

As nobleman, with no need to please a rich patron, Gesualdo was able to write whatever he chose, possibly freeing him from conventions that might otherwise have taken his music in other directions. Instead, he embarked on a highly personal musical journey which seems to be inextricably linked with his difficult emotional life. He was a man who not only went against the social and religious code of the time, but who broke all the musical rules too. Musically at least, the results were simply extraordinary.


Breaking the Rules tours 13 Festivals in 2016:
Newbury Spring Festival – 19 May
Brighton Festival – 20 May
Bury St Edmunds Festival – 22 May 2016
Lichfield Festival – 2 July
Oundle Festival – 15 July
Cambridge Summer Music Festival – 18 July
Ryedale Festival – 20 July
Buxton Festival – 22 July
Branscombe Festival – 29 July
Lake District Summer Music Festival – 3 August
Lammermuir Festival – 12 September
Roman River Music 24 – September
Music at Oxford – 6 November


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  • Article Type: | Blog |
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