Massey on Herzog on Gesualdo

October 25, 2010 at 6:55 pm 2 comments

The other night, I was watching Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices: The Composer Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613), a documentary that Werner Herzog made in 1995. I am not much of a connoisseur of music-historical documentaries: I’ve dipped around in Ken Burns’s Jazz (and no, I am not going to digress about movies that feature musicologists). But I did have the thought that I might draw amusicology’s readers into a conversation about some of the issues that Herzog’s movie raises in my mind.

The most recent film of Herzog’s that I saw was Encounters at the End of the World, his exploration of what life is like for the many people who make Antarctica their home, either for a few years or for their whole career. Watching that movie, I was struck by his ability to cultivate the uncanny, to blur the lines between documentary and narrative, and to evoke the eerie in an otherwise calm scene. Kind of like if Hitchcock made documentaries (ok, Wikipedia lists one). I also had the impression that he was a little bit of a sourpuss, based on his apparent disdain for March of the Penguins.

The reason I bring any of that up is that (penguins notwithstanding), Death for Five Voices raises some thorny problems for music-historical film. We follow numerous townspeople through Venosa (and, briefly, Naples), and listen to them recount various anecdotes about Gesualdo’s life (needless to say, the murder of his first wife Maria d’Avalos occupies a prominent position in the sixty-minute film). Who are they? Why is Herzog talking to them? How do these people know all this about a man who died almost 400 years ago? They are never introduced. One is shown walking around the castle, playing bagpipes into the walls to ward off the spirit of Gesualdo; a woman, who is described as being mentally ill, is caught singing in a stairwell holding a portable stereo, claiming that she is the ghost of d’Avalos. A developmentally disabled teenager mounts a horse, and is then led slowly around a stable in silence for several minutes. What emerges, perhaps even more strongly than Gesualdo, is an impression of late twentieth century Venosa: a strange small town (population: 12,188) that you would be unlikely to visit (unless your name is Stravinsky).

Speaking of Stravinsky, that brings us to the second part of the Gesualdo/Herzog riddle. The musicians in the film – Il Complesso Barocco, led by Alan Curtis, and the Gesualdo Consort of London, led by Gerald Place sing and provide us the “musicological” content. Curtis, and to a lesser extent Place, situate Gesualdo as a visionary, a sort of pre-Wagner/pre-Modernism/pre-Stravinsky everything, centuries ahead of his time in grasping the expressive potential of chromatic harmony by dint of his relative freedom (being a prince and all) from existing models of patronage. Yet Herzog’s film, rather than being an anomalous blip on Gesualdo’s historiographic radar, seems to reflect the consensus that Gesualdo’s significance lay in his refusal to fit neatly into the madrigalist narrative (which begins with Arcadelt and, um, arcs steadily towards Monteverdi) that secures his place for survey historians. Burney’s contempt at Gesualdo’s “licentious” harmonies is well known and often quoted; yet nevertheless Burney felt he needed to engage with the “Dilettante” (which for Burney apparently signified the lowest of the low). Burkholder is more circumspect,  simply noting that Gesualdo was “one of the most colorful figures in music history.” (p. 255) Taruskin, near the end of OHWM volume 1 (pp. 738-741), gives two paragraphs to Gesualdo’s Moro Lasso (and also, interestingly, describes Gesualdo as “colorful”), and seven paragraphs to Stravinsky and others’  infatuation with Gesualdo. (And no, I haven’t read The Gesualdo Hex yet).

Put another way, there are two reasons why I think Herzog’s documentary is a fascinating document. The first is the epistemology of documentary films on music. What is the potential, of film as a medium, to tell stories about the musical past? Herzog conspicuously calls attention to this problem by relying on informants who are portrayed in lights that are unflattering at best, and enigmatic, possibly even false, at worst. He walks the viewer through the DMZ between fact, myth, anecdote and fiction with extraordinary panache, leaving it up to us to puzzle it out.

The second has to do with coming to grips with the musical past in terms of the present. Taruskin notes that “our modern (mis)understandings of the past are not mistakes but the products of changed historical conditions,” and that the events of the intervening centuries “can hardly be erased from our consciousness.” “All one can hope to do,” Taruskin sighs, “is add depth and detail to our misunderstanding.” This may be true – but it is also clear that it is not the path that some have taken when considering Gesualdo.

Gesualdo remains in an enigmatic spot, because he was writing at precisely the time when the means and aims of musical practice  were obtaining a critical mass of intelligibility to most current listeners (which might be why so many American high schools have holiday concerts of madrigals rather than, say, frottole).  So we can choose to compare Gesualdo to the present, although I daresay that Herzog, at some level, does a better job of comparing the present to the early seventeenth century. But I think Gesualdo remains at his most essentially human if we, however briefly, try to listen to his music without hearing Tristan or Monumentum pro Gesualdo concurrently.

Well, I could go on, but that about puts me at 1,000 words. Discuss.

Entry filed under: Drew Massey.

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  • 1. Walter Maisel  |  November 14, 2010 at 6:54 am

    >without hearing Tristan
    Or, for that matter, Trevor Wishart!

    I’ve not yet seen Herzog’s film, but quite enjoy Gesualdo’s music. That book ‘The Gesualdo Hex’ you mention could be quite interesting, as I’ve wondered if Schoenberg was aware of Gesualdo’s music and what he thought of it.

    I am not sure that I understand the point about the critical mass of intelligibility of the madrigal; I was under the impression that Gesualdo worked at some point with the concerto delle donne, for example. And was there not demanding, though perhaps not so chromatic, secular vocal music in the chanson tradition before it?

    Thanks for the engaging read. I’ll have to get my hands on Herzog’s film! -WM

  • 2. Victoria  |  November 18, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    I find Gesualdo’s story much more compelling than his music. Herzog’s interviews are always my favorite part of his documentaries, and I love the blurry history that emerges which does not necessarily demand fact or certainty. Many of the scenes were staged. It was a very strange documentary.


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