Sunday, March 13, 2016

Gesualdo: oldest story in the book

from Lohbado's sketchbook
Lohbado borrowed the dvd of Werner Herzog's movie Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices, a "documentary" about the madrigal composer Carlo Gesualdo (1560 - 1613). Interesting music, a beautiful setting in old estates in the beautiful Italian countryside near Naples, eccentric recreations of a strange story, picturesque characters plus themes of inner struggle and connection to quasi-mystical states or aesthetic exploration made this a fascinating movie.

This documentary is a bit like fiction in disguise. It has all the elements of a movie, such as The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser... beautiful music, luxurious nature, old ruins and architecture, picturesque characters. It has key Herzog themes of gazing into the abyss, into the molten core of the earth where one could get burned, severely injured or go insane. His movies often involve some sort of intense journey or heroic feat. One pushes the limits, goes beyond the threshold to a place where chaos threatens to destroy everything. Then there's a pulling back from danger or subterranean research or journeys into the infinite. One wishes to communicate. Cosmic inner qualities of the process get turned into art, in this case, a work of cinema, a brilliant documentary bordering on fiction.

Gesualdo is presented as a tormented creative individual who broke taboo, composed music ahead of its time and who went insane, or to a place of inner hell. He died, some suspect, of being whipped too much. His compulsive flagellation was most likely a type of self-inflicted punishment to atone for his crimes.

Gesualdo's crimes were horrible. The movie didn't go into his motives, other than to describe how he flew into a psychotic rage and wreaked havoc after learning his wife was having an affair. He murdered his wife and one of her lovers, then later regretted what he had done. Probably his marriage was some sort of social contract to enhance his reputation. In those days, one didn't necessarily marry out of love. It's not unusual for one or both partners to have lovers on the side; in fact, it's the one of the oldest stories in the book. Gesualdo couldn't handle it. After the carnage, he moved away, eventually married a wealthy and powerful woman but was abusive. The marriage failed. They separated. He moved back to the solitude of his country estate where he spent the last part of his life composing music and being whipped every day, until wounds became infected and he died. Instead of being punished by law, Gesualdo punished himself.

The movie opens with a description of the extravagant wedding reception. That's when the trouble began. Herzog has cooks pose in an old kitchen to describe what was on the menu. Once married, things got out of control. One of Maria's lovers became jealous of another of her lovers. The jealous lover went to Gesualdo and told him Maria was having an affair with another man. Gesualdo's revenge was insane. He stabbed his wife and lover many times and had their bodies displayed in the town square. The people forgave him. Gesualdo was a prince. It seemed if a prince's wife had an affair, he had the right to commit murder to avenge his "honour". He went on a rampage. He cut down the forest around the castle and then focused his energy on his melancholy music compositions, with atonalities and dissonant chords which wouldn't be heard again until the 20th century. After being panned by musicologists as being a composer of amateur and ugly music, Stravinsky discovered Gesualdo's music and made two pilgrimages to Gesualdo's estate near Napes. Stavinsky composed music inspired by the madrigals. So much for the "expert" music critics.

The movie is vintage Herzog, with the elements one comes to expect... eccentric recreations of scenes from the past, extravagant embellishments such as a visit to a mental hospital where two inmates believe themselves to be the reincarnation of the mad prince, unusual images, such as a boy suspended from a high wire above the crowd doing battle with the devil. The ghost of Gesualdo's murdered wife, Maria appears and does a little singing. There's the invented story of how Gesualdo supposedly murdered his son because he wasn't sure if he was the father. This movie, about a deviant, but gifted individual with profound aesthetic insights is a must see for the Herzog connoisseur.

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