"In this castle Carlo Gesualdo spent the last 16 years of his life in total solitude, in hideous torment, torn from within, pursued by furies and demons. He was an artist of the highest rank, he had a touch of genius, anticipating an artistic movement which didn't develop until the beginning of our own century, namely expressionism. In his madrigals, his favorite art form, he expressed his innermost being, his entire spiritual world, steeped in seclusion and madness." Thus begins director Werner Herzog's film Death for Five Voices, a 60 minute exploration of the mythology surrounding the life of Renaissance composer and Prince of Venosa Carlo Gesualdo. Herzog is known for his fascination with individuals who are driven by their own demons to the fringes of society. His film Grizzly Man, about bear expert Timothy Treadwell, follows the haunting true story of a former drug addict who secluded himself and eventually died among the grizzly bears of Alaska. Gripping stuff indeed, but the problem with a similar documentary on Gesualdo is that our subject is some four-hundred years dead. No neighbors remain to be interviewed, no family members; so Herzog must rely on musicologists reading from their notes and eccentric townspeople seemingly desperate to appear on film who wander in and out of Gesualdo's ruined castle at will. What's fascinating is how his legend has survived and metamorphosed--but how much truth remains in their stories is questionable indeed. Even the opening words tell us that Gesualdo spent his final years in total solitude; but we know he had a staff of 20, plus a consort of professional musicians, and his son, and perhaps other family members. True, he wasn't the greatest entertainer Italy has ever seen, but 'total solitude', accompanied by almost 30 people, looks pretty crowded to me.
Certainly Gesualdo's life was sordid enough for any soap opera. After being married for two years to a woman who made little effort to hide her cuckolding of her husband, he conspired with his servants to murder her and her lover. Having told his wife that he would be away hunting, he returned early and killed the couple in bed--by police accounts stabbing his wife over 20 times while saying over and over, 'She's not dead!' That nasty tale is the kernel around which other stories have grown--that he murdered his second son by having him swung to death seems to be an unprovable rumor; that Gesualdo was a masochist who had himself whipped nightly is today reported as fact, but actually comes from an account written some twenty years after his death, by someone who had no particular reason to cast Gesualdo in a positive light. Herzog reports the masochism rumor, but doesn't tell us its providence. Similarly, he shows us, in one of the most macabre scenes of the film, two bodies displayed in a Neapolitan chapel that are claimed to be the bodies of Gesualdo's wife and her lover; an unnamed Neapolitan watchman states that Gesualdo was an alchemist who experimented on human bodies and injected a serum into the veins of his wife and her lover. The bodies are extraordinarily creepy--and anyone who has roamed a few Italian churches knows that around any corner might well lurk the most bizarre and hideous relics---but these sure look like sculptures to me, and unlike any preserved bodies I've ever seen. That Gesualdo may have dabbled in alchemy is reasonable--it was the end of the Renaissance and most nobles had at least a fleeting interest in the subject--but I've read quite a lot on him and never before seen the claim that he was some kind of Italian Dr. Frankenstein. And so goes the rest of the film--Gesualdo is literally demonized by the townspeople of Gesualdo to the extent that they have a pagent in which the composer appears in red, with horns, to be vanquished by an angel. It's all much more fascinating as a study of folklore than as historical fact--at one point a buxom redhaired woman appears in Gesualdo's castle claiming to be the reincarnation of Gesualdo's wife and looking all mystical and spacey...but she's brought along her boombox to play a CD, and it becomes immediately clear that she's nothing more than a glory hound. Nonetheless, this sends Herzog off to the local mental hospital inquiring after her, and he's told that they have two people there who both believe that they are Gesualdo. The most amusing scene of the film shows a chef discussing Gesualdo's wedding menu--eel and tomato sauce are recreated while his wife incessantly repeats the words 'That devil!' in the background.
Musically Gesualdo doesn't fare much better--he's presented almost as a freak; a composer who was so far ahead of his time that it wasn't until Wagner--or the 20th Century, take your pick--that composers came to a similarly extended chromatic style. It's certainly true that Gesualdo represented the extreme of Renaissance chromaticism, but he was not so much ahead of his time as behind it. It was Monteverdi's simplicity that heralded the new age of the Baroque; it was opera that replaced the madrigal as the fashionable entertainment of the age. Gesualdo was something of an Irish Elk of a composer; a mannerist who had taken a tradition to such extremes that it could no longer survive. We're constantly told that Gesualdo was unlike any other composer--but it's simply not true; chromaticism was in the air--Orlando di Lasso's Prophetiae Sibyllarum predate Gesualdo significantly; J. S. Bach was fond of chromaticism and seemed to take a particular joy in extreme uses on occasion. So again, the real context of Gesualdo is misleadingly sensationalized. It's all something of a shame. I've always seen Gesualdo as a more pathetic figure than a demon; but this perspective apparently doesn't attract Herzog. Nonetheless, there are truly fascinating moments throughout the film--and if you aren't a Gesualdo scholar you won't know what to make of it. Ultimately it's quirky and at times intriguing, but I can't really recommend it unless context and accuracy mean little to you.