09 February 2009

Officium: Morales, Gesualdo & The Tudors

Being both cheap and lazy has its drawbacks. For example, being too cheap to subscribe to premium cable channels means I am usually watching shows like Showtime's The Tudors when they hit DVD. Being too lazy to properly study, say, the history of Renaissance and Reformation era polyphony, means I tend to conflate these eras and their respective composers. Put the two together, like I did a few weeks ago, and you end up with gigantic, blood-spattered historical nightmare.

Cristobal de Morales is one of those composers you'll never have heard of if you don't listen to choral music. Even if you do, he's not the first one you're likely to hear. Someone like Tallis, Byrd or Palestrina is more likely, but Morales did write one piece that has earned him a bit more noteriety in recent years. The Hilliard Ensemble's mind-blowing recording of his Officium Defunctorum (ECM[21525]), in which the choral ensemble is accompanied by master jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek was a relative bestseller when it was released in 1994, and I picked it up due to both a budding love of choral music and the killer looking cover. The music really is fantastic, if you haven't heard it. It might be hard to imagine a choral group, their soaring harmonies rising up in the fantastic acoustic of an Austrian monastery, a gorgeous saxaphone now rising above them, now circling, now just echoing....For the purist it may come as an affront, but for a music lover it is pure joy.

Stay with me, now: because of the Morales disc, I began buying whatever ECM release looked vaguely interesting, and one of those happened to be another by the Hilliard Ensemble: Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsories. Gesualdo is a more obscure composer than Morales, but his sordid life story makes for compelling, if gruesome reading. In short, he is most remembered for the murder of his wife and her lover, which couple he reportedly caught in flagrante delicto. He left their mutilated corpses on the steps of the palace and fled to Gesualdo, taking refuge from any possible retribution. The rest of the ugly story from Wikipedia:
Details on the murders are not lacking, because the depositions of witnesses to the magistrates have survived in full. While they disagree on some details, they agree on the principal points, and it is apparent that Gesualdo had help from his servants, who may have done most of the killing; however Gesualdo certainly stabbed Maria multiple times, shouting as he did, "she's not dead yet!" The Duke of Andria was found slaughtered by numerous deep sword wounds, as well as by a shot through the head; when he was found, he was dressed in women's clothing (specifically, Maria's night dress). His own clothing was found piled up by the bedside, unbloodied. One suggested explanation for this is that Gesualdo first murdered his wife, and after this turned his attentions to the Duke, forcing him to don his lover's clothing, most probably to humiliate him.

The murders were widely publicized, including in verse by poets such as Tasso and an entire flock of Neapolitan poets, eager to capitalize on the sensation; the salacious details of the murders were broadcast in print; but nothing was done to apprehend the Prince of Venosa. The police report [2] from the scene makes for shocking reading even after more than four hundred years.

Accounts on events after the murders differ. It was said that Gesualdo also murdered his second son by Maria, who was an infant, after looking into his eyes and doubting his paternity (according to contemporary sources he "swung the infant around in his cradle until the breath left his body"); another source indicates that he murdered his father-in-law as well, after the man had come seeking revenge. Gesualdo had employed a company of men-at-arms to ward off just such an event; however, new evidence from contemporary sources reveals that these were fictitious rumors.

Needless to say, the Hilliard Ensemble's recording is excellent. The all male group has an affinity for the music and the engineering is top-notch, but I have to admit that reading Gesualdo's history has colored my listening. It is hard to listen and not hear a tortured, fearful and possibly repentant genius at work. All of which made for watching the penultimate episode of The Tudors a peculiarly eerie experience. If you've watched the tense, bodice-ripping drama, you'll know that Season Two is the crescendo of Henry VIII's reign, and that episode in particular is a gory one in which many of the "conspirators" responsible for the bewitchment of the king with Anne Boleyn pay the ultimate price. Most were lucky to have been simply beheaded rather than boiled alive(!) Watching the heads roll with the story of Gesualdo in mind was worse that watching one of those back to back to back marathons of The First 48. The Tudors is engaging throughout the first two seasons, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the ultimate egocentric and the sensational Natalie Dormer as Anne. The rest of the cast is almost uniformly excellent. No, it's not perfectly historically accurate but it's close enough for government work.

My horror show experience of shouldn't put you off listening to any of this great music or, for that matter, watching the slick, sexy and undeniably fun television show. You should be able to find Seasons One and Two for a decent price. And if you hurry you'll be able to watch them all in time for Season Three, due on Showtime April 15th.

I'll be waiting for the DVD, though.

(from Amazon.com)

Season One:

Season Two:

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