Beltà poi che t’assenti

Madrigal by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613)

I listened to a recording of this madrigal on YouTube, where you can also follow along with the score. I really like the pure quality to the voices in this performance. The piece contains quite unexpected and sometimes dissonant harmonies, as well as chromatic melodies. In that way it reminded me of Bach’s Goldberg Variation No. 25 which I have always felt sounded like it belonged to a much later era.

The chords in the first four bars are: G minor, E major, D major, G major, D major (1st inversion), and F# major. The transition between the first two chords is particularly striking as three of the voices are moving by just a semitone. It sounds quite familiar; I think Karl Jenkins has used this in some of his choral music (possibly in the Armed Man – a Mass for Peace).

In bb. 9-20 Gesualdo uses imitative counterpoint – the tenor starts a theme which the bass copies a fifth lower, followed by the soprano and then the second alto. This section of the music is very chromatic.

In bb. 40-42 the texture becomes briefly homophonic, with all the parts moving together.

The word ‘dolore’ means ‘ache’. From bb. 55 the texture is polyphonic, and this word is repeated in turn by each of the parts entering one after another. The middle syllable of the word is lengthened each time into a minim which really seems to emphasise the meaning of the word. The two soprano parts are again chromatic which creates quite an uncomfortable feeling, before the top voice climbs up to the highest point of the melody, where all of the tension is resolved into a major chord at the end of the piece.

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