Omaggio a Gesualdo (2013)

For String Quintet (2 Violins, 2 Violas, Cello)

Commissioned by the Chelsea Music Festival

Duration: 6 minutes

Program Note:

"Omaggio a Gesualdo" (2013) is inspired by Gesualdo's madrigal "Ahi, disperata vita" from Madrigali a cinque voci Libro terzo (1594). It uses Gesualdo's work as a model, recasting his gestures and musical motives in my own language, while loosely adhering to the form of his work. I have long been an admirer of Gesualdo's music, especially his use of harmony and jarring chord progressions that keep his work sounding as modern today as it did four hundred years ago. In revisiting Gesualdo's music for this homage, I noticed a kinship in Gesualdo's approach to harmony with my own – he frequently links distantly related chords in succession, while I frequently combine disparate chords in superimposition, creating new composite harmonies. My homage features these superimposed harmonies at the forefront.

The music of Gesualdo’s madrigals are inseparable from the texts he sets, as Gesualdo is known for his frequent use of “text painting.” Similarly, my work is inspired by the images, gestures and meaning of the text. Please find the text reprinted below: 

"Ahi, disperata vita" 

Ahi, disperata vita, 
Che fuggendo il mio bene, 
Miseramente cade in mille pene! 
Deh, torna alla tua luce alma e gradita
Che ti vuol dar aita! 

English translation: 

Ah, desperate life, 
Which, whilst fleeing from my loved one, 
fallst miserably into a thousand torments! 
Oh, turn to your sweet and gracious light which wants to give you comfort.

The work is dedicated to Tera Younger in loving memory.


From the Liner Notes from the commercial recording on Albany Records:

Commissioned by the Chelsea Music Festival, the piece is a gloss on Carlo Gesualdo’s short five-voice, five-line madrigal “Ahi, disperata vita” (“Ah, desperate life,” 1595), representative of the composer’s text-painting and innovative use of dissonance. Elements of the piece make explicit appearances, but more subtly, Nathan layers another, more extended but no less reflective, interpretation of the (unheard) text atop the fragmented original: thus the sharp dissonance of the opening chord superimposes Gesualdo’s opening harmonies as well as illustrating the text’s “desperate life”; Nathan’s flitting string figures illustrate the “fleeing” of the second line as well as providing textural interest, and his use of idiomatic string articulations (such as the ponticello tremolos toward the end of the piece) creates a macaronic dialog between the 16th and 21st centuries.

The text of the madrigal is this: Ahi, disperata vita/Che fuggendo il mio bene, Miseramente cade in mille pene! Deh, torna alla tua luce alma e gradita/Che ti vuol da raita! (Ah, desperate life/Which, whilst fleeing from my loved one/fallst miserably into a thousand torments!/Oh, turn to your sweet and gracious light/which wants to give you comfort.)

Maybe Omaggio is, after all, not so anomalous here; the existence (not to say “presence”) of a text merely serves to emphasize Eric Nathan’s overall approach to musical invention. Each of these works is, in some sense, a response to a narrative idea, though it’s a “text” that resonates from within the composer’s observations and experiences—sensitive, imaginative, and, above all, pointedly musical responses to life itself. 

Composer; Boston Symphony Orchestra Assistant Director of Program Publications, Editorial


Audio Excerpt:

Full Recording:

Performed by Momenta Quartet and violist Samuel Rhodes
From the CD "Multitude, Solitude: Eric Nathan" (Albany Records)


Video excerpt:

Performed by Momenta Quartet and violist Samuel Rhodes at a live performance at le poisson rouge (New York).

View Online Score


"Here Nathan worked further through his harmonic ideas, and the music added something from John Adams’ kit, the syncopated, perpetually rising scale. The effect is stimulating and agitating, and set up the revelatory beauty of the modal harmonies of Gesualdo’s “Ahi, disperata vita,” from the fifth book of madrigals. The chords flowed cooly and smoothly under a long, quiet, brittle tremolo, high in the first violin. The effect was ravishing and unsettling.

- George Grella, New York Classical Review (9.20.2014)
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"Ommagio a Gesualdo is based on ‘Ahi, dis-perata vita’, a madrigal by the radical renaissance composer. Only near the end is the connection obvious (and hauntingly beautiful), but a sense of experimentation and risk runs through the entire work. I am especially taken by the last half, which begins with fluttering trills at 3:42. Those quiet trills are eventually combined with harmonics, all of which increase and multiply, eventually becoming an otherworldly texture under the Gesualdo quote. For this five-part piece, Momenta Quartet is joined by violist Samuel Rhodes."

- Barry Kilpatrick, American Record Guide
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"It's no surprise that when Nathan draws on the distant past, something like "Omaggio a Gesualdo" results. The Renaissance composer, famous for being one of classical music's few murderers, wove anguish into his harmonically adventurous vocal works. Nathan has the Momenta Quartet, plus violist Samuel Rhodes, evoking Gesualdo with close harmonies, small, shifting gestures, brief flourishes, and madrigal-like lines (especially near the end)."

- Jay Harvey, Upstage (12.24.15)
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