Omaggio a Gesualdo (2017)

For String Orchestra

Commissioned by the New York Classical Players, Dongmin Kim, Artistic Director

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. The original version for string quintet was commissioned by the Chelsea Music Festival. The version for string orchestra was commissioned by the New York Classical Players. 


From the Liner Notes from the commercial recording on Albany Records (string quintet version):

... 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 live by New York Classical Players, Dongmin Kim, conductor


Performed live by New York Classical Players, Dongmin Kim, conductor

View Online Score

Press (about string quintet version):

"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."

- Barry Kilpatrick, American Record Guide
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