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8.553609 - GABRIELI: Music for Brass, Vol. 1

Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1553/1556-1612)
Music for Brass Volume 1

Any real understanding of Giovanni Gabrieli's music is impossible without some appreciation of its context within the Venice of the sixteenth century. As the main trading-post between the East and West, Venice was a rich and prosperous city, guarded by a powerful fleet. It contained some of the finest art and architecture and successfully exported items of the most superb quality, including books, cloth and glass. Venetians enjoyed political stability and felt genuinely privileged, with a corresponding deep civic pride in the quality of their own standard of living and their ability to impress foreign dignitaries. This was reflected in the ceremonial aspects of public life in which all strata of society were involved and where the religious was always healthily mixed with the temporal: Venice was never a formal friend of the papacy. Processions were held on important civil and religious occasions, which would often be led by the republic's ruler, the Doge, whose role was as much caretaker and guardian as head of state. They usually began around the magnificent Piazza and would then proceed into the Byzantine Basilica of St Mark itself. They were of the utmost importance to the community, being governed by a careful protocol dating back to the fifteenth century which ensured the greatest degree of solemnity and pomp. One of the most important customs was that at least six silver trumpets should play at such events, ensuring the necessity of instrumental music to accompany all great celebrations in and of the Most Serene Republic.

Into this splendour came Giovanni Gabrieli. The exact date of his birth is not known, but it was some time between 1553 and 1556; the unclear handwriting in his obituary indicates that he was either 56 or 58 at the time of his death in 1612. He was born into a musical family. His uncle Andrea (c. 1510-1586) had worked and studied in Munich and was appointed organist at St Mark's in 1566, quickly becoming recognised as a significant composer, especially of ceremonial music. The senior Gabrieli thus continued a tradition of formal music-making going back to the thirteenth century, one which became particularly important following the appointment of the Flemish musician, Adrian Willaert (c.1490-1562) as maestro di capella in 1528.

We know that Giovanni Gabrieli, apart from almost certainly having had lessons with Andrea, also worked in Munich at the court of Duke Albrecht V and like his uncle before him, studied there with the great Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594). He probably returned to Venice after Duke Albrecht's death in 1579. He deputised as organist at St Mark's in 1584 and in 1585, was appointed second organist and composer following the resignation of the previous incumbent, Claudio Merulo (1533-1604), who was lured to the Steccata Chapel in Parma at a higher salary. In the same year he became organist of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a part-time appointment. He was to retain both positions until his death in 1612, reputedly from a kidney-stone which had troubled him for six years.

Gabrieli's time spent as a colleague of his uncle was unfortunately short, as Andrea died at the then extremely ripe age of 76, the year after his nephew's appointment. The need for a successor to continue the grand style of composition must have been in the minds of the authorities when they offered Giovanni the position. They were not to be disappointed. Gabrieli immediately began to edit and publish his uncle's Concerti, often written for cori spezzati or divided choirs of voices and instruments, which was greatly to influence his own compositional style. Giovanni's genius was fully to realise the potential of this spatial technique and to carry it even further than did his uncle. As the new principal composer of St Mark's, he was granted permission to hire free-lance singers and players in order to enlarge the virtuoso ensemble which had already been permanently established in 1567. He embarked on a series of mixed choral and instrumental works which made full use not only the galleries of the Basilica, but also of the special platforms which were erected for important festivities and which could accommodate as many as five separate groups.

It would be easy to think of Gabrieli as just a composer of special effects, but the range and expression of his compositions is remarkable. At no time is Gabrieli a formulaic composer; he was constantly experimenting with every aspect of musical technique. Even a cursory examination of his two main collections, the 1597 Sacræ Symphoniæ and the purely instrumental Canzoni e Sonate, posthumously published in 1615, will reveal that no two works are really similar. Sonority is especially important. Groups of contrasting high and low voices are common and he may even, surprisingly, dispense with alto and tenor voices altogether. There is mastery of both intricate counterpoint and also immensely impressive block chords. There is part-writing and complex rhythms that reflect both the virtuosity and sheer musicianship of the players for whom the compositions were written. Especially in the later works, there is harmonic audacity which pushes late Renaissance music-making to its very limits: It comes as no surprise that Gabrieli's most famous pupil Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) said of him "Ye immortal gods - what a man!"

Giovanni Gabrieli developed the grand multi-choral style to its limits. It was the end of a great era; Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) had already ventured into opera with Orfeo in 1607 and his appointment as maestro di cappella of St Mark's, was to usher in a very different sort of music-making. There is no evidence that works of the Gabrielis were ever played there again until their rediscovery this century.

The works represented on this, the first of three volumes of Gabrieli's complete instrumental ensemble music, demonstrate many sides of his genius. The seemingly fanciful titles to the works contained in the 1597 Sacræ symphoniæ, Canzon Noni Toni, Duodecimi Toni, Septimi Toni etc. do not refer, as has often been postulated despite lack of conclusive evidence, to the church modes on which they might be based, but to melodic fragments based on various modes known to both Milanese and Venetian musicians which were possibly of both musical and emotional significance. More musicological study is needed to reveal their exact meanings but the eight toni referred to in the 1610 Concerti Ecclesiastici by Giovanni Paolo Cima certainly point the way for further research.

Several of the great twelve-part, triple-choir canzonas are here. The opening one, Canzon XVII, 1615, takes the form of a fanfare containing just high and low voices. The principal arpeggio figure constantly appears in many guises even upside down. At the same time the music constantly shifts from triple to duple time around a steady pulse. What could be a greater contrast than the robust Canzon Noni Toni, 1597 with its skilful interplay of the three groups? Perhaps the most unusual of all is the Canzon à 12 in Double Echo which was discovered in a manuscript in the Kassel Regional Library. Here, two groups echo the first almost continuously, with each choir recorded progressively further in the distance to emphasize the effect. The famous Sonata pian' e forte of 1597 is a model of majestic antiphonal dialogue. Two utterly different pieces are the extraordinary Canzon VII 1615 with its bouncy 6/8 alternating with triple rhythms and the following piece in the collection, Canzon VIII which contrasts one high choir with the luxuriously rich male-voice sonorities of a second group of four trombones, all bound together by a recurring five-chord motif.

Eric Crees 1997

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