About this Recording
8.554129 - GABRIELI: Music for Brass, Vol. 3

Giovanni Gabrieli (1553-1612)
Music for Brass Volume 3

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 East and West, Venice was a rich and prosperous city; guarded by a powerful naval 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 deep 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 close friend of the Church of Rome. Processions were regularly held on important civil and religious occasions; they would often be led by the republic's ruler, the Doge, whose rôle was as much caretaker and guardian a, 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; his exact date of birth is not clear, 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 to St Mark's in 1566 as organist, quickly becoming a celebrated composer, especially of ceremonial music, thus continuing a tradition of formal music-making going back to the thirteenth century and one which became particularly important following the appointment of the Flemish musician Adrian Willaert (c. 1490-1562) as Director of Music in 1528.

We know, apart from almost certainly having lessons with Andrea, that Giovanni Gabrieli 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), probably returning to Venice after Albrecht's death in 1579. He deputised as organist and composer following the resignation of the previous incumbent, Claudio Merulo (1533-1604), who in 1591 became organist to the Steccata Chapel in Parma for a higher salary. In the same year he became organist of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, apart -time post. He was to hold down both positions until his death in 1612 from a kidney-stone complaint which had troubled him for over six years.

Giovanni Gabrieli's time as a colleague of his uncle was unfortunately short-lived, 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 his grand style of composition must have been in the minds of the authorities when they gave Giovanni the job; they were not to be disappointed. Immediately he 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 to realise the full potential of their spatial technique and to carry it even further. As the new principal composer of St Mark's, he was granted permission to hire freelance singers and players to enlarge the virtuoso ensemble already established permanently in 1567, and he embarked on a series of choral and instrumental works which utilised not only the galleries of the Basilica, but also special platforms which were erected for important festivities, accommodating 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 and he was constantly experimenting with every aspect of musical technique. Even a cursory examination of his two main collections, the 1597 Sacrae Symphoniae and the purely instrumental posthumously published 1615 Canzoni e Sonate 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 both mastery of intricate counterpoint and yet immensely impressive block chords; part-writing and complex rhythms reflect both the virtuosity and sheer musicianship of the players for whom the works were written and in the later works especially there is a 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 in a preface to a set of his own Sacrae Symphoniae which he dedicates to his teacher "But Gabricli, ye mortal gods – what a man!"

Giovanni Gabrieli, however, had taken the grand multi-choral style as far as it could go: it was the end of a great era, the Venetian High Renaissance. 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 sadly no evidence to indicate that Gabrieli's music was ever played there again until his modern rediscovery.

This is the third and final volume of the world premiere recording of Gabrieli's complete instrumental ensemble canzonas and sonatas, again bringing a veritable cornucopia of musical splendours. The seemingly fanciful titles to the work, contained in the 1597 Sacrae Symphoniae (Canzon Noni Toni, Duodecimi Toni, Septimi Toni etc.) do not refer, as has often been postulated with no real 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.

A grand opening tutti in the Canzon in f'cho Duodecimi Toni precedes an ingenious exploration both within and between the two five-part choir, of every aspect of echo effect; the single ten-part grouping of Canzon XV eschews antiphony in favour of a strongly argued contrapuntal development of the opening rising theme. A high semiquaver duet over ascending faux-bourdon or first-inversion chords forms an extraordinary coda.

The conservative five-voice Canzon Prima has deft harmonic and rhythmic touches which point towards the imagination of the later works while Canzon Duodecimi Toni à 10 No. 2 genuinely prefigures the baroque concerto grosso with its repeated ritornello and virtuoso episodes for the two soloists over a simple harmonic background.

Canzon Quarti Toni is surely the most lavish piece in the 1597 collection: fifteen voices in three choirs, lying almost exclusively in the alto to bass registers, trade rich exchanges which eventually lead to taxing passage-work for the first voices in each group. Canzon Septimi Toni à No. 1 conversely works the opening theme into delightful rhythmic interplay between the two groups and a cheerful motif dominates the double choir antiphony of canzon Duodecimi Toni à 8 before a resplendent finish.

In Canzon X Gabrieli pushes his technique and harmonic language as far as he dare (only Sonata XVIII goes further). No main theme is used but each is developed and then unfolds towards another; the brief dance-like triple-time section moves through six keys in as many bars, while the contrary-motion scales at the end sound uncompromisingly modern.

At work to explore seriously opposing rhythms is the six part Canzon IV: the essentially lyrical opening theme is punctuated four times by a bold triple-time ritornello and the strong "canzona rhythm" unison nine bars before the end comes as a genuine shock before the majestic close.

Solemn counterpoint, largely in the soprano and alto registers characterizes the 1597 Canzon Primi Toni à 10 before an attractively lilting three-four section; the album ends with the last two sonatas from the 1615 collection, one the apotheosis of the old, the other a pointer to the new.

Subtitled "for three violins…or other instruments" (this is appropriate as the writing is not especially idiomatic for violins), Sonata XXI has a genuine continuo accompaniment and three equal soloists its vision and style are clearly of the early baroque. Its predecessor, the massive Sonata XX employs a record 22 players divided into five choirs, each with a different make-up, but the third conspicuously a coro grave of four trombones. Each group presents its own distinctive material, the fifth particularly battle-like in character Gabrieli leaves two silent beats before the grandiose first tutti, before repeating it, as if to wallow in its richness. From then on the piece is through-composed, moving into and out of triple time but with an overall impression of lush antiphonal and sonorous contrast for its own sake, rather than musical argument: Venetian splendour can be taken no further. Its timeless quality is no less impressive now than it was some four hundred years ago.

To give some idea of the sheer impact of Gabrieli's music on his contemporaries we have the record of the travelling Englishman, Thomas Coryat, who in 1608, having visited San Rocco, where Gabrieli was of course organist and principal composer as well as carrying out his principal duties at St Mark's, on 6th August heard "the best musicke that I ever I did in all my life both in the morning and the afternoone, so good that I would willingly goe an hundred miles a foote at any time to hear the like:” He then gives an almost reverentially detailed description of the instrumentalists, singers and the varying groups employed. As for Holy Week of the same year, he was no less impressed: "This feast consisted principally of Musicke, which was both vocall and instrumentall, so good, so delectable, so rare, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like. But how others were affected with it I know not; for mine owne part I can say this, that I was for the time even rapt up with Saint Paul into the third heaven".

Eric Crees

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