GABRIELI: Music for Brass, Vol. 1 (Eric Crees/ London Symphony Brass/ Mike Purton) (Naxos: 8.553609)
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GiovanniGabrieli (c. 1553/1556-1612)
Music for Brass Volume 1
Any real understanding of GiovanniGabrieli's music is impossible without some appreciation of its context withinthe Venice of the sixteenth century. As the main trading-post between the Eastand West, Venice was a rich and prosperous city, guarded by a powerful fleet.
It contained some of the finest art and architecture and successfully exporteditems of the most superb quality, including books, cloth and glass. Venetiansenjoyed political stability and felt genuinely privileged, with a correspondingdeep civic pride in the quality of their own standard of living and theirability to impress foreign dignitaries. This was reflected in the ceremonialaspects of public life in which all strata of society were involved and wherethe religious was always healthily mixed with the temporal: Venice was never aformal friend of the papacy. Processions were held on important civil andreligious occasions, which would often be led by the republic's ruler, theDoge, whose role was as much caretaker and guardian as head of state. Theyusually began around the magnificent Piazza and would then proceed into theByzantine Basilica of St Mark itself. They were of the utmost importance to thecommunity, being governed by a careful protocol dating back to the fifteenthcentury which ensured the greatest degree of solemnity and pomp. One of themost important customs was that at least six silver trumpets should play atsuch events, ensuring the necessity of instrumental music to accompany allgreat celebrations in and of the Most Serene Republic.
Into this splendour came GiovanniGabrieli. The exact date of his birth is not known, but it was some timebetween 1553 and 1556; the unclear handwriting in his obituary indicates thathe was either 56 or 58 at the time of his death in 1612. He was born into amusical family. His uncle Andrea (c. 1510-1586) had worked and studied inMunich and was appointed organist at St Mark's in 1566, quickly becomingrecognised as a significant composer, especially of ceremonial music. Thesenior Gabrieli thus continued a tradition of formal music-making going back tothe thirteenth century, one which became particularly important following theappointment of the Flemish musician, Adrian Willaert (c.1490-1562) as maestrodi capella in 1528.
We know that Giovanni Gabrieli, apartfrom almost certainly having had lessons with Andrea, also worked in Munich atthe court of Duke Albrecht V and like his uncle before him, studied there withthe great Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594). He probably returned to Venice afterDuke Albrecht's death in 1579. He deputised as organist at St Mark's in 1584and in 1585, was appointed second organist and composer following theresignation of the previous incumbent, Claudio Merulo (1533-1604), who waslured to the Steccata Chapel in Parma at a higher salary. In the same year hebecame organist of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a part-time appointment. Hewas to retain both positions until his death in 1612, reputedly from akidney-stone which had troubled him for six years.
Gabrieli's time spent as a colleague ofhis uncle was unfortunately short, as Andrea died at the then extremely ripeage of 76, the year after his nephew's appointment. The need for a successor tocontinue the grand style of composition must have been in the minds of theauthorities when they offered Giovanni the position. They were not to bedisappointed. Gabrieli immediately began to edit and publish his uncle's Concerti,often written for cori spezzati or divided choirs of voices andinstruments, which was greatly to influence his own compositional style.
Giovanni's genius was fully to realise the potential of this spatial techniqueand to carry it even further than did his uncle. As the new principal composerof St Mark's, he was granted permission to hire free-lance singers and playersin order to enlarge the virtuoso ensemble which had already been permanentlyestablished in 1567. He embarked on a series of mixed choral and instrumental workswhich made full use not only the galleries of the Basilica, but also of thespecial platforms which were erected for important festivities and which couldaccommodate as many as five separate groups.
It would be easy to think of Gabrieli asjust a composer of special effects, but the range and expression of hiscompositions is remarkable. At no time is Gabrieli a formulaic composer; he wasconstantly experimenting with every aspect of musical technique. Even a cursoryexamination of his two main collections, the 1597 Sacr?ª Symphoni?ª andthe purely instrumental Canzoni e Sonate, posthumously publishedin 1615, will reveal that no two works are really similar. Sonority isespecially important. Groups of contrasting high and low voices are common andhe may even, surprisingly, dispense with alto and tenor voices altogether.
There is mastery of both intricate counterpoint and also immensely impressiveblock chords. There is part-writing and complex rhythms that reflect both thevirtuosity and sheer musicianship of the players for whom the compositions werewritten. Especially in the later works, there is harmonic audacity which pusheslate Renaissance music-making to its very limits: It comes as no surprise thatGabrieli's most famous pupil Heinrich Sch??tz (1585-1672) said of him "Yeimmortal gods - what a man!"
Giovanni Gabrieli developed the grandmulti-choral style to its limits. It was the end of a great era; ClaudioMonteverdi (1567-1643) had already ventured into opera with Orfeo in1607 and his appointment as maestro di cappella of St Mark's, was tousher in a very different sort of music-making. There is no evidence that worksof the Gabrielis were ever played there again until their rediscovery thiscentury.
The works represented on this, the firstof three volumes of Gabrieli's complete instrumental ensemble music,demonstrate many sides of his genius. The seemingly fanciful titles to theworks contained in the 1597 Sacr?ª symphoni?ª, Canzon Noni Toni, DuodecimiToni, Septimi Toni etc. do not refer, as has often been postulated despitelack 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 andVenetian musicians which were possibly of both musical and emotionalsignificance. More musicological study is needed to reveal their exact meaningsbut the eight toni referred to in the 1610 Concerti Ecclesiastici byGiovanni Paolo Cima certainly point the way for further research.
Several of the great twelve-part, triple-choircanzonas are here. The opening one, Canzon XVII, 1615, takes theform of a fanfare containing just high and low voices. The principal arpeggiofigure constantly appears in many guises even upside down. At the same time themusic constantly shifts from triple to duple time around a steady pulse. Whatcould be a greater contrast than the robust Canzon Noni Toni, 1597 withits skilful interplay of the three groups? Perhaps the most unusual of all isthe Canzon ?á 12 in Double Echo which was discovered in amanuscript in the Kassel Regional Library. Here, two groups echo the firstalmost continuously, with each choir recorded progressively further in thedistance to emphasize the effect. The famous Sonata pian' e forte of1597 is a model of majestic antiphonal dialogue. Two utterly different piecesare the extraordinary Canzon VII 1615 with its bouncy 6/8 alternatingwith triple rhythms and the following piece in the collection, Canzon VIII whichcontrasts one high choir with th