Sunday, January 7, 8553

Giovanni Gabrieli (1553-1612) - Continuo

Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1553/1554/1557, b. Venice, Italy – August 12, 1612) was one of five children, and his father came from the town of Carnia to Venice shortly before his son's birth. Gabrieli probably studied with his uncle, Andrea, and may have been brought up by him, as is implied in some of his later writing. Giovanni also went to Munich to study with Andrea's associate, the renowned Orlando di Lasso, at the court of Duke Albrecht V, most likely staying there until about 1579.

By 1584, he had returned to Venice, where he became principal organist at Saint Mark's Basilica in 1585, after Claudio Merulo left the post; following his uncle's death that year he took the post of principal composer as well, and also began editing much of deceased relative's music, which would otherwise have been lost; Andrea evidently had had little inclination to publish his own music, but Giovanni's opinion of it was sufficiently high that he devoted much of his own time to compiling and editing it for publication.

Though Gabrieli composed in many of the forms current at the time, he clearly preferred sacred vocal and instrumental music. All of his secular vocal music is relatively early; late in his career he concentrated on sacred vocal and instrumental music that exploited sonority for maximum effect.

The young Gabrieli's career rose further when he took the additional post of organist at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, another position he retained for his entire life. San Rocco was the most prestigious and wealthy of all the Venetian confraternities, and second only to San Marco itself in splendor of its musical establishment. Some of the most renowned singers and instrumentalists in Italy performed there and a vivid description of its musical activity survives in the travel memoirs of the English writer Thomas Coryat. Much of his music was written specifically for that location, although he probably composed even more for San Marco.

San Marco had a long tradition of musical excellence and Gabrieli's work there made him one of the most noted composers in Europe.

Plaudite (1597)

The vogue that began with his influential volume Sacrae symphoniae (1597) was such that composers from all over Europe, especially from Germany, came to Venice to study. Evidently he also made his new pupils study the madrigals being written in Italy, so not only did they carry back the grand Venetian polychoral style to their home countries, but also the more intimate style of madrigals; Heinrich Schütz and others helped transport the transitional early Baroque music north to Germany, a trend that decisively affected subsequent music history. The productions of the German Baroque, culminating in the music of J.S. Bach, were founded on this strong tradition, having its roots in Venice.

Like composers before and after him, Gabrieli would use the unusual layout of the San Marco church, with its two choir lofts facing each other, to create striking spatial effects. Most of his pieces are written so that a choir or instrumental group will first be heard from the left, followed by a response from the musicians to the right (antiphon). While this polychoral style had been extant for decades -- Adrian Willaert may have made use of it first, at least in Venice -- Gabrieli pioneered the use of carefully specified groups of instruments and singers, with precise directions for instrumentation, and in more than two groups. The acoustics were such in the church—and they have changed little in four hundred years -- that instruments, correctly positioned, could be heard with perfect clarity at distant points. Thus instrumentation which looks strange on paper, for instance the single string player in Sonata Pian e Forte, set against a relatively large group of brass instruments (Choir I: Zink, 3 Trombones; Choir II: Violin, 3 Trombones), can be made to sound, in San Marco, in perfect balance.


Sonata Pian e Forte (Sacrae Synphoniae, 1597)

Sonata pian’e forte denotes an instrumental piece using soft and loud dynamics. The work exemplifies the Venetian polychoral style (albeit in an instrumental context) which arose from architectural peculiarities with regards to St Mark's Basilica. "Sonata" (at this time) / a "sounding piece" -- is in contrast to "Cantata" / a "sung piece" -- and was the generic designation for an instrumental piece.

The work is in an expanded G Dorian utilizing secondary dominants and unexpected shifts between major and minor. In its "sung style" of conjunct lines, one may note:

An example of four-part polyphony: 1 – 14 Coro 1

An example of eight-part polyphony: 71 – 74

An example of imitation: 71 – 74

An example of homophony: Coro 1 bar 37 - 38

An example of Antiphony: 45 – 49

An example of a perfect cadences: 13 – 14. (This piece contains over 40!)

An example of a Phrygian cadence: 44 beat 3 – 45

An example of a Plagal cadence: 79-80

An example of a 43 suspension: 29 beat 2 – 30 beat 1 (Violin).

An example of chords changing throug a Circle of Ffiths: 36 – 41

An example of a Tierce de Picardi ("Picardy Third" - the gratuitous more-or-less unexpected shirt to major at the end of a minor piece): 80.

An example of syncopation: 75 (Cornett)


Gabrieli was increasingly ill after about 1606, at which time church authorities began to appoint deputies to take over duties he could no longer perform.

One of the composers best-known pieces, In Ecclesiis, is a culmination ofhis polychoral techniques, making use of four separate groups of instrumental and singing performers, underpinned by the omnipresent organ and continuo.

Motet in ecclesias (In the Churches) (1612)

He died in 1612, of complications from a kidney stone.


Basso continuo parts, almost universal in the Baroque era (1600-1750), were, as the name implies, played continuously throughout a piece, providing the harmonic structure of the music. The word is often shortened to continuo, and the instrumentalists playing the continuo part, if more than one, are called the continuo group.

The makeup of the continuo group is often left to the discretion of the performers, and practice varied enormously within the Baroque period. At least one instrument capable of playing chords must be included, such as a harpsichord, organ, lute, theorbo, guitar, or harp. In addition, any number of instruments which play in the bass register may be included, such as cello, double bass, bass viol, viola da gamba, or bassoon. The most common combination, at least in modern performances, is harpsichord and cello for instrumental works and secular vocal works, such as operas, and organ for sacred music. Very rarely, however, in the Baroque period, the composer requested specifically for a certain instrument (or instruments) to play the continuo. In addition, the mere composition of certain works seems to require certain kind of instruments (for instance, Vivaldi's Stabat Mater seems to require an organ, and not a harpsichord).

The keyboard (or other chording instrument) player realizes a continuo part by playing, in addition to the indicated bass notes, upper notes to complete chords, either determined ahead of time or improvised in performance. The player can also "imitate" the soprano (which is the name for the solo instrument or singer) and elaborate on themes in the soprano musical line. The figured bass notation, described below, is a guide, but performers are expected to use their musical judgment and the other instruments or voices as a guide. Modern editions of music usually supply a realized keyboard part, fully written out for the player, eliminating the need for improvisation. With the rise in historically informed performance, however, the number of performers who improvise their parts, as Baroque players would have done, has increased.

[8554 Holborne / 8553 Giovanni Gabrieli / 8551 Caccini]