Giovanni Gabrieli at San Marco: How Performance Practice at Venice’s Premier Performance Venue Influenced Gabrieli and Informs Modern Performance Practice
Basilica San Marco is an architectural and symbolic landmark that inspires both civic and religious grandeur with its awesome size and ornate design. As the state church in Venice, it was the natural home to lavish celebrations and parades. Just imagine the awe-inspiring task it must have been for Gabrieli and his contemporaries to compose music specifically intended to be performed in this space:
A building that is massive in size and not only a basilica but also the official church of the state must have an acoustic and a characteristic sound that is likewise great and large-scaled. In a finding dated April 21, 1565, the Procurators of St. Mark’s observed that “the singing and performing of a great number of persons can only be fitting, since this is a grand edifice with many vaults.” (Bryant 84)
While Giovanni Gabrieli is the subject of this study and is generally the most widely known composer associated with making use of San Marco’s distinct acoustics, he was certainly not the first. In fact, Adrian Willaert, maestro di capella at St. Mark’s, and even Giovanni’s uncle Andrea, organist at St. Mark’s, were keenly aware of the advantages the basilica provided well before Giovanni was employed at St. Mark’s:
Although San Marco had a formal music establishment since at least the 13th century, it was with the appointment of the Flemish Master Adrian Willaert (ca. 1490-1562) as maestro di capella in 1528 that the church became a significant creative force in Italian musical life. Encouraged by the church’s multiple choir lofts and organs and by the city’s love of elaborate ceremonial music, Willaert instituted the practice of composing for antiphonal vocal ensembles, a technique he passed on to his student, the Venice-born, German-trained organist at San Marco, Andrea Gabrieli (ca. 1510-1586). (Rodda 2)
Indeed it can be argued that even Willaert’s and Andrea Gabrieli’s use of antiphonal choirs and organs owes something to the tradition of responsorial singing in the Syrian liturgy in the middle of the fifteenth century (Flower 10):
When it is recalled that Saint Mark’s was constructed with the constant influence of Byzantine ideas and architectural styles, the fact that two organs were placed within its structure would not appear to be a unique feature, but rather the transplanting to Venice of a performance concept already in existence in the East. Thus, although the Venetians are frequently accorded the distinction of having invented the opposed choir, polychoral style of writing by taking advantage of the fact that St. Mark’s possessed two organs in choir lofts opposite each other in the northern and southern extremities of the transept of the cathedral, this “invention” concept has been superseded by the researches of Giovanni d’Alessi, William Kimmel, and others. (Flower 11)
This polychoral style of composition became the hallmark of music at St. Mark’s, and is still the style of music we associate with the basilica today:
Basic to the polychoral style is the principle of tonal contrast achieved by the opposition of differently placed vocal or instrumental groups whose performers are either of similar or different ranges and colors. Disparity in the physical placement of the groups is of primary importance, particularly at St. Mark’s, where the resonant intermingling of the opposed sounds in the lofty spaces of the cathedral in part defines the special quality of this music. (Flower 11-12)
Though the history of musical exploitation of the basilica’s grand acoustics had been well established before Giovanni came along, there is no question that this tradition reached its height during his tenure at St. Mark’s.
One of the ways in which Gabrieli achieved this large-scaled sound was to employ what was, at the time, a large-scaled orchestra. Payment records and personal accounts of performances tell us that the forces used were indeed grand, this one from English traveler Thomas Coryat:
Sometimes there sung sixteene or twenty men together, having their master to keepe them in order; and when they sung, the instrumentall musitians played also. Sometimes sixteene played together upon their instruments, ten Sagbuts, foure Cornets, and two Violadegambaes of an extraordinary greatness; sometimes tenne, six Sagbuts and foure Cornets; sometimes two, a Cornet and a treble violl. (Bartlett and Holman 25)
From this account it is clear that often a striking number of musicians, both singers and instrumentalists on a number of different instruments were used, though it should be noted that the enormous forces Coryat described were probably used on special occasions such as Christmas and Easter rather than in regular services. Typically there was a core group of salaried musicians employed, with extra musicians hired for special ceremonies. One of the core musicians, who played a central role in defining performance practice at St. Mark’s during Gabrieli’s tenure, was virtuoso cornetto player and conductor Giovanni Bassano:
Giovanni Bassano, known today mainly for his ornamentation tutors […] is a figure of critical importance to any consideration of Giovanni Gabrieli’s music for instrumental ensembles. As conductor of the orchestra at St. Mark’s, Venice during Gabrieli’s later years, it is Bassano who is principally responsible for performance of that repertory. (Selfridge-Field 153)
Gabrieli was extremely interested in the capabilities of available instruments and instrumentalists and the musical textures he could create using these instruments; this most certainly helped shape the distinctive sound for which he and St. Mark’s have become famous:
For a canzona composer trained as an organist, Gabrieli’s interest in the properties and capabilities of individual instruments was unusually great. His respect for the ensemble instrumentalist was demonstrated by both his assignment of specific instruments to specific parts and by his introduction of Bassano-like diminutions in treble parts. (Selfridge-Field 154)
An example of how Gabrieli might have used instrumentation to create a specific texture is in how he approached the juxtaposition between the low strings, trombones, and organs:
While there is no evidence for the use of a cello in the accompaniment, neither is there any for the bass viol. All indications are that when using a string bass was used in accompaniment, it was a double-bass size instrument. The extra ‘weight’ of low tones is really needed to support the large number of trombones required in some of the works. When more than one organ is used, an equivalent number of string basses would be appropriate. (Selfridge-Field 157)
Indications of preferences for specific instruments in specific textural circumstances were unusual for the time and give us insight into how particular Gabrieli must have been about developing a certain sound for his works.
Modern musicians have looked for ways to recreate the sound of Gabrieli’s works performed at St. Mark’s in a variety of ways: acoustically, historically, and even stereophonically. Most musicians don’t have the luxury of performing these works in San Marco on the instruments Gabrieli specified, so naturally most performances fall far short of Gabrieli’s original intentions. This does not, however, mean that the modern musician should stop performing these works or should stop striving for some level of historical accuracy in performance. We must use the lessons of history along with our modern sensibilities to create reasonable facsimiles of original performances. With the proliferation of high-quality period instruments and performers, this is becoming increasingly common, though by no means is it standard performance practice. Evidence of this duplicity of modern performances can be found in a review of a period instrument recording of Gabrieli’s works:
Venetian music of the Gabrielian period is still poorly represented in the record catalogues […]. ‘Authentically’ scored performances are even rarer: we are still frequently offered the Venetian equivalent of Bach on the piano. These two issues […] represent a substantial contribution by Andrew Parrott and his forces to the discography of Giovanni Gabrieli. With minor reservations they can be warmly recommended. (Carver 503)
Carver’s reference to “Bach on the piano” can no doubt refer to the numerous recordings and live performances of Gabrieli’s works that not only employ large modern trumpets and trombones, but indeed instruments such as the horn and tuba that weren’t even available to Gabrieli. While the reviewer’s point is well-taken, the fact that there was variance in instrumentation even in Gabrieli’s performances may allow us some license to use our modern instruments, providing it is done in a way that is sensitive to historical performance practice. Knowledge of the composer’s intent and available instruments should be with us and inform us in each and every performance. For example, the following should remind players of this music on modern trumpets of the lighter, more nimble (cornetto) sound for which they should strive:
Where indicated, the cornett should be the preferred treble instrument. No instrument represents Gabrieli’s particular era so well as the cornett, and its association with festivity and pageantry is totally different from the violin’s association with agitated states of the soul. Those who aim to respect Gabrieli’s intentions should be prepared to accept the cornett as ‘the most excellent of all instruments’. (Selfridge-Field 158)
While historical perspective is important in all musical endeavors, it is perhaps even more critical when performing music that can seem so far removed from our modern lives in terms of technology, geography, culture and all other aspects of performance practice. We may attempt to recreate the instruments or acoustics of an earlier era, but ultimately it is our knowledge of the composer’s intent, our concept of sound (informed by this knowledge), and our commitment to authentic musicianship that defines the validity of our performances.