As an introduction to Giovanni Gabrieli, here are some highlights from the Grove Music Online article:
(b ?Venice, c1554–7; d Venice, Aug 1612). Italian composer and organist, nephew of Andrea Gabrieli. Together with Willaert, Andrea Gabrieli and Merulo, he was one of the leading representatives of 16th- and early 17th-century Venetian music.
Giovanni was one of five sons and daughters of Piero di Fais ‘called Gabrieli’, a native of Carnia who resided for some time in the parish of S Geremia, Venice. Little is known of his early years. It is possible that he was brought up by Andrea, to whom, in the dedication to Concerti … continenti musica di chiesa, madrigali, & altro (RISM 1587¹6), he described himself as ‘little less than a son’; precise information regarding the relationship between uncle and nephew is, however, scant. Like Andrea, Giovanni spent a period of study and apprenticeship under Orlande de Lassus at the court of Duke Albrecht V in Munich. Gabrieli remained in Munich for some years, and in 1578 the court records show him to be in receipt of both salary and livery. He probably left this employment either in the following year or shortly after, as part of the exodus of musicians after the death of Duke Albrecht in 1579. He was in Venice in 1584, acting as temporary organist at S Marco on the vacation of that post by Claudio Merulo. His appointment was made permanent when he was successful in the competition held on 1 January 1585, and he retained the post until his death: for some months during 1585 the two Gabrielis – uncle and nephew – served together as organists of the ducal chapel.
After Andrea Gabrieli’s death in 1585, Giovanni edited a large number of his uncle's works for publication: in particular, the Concerti (1587), a collection of large-scale sacred, secular and instrumental pieces. To both of these volumes he added several of his own compositions. A number of his organ intonazioniand ricercares were published in Andrea’s Intonationi d’organo … libro primo (1593) and Ricercari … libro secondo (1595), both of which were probably edited by Giovanni together with other volumes of his uncle’s keyboard compositions. A further sign of the close affinity between uncle and nephew is the fact that, after 1585, Giovanni took over Andrea’s role as the principal composer of ceremonial music for S Marco. In the same year he composed music for at least one of the pastoral plays given in the ducal palace several times annually.
In 1585 Gabrieli was elected to succeed Vincenzo Bellavere as organist to the Scuola Grande di S Rocco, with a salary of 24 ducats. He took up his duties on 13 February of that year and held the post for the rest of his life. He was required to be present in the confraternity on so regular a basis as might seem quite incompatible with his service at S Marco, and he undoubtedly sent substitutes on many occasions. Besides playing for the confraternity’s monthly Mass, held on the first Sunday of each month, he was required to be present for Mass and/or Vespers on no fewer than 24 major feast days, as well as for Sunday Vespers (except during Advent and Lent) and Friday Compline. Particularly sumptuous was the music performed annually on the confraternity’s name day, which occurred on 16 August. Besides the regular organist and singers of the scuola, the list of payments to musicians in 1603 mentions the following participants in the ceremonies: Giovanni Bassano, his company of players and an extra four instrumentalists; three violinists; one violone; four lutenists; a company of singers from Padua; eight other singers from Padua; a bass singer from S Marco and ‘other special singers’. Gabrieli was given an extra payment for having procured ‘7 organs at 21 lire each’.
The first comprehensive collection of Gabrieli’s works was the Sacrae symphoniae (1597); the contents undoubtedly reflect, in particular, his duties at S Marco, but it is not unlikely that several of the pieces were written for and first performed at the confraternity of S Rocco or in the various parish and monastic churches of Venice, where Gabrieli frequently participated in music-making on major feast days. Many of the works in the 1597 volume were quickly reprinted north of the Alps, notably in two volumes of Sacrae symphoniae printed by Kauffmann of Nuremberg in 1598 (RISM 1598²; the collection was edited by Caspar Hassler).
Few details are known of Gabrieli’s family circle and financial situation. His father almost certainly died before 1572; this, over and above all musical considerations, would explain the almost filial relationship between uncle and nephew. On 9 September 1587, a notarial document drawn up ‘in the house of the undermentioned brothers’ describes an arrangement by which Giovanni, his brothers Domenico and Matteo, and his sister Marina agree to supplement with 100 ducats each the dowry of their sister Angela who, according to another notarial document of January 1586, was about to enter the Venetian convent of S Giovanni Laterano. These references might explain the decision of the procuratori of S Marco on 30 December 1586 to pay the musician the uncommonly large sum of a year’s salary in advance, in part out of ‘respect for his needs’. Both notarial documents specify that the composer was now living in the parish of S Vidal; he was, indeed, buried in the convent church of S Stefano, in the same parish. In a letter of 1604, the composer refers to his ‘numerous family’: it is unclear whether his dependents are his own children or those of his sister or sisters-in-law. An entry in the Venetian necrology under 12 August 1612 records the composer's death, apparently from a kidney stone, and gives his age as 58 (indications of age in these documents are, however, notoriously unreliable).
Unlike his teachers and most of his colleagues, who are known to have composed in a wide variety of genres, Giovanni is known almost entirely through his vocal and instrumental music for the church: large-scale motets and other settings for ensembles of voices and instruments, large- and smaller-scale music for instrumental ensembles, and compositions for organ. The light secular forms such as the villanella and canzonetta are all but absent from his output. All Gabrieli’s surviving madrigals were composed in the 16th century and are published in anthologies dominated by the works of other composers.
Many of Gabrieli’s motets are liturgically appropriate to the major occasions in the Venetian church and State calendar. There are also large-scale motets for Easter, Pentecost, Holy Trinity, Corpus Christi and the feasts of the Blessed Virgin. Other texts are generically celebrative in nature and are appropriate for use on a wide variety of liturgical occasions. It is tempting to speculate that at least some of these pieces were written for use on the major festivities in the various parish and monastic churches, of which there were some 150 in Venice. The presence of large musical ensembles was normal on such occasions.
Gabrieli’s earliest music shows his indebtedness to Lassus and, above all, to his uncle Andrea. Five large-scale motets and five madrigals were included in Andrea’s Concerti (1587¹6). As in Andrea’s late works, the writing is basically chordal, and word-setting is syllabic. Some expressive chromaticism arises occasionally from harmonic rather than melodic considerations, lively rhythms often produce cross-accents and syncopations, harmonies are simple and counterpoint frequently all but non-existent. Imitation between choirs occurs in the form of repetition of materials and, especially towards climaxes, the use of strettos. In the double-choir works the contrasting groups take the form of a coro superiore and a coro grave. The bass line frequently descends to low C and clearly requires instrumental participation, though the use of voices to perform these parts is not to be ruled out (the parts in question are, indeed, supplied with text). Like Andrea’s, too, the lowest part of the upper choir is frequently not a real bass in the tuttis. Gabrieli’s interest in texture and sonority is always apparent. The overall feeling of the music is one of power: an appropriate musical symbol for the state church of Venice.
Most of the music written before 1597 uses cori spezzati. The Sacrae symphoniae of 1597 show Gabrieli moving towards a style in which thematic material is developed dynamically in dialogue form, as opposed to being stated in one choir and answered almost exactly in the other (at most, with transposition), as is more typical of Andrea. The harmonic idiom is still simple and essentially diatonic, with many cadential passages caused by frequent interchanges between the choirs. In general, however, Gabrieli now tends to make greater use of dissonance and employ a wider range of tonal centres. Textures are, if anything, further simplified. Naturally, in the three- and four-choir works, harmony tends to be simpler than in double-choir pieces. These large-scale works, however, exploit colour contrasts more than ever before.
In general, the function of Gabrieli’s large-scale motets as musical adjuncts to what seems in no small degree to have been a series of quite unrelated, special occasions celebrated not only in S Marco but also, probably, in other churches in Venice, determines a variety of styles and manners of performance. The considerable range in the number of voices – from six to 16 in the Sacrae symphoniae of 1597, from seven to 19 in the Symphoniae sacrae of 1615 – is itself indicative of a certain heterogeneity of intention. So are some apparent ‘inconsistencies’ of orchestration as described in contemporary archival documents: mass or vespers may be celebrated ‘solemnly by the capella’, ‘with singers and organ’ or ‘with all manner of instruments’. As a rule, however, the greatest occasional events and liturgical commemorations (above all, Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Holy Trinity, St Mark) required the participation both of the salaried instrumentalists of the Basilica (three such players were engaged permanently in 1568, a fourth in 1576) and of extra musicians specially hired for the ceremony in question. Archival evidence (presented in Quaranta) suggests that Gabrieli’s employment of mixed vocal and instrumental ensembles in his festive church music represents a mere continuation of what, in Venice, were normal performance practices inherited from previous centuries.
Payment records for the years 1586–7 mention up to 12 supplementary instrumentalists: mostly cornetts and trombones, but also up to two violins. By the early 17th century, the use of strings increased but winds still dominated: a payment to extra musicians brought in for Christmas Day 1603, for example, lists four cornetts, five trombones, one bassoon, two violins and one violone. A list of singers drawn up in the mid 1590s by the maestro di cappella Baldassare Donato names 13 resident adults: two sopranos (castratos), four contraltos (male), three tenors and four basses. Obviously, in the same way as the instrumentalists, extra singers could be hired on an occasional basis. Little information is available on the participation of boy singers.
In a resolution drawn up by the governing body of the basilica on 2 April 1607, some five years before Gabrieli’s death, not only is it strongly implied that the singers, organists and other instrumentalists were regularly present during the greatest religious solemnities, but also that one unfortunate consequence of their division into spatially separated groups could prove of no little embarassment to their employers. In the document the procuratori, having emphasized how important it is ‘to perform music in the organ lofts at such times as the Most Serene Prince and the Most Serene Signoria come to church’, underlined the necessity of placing one of the best musicians in each loft ‘to beat the time as it is regulated by the maestro’. For this purpose, Giovanni Bassano (together, presumably, with at least some of the instrumentalists, since he was capo dei concerti) was assigned to Gabrieli’s loft and one of the singers to the other; the maestro di cappella generally stood with a group of singers in a hexagonal pulpit positioned in the nave of the church to the right of the iconostasis. This would explain why the term ‘cappella’ is applied, in no fewer than 16 of his extant works (as, indeed, in Andrea’s large-scale mass movements of the Concerti), to a single, usually four-part choir, whose part-ranges lie comfortably within the medium range and which is generally harmonically self-sufficient (necessarily so, since it is distant from the other groups of performers). In turn, the use of ‘cappella’ to describe a group of ripieno singers suggests that some or all of the parts with text underlay in the other choirs were performed by vocal soloists, not only in those parts which bear the specific designation ‘Voce’ (which occurs in 22 of Gabrieli’s compositions, all for cori spezzati) but also, by inference, in the other works. The specifications which accompany the printed parts of the ten-part Iubilate Deo omnis terra (1615) show that instruments could be used both to double voice parts and to replace them: three parts are labelled ‘cornett and voice si placet’, ‘trombone and voice si placet’ and ‘bassoon and voice si placet’ respectively.
The increased number of indications for specific instruments in the Symphoniae sacrae of 1615 is perhaps due to an all-too-literal approach to what, in Gabrieli’s original performing materials, may well have been mere annotations regarding individual performances: in general, usage appears to have been highly flexible. Yet, in several of the late works, the parts marked for instruments are treated quite differently from the vocal parts. Likewise, solo voices are clearly differentiated from the ripieno choir by florid writing and greater concertante play between parts. The use of the basso continuo allows solo voices to be accompanied by the organ as well as instrumental groups.
Gabrieli’s music for instrumental ensemble consists of canzonas and sonatas. Like the motets, these were probably designed for use in S Marco during mass and vespers on the most important liturgical commemorations and greatest occasional events; they certainly exploit the exceptionally large resources available in the church and the virtuosity of several players, in particular Girolamo Dalla Casa and Giovanni Bassano. As in some of Gabrieli’s late motets, the ornamentation applied to the melodic lines is similar to that set out in the treatises of these two virtuoso cornett players. One is tempted to see, in the frequent contrast between a few highly embellished lines and the plainer main body of instruments, a deliberate exploitation of their presence in the instrumental band of the basilica.