Venetian Brilliance — May 2008

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Program Notes

Venetian Brilliance

Today’s program of Italian and Italianate music explores the sacred repertoire in Venice, directly or by proxy. Of the four composers featured three were employed at the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, and the fourth, Schütz, studied with two of them and brought the Venetian style to Dresden.

Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli (uncle and nephew) were the main composers in the new Venetian concerto (polychoral) style in which blocks of heterogeneous sounds by “choirs” of voices and/or instruments came from different parts of the church. Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1554/7–1612) achieved more fame than his uncle even though his production is almost exclusively for the church. Like Andrea, Giovanni spent some time studying with Lasso at the court of Bavaria in Munich. In 1584, he temporarily filled the vacant organist position at St. Mark’s. By the next year he had successfully won the position of permanent organist, which he kept until his death. After Andrea’s death, Giovanni took over the role of principal composer of ceremonial music for St. Mark’s, while also working as the principal organist of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a major confraternity of Venice. He composed and published quite a few pieces intended for use in St. Mark’s, including the most famous collection Sacrae symphoniae for 6–16 voices and instruments of 1597, which was followed by a second posthumous volume in 1615 titled Symphoniae sacrae. . . liber secundus from which comes the piece on today’s program. He is also known for having taught many an important composer, including Heinrich Schütz, who studied with him from 1609 until his death in 1612.

Most of Gabrieli’s motets were intended for important liturgical occasions, such as Pentecost, Easter, and Christmas. Throughout his life he composed seven settings of the Magnificat—the biblical canticle with text from Luke 1:46–55 which is sung with an antiphon near the end of the Vespers service—in settings ranging from 8 to 33 voices. His earliest sacred works (almost all with cori spezzati, i.e., broken choirs—multiple choirs) tend to be in the style of Andrea, that is, with chordal motion and mostly syllabic declamation. In his later works Giovanni starts to explore more possibilities and expands his musical language to include a larger amount of dissonance and imitation between choirs. His lively rhythms become a trademark. Often times he contrasts two unequal choirs, a higher and a lower one, called a coro superiore or coro acuto (usually SSAT) and a coro grave (usually ATBB). In this setting of the Magnificat he adds to this pattern a third, central choir, the cappella, also tilted towards the lower register (SSATT AATB TBBBB) for a total of three choirs and 14 parts.

This composition is in Gabrieli’s most typical polychoral style, alternating blocks of sound, mostly homophonic, to cover the soundscape with ever-changing colors. Though there are some purely chordal passages, most exhibit some kind of rhythmic variety. There aren’t many madrigalistic moments, as expected in liturgical music. However, it is worthy of note that Gabrieli switches from duple to triple meter to emphasize the phrase “et exaltavit humiles.” The Lesser doxology (Gloria Patri. . .) starts with a grandiose ripieno invocation, repeated twice, each time with a silence before, and then the meter changes again to triple when mentioning the other two members of the Trinity (Filius, Spiritus Sanctus). Then it turns back to duple meter for the remainder. This music seeks to please by virtue of its iridescent palette of colors, sonorities, textures, density, and chords.

Adrian Willaert (c. 1490–1562) was a South Netherlandish composer who worked for many years in Italy. At first he went to study law in Paris, but soon turned to music, and became a pupil of the great Jean Mouton, a composer at the royal chapel. In 1514 or 1515 he was in Rome and around that time he was hired by Cardinal Ippolito I d’Este in Ferrara as a singer (he is always referred to as “Adriano cantore” in Ferrarese documents). With his patron, Willaert visited several countries, including an extended stay in Hungary and possibly Kraków. Upon the death of Cardinal Ippolito in 1520, Willaert moved on to the service of Duke Alfonso d’Este. The Duke and the composer established a long lasting relationship that extended to the end of the two men’s lives.

In 1527 Willaert was appointed maestro di cappella at the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, one of the most prestigious musical posts in the world. He held this position until his death in 1562, for a long tenure five days short of 35 years. His salary, and the fact that people were ordered to carefully copy all the music he composed for use in the chapel, are witness to the high esteem in which he was held in the Serenissima. In Venice Willaert found a well-established and relatively large chapel of men and boys. Among his pupils were the famous and influential theorist Gioseffo Zarlino, who left us with much information and many anecdotes about his master’s life; the composer Cipriano de Rore, who succeeded him at St. Mark’s; and a host of other notable musicians.

Willaert did not invent the practice of using cori spezzati (multiple choirs), as has incorrectly been stated by many people misinterpreting a line of Zarlino. However, his polychoral settings, such as the psalm setting on today’s program, were the most influential for the establishment of the polychoral idiom of the Venetian school. Decades after Willaert’s death Monteverdi’s brother Giulio Cesare, when defending Claudio’s music and his new seconda prattica (the “new style” in which conveying the text is central to the music), writes that Willaert’s music was the pinnacle of this era’s music, or prima prattica.

The psalm setting “Lauda Jerusalem” (psalm 147) is for two four-part choirs. It was published in Venice in 1550 in a collection called Di Adriano et di Jachet: I salmi appertinenti alli vesperi per tutte le feste dell’anno, parte a versi, et parte spezzadi accomodati da cantare a uno et a duoi chori, which contained psalm settings by him and by Jacquet of Mantua (1495–1559?). The two composed jointly at times: Willaert set the even-numbered verses and Jacquet the odd-numbered ones. Then each composed their own settings. Willaert composed the double choir settings, which are novel and exceptionally interesting, though conservative within the master’s oeuvre. Each psalm is preceded by a chant intonation. The two choirs alternate singing verses and rarely sing together till the final doxology (“et in saecula saeculorum amen”). Willaert purposefully set the choirs in different ranges and roles: most of the time Choir I defines the outer limits of the tessitura, with the highest and lowest voice, while Choir II, though it seems to lie lower than Choir I according to the clefs, fills the range lying between the outer voices.

The divine Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was the most important composer of the late 16th and early 17th century in Italy. Like Beethoven, who was educated in the Classical style and helped bring about the Romantic one, Monteverdi bridged the Renaissance and the Baroque periods. His output is astoundingly varied and impressive in magnitude in all vocal realms, secular as well as sacred. He is remembered most for his secular vocal works, not only the operas but especially for his madrigals, both in the older a cappella and in the newer concertato styles. When creating his newly expressive and revolutionary musical style, he was embroiled in one of the most famous musical controversies, when G.M. Artusi, a conservative music theorist and canon from Bologna accused him of misusing dissonance and modes prompting him, initially through the mouthpiece of his brother, to assert the new seconda prattica, whereby the music’s role is to illustrate and convey the words’ expressive content over the prima prattica explained by Zarlino, where the words were subservient to the music.

Monteverdi was from Cremona, where he studied under the tutelage of Marc’Antonio Ingegneri. The precocious boy published his first collection of compositions at age 15. In 1590, after his training and with numerous publications already under his belt, he entered the service of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua, whom he accompanied on several trips, including visits to Hungary and possibly to Florence in October 1600, where he may have witnessed the production of Peri and Caccini’s opera Euridice. In 1607 he briefly returned to Cremona because his wife Claudia was ill. She soon died, leaving him bereft and the sole guardian of three small children. He was summoned back to Mantua and continued to serve the Gonzaga till 1613, when he auditioned for and secured the position of Maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s in Venice. This was a plush position, allowing him to live in a city that offered much in the way of theaters and free-lance opportunities. In 1631 he took orders and the next year he entered the priesthood. This and his age notwithstanding, he produced some extremely successful operas for the new Venetian public opera, which opened in 1637.

The three pieces on today’s program are not among those Monteverdi is most known for, which are the secular repertoire, operas and madrigals, the exception being the Vespri della Beata Vergine of 1610. However, Monteverdi was maestro di cappella in a basilica for most of his life, and his sacred music is outstanding and original. Like his secular music, the sacred works cover a variety of styles, from the most conservative to some extremely innovative. The Messa a quattro voci (four-voice mass) is written in an idiom that only persisted in church music, deliberately archaic and conservative. He composed it at the end of his life, possibly in 1641. However, as scholars like Bukofzer have noted, many a progressive musician of the 17th and 18th centuries composed both in ancient and in modern styles as a natural outgrowth of the polarity of styles which prevailed throughout the baroque period. By “mass” composers indicated those five (sometimes six) portions of the mass that were sung on every day of the liturgical calendar, that is, the sung portions of the “ordinary” of the mass (as opposed to the “proper” of the mass—those portions that are specific for each day, saint, feast, celebration, etc.). These are traditionally the Kyrie (a three times threefold invocation), the Gloria (or “greater” doxology), the Credo (or Nicene Creed), the Sanctus (actually comprising four parts: Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus, Osanna), and the Agnus Dei (again a tripartite section). Some composers also set to polyphony the dismissal formula “Ite, missa est.”

Monteverdi’s mass is notable in that it exploits in a thematic way the oldest and simplest of all musical snippets: a descending tetrachord (four descending pitches in succession), which appears throughout, straightforward or embellished and varied. For example, in the very first Kyrie the motive is heard as in the very beginning, descending and straightforward, and then in inversion (ascending), while the first theme of the second Kyrie is the descending pattern but embellished with inserted thirds, or scales. There is also a chromatic variety of the motive, used, for example, at “et resurrexit” in the Credo. Otherwise all the rules for the composition of a mass, as given by Renaissance theorists, are followed. These include, for example, chordal passages for important liturgical words (e.g. “Jesu Christe”), sectional divisions, etc.

The two motets, “Adoramus” and “Cantate Domino,” are both for 6 voices (SSATTB) and were both published in a volume of motets of 1620 put together by Bianchi, a colleague of Monteverdi’s in Mantua. “Cantate Domino” is in two parts: the first portion is in a lilting triple meter, but it is chordal throughout. When it switches to duple meter it becomes more animated, shedding the homophonic style in favor of an imitative texture and the proper illustration for “cantate et exultate et psallite” (sing and exult and sing psalms) which is the musical imagery Monteverdi retained from this abbreviated version of Psalm 98. “Adoramus” instead is in duple meter throughout and is intended to be performed twice. The pathos of the words are conveyed in many ways. The most striking one is the use in all parts of the descending tetrachord for “quia per sanguinem pretiosum” (because with your precious blood). In the central portion of the piece Monteverdi groups the voices in different ways, playing with sonority and timbres. In both motets some musical imagery from the madrigal helps depict the text, chiefly the expressive use of dissonance, sometimes created through suspensions.

Heinrich Schütz (alias Henricus Sagittarius, 1585–1672) epitomizes the early German Baroque. Schütz’s early musical accomplishments impressed the Landgrave Moritz, who took the 13-year old boy with him to Kassel as choirboy and to study music, and later convinced Schütz to drop studies in law for music. The Landgrave paid for the composer’s studies in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli in 1609–1612. Upon his return to Kassel, Schütz was summoned by the elector Johann Georg I (15851656) to Dresden for two months. In 1615, the elector requested Schütz’s services for an additional two years and finally as a permanent member of the court, with which the Landgrave had to comply, if reluctantly, for political reasons.

In 1628, when the economic pressures of the Thirty Years War began to affect musicians’ wages, Schütz decided to visit Italy again. The chapel master in Venice at the time was Claudio Monteverdi, under whose guidance Schütz studied the development in dramatic music for two years. During both visits to Italy, Schütz was able to thoroughly internalize the Venetian polychoral concertato style, which is the predominant style of his works. However, his music includes all styles, ancient and modern—subtleties of Venetian concertato for few voices, dramatic Florentine monody, the imagery and emotions of concertato madrigals, the seriousness of the German motet, and the simplicity of German secular song.

The five pieces on today’s program come from Schütz’s Songs of David (Psalmen Davids), a monumental collection of psalm settings that Schütz composed in Venice and after his return in 1613. In them, the opulent, majestic, and sometimes extravagant Venetian style of Giovanni Gabrieli and his uncle Andrea is evident. The Psalmen Davids were published in 1619 after a lengthy period of gestation, during which Schütz explored ways of adapting the polychoral and concertato techniques he had learned in Venice to the demands of his native language and Lutheran ritual. The psalms were published with some motets and concertos, all for eight or more voices and instruments. They are imposing in style and structure and are amongst the most richly scored of all his works, designed to fill the resonant expanses of Dresden’s electoral chapel with maximum sonority.

Some of the techniques that Schütz uses in the Psalmen are the balanced integration of choral and instrumental forces, the ways of achieving structural symmetry (not least by the use of rondo-like structures), and the importance of metrical and rhythmic variety in word-setting. Equally notable, is the poised management of German texts. Schütz was fortunate to have at his disposal the royal chapel at Dresden, with its lofty grandeur and ample space for the placement of separate choral and instrumental groups. The court also provided him the abundance of vocal and instrumental performers that he needed. Schütz was concerned about how these demanding works might be performed elsewhere by less experienced German musicians. He thus provided a lengthy preface in which he gave precise instructions about the size and nature of the forces to be assembled, the surest means of achieving balance and integration between them, the best way to position them in the performance area, and the most appropriate tempos to adopt for verbal clarity.

Of the 26 pieces in the collection, 20 are based on complete psalms (normally short ones), three on selected verses drawn from the psalms, one each on passages from Jeremiah and Isaiah, and one (called a “Canzon”) on chorale stanzas by Johann Poliander. Two of the pieces are marked “Motetto” because they are not from the Book of Psalms and they involve, because of their funereal associations and very short texts, relatively restrained scoring and a larger than usual amount of Renaissance-style polyphony. SWV 40 “Ist nicht Ephraim mein teurer Sohn” (Is not Ephraim my dear son?) and SWV 42 “Die mit Tränen säen” (They that sow in tears) are the two settings called “motette” on the title page of the score. The text of the first is based on Jeremiah 31:20, while the second on a part of Psalm 126 (only lines 5 and 6) and Isaiah. “Die mit Tränen säen” is a more restrained setting than the other, calling for two five-part “cori”—each SATBB with instruments. “Die mit Tränen” is a perfect example of a Renaissance-sounding piece, with word-painting recalling that of the late madrigal composers, such as Carlo Gesualdo Principe di Venosa. The dissonances heard at tränen “tears” are often hair-rising, almost tone clusters. For example, the vertical sonority on the downbeat of bar 23, created in part with suspensions, is, from the bottom, A-C-E-B—a ninth creating an A-B-C tone cluster (the same sonority recurs a few times). Similarly, towards the end of the piece all voices are engaged in Monteverdi-like ornamental figures.

Several works in the collection seem to have been conceived as matching pairs and are consecutive in the book. Even though Schütz seems to have purposefully paired them according to mode, affection, text character, performing forces, and composing technique, they are performed separately on today’s concert in order to provide the audience with continuously varied textures and vocal and instrumental colors and scoring.

SWV 24 “Ach Herr, straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn” (O Lord, do not punish me in your anger) is a setting of the penitential Psalm 6, and calls for two SATB choirs. It is paired in the original score with the following work, SWV 25 “Aus der Tiefe ruf ich, Herr, zu dir” (Out of the depths I call to you, O Lord) on Psalm 130, which is also a penitential text and calls for the same scoring. Both works are set in a freely treated form of the Phrygian (E minor) mode (traditionally associated with sorrow and contrition) and both disclose a pattern of powerful antiphonal echoes, with “waves” of overlapping choral entries. These pieces have a combination of Venetian-like antiphonal movement and Renaissance-like polyphony. The sorrowful side of the texts is often portrayed with extreme dissonances, almost painfully excruciating (such as that at the very beginning of SWV 25). Both works conclude with the lesser Doxology (Glory be to the Father).

Another such coupling in the score involves two of the more exultant settings, appropriate to the nature of their texts, of Psalm 98 (SWV 35 “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied”—Sing to the Lord a new song) and Psalm 100 (SWV 36 “Jauchzet dem Herren”—Sing joyfully to the Lord), both scored for two SATB choirs and set in the transposed Ionian (F major) mode. In the first, in response to the colorful text, Schütz employs sweeping melismatic patterns for “trumpets and cornet,” “let the sea roar,” “floods, “ and “let the hills be joyful.” The lesser Doxology concludes the piece. Unusually for Schütz, the beginning of the SWV 35 Doxology recalls the beginning of the piece. The distinctive character of SWV 36 results from the use of immediate echoes by the second choir—one, two, or four bars later and mainly at the same pitch—of each phrase sung by the first choir. The echo effect can be greatly enhanced, according to the composer, by using a second choir of reduced size, accompanied by a lute choir and placed at some considerable distance behind the first; and by adding cornetts and trombones to the first choral group for extra brilliance. There exists an earlier version of this work in which a system of double echoes is produced by the use of three choirs. This piece also includes a setting of the lesser Doxology.

The present concert offers an excursus through Venetian music at St. Mark’s, and its outgrowth in Dresden. We see the initial steps of the polychoral idiom in Willaert, followed by its full maturity in Gabrieli and Schütz, and its passing with Monteverdi. The music on the program spans stylistically from the most restrained and conservative to the luxuriant, and from the simple 4-part texture to the 14-part. Throughout is the thread of sound play, of groupings of voices and sonorities to create a rainbow of colors and timbres. If only there were a Byzantine basilica around!

—© Alexandra Amati-Camperi, 2008

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