Merulo: Ave Maria
Willaert: Mirabile Mysterium
G. Gabrieli: Hodie Christus Natus Est
A. Gabrieli: Gloria à 16
The repertoire on this afternoon's concert represents the concentration of extraordinary musical talent at the Basilica of San Marco in Venice from the late Renaissance to the early Classical period. San Marco was the church officially associated with the doge, the supreme leader of the Republic of Venice. The doge's wealth, spectacularly displayed throughout the centuries, provided a good living for many a musician. There is a tendency to think of a "composer" sitting at a table with a feather pen; however, everyone represented on this program had various talents. In addition to composing, they were administrators, conductors, organists, and singers.
The earliest maestro di cappella on our program is Adrian Willaert, a Franco-Flemish composer/singer who was recruited for the position because of his already flourishing international career. He took the job in 1527, seven years after San Marco was designated as a basilica. Willaert lived in Paris, Rome, Ferrara, and Hungary before being appointed as maestro di cappella at San Marco. In addition to his renown as a teacher (notable students include Rore, Andrea Gabrieli, and Zarlino), Willaert is known for establishing the cori spezzati style that became the essence of the Venetian sound, employing multiple choirs of voices (and later instruments) performing from separate locations simultaneously. He composed a good deal of popular music as well: madrigals, villanellas in the Neapolitan dialect, and instrumental works, many meant for dancing. He died in 1562 while still employed at San Marco. The church reorganized the music program and appointed Cipriano de Rore next, but he stayed there just over a year. The next maestro di cappella was Gioseffo Zarlino, who served from 1565 to 1590 and whose compositions are not remembered as much as his theoretical writings. However, he oversaw the employment of several people represented on this program: Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Croce, and Merulo.
Claudio Merulo was principal organist at San Marco from 1557 to 1584. The Ave Maria setting heard today is one of many motets that make up the most well-known part of his work. One of his colleagues at San Marco was Andrea Gabrieli (uncle of Giovanni), who sang in the choir before being appointed as an organist in 1566. Remarkably, Andrea Gabrieli's appointment was awarded after his second attempt to secure the position; he had had an unsuccessful audition for the post when he was in his early 20s, nine years before he got the job. His persistence paid off, and he remained at the post until his death in 1585. He continued to compose liturgical music in the cori spezzati style favored by Willaert; however, he expanded the style to include brass and wind instruments, and he became most famous for his music for the spectacular festivals at San Marco.
After Zarlino came Baldassare Donati, maestro di cappella from 1590 to 1603. He was succeeded in the position by Giovanni Croce, another singer who had studied with Zarlino and whose tenure ran from 1603 until his death in 1609. In addition to his church music such as the double-choir Quaeramus cum Pastoribus, Croce was popular for his madrigals, which had great influence on Thomas Morley and the English madrigal school.
Giovanni Gabrieli was an assistant organist at San Marco for a little over a year before being appointed as principal organist in 1586, keeping the position until his death in 1612. His compositions for choir, brass, or both have a sound that modern audiences tend to associate with Christmastime, when we hear his music performed the most. Some of Giovanni Gabrieli's most memorable motets are those using Christmas texts; in fact, Hodie Christus Natus Est is one of his most beloved pieces, a choral-instrumental feast for the ears. The instrumental parts tend to be conceived with the text in mind, giving conductors the flexibility to create different textures through their vocal and instrumental part assignments.
Claudio Monteverdi is surely a giant in music history. We can see, however, that his brilliance grew out of a magnificent tradition already established at San Marco. The genius of his work is the way in which he employs music to support the emotion of the text, heightening the meaning of every word. Before auditioning at San Marco, Monteverdi had been working in Mantua, but his job disappeared when a new ruler came to power. His wife had recently died, and he spent over a year unemployed and living at his father's house (with his young children) before he had a successful interview at San Marco and was appointed maestro di cappella in 1613. He revitalized the declining music program, hiring both Alessandro Grandi and Francesco Cavalli as his assistants. Cavalli had a near-lifetime connection with San Marco; he first sang there as a soprano at the age of 14, and before becoming maestro di cappella in 1668, he served as secondary and then principal organist. Though he is known for his operas and other music for theater, he composed a great deal of church music, much of which was published during his lifetime. Grandi also had been a singer at San Marco before assisting Monteverdi. He left to assume a position in Bergamo as maestro di cappella at Santa Maria Maggiore, and he and his family died in the plague of 1630. This epidemic had an enormous impact on musical life; when it reached Venice, all musical activities were halted for about 18 months. Monteverdi took this time to study for the priesthood (he was to be ordained in 1632), and when the plague was declared to be over in the fall of 1631, he composed a mass of thanksgiving which included the Gloria à 7 on today’s program. Just about every word Monteverdi set to music is "painted" by the music. Here is only one example from his Gloria: after a jubilant and soaring "Glory to God in the highest," Monteverdi sets "et in terra pax" ("and on earth peace") almost comically low in the voices, representing lowly earth and humans in a way that still makes sense over 400 years later.
Giovanni Antonio Rigatti was a native of Venice and was already singing in San Marco's choir around the age of seven. He became a priest and held various jobs teaching, composing, and directing music, and he was appointed to the ordained position of sottocanonico of San Marco in 1647. He is known for writing beautiful and innovative melodies that weave through the texture of his choral music.
Some of the instrumental music on the program comes from a later period. Baldassare Galuppi was vicemaestro di cappella at San Marco in 1748 and maestro from 1762 to 1785, taking a three-year leave of absence to compose for Catherine the Great in Russia. The life of Domenico Gallo is not well documented; his works are from the mid-18th century. The trio sonata heard today is notable because it is the source of the main theme Stravinsky used for his ballet Pulcinella. This collection of sonatas was deliberately misattributed by its earliest publishers to Pergolesi, whose death at the age of 26 gave him a cult status and made it lucrative to forge his works.