IVN: The Venetian Style

The only Italian rival that Rome had in the cultivation of sacred music in the 16th century was Venice. The great event in the domain of sacred music in early 16th century Venice was the election, in 1527, with the support of the Doge Andrea Gritti, of Willaert as maestro di cappella of St. Mark's. With the appointment of this foreign-born musician, Venetian sacred music acquired a leader destined to raise it to a position of loftiest eminence.

From 1525 to 1527, Willaert had served Cardinal Ippolito d'Este at Milan. At some time during the latter year he became cantor regis Ungariae. This, however, does not mean that he spent time in Hungary. But it does help to show that his reputation had grown and to explain why he should have been made maestro di cappella at so great a house of worship as St. Mark's, regarded as the most important in Italy after St. Peter's. His fame spread all over Europe, and Susato, Attaingnant, and others published works of his even though he resided in Italy.

Numerous northern composers of earlier generations had previously been active in Italy; but, although they composed for Italian employers and absorbed Italian elements into their own music, they did not, to any marked degree, transmit Franco-Netherlandish technique to native composers. Willaert, however, by directing the music at St. Mark's and by functioning as a teacher as well as in other capacities, helped to establish what may legitimately be called a Venetian School. The effect of his residence in Venice is evident in the technical resources of sacred polyphony throughout Italy--including Palestrina 's--during the whole of the century.

Willaert's three main contributions to sacred polyphony in Italy-- the last two apparently made solely (aside from his activity as a teacher) through his motets, etc.-were (i) the establishment of Franco-Netherlandish technique as a part of the musical language of church music there; (2) the development of choral antiphony; and (3) the cultivation of a "modern" style emphasizing faultless declamation of the text.

Having the choir divided for the antiphonal singing of part-music was a device known in the north; moreover, it was not new to Italian soil, but the old practice was to achieve new life at the hands of Willaert (who, however, is not credited with its invention by Zarlino , as is often claimed). No doubt inspired especially by the two choir lofts at St. Mark's, one facing the other, Willaert wrote for two choirs singing alternately, each à 4 and at times together à 8.

Polyphonic writing for alternating choirs made for color and brilliance and had an important effect upon the further history of polyphony. In fact, the technique was more commonly used by some of Willaert's successors, e.g., Andrea Gabrieli and Giovanni Gabrieli , than by him. Where music was composed for alternating choirs, it was--notwithstanding occasional polyphonic passages, especially at cadences--essentially in block harmony style, thus giving expression to the Italian predilection for chordal writing.

Willaert was succeeded as maestro in 1563 by Cipriano de Rore , and he himself was succeeded in 1565 as maestro di cappella by a pupil of Willaert’s--the celebrated Giseffo Zarlino .

The line of great musicians that added still further luster to St. Mark's in the early part of the century maintained its high excellence toward the close. Strangely enough, the organists, on the whole, contributed more brilliantly to the repertory of vocal polyphony than did the maestri di cappella. This polyphony flourished with particular splendor. But it was to the motet rather than to the Mass that Venetian composers, as a group, dedicated their best effort.

The production of the versatile Merulo (first organist, 1557-1584) included Masses--one on Wert 's Cara la vita mia, one on Andrea Gabrieli's Benedicam Dominum, etc., Magnificats, and numerous motets.

Andrea Gabrieli , succeeding Annibale Padovano at the second organ in 1564 and Merulo at the first organ in 1585--when he was himself succeeded at the second organ by Giovanni Gabrieli --produced sacred music of great distinction. His Masses include a four-part Missa brevis in the normal style for this species, which, for him, is unusually simple.

Mass composition, however, was of secondary importance to Giovanni, as it was to most of his Venetian contemporaries. The golden age of the polyphonic Mass, indeed, was drawing to a close. It was in Giovanni's motets that the Venetian style of polychoral composition attained its culmination. Motets of his began to appear in the 1587 volume representing him and Andrea jointly. "Giovanni Gabrieli is the musical Titian of Venice, as Palestrina is the musical Raphael of Rome." With his compositions, however, we have definitely crossed the border into the domain of baroque music.

The motets of Gioseffo Guami , who became Giovanni's colleague by succeeding Bell'Haver at the first organ in 1588, include a five-part In die tribulationis that opens with a point of imitation, in which all voices ascend a minor sixth chromatically; degree-inflection continues to play a role in the rest of this highly dramatic work. In a publication of 1585, the Giovanni Bassano who was known for a work dealing with ornamentation, names himself "Musico dell'Illustr. Signoria di Venetia;" in 1595, or earlier, he became maestro of music at the Seminary of St. Mark's and, by 1607, "capo de' concerti" at St. Mark's. His varied production includes motets--some with organ bass. When Bassano was appointed maestro at the Seminary, he succeeded Donato in the post, the Seminary having been moved to a distance from the cathedral in 1592 and Donato having succeeded Zarlino as maestro di cappell athere in 1590. Though preponderantly a composer of secular works, Donato has left us a small quantity of sacred music.

A number of Masses by Croce --Donato's successors as maestro in 1603--which appeared from 1596 to 1599, indicate that he was the chief representative of the Missa brevis in Italy. Their brevity can hardly be exceeded. The Benedictus of the five-part Missa prima sexti toni comprises only eleven measures, the Osanna included. The writing of this work, however, is not perfunctory.

Monteverdi --succeeding Croce, in 1613, after the intervening incumbency of Martinengo--is the last of the maestri at St. Mark's belonging to the High Renaissance. His production of sacred music was small before he assumed this post. His early Sacrae cantiunculae (printed in 1582, i.e., during his Cremonese period) short compositions à 3--almost exercises in classic polyphonic writing--show how firmly he had been grounded in the traditional style by Ingegneri. Nearly all these little pieces open imitatively but, in some, literal imitation seems to be deliberately avoided. In his Mass printed in 1610, Monteverdi again pays his respects to the past, but writes on a much grander scale. The composition--which is à 6, with a final Agnus à 7--is an example of the parody Mass, by then almost obsolete, and is based on Gombert 's In illo tempore loquente Jesu. The writing is full and rich, but archaic in manner for Monteverdi, who reworks, in traditional fashion, the ten motifs upon which Gombert had built his points of imitation. Monteverdi's most distinctive productions in the sacred field consist not so much of conservative, though admirable, works like these as they do of music combining voices and instruments and contributing to the development and establishment at St. Mark's of the blossoming baroque style.

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