Giovanni Gabrieli

1554 1912

Giovanni Gabrieli

Composer

Biography

Immediately following his return to Venice, Gabrieli was appointed to the position of secondary organist of the San Marco di Venezia church. The following year he became the principal organist and in 1586, following the death of his uncle, he assumed his post as principal composer. Interested in promoting the legacy of Andrea Gabrieli, Giovanni set about organising and publishing a large selection of his uncle’s music posthumously, saving it from destruction and obscurity.

By the time of his uncle’s death, the younger Gabrieli was becoming a well-known and well-regarded composer in the European music scene in his own right, and he was soon one of the foremost composers of religious music. There is evidence that he also wrote a variety of secular pieces, namely madrigals, but unfortunately very few survive. The few that are in existence were published by one of Gabrieli’s finest students, Heinrich Schütz, in 1611. Schütz was one of many prospective students that travelled to Venice in hopes of studying with Gabrieli, showing how extensively the Venetian fashion had spread throughout Europe.

Gabrieli’s music was very unique for the time, and much of this had to do with the unique architectural layout of the San Marco church, which boasted two choir lofts, each with their own organ, facing each other. This led to the so-called Venetian compositional style, which featured multiple choirs or ensembles, often with dozens of written-out parts, performing to each other over the heads of the audience, often in a call-and-response manner. Not only was the poly-choral presentation completely original, Gabrieli made use of completely unheard-of orchestration techniques. He was one of the first to combine instrumental and choral ensembles, a choice that seems logical now but at the time was completely original. For example, Gabrieli’s motetIn ecclesiis features a setting of two choirs, several vocal soloists, organ, brass and string instruments.

Giovanni Gabrieli was an influential Venetian composer from the 16th century. Although his works are seldom performed today he was nevertheless a critical figure in the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque Era, and is credited with inventing or popularising many innovations as fundamental as written dynamics, the fugue and the basso continuo.

The exact year of Gabrieli’s birth is not known, but it is assumed to be around the year 1555 in the city of Venice. It is known that his first instruction in music came from his uncle, the famed composer and organist Andrea Gabrieli, who essentially raised Giovanni and treated him as “little less than a son.” Gabrieli spent about five years during this formative time studying in Munich with Orlando de Lassus at the court of Duke Albert V. Although this was the only extended period he spent outside of Italy, it helped him gain a deep understanding and respect for the Germanic musical tradition, which can directly explain why Gabrieli’s subsequent work would prove so successful not just in his native country but all over Europe.

Perhaps Gabrieli’s most important work, at least from a musicology perspective, is hisSonata pian e forte. The piece, which literally means “loud and soft sonata” is notable for being the first piece of Western music to use dynamic markings. It was also one of the first pieces written for a specific instrumentation: previously, most pieces were performed on whatever combination of instruments was available. Several of Gabrieli’s other works were similarly groundbreaking. HisSonata con tre violini e basso se piace is one of the first known examples of a basso continuo. In addition, several of his monothematic works are essentially precursors to the Baroque fugue.

However, Gabrieli’s greatest musical accomplishments are the publications of his two massiveSacrae symphoniae, the first in 1597 and the second in 1615. His Sacrae symphoniae were essentially compilations of sacred instrumental music, as well as combined choral and instrumental motets, and featured from six to 19 independent voices. For his choral works, Gabrieli still frequently used the technique that he made famous earlier in his career of breaking the choir into two separate parts and positioning them on opposite balconies. However, he was also becoming more and more specific with his orchestration choices, such as specifying specific instruments and designating solo parts in each choir.

Especially in his later works, Gabrieli seemed less concerned with traditional harmony and part-writing, instead surprising his audiences with dramatic shifts in dynamics and orchestration. At the time, this was approach must have sounded at least as original as total serialism did to early 20th century ears, and in a way the styles bear some similarities in elevating non-harmonic elements to an equal or even higher footing.

Much of Gabrieli’s lasting influence is due to the fact that he had several German students. After studying with Gabrieli, several of them, including Hans Leo Hassler, Heinrich Schütz and Michael Praetorius moved back north to Germany, where they brought many of Gabrieli’s unique and innovative techniques in addition to his Venetian aesthetic. This had a profound impact on the development of German Baroque music, and the influence can be seen all the way toBach and beyond. It was also another German, the musicologist Carl von Winterfeld, who was largely responsible for transcribing and resurrecting much of Gabrieli’s music in the early 19th century.

By the year 1606 Gabrieli had begun to fall ill, and he was forced to relinquish many of his church duties. However, he continued to compose and teach all the way until his death in 1612, and the work he left behind is seen today as the epitome of 16th century music and the true start of the transition to the Baroque era.

Images courtesy of public domain and Accademia Europea di Firenze