Monday, March 9, 2009

Giovanni Gabrieli

One of the assignments for my brass literature class was to write a paper on some historical aspect of brass ensembles. I had always heard the name Gabrieli, but at this point in my career, I figured I should know more! With that, I became a gumshoe and befriended the Rita Benton Music Library. Below are excerpts from my paper that show my findings! Enjoy.

The original focal point of the Venetian instrumental ensembles had always been brass instruments. This is true because Venice had relied on the use of herald trumpets and trombones for ceremonies and festivals. Local governments frequently employed brass musicians in groups called piffari. These piffari bands consisted of trumpets, trombones, cornettos, shawms, bagpipes, recorders, drums, viols, and perhaps some flutes. This abundance of brass musicians allowed Gabrieli to easily incorporate them into his new compositions for St. Mark’s. Brass instruments could increase the sound of vocal music when performed in the basilica, but the brasses also had another realistic application. Intonation improved when singers were paired with an instrument. The singers could retain their tonal center and the brasses could help with balance in a cappella works.

Gabrieli composed a large-scale work called Sacrae Symphoniae, a piece he likely would have called a sonata. The sonata at that time was a piece of music written for instruments. The collection contains sixteen pieces, including canzonas, another popular and common instrumental genre. It is in this composition that the Venetian school showcased its style of writing known as the cori spezzati, literally “split choirs.” Another term for this is polychoral. These canzonas are the first to include dynamic markings. For example, one choir is indicated at a piano while the opposing choir is marked mezzo forte.

Gabrieli mastered the timbres and blends possible with the dynamic contrasts brass instruments could achieve. Given that the brass choirs were split, he accounted for the distance between the groups, the time it would take for the sound to travel in the room, and of course, the overall effect of which brasses should be at which dynamic. Gabrieli’s canzonas also demonstrate his skills with counterpoint. Music with complex counterpoint with brass instruments, some similar in range and timbre, could disturb the clarity of the lines. In St. Mark’s, Gabrieli utilized the whole ensemble but interspersed complex counterpoint with long, florid lines supported by longer tones in the other voices.

In 1608, music critic Thomas Coryat described a performance of Venetian style music in his publication Crudities. Coryat states:

Sometimes there sung sixteene or twenty men together, having their master or moderator to keepe them in order; and when they sung, the instrumental musicitans played also. Sometimes sixteene played together on their instruments, ten Sagbuts, foure Cornets; sometimes two, a Cornet and a treble viol. Of those treble viols I heard several there, whereof each was so good, especially one that I observed above the rest, that I never heard the like before. Those that played upon the treble viols, sung and played together, and sometimes two singular fellows played together upon Theorboes, to which they sung also, who yielded admirable sweet musicke, but so still they could scarce be heard but by those that were never near them…At every time that every several musicke played, the Organs, wherof there are seven faire paire in that room, standing all in a row together, played with them…

Gabrieli’s efforts and those of his Venetian colleagues left a lasting mark on the development of brass literature. The concept of split choirs has become widely accepted as an effective compositional tool, including pieces all the way into the twenty-first century. Pieces like Resphigi’s La Pina di Roma or Ticheli’s American Elegy, though written long after Gabrieli, reflect back on what the Venetian school accomplished. Brass ensembles are indebted to these early composers for the fact that the many capabilities of brass instruments were exploited and used effectively. No longer were brasses just for ceremonies and festivals. Due in part to Gabrieli, the brass ensemble is on a more equal footing with other instrumental families.

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