Behind a great composer…

…is another great composer! At the opening of our concert on Tuesday night, we’ll be performing two large Christmas motets by Giovanni Gabrieli. As opposed to his (unjustly) more famous Uncle Andrea, Gio was known almost exclusively for his vocal and instrumental music for the church. His only surviving madrigals were composed in the sixteenth century and exist in collections dominated by the works of other composers. This is perhaps surprising in light of the fact that, after the young Schütz had been sent from the Saxon court in 1609 to learn with the Venetian composer (remaining there until Gabrieli’s death in 1612), the first published products of his studies were madrigals.

A large number of Gabrieli’s motets were written to mark major occasions in the Venetian church and State calendar. Numerous motet texts are drawn from Christmas Vespers, celebrated at the Benedictine church of S Giorgio Maggiore in the presence of major state dignitaries. Large musical ensembles were known to have been present at such occasions. In the double-choir works the two groups form a coro superiore and a coro grave. Bass lines frequently descend to low Cs and clearly require instrumental support, though the use of voices to perform these parts (the parts in question are of course provided under-laid with text). Gabrieli’s grasp of the possible textures and sonorities is always apparent. The harmonic idiom is esentially simple and diatonic, with many cadential passages occurring at interchanges between the choirs. O Magnum mysterium is an exceptionally mystical setting of the responsorial chant for Christmas Day Matins, scored in such a way. The full, rich textures of each choir merging together create an image of great stillness and almost an impression of atemporality. Angelus ad pastores ait is a more overtly joyful motet, which expresses the sheer happiness of the text, which is taken from Luke 2:8–11.

Payment records for the years 1586–7 describe up to twelve additional instrumentalists: mostly cornetts and trombones, but also a few single strings. By the early seventeenth century, the use of strings was increasing, though brass and winds still dominated: payments to extra musicians brought in for Christmas Day 1603 list four cornetts, five trombones, one bassoon, two violins and one violone. A list of singers drawn up in the mid 1590s by the Maestro di Cappella Baldassare Donato names 13 resident adults. However, in the same way as the instrumentalists, extra singers could be hired on an occasional basis. Little information is available on the participation of boy singers – it is certain that castrati would have been employed on the top parts. Having received some feedback from some of our contertenors negating this part of our approach to historically-informed performance practice, we’ve got four girls: no need to worry.

Smaller-scale German church music owes a great deal to G. Gabrieli – music by Schein and others shows a similar influences to text expression and a similar melodic and harmonic style, in refraining from relying on the foundations of the basso continuo. Gabrieli’s style can be considered to be the most influential Italian model in Germany before Monteverdi. It’s pretty awesome stuff and it’s going to sound incredible in the University Church in Oxford, with fourteen singers, a load of cornetts and sackbutts, strings, organs and dulcians all going for it. Come along. If you are worried about hearing impairment, we can arrange a free pair of earplugs.