FESTIVE CANTATAS: CHRISTMAS IN GABRIELI'S VENICE
Thursday December 19, 2019 at 7:30PM - Christ Church Cathedral
Sumner Thompson, baritone
Martin Auclair, bass
With the participation of the Cathedral Choristers led by Donald Hunt
Giovanni Gabrieli, who died in 1612, was without a doubt the greatest composer of the Venetian High Renaissance. We celebrate the holidays this year with music by this Venetian master, his uncle Andrea, and their contemporaries. This is music that would have echoed from the mosaic-covered vaults of Saint Mark’s Basilica as well as other Venetian churches. The program consists of motets for from two to fifteen voices, as well as dazzling sonatas and canzonas for cornetti, trombones and strings – festive music worthy of the season but also of the pomp and brilliance of the Venetian State.
"The plangent eloquence and dare-devil bravura of Bruce Dickey's cornetto playing would charm the skin off a snake" -- BBC Music Magazine
This concert is generously supported by Pat & Meredith Cashion
Hodie Christus natus est
Christmas in Gabrieli’s Venice, ca. 1615
Canzon 5 duodecimi toni a 8 (1597)
Hodie Christus natus est a 7 (Giovanni Bassano)
Quem vidistis pastores a 8 (Andrea Gabrieli)
Canzon V a 7
Hodie nobis de caelo a 2 (Alessandro Grandi)
O Jesu mi dulcissime a 8
Canzon 8 duodecimi toni a 10 (1597)
Hodie Christus natus est a 8
Gloria in altissimus Deo a 7 (Gio. Battista Fergusio)
Canzon 9 duodecimi toni a 10 (1597)
Hodie Christus natus est a 10 (1597)
Angelus ad pastores a 8 (Bassano)
Natività di Christo, per canto solo da cantarsi nel Chitarone (Biagio Marini)
Jesu dulcissime a 6 (Ms. Kassel)
Salvator noster a 15
Canzon VI a 7
In ecclesiis a 14
All works composed by Giovanni Gabrieli and published in Venice in 1615 unless otherwise indicated.
The importance of St. Mark’s Basilica lay not as much in its ecclesiastical authority (it was not, after all, the cathedral of Venice) as from the power of the state, and particularly the Doge, whose private chapel it was. The Venetians loved pomp and splendor in all things; indeed, laws were periodically passed limiting public displays of wealth. On feast days of particular political importance to the Serenessima, the Doge sat on an impressive throne in front of the main altar, his guests at his side and the Venetian nobility arranged nearby. All would have been superbly placed to hear the musicians and singers deployed in the choir lofts above and in an array of little balconies and structures.
In this Christmas concert, we do not attempt to reconstruct any particular service or event, but rather to invite the listener to follow the Doge’s musical chapel to St. Mark’s and other Venetian churches, and experience the sumptuous sounds with which Venetians celebrated the holidays.
Most of the music was written by three musicians closely tied to the basilica: Giovanni Bassano, Andrea Gabrieli and, above-all, Andrea’s masterful nephew, Giovanni Gabrieli. The motets heard here include polychoral settings – and in some cases multiple settings – of some of the most familiar Latin Christmas texts: Hodie Christus natus est (Today Christ is born), Quem vidistis pastores (Whom do you see, Shepherds), and Angelus ad pastores (The angel said to the shepherds). We have used the first of these, based on a familiar Gregorian chant sung at Christmastime, as a kind of refrain in three different settings, one by Giovanni Bassano and two by Giovanni Gabrieli. The first of Gabrieli’s is a contrafactum with a sacred text on his madrigal, “O che felice giorno”.
Giovanni Bassano was a skilled composer in many genres, including grand polychoral sacred music. He was also a virtuoso of the cornetto, serving as director of the instrumental band at St. Mark’s for many years, until his death in 1617. He would have been one of the cornettists for whom Gabrieli wrote his wonderful instrumental canzonas and sonatas. Perhaps the figurations in some of these canzonas were inspired by Bassano’s playing and by his book on improvising ornamentation.
In 1557 Andrea Gabrieli unsuccessfully auditioned for the position of organist at St. Mark’s, being passed over in favor of Claudio Merulo. We should probably be thankful for his failure, because during the years prior to his appointment to a permanent position at St. Mark’s, Andrea would collaborate with Orlando di Lasso in the retinue of Albrecht V of Bavaria. Here he was exposed to a cosmopolitan musical culture and the grand ceremonial style of Lasso, which he would later adapt so successfully to Venetian circumstances. When Andrea joined the chapel at St. Mark’s in 1566, the polychoral concerto style, pioneered by Willaert a decade earlier, had not yet taken hold. Only Andrea was working consistently in this style, and two years after his death in 1585, his nephew Giovanni finally published his uncle’s monumental polychoral works.
Giovanni, on the other hand, virtually embodies the polychoral concerto, since all of his sacred works are in this genre. From the time of his successful audition in 1585 at the basilica until his death in 1612, Gabrieli held the position of first organist, a post which he inherited from his uncle. In his hands the Venetian concerto took on new brilliance through the extension of vocal and instrumental ranges, the use of affective, hyper-expressive harmonies, and the ample use of instrumental obbligati with elaborate written-out ornamentation. Even in motets without obbligati, however, the range of certain parts implies the use of instruments, and some pieces which are fully texted in all voices nonetheless carry the indication voce on only a few parts (usually one per choir). A clear example is Salvator noster à 15 heard here, a large-scale ceremonial work in which the forces were often more instrumental than vocal. In this practice the text must be “spoken” as much by the instruments as by the voices: the entire ensemble strives toward a blend in which the individual strands of polyphony or the “choral” declamation cannot always be identified as vocal or instrumental.
After the death of his uncle, Giovanni was the principal composer of ceremonial music at St. Mark’s. He was therefore responsible for finding and hiring extra singers and instrumentalists for major feast days. The players at his disposal, especially the cornettists and trombonists, were among the best to be found anywhere, and their virtuosity is clearly reflected in the music he wrote for them. While Gabrieli’s sacred concerted music was more influential in the long run, it is the instrumental music composed for these players which probably reached the highest artistic level and has the greatest power to touch modern audiences.
This is an astonishing achievement in a period when virtually all the most “serious” music was written for singers. Gabrieli was the first composer to elevate the genres of canzona and sonata to an artistic level equal to the best vocal music of the age. While full of virtuosic special effects, the truly revolutionary element of his instrumental music is not the specific devices he employed, but the astonishing quality that it consistently attains.
All of the ensemble canzonas heard on this concert come from Gabrieli’s two principal printed collections, the Sacrae symphoniae (1597) and the posthumous Canzoni e sonate (1615). No composer ever surpassed Giovanni Gabrieli in this genre. His canzonas remain unique instrumental monuments to a genius of the High Renaissance, created at a time when the currents of fashion were pulling in a different direction altogether.
Two other works on our program warrant special mention. The connection of Giovanni Battista Fergusio to Venice is admittedly tenuous. Indeed, Fergusio was Piemontese and died in Sardinia, but he published an interesting collection of Motetti e dialoghi per concertar in Venice in 1612. His motet so bursts with Venetian ideas that we can easily imagine him travelling to the lagoon city to oversee his publication. In this dialogue, the angels and shepherds are represented by groups of 3 and 4 voices. The angelic group sings with elaborate (celestial?) ornamentation, while the shepherds declame their story in a more prosaic manner.
A perhaps even more curious work is the strophic Italian solo song by the Venetian violinist Biagio Marini, Natività di Christo, sung to the theorbo with a ritornello for violin. The text presents an unsual metaphor, describing the baby Jesus as a chaste Cupid. Though without bow, arrows, and wings, the former is far more powerful than the latter, since just a glance from his eyes can lauch a thousand arrows. And if Venus is the mother of Cupid, the parents of Jesus are two chaste lovers. The poem is at the limits of blasphemy, but it is brought off with a taste that is deliciously Baroque.
If we have succeeded in this concert in mingling your Christmas imagery with the splendors of St. Mark’s mosaic-covered vaults, we will feel contented.
Tickets for the Pacific Baroque Series concerts at the Cathedral can be purchased:
By calling the Ticket Rocket Box Office: 1.855.842.7575
At the Ticket Rocket Box Office (1050 Meares Street)
Or at the Cathedral Office (930 Burdett Avenue)
And at the following outlets:
Ivy’s Bookshop: 2188 Oak Bay Ave
Munro’s Books: 1108 Government St
GETTING TO CHRIST CHURCH CATHEDRAL
The Cathedral is located on Quadra Street at Rockland Avenue.
Street parking is available on Quadra Street, Burdett Avenue, and Rockland Avenue, as well as at the south entrance to the Cathedral off Burdett.