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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations
Richard Taruskin

The polychoral style and the Counter Reformation attitudes associated with it reached their pinnacle in Venice, the city of its birth, at the hands of two musicians from the same family, both of whom served as organists at St. Mark’s under Zarlino. Andrea Gabrieli (ca. 1532–85) competed successfully, after several failures, for the first organist’s position in 1566 and held the post until his death. During that period there were several major quasi-secular celebrations held at the cathedral—the outstanding one being the trionfi following the naval victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571—and Gabrieli’s music for these occasions revealed an enormous aptitude for ceremonial splendor, a talent he continued to develop as the cathedral’s musical resources were expanded. He also furnished music for theatrical presentations, including a set of choruses for up to six voices performed in March 1585 at a gala performance of Sophocles’s tragedy Oedipus tyrannis. It is the earliest surviving music specifically composed for a humanist revival of Greek drama, which puts Gabrieli in the line that led, eventually, to opera.

Andrea’s collected sacred works, published the year after his death, contain several spectacular Masses and motets that employ larger and more varied forces than any previous written music. Especially indicative of the trend is a Mass for sixteen voices organized into four antiphonally deployed four-part choirs, performed in 1585 to welcome (and impress) a party of visiting Japanese princes. One of the choirs was marked a cappella, designating it and it alone as intended for performance by voices (and voices alone) on all four parts. The intended performing medium for the other choirs can be deduced from the title page of the collection: CONCERTI/continenti Musica DI CHIESA/per voci, & stromenti Musicali; à

Concerti! A momentous word. From Andrea’s title page one can learn what it originally meant: works expressly combining voices and instruments—written, that is, in what is still sometimes called the “concerted” style—in which the contrast and interplay of timbres are an integral part of the musical conception. From the employment lists at St. Mark’s it is possible to infer that these works by Gabrieli mixed and alternated voices with wind instruments such as cornetti—not modern cornets but instruments held and fingered like oboes but played with a brass cup mouthpiece—on the upper parts (or choirs) and trombones on the lower, with the organ playing along with everything and providing the sonic glue that held the whole timbrally and spatially variegated surface together.

Gabrieli’s “concerted” Masses and motets were quickly imitated—so quickly as to suggest that the practice was an established one, at least in the great churches of northern Italy, long before it was specified in print. The very next year, in 1589, the Bolognese musician Ascanio Trombetti, associated with the church of San Petronio, a great center for instrumental music, published Il primo libro de motetti accomodati per cantare e far concerti (“The first book of motets arranged for singing in conjunction with instruments”).

The terms concerto and concertato became standard in titles. Beginning with the double-choir Concerti ecclesiastici a otto voci (“Church concertos [= concerted motets] for eight voices”) by the Bolognese organist Adriano Banchieri (Venice, 1595), publishers supplied a new standard feature: a separate part for the organist to assist the player in his new role as omnibus accompanist. Banchieri supplied a primitive score (spartitura = “parts extracted”) for this purpose that summarized the basic harmonies of his first choir.

A few years later, in a more modest publication called Cento concerti ecclesiastici, a una, a due, a tre & a quattro voci (“One hundred church concertos for 1, 2, 3, and 4 voices,” Venice, 1602) by a peripatetic north Italian friar named Lodovico Viadana, a more streamlined organ part was devised. Since some of Viadana’s “concerti” were actually accompanied solo songs (in keeping with yet another sort of radical anti-ars-perfecta practice that we will investigate in the next chapter), there was nothing to “score.” Instead, as the title page advertised, there was a basso continuo per sonar nell’organo, nova inventione commoda per ogni sorte de cantori, & per gli organisti: “a continuous bass line to play on the organ, a new invention for the convenience of all kinds [i.e., any number] of singers and for the organists.” The basso continuo, a term that caught on and has been standard ever since, was an independent organ part written as one line, but realized in full harmonies (with radical implications: for the first time in “composed” or literate music chordal harmony functioned as a sonorous filler or background, independent of controlled part writing). In effect, the notated line was to be played by the left hand, and the unnotated chords by the right. It was called “continuous” because it played straight through the composition, no matter what went on above it.

In view of the radical harmonic implications of the new style, it should be reemphasized that neither Banchieri nor Viadana suddenly invented any new technique of accompaniment. All they did was publish written aids to help organists do what they did anyway by longstanding “oral” tradition. Organists had been accompanying ensembles since whenever, but previously they had to do it from the same choirbook or part books as the other musicians. As we have already seen, organists had to be able to open a whole set of part books in front of them on the music rack and follow them all at once (unless they went to the trouble of writing out a spartitura for themselves, as many did). From around the turn of the century, though, no music print was complete (or competitive) without the new laborsaving device of a separate organ bass-book.

Eventually, the most common kind of organ part for church “concerti”—for example, the pioneering Prima parte dei salmi concertati (“First installment of Psalms in concerted style,” 1609) by Girolamo Giacobbi, another musician from San Petronio in Bologna—was something in between Banchieri’s spartitura and Viadana’s basso continuo. What Giacobbi—or rather his powerful publisher, the Venetian music magnate Antonio Gardano—supplied was a composite bass line, drawn from all the other parts, that showed the lowest note sounding at any given moment. This new organist’s aid was informally called basso seguente (“bass that follows”), because it tracked the progress of the vocal parts from start to finish. By using it, the organist could accompany the whole ensemble without even seeing the other parts.

“Concerted” Music

fig. 18-5 Colophon of the Venetian music printer Antonio Gardano.

As always, the introduction of a laborsaving device inspired a backlash from those proud of their laborious skills. Adriano Banchieri himself inveighed against his fellow townsman Giacobbi’s publication, sneering that “soon we shall have two classes of players: on the one hand Organists, that is to say, those who practice good playing from score and improvisation, and, on the other hand, Bassists who, overcome by sheer laziness, are content with simply playing the Basso Continuo.”7 Behind these petulant words lay a profound and legitimate concern that unwritten (“oral”) traditions were about to be lost to literate habits that carried literalism and lessened creativity as their undesirable corollary. And so they were.

But there was no stopping the process. The mandate of the marketplace was more compelling than any musician’s strictures, and any music publications that remained in print past the date of Gardano’s innovation had to be fitted out with a basso seguente to remain viable. Thus the popular Viadana’s first publication, a collection of Vespers Psalms in five parts (1588) was reissued in 1609 with a note on the title page, in proper church Latin, that additus est bassus continuus pro organo, in reality a basso seguente; his first book of four-part Masses, published in 1596, was reissued in 1612 cum basso generali pro organo, and so on.

Even older music was renovated in this way. Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, the prime embodiment of the earlier, less musically radical phase of the Counter Reformation, and almost from the moment of its creation a revered “classic,” was arranged in the early seventeenth century both as a polychoral composition (for two four-part choirs) and as a continuo-accompanied one. Re-outfitting was the price of currency; “authentic” performance practice for music in obsolete styles had to await the advent of Romanticism, which had a strong nostalgic component and which despised the marketplace (at least officially).


(7) Adriano Banchieri, Conclusioni nel suono dell’organo (Bologna, 1609), in Frank T. Arnold, The Art of Accompaniment from a Thorough-Bass (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), p. 74.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-018005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-018005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-018005.xml