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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations
Richard Taruskin

Beyond the provision of an organ bass, none of the publications mentioned so far actually specified the instrumentation for concerted compositions—or as perhaps we ought therefore to say, for concerted performances. All the parts were furnished with text, none was “vocal” or “instrumental” to the exclusion of the other possibility, so the assignment of voices and instruments to specific parts had to be made by the director of the performance ad hoc (“for the nonce”). The first composer to furnish definite specifications for his concerted works—in other words, the first composer to practice the art of orchestration as we know it—was Andrea Gabrieli’s nephew and pupil Giovanni Gabrieli (ca. 1553–1612), who took the post of second organist at St. Mark’s during the last year of his uncle’s life, and stayed there for the rest of his own. It was Giovanni who edited Andrea’s sacred works for publication in 1587 and included a few concerti of his own. It was a genre in which he would surpass his uncle and, through his own pupils, transform church music thoroughly, in the process dealing a body blow to the ars perfecta, no less effective for its being unintended.

Besides the eleven concerted motets of his own that he published along with his uncle’s concerti, the only volume of music Giovanni Gabrieli saw fit to publish during his lifetime was a book of what he called Sacrae Symphoniae (Venice: Gardano, 1597)—“Sacred Symphonies,” here adapting the new concerto idea of many-different-things-simultaneously-coordinated to an old word (first used, we may recall from chapter 5, in the ninth-century Scolica Enchiriadis) with classy Greek roots that meant “things sounding together in harmony,” or (to be equally classy in English) “sacred concinnities.” This was a collection of double-choir motets plus a few for three or four choirs (and some instrumental pieces to be described later), issued in twelve vocal part books (without even a special organ part; at least none survives), but with a title page that calls for the concertato mixture of voices and instruments in performance. So far he was perfecting his uncle’s style.

The second book of Sacrae Symphoniae, issued posthumously in 1615, was the epoch-maker. Its contents cannot be precisely dated, but all the motets in it were presumably written after the date of the first collection, fixing their termini at 1597–1612. The great departure (actually nothing more than making explicit what was formerly implicit, but to spectacular effect) was the exact specification of the performance medium, and the extremely contrastive exploitation of the diverse resources at the composer’s disposal.

In ecclesiis benedicite Domino (“Bless the Lord in the congregations,” Ex. 18-13), probably composed sometime after 1605, shows the younger Gabrieli at the height of his powers. There are fifteen parts in all, deployed in three choirs plus an organ part that combines the roles of basso continuo and basso seguente in what was customarily called the basso generale, the “general bass.” The three choirs are of distinctive, mutually exclusive, composition. There are four parts (SATB) labeled cappella, standing for the chorus; there are four parts (SATB) labeled voce, standing for vocal soloists; and there are six parts assigned to specific instruments—three cornetti on top, two trombones at the bottom, and a violino (then a new instrument, making an early appearance in notated music) in the middle, its range suggesting that it was of a size more like that of a modern viola than what has subsequently been standardized as the violin we now know. The vocal and instrumental parts are distinguished both in style and in function; but so are the choral and solo parts within the vocal contingent. The soloists’ parts have a great deal of written out embellishment that again probably reflects what was previously the unwritten (“oral” or “improvisatory”) norm. Even in bald verbal description the piece makes a vivid impression; but comparing what follows to a recording or a complete score will help.

In ecclesiis begins more or less like a Viadana solo “concerto,” with a single soprano voice supported by an independent organ (continuo) line. In the score as given in Ex. 18-13, the right hand of the organ part is “realized” by an editor for the benefit of modern musicians who are even more the victims of their literacy—i.e., wholly dependent on what is fixed in writing—than those in Gabrieli’s time, when printed music books had been available for only a century. The chorus enters as if in response at Alleluia, its music contrasting in every conceivable way with that of the soloist: in texture, in its homorhythmic relationship with the bass, and (most strikingly of all) in its dancelike triple meter. The soprano soloist, meanwhile, sings in alternation with the chorus, emphasizing the ancient responsorial effect and showing its relationship to the novel concertato style.

The Art of Orchestration is BornThe Art of Orchestration is Born

ex. 18-13 Giovanni Gabrieli, In ecclesiis (Sacrae Symphoniae, Book II) mm. 1-12

But even more basic to the concertato idea, and its truly subversive aspect from the standpoint of the ars perfecta, is its emphasis on short-range contrast rather than long-range continuity (recall old Jacques Buus from chapter 15 and his ten-mile ricercari!). And also indicative of the new style’s incompatibility with old ideals is the “general pause”—the rest in all parts—that comes before the choral metric shift and cadence in m. 10. It is not only a rhetorical pause but a pragmatic concession to the reverberent enclosed space that is receiving and reflecting Gabrieli’s sonic overload. The grand pauses are there to let the echo clear—an echo that at St. Mark’s lasts a good six seconds (as one can learn from “on location” recordings) when the music is on the elephantine scale of a “sacred symphony.” Next the bass soloist sings another little “concerto” to the bare organ’s support—and now the chorus is back with another Alleluia in response. But whereas the bass’s music differed from the soprano’s, the chorus’s responses are both the same. The Alleluias, in other words, are acting as refrains, or, to use the newer word Gabrieli would have used, as ritornelli. The use of a ritornello, a recurrent musical strain, is as endemic to the concertato style as the use of a basso continuo. Where the one unifies—or, perhaps better, anchors—the unprecedentedly heterogeneous texture, the other anchors the unprecedentedly heterogeneous sequence of events.

At this point, after two solo verses and two choral refrains, the instruments interrupt the proceedings for a ceremonial proclamation of their own, marked Sinfonia to show that they have the stage, so to speak, to themselves. After they have shown off their lips and tongues a bit with dotted rhythms and quick upbeat figures in tiny note values that Gabrieli would have called semicrome (and that we call sixteenth-notes—the first we’ve encountered!), the two remaining vocal soloists, alto and tenor, join them for the next verse. Another aspect of concertato writing—the one that has become primary over the years—emerges when the singers begin vying in virtuosity with the cornetti, semicrome and all. The verse is capped, by now predictably, with the choral Alleluia ritornello, but now the chorus trades off not with one singer but with two, backed up by the full instrumental choir.

The fourth verse ventures yet another combination, pitting soprano against bass over the continuo in a duel of semicrome and smart dotted rhythms. The chorus enters on schedule with its ritornello. And now, with only one verse to go, Gabrieli pulls out all the stops: the full three-choir tutti is heard for the first time, and to magnify the sublime effect the composer adds some chromatic “madrigalian” harmony, thus combining both techniques of Counter Reformation church-militant bravura in a single irresistible onslaught, to defeat the reasoning mind by overwhelming the senses. The peak is reached when the vocal soloists pour on the virtuosity atop the massed sonority. The final ritornello, needless to say, maintains the tutti to the end, reinforcing the sense of arrival by twice repeating the final cadence, capped by the cornetti at the brilliant high end of their range.

What remains to be said after that? Only this: Like any church composer of his time, Gabrieli, who not only studied with his uncle Andrea but also worked for a time in his twenties alongside Lasso in Munich, would have traced his musical ancestry back to the Netherlands—to Willaert, to Mouton, and ultimately, somewhere in the distance, to Josquin des Prez. And yet what is left of their style in his? To see how far behind he has left the ars perfecta we need only take note of one amazing fact: from the beginning of this monster motet to the end, there has been not a single point of imitation. There are motives that pass from voice to voice, all right, especially in the vocal soloists’ parts. But never are these motives combined into a continuous interwoven fabric; instead, they are forever being tossed back and forth like sonic projectiles, heightening a sense of agitated contrast rather than one of calm commingling.

Further, and to the same general point, the aspect of virtuosity, of executive skill on display, places a new emphasis on the act of performance and its public, hortatory aspect. In a word, the act of making music has been dramatized. And it has been more thoroughly professionalized than ever before. From now on, musical performers—whether in church, in aristocratic chambers, or in theaters (a new venue!)—would be public figures on spectacular display. Anywhere that music was made by virtuosi became, in effect, a theater.

That new dramatic element—music making a spectacle of itself—subsuming all the newfangled expressive resources discovered by the madrigalists, the new mixtures of media contrived by the “concertists,” and the new craving for mimesis (realistic representation) inspired by the “radical humanists” whose acquaintance we are about to make, was the great conceptual innovation—the “paradigm shift,” as historians of science would call it—lurking behind all the shocking stylistic novelties that doomed the ars perfecta and gave rise to that aggressively exteriorized sensibility we now call “baroque.”

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. 5 Mar. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-018006.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 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-018006.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 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-018006.xml