We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 18 Reformations and Counter Reformations
Richard Taruskin

Even instrumental music was “dramatized” under the new dispensation, and here too the Gabrielis played a decisive role. Ever since the publications of Attaingnant began circulating abroad, and even before, Venetian organists had been fond of arranging racy “Parisian” chansons for their instrument and performing them during services alongside the staider, motetlike ricercari with which we are already familiar. (The first publication to include such pieces was a 1523 volume by Marco Antonio Cavazzoni, an organist active both as player and as singer in several Venetian churches, including St. Mark’s.) Andrea Gabrieli issued a whole book of Canzoni alla francese per sonar sopra stromenti da tasti (“French-type songs for playing on keyboard instruments”) in 1571: it contains arrangements of chansons by Janequin, Lasso, and others (see Ex. 18-14a). By the end of the century, however, the “canzona” (for some reason turned into a feminine noun; the normal Italian word for “song” is canzone) had become an independent instrumental genre more or less modeled on the style and structure of the chanson, even taking over its typical “pseudodactylic” opening rhythm as a trademark. The earliest books of independent organ canzonas were published by Claudio Merulo, a now retired organist who had once beaten the elder Gabrieli out for the plum St. Mark’s post (see Ex. 18-14b).

“Songs” for Instruments

ex. 18-14a Canzona incipit by Andrea Gabrieli

“Songs” for Instruments

ex. 18-14b Canzona incipit by Claudio Merulo

Just as in the case of the learned ricercare at mid-century, the entertaining canzona was soon adapted for instrumental ensembles. The earliest examples are found as fillers or bonuses in madrigal books, suggesting that they were meant for home use, to spell the singers or provide some variety at convivial music parties. The earliest book devoted entirely to canzoni da sonare was by Florentio Maschera, a pupil of Merulo, who worked as cathedral organist at Brescia, one of the more westerly cities in the republic of Venice. Short, simple four-part works for home use, they were published in Venice in 1584 and went through many editions.

By then, however, the Venice organists had begun adapting the canzona to their wonted theatrical purposes. Andrea Gabrieli and his older colleague Annibale Padovano (1527–75), possibly in friendly competition, had each written a canzona-to-end-all-canzonas for eight-part wind ensemble deployed antiphonally in double choirs, based on the old chanson-to-end-all-chansons, Janequin’s La guerre (alias “La battaille de Marignan”). Like some other big concerted works of Andrea’s, they were probably composed for the Lepanto victory celebrations in 1571. The second half of Andrea’s Aria della battaglia (Ex. 18-15), corresponding to Janequin’s “Fan frere le le lan fan” (see Ex. 17-9), and as idiomatic to the wind instruments as Janequin’s mouth-music was to tongues and teeth, is one of the earliest examples of real instrumental concert music in something like the modern sense.

“Songs” for Instruments

ex. 18-15 Andrea Gabrieli, Aria della battaglia, secunda pars, mm. 1-4

The big band battle-piece became a standard instrumental subgenre in the heyday of the canzona. It even exerted a curious back-influence on vocal liturgical music. The flamboyant nine-part Missa pro Victoria by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611), a Spanish organist and composer who worked for many years in Rome, was published in Madrid in 1600. Often described as a parody Mass on Janequin’s La guerre, it is really more like a big canzona for voices, very much in the highly sectionalized fanfare-like style of Gabrieli’s Aria della battaglia. The Benedictus section from the Sanctus (Ex. 18-16) is yet another big blowout on Janequin’s immortal “Fan frere le le lan fan.”

“Songs” for Instruments“Songs” for Instruments“Songs” for Instruments

ex. 18-16 Tomás Luis de Victoria, Missa pro Victoria, Benedictus, mm. 7-13

This was precisely the kind of piece the Council of Trent had tried to ban at an earlier phase of the Counter Reformation: “Let nothing profane be intermingled,” so the decree read in 1562, “when Masses are celebrated with singing and with organ.”8 That was then. By the turn of the century the “church militant” had decided it had better pack them in by hook or crook. A church service that included battle-pieces along with “concerted” motets or psalms or Masses was to all intents and purposes a “concert.” And indeed, Venetian cathedral services at the height of the Counter Reformation could well be looked upon as the earliest public concerts (for a “mass” audience, so to speak). Huge congregations flocked to them, and their fame was spread abroad so that travelers made special journeys to Venice, already a major tourist spot, to hear the music. Thomas Coryat, an English court jester and travel writer, visited Venice in 1608 and left an unforgettable account of Vespers at St. Mark’s. The most spectacular impression was made not by the singers but by the massed instrumentalists:

Sometimes sixteen played together upon their instruments, ten sackbuts, four cornetts, and two violdegambas of an extraordinary greatness; sometimes ten, six sackbuts and four cornetts; sometimes two, a cornett and a treble viol. Of these treble viols [actually violins, most likely] I heard three several there, whereof each was so good, especially one that I observed above the rest, that I never heard the like before.9

For an idea of what these instrumentalists were playing, we can turn either to Giovanni Gabrieli’s first book of Sacrae Symphoniae (1597), which contains sixteen canzonas, or to his last (posthumous) publication, Canzoni et sonate a voci, per sonar con ogni sorte de instrumenti, con il basso per l’organo (“Canzonas and other instrumental pieces for 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 14, 15, or 22 parts, to be played on all kinds of instruments, with a basso seguente for the organ”), printed by Gardano in 1615. As the title already suggests, the contents of the later book cover a wide range of styles, all reflected in Coryat’s descriptions.

The ones for larger numbers are of course polychoral, deploying massed instruments—the first orchestras, in a sense (though with only one player per part)—in antiphonal groups that answered one another in the resonant interior space of the basilica. The ones for smaller ensembles are florid studies for cornetto and violin virtuosos. As the title of the 1615 publication also shows, the word sonata was gaining currency alongside canzona to designate the newly theatricalized instrumental genre. It did not mean anything special as yet; like canzona, it was an abbreviation of the full name of the genre, canzona per sonare. From canzona per sonare (“a song for playing”) came canzona sonata (“a played song”), and then plain sonata—something “played.” The word sonata still means “something played,” of course, but the thing in question has changed many times since Gabrieli’s time.

“Songs” for Instruments

fig. 18-6 Venetian musicians in the service of the doge playing “six silver trumpets” in procession.

One of the items in the 1597 collection is called Sonata pian’e forte—“the piece played loud and soft”—and has a big, not quite deserved, historical reputation going back to Carl von Winterfeld’s Johannes Gabrieli und sein Zeitalter (“Gabrieli and his time”), one of the earliest scholarly biographies of any composer. The book was published in Berlin in 1834, when (despite its title) great composers tended to be viewed in relative isolation from their times, and when their greatness was apt to be viewed in somewhat anachronistic terms emphasizing innovation and originality—in other words, the traits by which a nineteenth-century composer’s greatness was measured.

Gabrieli’s piece (see Ex. 18-17 for its ending) was touted by Winterfeld as the first sonata, the first work to specify its instrumentation, the first work to use the violin, and the first work to specify dynamics. It was actually none of those things. Contrasting loud and soft passages had been implied for a long time in “echo” pieces, both vocal and instrumental, for which there was such a craze that as early as 1581 Lasso published a famous madrigal for two four-part choirs (“O là o che bon eccho,” roughly “O gee, what a nice echo”) making fun of it. In 1596, a year before Gabrieli’s publication, Adriano Banchieri had published a book of four-part canzoni alla francese that included one (no. 11, “La Organistina bella: in echo,” roughly “The pretty little lassie at the organ: with echo effects”) in which the echoes were obtained not by contrasting choirs but by explicit forte and piano markings. Gabrieli’s piece was thus not innovative but symptomatic. It was a symptom of the sensuous delight listeners had begun to take in sonic effects and displays of all kinds in this early period of music-as-spectacle.

“Songs” for Instruments“Songs” for Instruments

ex. 18-17 Giovanni Gabrieli, Sonata pian’e forte, end

“Songs” for Instruments

ex. 18-18 Giovanni Gabrieli, Sonata per tre violini, end

Another highly symptomatic piece, and perhaps a more significant one, is the Sonata per tre violini from the collection of 1615 (see Ex. 18-18 for its concluding fireworks). It may very well have been on the program that Thomas Coryat described, where he mentions “these treble viols” of which “I heard three several there,” playing so impressively. Since all three solo parts in this sonata are treble parts, the basso per l’organo in this case is a true basso continuo, an actual fourth part, not a basso seguente. Such a composition, for treble or trebles above an independent bass with a vague harmonic filler to be added in performance, is by standard modern definition a “baroque” sonata. Its inclusion in a book of canzonas testifies conclusively to the genealogy of what has been ever since the seventeenth century the principal genre of soloistic chamber music—instrumental music for “pure” listening enjoyment. After four hundred years, we take such a thing for granted. As we shall see, though, when it was new (and especially when it began to travel beyond the borders of Italy) it raised some knotty esthetic problems. Putting this piece at the end of our chapter on the effects of religious unrest underscores the irony: what would remain for centuries the elite genre of “absolute” secular instrumental music was born in church.


(8) Trans. Gustave Reese, in Music in the Renaissance (rev. ed., NewYork: W. W. Norton, 1959), p. 449.

(9) Coryat’s Crudities; hastily gobled up in five moneths travels (London, 1611), p. 251.

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. 30 Nov. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-018007.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 30 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-018007.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 30 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-018007.xml