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  • Graham Abbott

Music for San Marco

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

In this post we’re going to focus on music spanning several centuries which has one thing in common: it was all intended to be heard in the same building. The building in question is one of my favourite places in the whole world, the Basilica of San Marco - St Mark’s Basilica - in Venice. For many centuries this amazing church had an international reputation as a centre for some of the most beautiful, lavish and spectacular church music ever conceived. The words “beautiful”, “lavish” and “spectacular” appropriately describe the magnificent building itself, one of the glories of Christian architecture in Europe.


San Marco: interior

With the arrival in Venice of the purported remains of St Mark (the writer of the second book of the New Testament) in 828 AD, a small basilica was built to house the precious relic. A century and a half later, in 976, this building was damaged by fire but quickly repaired. Less than a century after that, in 1063, the decision was made by the Doge, Domenico Contarini, to demolish the small sanctuary - which had become one of the most important places of pilgrimage in Europe - and replace it with a much larger building with five domes, the basis for the basilica which is known today. It was thirty years before this was finished, in 1094 during the reign of the Doge Vitale Falier, and it was Falier who made the decision that St Mark’s should be the Doge’s personal church, or palatine chapel.


Doge Vitale Falier

The original facade of the present building

This association of St Mark’s with temporal power as much as religious symbolism meant that the building took on enormous significance in a city-republic renowned for symbolic gesture, ceremonial display and civic ritual. The legendary interior decoration - the staggeringly beautiful mosaics in gold which cover the 8,000 square metres of walls and ceilings inside and out - date mostly from the 12th and 13th centuries. Coupled with a riotous use of marble in the floors, the whole edifice is a gigantic echo chamber with acoustic reverberations lasting up to eight seconds. The many lofts and galleries on the upper level meant that the liturgy was punctuated by music from various, sometimes invisible, sources which enveloped the congregation in a spine-chilling cloak of voluptuous sound.


San Marco: interior

In this unique and breath-taking environment worked some of the finest musicians of the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods. Not only composers, but singers, organists and instrumentalists of the first rank made up a musical establishment which was the most important and influential musical establishment in Venice. Documents mention the music at St Mark’s as far back as 1316, but one of the earliest surviving pieces of music known to have been written for the building dates from around 1406, a motet by the Flemish composer Johannes Ciconia. Called Venecie mundi splendor, it honours the Doge Michele Steno on the occasion of the Venetian conquest of Padua. Ciconia was living in Padua at the time and it is thought that this motet was written as part of an act of submission by Ciconia’s conquered patron before the Doge. [listen]


Jacopo de' Barbari: Venice (1500)

The music at St Mark’s was overseen by the maestro di capella, the church’s director of music. St Mark’s musical strengths and reputation developed through the 15th century so that in the early 16th century - in 1527 to be exact - the Flemish composer Adrian Willaert was appointed maestro di capella. Willaert was internationally famous; his appointment was part of a conscious effort of the part of the Doge, Andrea Gritti, to enhance Venice’s reputation and international standing. Willaert was incredibly prolific as a composer, leaving a huge amount of sacred music, as well as a not insignificant amount of secular vocal music. He was a renowned teacher and much admired by his contemporaries. Although he spent the majority of his working life in Italy he never lost the Flemish style. This is Willaert’s rich, darkly-scored motet O crux splendidior. It’s a hymn of devotion to the cross of Jesus. [listen]


Adrian Willaert

Willaert was maestro di capella at St Mark’s until his death in 1562, a tenure of some 38 years. His time in Venice marks the beginning of the golden age of music in the great building, during which Venice maintained its own particular localised version of the liturgy, stubbornly holding out against demands from Rome to conform. Because of the specialised requirements of Venetian worship, it’s interesting that in nearly every case for the next three centuries, the maestro di capella not only was a man who had worked his way up through the ranks as a singer, instrumentalist or organist, but also someone who was actually Venetian-born.


Willaert was succeeded in 1563 by Cipriano de Rore, an appointment which didn’t work out because of his unwillingness to be involved in some of the work of administering the Basilica’s two choirs. De Rore left the following year and was replaced by Gioseffo Zarlino.


Zarlino was a pivotal figure in 16th century Italian music. A pupil of Willaert, he was one of the most famous musical theorists of his day. His book Le istitutioni harmoniche (The Foundations of Harmony) is, according to Grove, “a landmark in the history of music theory.” Ironically, for someone who directed the music at St Mark’s for 35 years, Zarlino seems to have composed very little himself. The best music during his tenure was written by three other musicians who worked under his leadership, all of whom were famous but none of whom actually held the post of maestro di capella.


Gioseffo Zarlino

The first of these is Claudio Merulo, who in 1557 at the age of 24 was unanimously elected as St Mark’s principal organist. (He should not be confused with Tarquinio Merula, a composer of a younger generation.) Merulo was an active composer for the Venetian state, providing music for sacred and secular occasions; he remained at St Mark’s for 27 years before leaving to work elsewhere, eventually taking up the post of organist at Parma Cathedral. This is an organ Magnificat by Merulo. Its extravagant organ writing, elaborating the chant heard in the voices, would have sounded striking in the ringing, resonant acoustic of St Mark’s. [listen]


Claudio Merulo

The other two famous musicians who were appointed during Zarlino’s tenure as maestro di capella at St Mark’s were Andrea Gabrieli and his nephew Giovanni. The Gabrielis are the first musicians associated with St Mark’s whose names are reasonably well-known today. Andrea Gabrieli unsuccessfully applied for the post of first organist at the basilica in 1557 (when it went to Merulo), but probably worked on a casual basis for the church before being appointed one of the permanent organists in the late 1560s. With the music written for St Mark’s in the late 16th century, the building’s acoustics and the split choir lofts (each with its own organ) and other galleries are utilised to the fullest advantage to provide music which reminded all who heard it of the grandeur and power of Venice in the world. This 16-part setting of the Gloria by Andrea Gabrieli (for four four-part choirs) was published in 1587. [listen]


Andrea’s nephew, Giovanni Gabrieli, was appointed an organist at St Mark’s in 1585. He is best-remembered today for his sumptuous instrumental works employing multiple choirs of instruments, tailor-made for the building in which he worked. The masses and other ceremonies held in and around St Mark’s had ample opportunities for non-vocal works as well as those setting liturgical texts.


San Marco: interior, showing the multiple choir galleries

In 1585 a delegation of Japanese princes visited Venice and a high mass was held in St Mark’s to commemorate the occasion. One writer of the time recorded: “The church of St Mark was so full of people that one could not move a step, and a new platform was built for the singers, adjoining which there was a portable organ, in addition to the two famous organs of the church: and the other instruments made the most excellent music, in which the best singers and players that can be found in this region took part. The Most Illustrious Signory came...and thus the Mass began, sung by four choirs with all the solemnity that was possible...”


There can be little doubt that on this and many other similar occasions, the music of Giovanni Gabrieli would have filled those amazing spaces. This 18-part Easter motet for three choirs of instruments and voices, Hic est filius Dei, is a perfect example. [listen]


Giovanni Gabrieli

Zarlino was maestro di capella at St Mark’s until his death in 1590, and he was succeeded by a musician who, like him, had been a pupil of Willaert. The new director, Baldassare Donato, had been a member of the musical establishment at St Mark’s virtually his whole life, holding various teaching, administrative and performing positions before making it to the top. Donato’s sacred music is close in style to that of the Gabrielis but in terms of influence, it was his secular music (mainly madrigals and secular songs) which was better-known and more widely disseminated.


Donato died in 1603 and was succeeded by Giovanni Croce, a pupil of Zarlino and someone who would have been a trusted colleague of Merulo, Donato and the Gabrielis. Croce held the post for six years and among his sacred works are settings of short texts which would have been used in place of chant antiphons before larger-scale psalm settings. This one, O viri Veniti, addresses the people of Venice directly, encouraging them to use music to praise the blessed Virgin. [listen]


Croce’s incumbency as maestro di capella at St Mark’s had “mixed reviews”, as we would say today. He died in 1609 after a period in which it could be said that he held the fort but didn’t make huge advances. There are no doubts as to the success or otherwise of the three-year tenure of his successor, though. Giulio Cesare Martinengo was generally regarded as a disastrous appointment. The church was still paying off debts he accrued two years after his death in 1612. Clearly a major figure was needed to revive the musical environment, and by a stroke of pure luck, circumstances made the greatest composer of the age available for St Mark’s. Like Martinengo he was an outsider, not a Venetian. Unlike Martinengo he was a genius. His name was Claudio Monteverdi.


Monteverdi was appointed maestro di capella at St Mark’s in 1613 and he held the post until his death 30 years later. His first opera Orfeo and the famous Vespers had already been composed in Mantua; these works were not intended for Venice and the Vespers in particular, while they were more than likely performed in the famous church, were not written to exploit the properties of this unique building. Monteverdi had been using Venetian publishers for his music for quite some time - Venice was a major centre for music publishing - but the sacred music intended for St Mark’s is to be found in his later collections, particularly the Selva morale e spirituale, published in the early 1640s.


Strozzi: Claudio Monteverdi (1630)

This huge collection of psalms and other liturgical works shows a brilliant, creative spirit. Monteverdi’s later sacred works regularly invoke the world of opera and madrigal, with flamboyant vocal display and intensely emotional settings of text. Instruments predominate, and the seismic shift from the Renaissance love of wind instruments to the Baroque focus on strings is increasingly evident. As in the music of the Gabrielis, there is little in Monteverdi’s sacred music in the way of what we would think of as “choral” music. Most of the music is written for solo voices, either with simple continuo accompaniment, or with complicated instrumental parts.


This setting of the Psalm 116 (117), Laudate dominum omnes gentes, contains stunning vocal display and amazing moments of descending chromatic harmony. The sinking harmonies which set the words “misericordia ejus” (meaning “his merciful kindness”) still shock us today, 400 years after they were written. This musical expression of post-Renaissance Mannerism is right out of the world of Monteverdi’s madrigals, with the power of their musical expression. [listen]


San Marco today

After Monteverdi’s death in 1643, the post of maestro di capella at St Mark’s was held by Giovanni Rovetta, who had worked his way up through the ranks and was an admired composer even during Monteverdi’s lifetime. This is his beautiful setting of the Salve Regina for voices and continuo. [listen]


After 24 years at St Mark’s, Rovetta was succeeded by the most famous opera composer of late 17th century Venice, Francesco Cavalli, who was maestro di capella for eight years from 1668 until 1676. Cavalli left a substantial amount of sacred music, sadly rarely heard today. This is his setting of the psalm Nisi Dominus. [listen]


His successor, Natale Monferrato, held the post for nine years. Monferrato has been sidelined by the reputations of his predecessor and successor, which is a tragedy. He too left an important body of sacred music, including this joyous Jubilate Deo. [listen]


Monferrato was succeeded in 1685 by Giovanni Legrenzi. Legrenzi is remembered today as a composer of superb vocal music (including operas, oratorios and liturgical works) and much instrumental music; he was a major figure in the late 17th century Italian Baroque. Legrenzi’s career involved working for a number of Venetian churches, and he had been vice-maestro di capella at St Mark’s for some time before being appointed to the top job. He was paid the highest-recorded salary in both positions and oversaw an expansion in the number of singers and instrumentalists to their largest recorded size. Sadly, he was only in the top post for five years before his death in 1690, but happily much sacred music by him has survived. One of his greatest achievements is a huge setting of the Dies irae in the grand Venetian style. [listen]


Giovanni Legrenzi

Space doesn’t permit us here to go into much more detail about subsequent holders of the post of maestro di capella at St Mark’s except to mention a couple who were more famous. Holding the post from 1736 to 1740 was Antonio Lotti. Lotti was an influential and prolific composer of operas, secular vocal music and sacred music. He seems to have avoided the more flamboyant aspects of his style - evident in his music written for other places - when he came to write sacred music for St Mark’s. This setting of O vos omnes, written for St Mark’s, shows that even by the 1730s, composers thought that the composition of music for the great basilica should look backwards rather than forwards. To give a point of reference, this music is exactly contemporary with the cantatas of JS Bach. [listen]


Canaletto: Piazza San Marco (1720s)

To conclude we’ll hear music by Baldassare Galuppi, who was maestro di capella at St Mark’s during the lifetimes of Haydn and Mozart. A native Venetian, he was also a famous opera composer but he had a parallel career as a church musician. He had been part of the permanent staff at St Mark’s since 1748 (when he was appointed vice-maestro), culminating in his appointment as maestro 20 years later.


Baldassare Galuppi (1750s)

Galuppi was hugely famous in Italy and throughout Europe, and his music is graceful and elegant in the early Classical manner. This is his setting of the Te Deum. [listen]


St Mark’s basilica of course still stands in Venice, now noisily tramped through by tourists but still a reminder of the glorious sounds its interiors once inspired. In the 900 years it has stood it has always taken the breath away, with or without its music, but how much richer we are for the music created by those who worked within it.


Venice from space

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2008.

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