Giovanni Gabrieli

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Giovanni Gabrieli (15531556? – August 12, 1612) was an Italian composer and organist. He was one of the most influential musicians of his time, and represents the culmination of the Venetian School, at the time of the shift from Renaissance to Baroque style.


Gabrieli was born in Venice. While not much is known about his early life, he probably studied with his uncle, the composer Andrea Gabrieli, and he may also have studied with Orlando de Lassus while he was in Munich at the court of Duke Albrecht V; most likely he stayed there until about 1579. By 1584 he had returned to Venice, where he became principal organist at the church of San Marco in 1585, after Claudio Merulo left the post; and following his uncle's death the following year also took the post of principal composer. Also after his uncle's death he took on the task of editing much of his music, which would otherwise be lost; Andrea evidently had little inclination to publish his own music, but Giovanni's opinion of it was sufficiently high that he devoted a lot of his own time to compiling and editing it for publication.

San Marco had a long tradition of musical excellence and Gabrieli's work there made him one of the most noted composers in Europe. The vogue which began with his influential volume Sacrae symphoniae (1597) was such that composers from all over Europe, especially from Germany, came to Venice to study. Evidently he also made his new pupils study the madrigals being written in Italy, so not only did they carry back the grand Venetian polychoral style, but also the more intimate madrigalian style to their home countries; Hans Leo Hassler, Heinrich Schütz, Michael Praetorius and others helped transport the transitional early Baroque music north to Germany, an event which was decisive on subsequent music history. The productions of the German Baroque, culminating in the music of J.S. Bach, were founded on this strong tradition which had its original roots in Venice.

Gabrieli was also associated with the Confraternity of San Rocco, another Venetian church, at which some of the most renowned singers and instrumentalists in Italy performed; a vivid description of the music there survives in the travel memoirs of the English writer Thomas Coryat.

Gabrieli was increasingly ill after about 1606, at which time church authorities began to appoint deputies to take over duties he could no longer perform. He died in 1612, of complications from a kidney stone.

Music and style

Though Gabrieli composed in many of the forms current at the time, he clearly preferred sacred vocal and instrumental music. All of his secular vocal music is relatively early; late in his career he concentrated on sacred vocal and instrumental music that exploited sonority for maximum effect.

Like composers before and after him, he would use the unusual layout of the San Marco church, with its two choir lofts facing each other, to create striking spatial effects. Most of his pieces are written so that a choir or instrumental group will first be heard from the left, followed by a response from the musicians to the right (antiphon). While this polychoral style had been extant for decades—possibly Adrian Willaert was the first to make use of it, at least in Venice—Gabrieli was the first to use carefully determined groups of instruments and singers, with precise directions for instrumentation, and in more than two groups. The acoustics were such in the church—and they have changed little in four hundred years—that instruments, correctly positioned, could be heard with perfect clarity at distant points. Thus instrumentation which looks strange on paper, for instance a single string player versus a large group of brass instruments, can be made to sound, in San Marco, in perfect balance.

Gabrieli was original not only in his use of instrumentation, but in his development of dynamic markings. His Sonata pian e forte is possibly the earliest piece to use dynamics; certainly it is the earliest influential piece to do so. In addition, he was one of the first composers to use basso continuo, a technique popularized in a 1602 musical collection by Viadana.

References and further reading

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