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ClassicsOnline Home » GABRIELI, A.: Keyboard Music (Wilson) - Ricercari / Toccate / Canzoni
Andrea Gabrieli, uncle and mentor to the unjustly more famous Giovanni, was the first true genius of the Italian keyboard school. Besides an important corpus of vocal music, this organist of San Marco composed complex monothematic ricercars, turning the form into the ancestor of the fugue; as well as brilliant preambula and toccatas, gorgeously ornamented arrangements of madrigals and chansons, and a sparking passamezzo. Glen Wilson performs a selection of these on copies of a 16th-century Italian harpsichord and spinetta.
Andrea Gabrieli (1532/33–1585)
Ricercari • Praeambula • Canzoni
The history of Venetian keyboard music of international significance commences with the shadowy figure of Dionisio Memmo, an organist of San Marco who was recruited by Henry VIII, went to England, became a great favourite at court, and narrowly escaped with his life when he was caught spying for La Serenissima. No music by him survives.
In 1540, part books were printed in Venice carrying the portentous title Musica Nova. This landmark of music history marked a shift of specific gravity in composition from vocal to instrumental; it contained polyphonic pieces called ricercari, “to be sung and played on organs or other instruments”, by the Flemish maestro di cappella at San Marco, Adriaan Willaert, and a group of colleagues and pupils. They took a concept relatively new to vocal counterpoint—continuous imitation of a series of themes through all the voices—and took it to lengths and intensities of elaboration that no choir could sustain. Henceforth the capabilities of instruments, and especially of one player at a keyboard, would spearhead compositional innovation to a degree previously unknown.
Various Italian organists, several of them from Willaert’s circle and represented in Musica Nova, had been working, in the previous decades, on the transformation of the ricercar from an improvisation to the main bearer of musical substance that it became. Chief among these was Girolamo Cavazzoni, who published four organ ricercars in 1543. In his preface, he says these date from his youth, and have since been superseded in quality by the organ-hymns he has added. These are indeed on a par with his single ricercar in Musica Nova; here keyboard music stands divested of its last traces of the gothic, fully-fledged in Renaissance grace and balance. Italy only awaited the arrival of its first true keyboard genius.
Andrea Gabrieli, also called “di Cannaregio” after the section of Venice where he was born around 1532, is the composer to whom I would offer that accolade—the way having been led by Antonio de Cabezón, whom the young Andrea may have heard as the great Spaniard passed from Mantua through the Veneto in early 1549, as part of the train of Prince Philip. Gabrieli’s keyboard output, posthumously published without apparent proofreading by his more famous nephew Giovanni, is of the first order of importance, not only in terms of the history of the art, but on its intrinsic merits; it translates into sound all the splendour of the most beautiful city in the world at the crest of its millennium.
Little is known of his journeyman years; his first known position was that of organist at the big church of San Geremia in his own sestiere, a phantom on our cover painting, with only the romanesque tower and apse still standing before reconstruction in the 18th century. Then he turns up as organist at the greatest musical establishment of the mid-sixteenth century—the Kapelle of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in Munich, directed by the epoch’s outstanding master, Orlando di Lasso. This encounter undoubtedly caused Gabrieli’s metamorphosis from brilliant organist to one of the great composers of his generation. Through Gabrieli’s recommendation, his nephew Giovanni was able to follow him to Munich, thus aiding the transfer of leadership to Venice after Munich’s musical establishment collapsed.
In 1566 Gabrieli was appointed organist at San Marco, where he stayed until his death in 1585. His colleague was Claudio Merulo; their “duelling” at the two organs excited much comment. Besides keyboard music, he composed a large corpus of sacred choral music of great magnificence and profundity, as well as six books of madrigals, and musical entertainments a stone’s throw from opera.
Gabrieli’s ricercars, tracks , , ,  and , are a quantum leap beyond previous efforts. He may not have “invented” the ricercar on a single theme—the first known example is by Jacques Buus—but he certainly made it into the ancestor of Sweelinck’s fantasias and Bach’s fugues. He probably did make first use of a countersubject, and injected contrapuntal devices such as inversion, diminution and augmentation into the fabric on a scale not yet seen. But far more significant than all this is the sheer—for want of a better term—musicality of his finest ricercars. They are organic, living creations that fully hold an intelligent listener’s attention, guiding him along from the first entrance to the final chord, despite their sobriety of means—four intertwining voices tossing themes to and fro, mostly in long notes, in one tone colour.
In the contrasting genre of the ornamented French chanson and Italian madrigal we can follow a different strand in the emancipation of instrumental music. Transcriptions of such polyphonic vocal works for keyboard brought them within reach of a single performer and were, along with dance music and variations, the backbone of the repertoire in the sixteenth century. Keyboardists loved to break up their long notes into faster passage-work, like a jazz pianist transforming a ballad. Five of our tracks, , , ,  and  are examples of such richly-ornamented chansons and madrigals; they will serve to leaven the severity of the ricercars. Gabrieli’s version of Lassus’s wildly popular Susanne un jour is probably the oldest example of what became an independent keyboard genre in Iberia: the Susana. It is given added poignancy by the mentorship mentioned above. (I like to imagine the two masters riding along the road that runs past my house, on their way to and from Frankfurt for the coronation of Maximilian II in 1562 as part of Duke Albrecht’s entourage).
Taking a cue from Cavazzoni and others, Gabrieli’s next evolutionary step is the ricercar sopra (upon) an existing vocal work : here he takes themes from his model, in this case a chanson by Crequillon, and works them out at greater length. The final threshold is the independent canzona; Gabrieli calls his ricercar arioso , canzon ariosa , or fantasia allegra. For him, the word canzona alone still implies a vocal counterpart.
Gabrieli’s only surviving dance movement is a set of variations on the bass line of the passamezzo antico . He adds a new dimension of counterpoint to what was usually an improvisational affair, and points it out with the title capriccio. Here is a likely starting-point for the tremendous passamezzos of the English virginalists.
A parallel development in keyboard virtuosity, one that was independent from the beginning, has its roots in the improvised preludes,  and , an organist would play to open the service, and to give the pitch to the choir after intervals of spoken liturgy. Out of these, and from the earlier improvisatory ricercar, grew the toccata, which came to its first fruition in the churches and palazzi of Venice. Its form here is usually tripartite—an imitative section on one theme framed by running passages. Gabrieli’s best examples, tracks ,  and , distinguish themselves by their coherent drama and gestural concision, and foreshadow the highly organized works in this style of Sweelinck.
Gabrieli’s fame as a teacher reached far beyond his native lands, as did that of the later master from another water-borne republic. Did Sweelinck study in Venice, as Mattheson averred in the early eighteenth century? I find it hard to believe he did not (his brother, the painter Gerrit, studied in Rome for several years), along with other northerners such as Hans Leo Hassler and, possibly, Elias Nicolaus Ammerbach. The only direct quotation we have from Gabrieli is a story told by the theorist Zacconi about one of Andrea’s “many scholars”, who tired of composing counterpoint on the same cantus firmus for weeks and asked for a new model. Gabrieli, saying “O you poor thing, you haven’t even begun,” immediately composed some examples of what might still be done, “each one more beautiful than the last”; when the anonymous shirker persisted, the master told him, “You will never learn anything.” He eventually departed in chagrin.
It should be noted that three of our tracks, ,  and , are anonymous in their source, squeezed in between pieces clearly attributed to Andrea Gabrieli. I think they are early works by him, possibly part of the missing fourth volume of the edition published by Giovanni—but they could be by another composer from his neighbourhood in time and place.
The instruments used in this recording are reconstructions of a Venetian harpsichord and spinet of the sixteenth century. Their soft iron single-stringing produces a more vocal sound than that usually associated with later types of Italian harpsichords.
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