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Hyperion Records

CDA66908 - Gabrieli: Sacrae Symphoniae
CDA66908

Recording details: March 1997
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: September 1997
Total duration: 72 minutes 56 seconds

'This superb disc … is the very essence of La Serenissima. Masterly performances, alive with authentic detail' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Excellent. The playing is fluent and exhilarating. An excellent recording. The notes are exemplary' (Classic CD)

'Magnificent. The range of color, breadth and depth of sonority and the majestic nobility of the composer's conception are all revealed in a manner even the most expert of modern brass players could not possibly emulate. A superlative disc and a real credit to everyone involved' (Fanfare, USA)

'L'ensemble anglais est aujourd'hui au sommet de son art' (Répertoire, France)

Sacrae Symphoniae

This recording features what we believe to be the largest group of cornett and sackbut players to have been assembled from one city since the seventeenth century, and represents the fruition of a long-held aspiration of the original members of His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts.

It was one evening in 1981, over dinner and a bottle or two of wine, that we first got together and shared our ideas. The result of this meeting was the bringing together of a rather unlikely bunch of characters and the formation of ‘HMSC’. Some years later a rather zealous critic paid us this great compliment: ‘While every member of the group is a virtuoso in his or her own right, the listener always has a clear sense that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.’

In 1608 Thomas Coryat had described hearing ‘the best musicke that ever I did in all my life … that I would willingly goe an hundred miles a foote at any time to hear the like’ after attending a rendition of Gabrieli in Venice. He goes on to record these Venetian musicians as ‘having their master or moderator to keepe them in order’. We accordingly invited our keyboard player Timothy Roberts to be our ‘moderator’, a position in keeping with the ethos of HMSC, and thankfully he agreed both to prepare the performances and to ‘keep the sessions in order’.

Over the years the pool of suitably talented London-based players has become ever larger, gradually making the recording of Gabrieli’s polychoral masterpieces feasible. The first rehearsal for this recording was a joy that we have seldom encountered, and the project as a whole saw our chamber group transformed into a willing and sensitive ‘extended family’. We are truly indebted to all who took part.

Sacrae Symphoniae is a monumental collection comprising forty-five vocal works in addition to the sixteen instrumental pieces recorded here. The canzonas and sonatas are unsurpassed—in scale, expressive range, and sheer idiomatic flair—in the entire sixteenth-century instrumental repertoire.

These glorious works range from eight parts to fifteen, with the instruments arrayed in up to three separate 'choirs'.


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Giovanni Gabrieli is among the earliest of that select group of composers whose genius was fully manifested both in vocal and instrumental music, and his ensemble canzonas and sonatas have long been recognized as being of outstanding artistic and historical significance. The sixteen such pieces printed by the Venetian publisher Gardano, along with forty-five vocal works (many of which also require instrumental participation), as Gabrieli’s great collection of 1597—the Sacrae Symphoniae—are unsurpassed, in scale, expressive range and sheer idiomatic flair, in the entire sixteenth-century instrumental repertoire; indeed, in the musically revolutionary early years of the seventeenth century they would be surpassed only by Gabrieli himself in the even more spectacular works that would be published posthumously as his Canzoni e Sonate of 1615.

The 1597 Sacrae Symphoniae is a monumental, retrospective collection reflecting the earlier part of Gabrieli’s work as one of the organists of St?Mark’s, Venice, the post that he held from 1585 until his death in 1612. Gabrieli’s years at the great Byzantine basilica coincided with the most brilliant period of its instrumental ensemble—already established for a century or more around the Doge’s personal group of wind players, or piffari—which had become a permanent ensemble in 1568 and been strengthened in the 1580s to a group of six core players to which extras were regularly added for high feasts throughout the liturgical year.

The St Mark’s ensemble of the late-sixteenth century was fundamentally a wind group in which cornetts and sackbuts (trombones) were pre-eminent; one or more violins or violas were occasionally added as a contrasting colour. It employed some of Italy’s outstanding virtuosi, including its capo de’ concerti Girolamo Dalla Casa and the renowned cornettist Giovanni Bassano, both of whom published treatises on the art of diminution (the adding of ornaments to the individual lines of vocal polyphony) during the 1580s. Such players achieved a peak of brilliance and subtlety in this improvisatory skill, which in turn was reflected in Gabrieli’s compositions.

The instruments were not heard only in consort with voices—which they might double, or accompany on independent lines—for there was also scope in the liturgy for purely instrumental pieces, predominantly in the form of canzonas that would be substituted for portions of the Mass, such as the Epistle, Post Communion or Deo Gratias. (The text for these might be spoken by a priest while the music was playing.)

It may seem curious that, as instrumental music intended mainly for the Church, the canzon per sonar—literally, a ‘song for playing’—had its origins in a form of vocal music based on amorous, if not downright bawdy, texts—the rich repertoire of Franco-Flemish chansons of the High Renaissance. Yet certain typical musical features of the chanson made it an ideal basis for instrumental performance: its clear-cut melodic shapes, often based on stereotyped patterns of repeated notes; its easily understood and memorable harmony; and its logical form which, unlike most sacred polyphony, often included repeated sections that give a sense of musical architecture independent of the poetic text.

In due course instrumentalists adopted and adapted many of these works, often adding ornamentation to make the music more idiomatic. Such pieces gave rise to others based more freely on a particular chanson, or else composed from scratch in the chanson style, and these found their way into the liturgy either as solo organ music or, where the resources were available, as music for a group of instrumentalists.

As the canzona developed it adopted features from other types of vocal polyphony, most notably the practice of cori spezzati, or ‘split choirs’, whereby the parts were grouped in two or more choirs of voices or instruments. Gabrieli was not the first to introduce the cori spezzati style to the canzona, but he quickly surpassed his contemporaries in both the complexity and the unpredictable imaginative variety of his polychoral writing. All but two of the 1597 canzonas are written for two or three ‘choirs’ of four, five or six parts; even the two that are not require a quite exceptional ensemble of ten instruments, giving much internal scope for the dialogues, echoes and other effects of musical perspective that are so vital to Gabrieli’s art.

The two sonatas in Sacrae Symphoniae seem to be the first pieces ever to be so titled. Musically, no hard-and-fast distinction between canzona and sonata can be made, but liturgically the sonata may have been associated with the heart of the Mass, the Elevation of the Host; the organist Banchieri, for example, recommended that una suonata grave be played at this point. Gabrieli’s two 1597 sonatas, one of them being the famous Sonata pian’ e forte, are sober and dignified, being written in a rich, low register alla quarta bassa, without the dance-like triple-time sections so typical of the canzona, and full of rich harmonies that anticipate the durezze e ligature (‘dissonances and suspensions’, symbolizing the sufferings of Christ) with which Italian organists of the next generation would fill their Elevation toccatas.

The wonder of Gabrieli’s instrumental music is his use of a rather limited range of musical clichés to create works of endlessly refreshing variety and imagination. Nearly all his canzonas start with repeated notes in a dactylic rhythm (long–short–short), yet these launch melodies—whether announced in transparent fugal imitation, or harmonized in block chords—that have individual beauty, and are often as catchy as folk songs.

Unlike the organ ricercar, which was usually devoted to a thorough exploration of a single theme, the canzona was full of variety, often resembling the contemporary madrigal in which each line of poetry would give birth to a fresh musical idea. Gabrieli explores all sorts of ways to make his textless pieces hang together convincingly. Several bring back the opening theme, whether as an immediate repeat, a rondo-like ritornello, or a ‘recapitulation’ towards the end. Elsewhere an internal section, often a tripla (section in triple time), may recur as a refrain, like the ‘Alleluia’ in a festal motet. Other canzonas contain no literal repetition, though their various themes are often subtly related.

It is a relatively straightforward matter to analyse these architectural patterns, to trace the proportions of Gabrieli’s masterly musical draughtsmanship. What is harder to pin down is his sure feeling for instrumental sound, for texture, and for the effective placing and spacing of simple chords—in one, perhaps anachronistic word, his ‘orchestration’. Underlying all is his unmistakable, remarkably modern harmony. While Gabrieli’s melodic style is still coloured by the old ecclesiastical modes (or ‘tones’), and his counterpoint has the strength of a master trained in the best traditions of the Renaissance, it is arguably his lucid, resonant use of simple chords that contributes most to his music’s directness and fervour.

Numbering of the Canzonas and Sonatas
The 1597 publication of Sacrae Symphoniae orders the individual works according to the size of the ensemble, from eight parts up to fifteen. The ‘C’ numbers printed in this booklet refer to the thematic catalogue (1996) of Gabrieli’s works by Richard Charteris.

For the present recording we have followed the ascending order of the modes, though for variety the six canzonas in the 12th mode have been distributed through­out the sequence.

(1): No 10 Canzon duodecimi toni a 10 C.179
A compact, lively work in the festive 12th mode and one of only two in the collection – the other being the Sonata pian’ e forte—to contrast a high with a low instrumental choir. Much of the music for each choir, too, is contrasted, as at the opening where figural writing in close imitation for the cornetts is answered by sonorous block harmony for the sackbut choir. But there is much agreement between the choirs too, as ideas are thrown wittily back and forth.

The harmony is consistently bright, based almost entirely on major chords, and Gabrieli’s feeling for contrasts of key seems remarkably modern; the ‘white-note’ harmony of the mode is punctuated by four cadences in the ‘dominant’, G major, and a delightful sprinkling of more distant major chords: B flat, D, A and E major.

(2): No 1 Canzon primi toni a 8 C.170
The first of five canzonas for two equal four-part choirs in Sacrae Symphoniae, relatively traditional pieces clearly reflecting the symmetrical formal patterns of the old chanson. The Canzon primi toni a 8 (here transposed down a fourth) is dance-like, its pavan-like rhythms and regular sequences appropriate to the ‘worthy and pleasing harmony’ (Diruta), ‘halfway between sad and cheerful’ (Zarlino) of the 1st mode, giving way twice to a tripla in sedate galliard style.

The two choirs are very much of one mind, their conversation consisting mainly of dignified agreement, and the beautiful division-like sequences (here embellished ad libitum by the cornettists) create a quality of serene nobility.

(3): No 7 Canzon primi toni a 10 C.176
A similar mood is evident in this second work in the 1st mode, whose initial theme (the opening bars are identical to those of one of Gabrieli’s organ canzonas) closely resembles that of its companion. Here, though, the scoring is not for separate choirs, but for an ensemble of ten equal parts. No instrumentation is specified; we have allocated pairs of cornetts, violins, alto cornetts and bass sackbuts, and a coupling of alto and tenor sackbut, each pair being separated, right and left, for clarity.

The canzona starts seriously, but leads through a madrigalian succession of contrasted, though related, melodies, each section rounded off by a clear cadence. The texture varies kaleidoscopically, the mid-point marked by a strikingly simple phrase in four-part harmony. A straightforward tripla, heard twice, leads into the closing canonic ‘Amen’.

(4) (8) (11) (15) (19): The Organ Solos
The organists of St?Mark’s were expected to be able to improvise fluently in the various forms required by the liturgy, and thus, typically for the period, relatively little of Gabrieli’s organ music survives in notated form. A set of Intonazioni in all the modes was published in 1593, exemplifying the Venetian tradition of brief preludes based on, and designed to introduce, plainchant (for example, the Intonazione noni toni).

Such functional pieces are one of the roots of the keyboard toccata, which in Venice usually showed off the player’s dexterity with lively divisions in one hand or the other, accompanied by simple chords, in pieces that often run to considerable length. A few such pieces by Gabrieli survive; the four toccatas recorded here are attributed to him in early-seventeenth-century German organ tablatures, though their authenticity has recently been questioned by Richard Charteris. The toccata in the fifth mode is attributed in another source to the Bavarian organist Christian Erbach; the other three, all fine pieces, may be by one of Gabrieli’s many pupils and emulators.

(5): No 9 Canzon duodecimi toni a 10 C.179
The triumphant character of the 12th mode could hardly be more fully expressed than in this joyful work. The instrumentation is not specified, but the top two parts are almost certainly intended for violins: they descend to the tenor G, just off the range of the treble cornett. These concertante parts, full of scales and arpeggios, show how brilliantly Gabrieli could incorporate the virtuoso diminutions of the instrumentalists into a formal structure of the utmost simplicity and clarity.

The brief opening tutti recurs five times, framing a series of episodes in which the soloists cavort in athletic competition, accompanied at first only by the lowest sackbuts and then by the other members of the ten-part band in a subtle display of cumulative orchestration. Gabrieli seems to invent the ethos of the Vivaldian double-violin concerto, over a century before its time.

(6): No 16 Canzon quarti toni a 15 C.185
Scored for three contrasting five-part choirs, this work is the richest and perhaps most imposing of the collection. However, like all the best orchestrators, Gabrieli refrains from over-using his tutti: the full ensemble is heard in only thirteen of the work’s seventy-one bars. The music starts in the manner of a sonata, with deep harmonies and with one instrument being followed in rhythmic canon by its fellows; later, more canzona-like features emerge, including a brief tripla just before the end.

For Zarlino, the 4th was most lachrymose of the modes, ‘even sadder’ than the 3rd, which itself could ‘move to tears’. The harmony, full of mournful semitones, gravitates repeatedly to E major, usually through a ‘dying fall’ from D minor.

Gabrieli specifies the scoring; the characteristic appearance of a single viola among the wind instruments serves to clarify the texture and also recalls a typical Venetian vocal scoring, in which a solo singer on the top voice of a low ‘choir’ would be accompanied by a group of sackbuts. The rhythms of the viola’s opening bars certainly suggest music ‘to an imaginary text’.

(7): No 8 Canzon duodecimi toni a 10 C.177
Less brilliant than some of the other 12th-mode canzonas, this masterly work (like No 7, composed for an undivided ten-part ensemble) is based on an accumulation of ideas that overlap seamlessly like the lines of a polyphonic motet or an idealized organ ricercar (did the ten instruments perhaps symbolize the organist’s ten digits?). After the rising fifths of the opening, all the parts move almost entirely by step, creating a lilting regularity in the harmony, with very few perfect cadences; the two bass instruments move as mellifluously as the others.

This evident simplicity is deceptive; there is some skilful counterpoint, especially towards the end where the instruments pair off and follow each other up and down the scale in delightful, close canon.

(9): No 6 Sonata pian’ e forte a 8, alla quarta bassa C.175
This celebrated masterpiece, one of the collection’s two sonatas, is based on a dialogue between two choirs contrasted in both pitch and timbre: the higher choir, of cornett and three sackbuts, is answered by a lower group with a viola on the top line. The piece is essentially an elegiac melody, expressively harmonized, that is passed from choir to choir; the long-breathed lines do not in themselves create much contrast, until the greater animation of the final tutti. Thus Gabrieli’s indications of loud and soft, though not unique in his work, do play a vital role in articulating the structure and are one of his many imaginative solutions to the problems of instrumental composition.

The Sonata pian’ e forte is the only one of the 1597 instrumental pieces without a designated mode. Each of the modes could be used at a high or a low pitch; here the words alla quarta bassa may indicate that the sonata, conceived outside the modal system, is already notated at low pitch and—unlike the eight-part canzonas?—should not be transposed down.

(10): No 2 Canzon septimi toni a 8 C.171
A symmetrical canzona in three sections, each of which ends with a tripla and a brief, duple-time tutti with the basses moving in sonorous canon. The first and second sections are started by choir one, the third by choir two. The almost carol-like opening tune is answered by choir two playing a more robust, leaping motif, and this discussion of contrasting themes is a feature of the whole canzona.

(12): No 3 Canzon septimi toni a 8 C.172
Zarlino describes the 7th mode as apt for texts of a ‘lascivious, angry, or cheerful’ nature, a range of moods that seems to be well represented by both this and the preceding canzona. But whereas No 2 opened with music of deceptive simplicity, the memorably energetic opening of No 3, which the late Denis Arnold described as ‘fizzing like champagne’, is based on repeated notes that both recall the military motifs of the batalla and also point towards Monteverdi’s stile concitato. This leads directly into a sequence of strongly contrasting ideas, including (unusually) two different triplas, the first of which appears twice, and a mournful passage in the ‘dominant minor’ which makes the final recapitulation of the opening section all the more effective.

(13): No 11 Canzon in echo duodecimi toni a 10 C.180
This remarkable work seems closest among the six 12th-mode canzonas to real military music, partly because of its unique, treble-dominated scoring of eight cornetts and two sackbuts, divided into two choirs, and also because of its simple, regular harmonic structure and processional feel. Was this perhaps a symbolic evocation of a military band of antiquity?

Echo-writing is one manifestation of composers’ liking, around the turn of the seventeenth century, for special effects of musical perspective. Here the effect depends on the dynamic possibilities of the cornetts rather than their physical placing, for each choir takes turns to echo the other.

Like some other canzonas, the Canzon in echo anticipates the ritornello form of the later concerto, the soloistic echo passages being framed by full ten-part sections. This structure is especially clear in the alternative version of the piece (No 12).

(14): No 5 Canzon duodecimi toni a 8 C.174
The cheerful, folksong-like opening tune, reminiscent of the opening of No 10, is heard in close imitation. Choir two soon interrupts with a lively tripla leading into a brief duple-time tutti. The central section of the canzona is based largely on a dialogue between the choirs, each of which plays mostly in block harmony. A recapitulation of the opening leads to a triumphant coda in which the basses are finally given the lead. (Transposed down a 4th.)

(16): No 13 Canzon septimi et octavi toni a 12 C.182
The 1615 collection of Gabrieli’s canzonas and sonatas would conclude with a revolutionary work, a sonata for three violins and organ in which the increasingly elaborate sonorities of the polychoral canzona are abandoned in favour of the simple, continuo-accompanied textures of Baroque chamber music. Yet the seeds of this development were already present in earlier works, and the present canzona is, despite the opulence of its scoring for three four-part choirs, in essence a work for three treble instruments, each with its own three-part accompaniment.

The three trebles (violins in our performance) exchange short melodic tags, all clichés of the canzona style. The harmony and rhythm are simple and the effect predominantly lyrical. Monotony, to which lesser composers succumbed all too easily in this kind of piece, is avoided by the unpredictability of the conversation; new ideas are instigated by all three choirs at different times, and are echoed sometimes once, sometimes twice.

The musical content is at times reminiscent of No 3, though here the vigour of the 7th mode is tempered by what Zarlino described as the ‘natural grace and sweetness’ of the 8th.

(17): No 15 Sonata octavi toni a 12 C.184
Like the Sonata pian’ e forte, this imposing piece is essentially a seamless, harmonized melody, whose wide reaches are passed from one choir to the other in a fine display of Gabrieli’s genius for controlled musical tension. Note the powerfully effective repetition of the penultimate section, and superb sense of new harmonies in the final tutti. The texture is remarkable, too, the centre of gravity in each of the six-part choirs being very low; the bottom four instruments are closely spaced, the top two wider apart, which helps the leader to shine and the second part (the top sackbut in our scoring) to emerge from the texture from time to time.

(18): No 12 Canzon in echo duodecimi toni a 10 C.181
It is uncertain why Gabrieli chose to present this echo canzona in an alternative version, in which the lower wind parts are replaced during the soloistic echo sections by the organ (in this performance, two organs). Did he wish to present an alternative way of performing an already exceptionally scored piece; or to demonstrate a new style of scoring that could be applied to other comparable canzonas? Or is this the original conception, and No 11 an alternative, perhaps for outdoor use?

(20): No 4 Canzon noni toni a 8 C.173
At first sight, the harmonies created by the 9th mode, with their many semitones, may seem similar to those of the ‘tearful’ 4th. But here the effect is sad and wistful rather than tragic, as Zarlino implies: the mode has ‘a pleasing severity, mixed with a certain cheerfulness, and soft sweetness’. This description seems apt for the conflicting tensions created by Gabrieli’s opening harmonies, with its three semitones (between the 5th and 6th, 3rd and 4th, and also 1st and flattened 2nd degrees of the scale). The tripla, heard twice, features sequential harmony whose hypnotic effect complements well the melancholy of the duple-time music. (Transposed down a 4th.)

(21): No 14 Canzon noni toni a 12 C.183
This canzona is among the finest in the collection. Perhaps in response to the special qualities of the 9th mode, it contains a great variety of themes (most of the canzona clichés appear at some point), and these are treated on a broad scale with masterly freedom. The three choirs engage in unpredictable dialogue—the opening two phrases are already irregular, two and three bars long respectively—and also digress into internal discussions, forming pairs and trios. There seems to be a teasing humour, in the uncertainty of the length of sequences, the whimsical syncopations within the uninterrupted duple metre, the expectations created then frustrated. There is no tripla and no recapitulation, yet the lively falling theme of the final bars is a perfect reply to the questioning dialogue of the opening. This, of all the varied works in the 1597 collection, perhaps shows most fully how sophisticated Gabrieli’s instrumental language had become.

Timothy Roberts © 1997

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