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Hyperion Records

CDD22072 - Lo Sposalizio – The wedding of Venice to the sea
Return of the Bucintoro on Ascension Day by Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768)
Aldo Crespi Collection, Milan / Bridgeman Art Library, London
(Originally issued on CDA67048)

Recording details: February 1998
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Ben Turner
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: April 2012
DISCID: C80B2010 AC09C70C
Total duration: 88 minutes 57 seconds


'An exceptional recorded event. Ravishing music. A very fine achievement all round' (Gramophone)

'The music is glorious, the performances exemplary, the sense of occasion overwhelming … another marvellous concept from Robert King and his redoubtable consort, here breathtakingly recreating the celebrations which would have taken place on Ascension Day circa 1600. Glitteringly recorded and a superb booklet' (The Sunday Times)

'Glorious music, gloriously performed' (Classic CD)

'The most spectacular and sonorous recording of recent months' (Contemporary Review)

Lo Sposalizio – The wedding of Venice to the sea
The processions and journey across the lagoon
The solemn Mass held in San Nicolò

From the eleventh century, Venetian mariners gathered together once each year to offer prayers to San Nicolò, the patron saint of sailors, asking for his continued protection. Initially the service was a simple benediction in which the Adriatic Sea was blessed with holy water. By the late-sixteenth century the ceremony had evolved into one of the most lavish and important dates in the Venetian calendar. Ascension Day now launched a large spring festival which was headed by the symbolic wedding of Venice to the Adriatic—the Sposalizio.

Robert King and his serried ranks of instrumentalists and singers recreate this glorious event in the grandest style. Giovanni Gabrieli's twenty-two-part Sonata (his largest-scale instrumental work), Andrea Gabrieli's 'Battle' Canzona, the church bells of Venice, fanfares for trumpets and drums, the massive sixteen-part madrigal Udite, chiari—the catalogue of riches goes on …

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From the eleventh century, Venetian mariners gathered together once each year to offer prayers to San Nicolò, the patron saint of sailors, asking for his continued protection. Initially the service was a simple Benedictio in which, alongside prayers to St Nicholas, the Adriatic Sea was blessed with holy water, but by the late sixteenth century the ceremony had evolved into one of the most lavish and important dates in the Venetian calendar. Ascension Day now launched a large spring festival which was headed by the symbolic wedding of Venice to the Adriatic—the Sposalizio. In a city where fertility rituals had always held great importance, this ceremonial marriage was accorded the greatest spectacle and pomp. The festival, which included public entertainments and a fifteen-day-long fair, also presented a potent metaphor for, and symbol of, Venetian dominion.

Two major descriptions, one describing the sixteenth-century celebrations and the other the ceremonies of a hundred years later, give us a splendid overview of the day. The basic formula was that the dignitaries of the Venetian establishment would follow the Doge, in a largely secular celebration, to a central position in the lagoon, where traditional prayers for protection would be uttered and a gold ring symbolically cast into the sea: the procession would then move on to the Church of San Nicolò on the Lido for a large church service.

The sixteenth-century Sposalizio ceremony began at dawn on Ascension Day with the Cavaliere del Doge (in charge of state ceremonies) checking whether the sea was calm enough for a procession of boats. If it was, the Vera (a ceremonial gold ring) was issued by officials of the Rason Vecchie and the Cavaliere announced the start of the Festa della Sensa. After celebrating Mass at San Marco (with no contemporary descriptions of large-scale music at this event, and plenty of music to come later in the day, it is generally assumed that this was a relatively simple service) the Doge, accompanied by all Venice’s most important figures, including ambassadors and high magistrates, would board the Bucintoro, the republic’s wonderfully ornate ceremonial galley, and be rowed by four hundred oarsmen to the centre of the lagoon. Whilst the party moved across the water, the choir of San Marco would sing motets and church bells would ring. Thousands of other boats, gondolas, hired barges, pilot boats and galleys, all decorated in the most ornate style, would join the procession. The Bucintoro would stop near the convent of Sant’ Elena, where it would meet the Patriarch of Castello on another boat. There, two canons would sing ‘Exaudi nos, Domine, cum propiciis’ (‘Hear us with favour, O Lord’), to which the Patriarch would reply ‘Ut hoc mare nobis et omnibus in eo navigantibus tranquillum et quietum concedere digneris te rogamus, audi nos’ (‘We pray that you deign to grant that this sea be tranquil and quiet for our men and for all others who sail upon it, O hear us’). The Patriarch would bless the water, and the two canons sing an Oremus. The Patriarchal boat would approach the Bucintoro, and the chief priest of San Marco, the Primicerio, would intone and bless the Doge with holy water. At the mouth of the lagoon, the point where a natural break in the Lido opens the waters of Venice to the Adriatic, the actual marriage ceremony would take place, with the Doge dropping the gold ring overboard whilst saying ‘Desponsamus te Mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii’ (‘We espouse thee, O sea, as a sign of true and perpetual dominion’). After the ceremony the Doge and his guests would stop at San Nicolò al Lido for a grand service, followed by a banquet which would last until evening.

By the seventeenth century, the early morning service at San Marco seems to have vanished, being replaced by a lavish Mass at the Church of San Nicolò al Lido after the water ceremonies. The day started at the Doge’s palace, leading straight to the secular processions and the blessing of the waters, and thence to the Church of San Nicolò for a musically spectacular Mass. An Englishman on the ‘Grand Tour’, Richard Lassels, attended one such celebration and described it in fine detail in his Voyage of Italy: ‘I happened to be in Venice thrice, at the great Sea Triumph, or feast of the Ascension, which was performed thus. About eight in the morneing, the Senators in their scarlat robes, meet at the Doges Pallace, and there taking him up, they walk with him processionaly unto the shoare, w[h]ere the Bucentoro lyes waiting them; the Pope’s Nuncio being upon his right hand, and the Patriarch of Venice, on his left hand. Then ascending into the Bucentoro, by a hansome bridge throwne out to the shoare, the Doge takes his place, and the Senators sit round the Gallie as they can, to the number of two, or three hundred. The Senate being placed, the anchor is weighed, and the slaves being warned by the Capitains whistle and the sound of trumpets, begin to strike all at once with their oares, and to make the Bucentoro march as gravely upon the water, as if she also went upon cioppini. Thus they steere for two miles upon the Laguna, while the musick plays, and sings Epithalamiums all the way long, and makes Neptune jealous to heare Hymen called upon in his dominions. Round about the Bucentoro flock a world of Piottas and Gondolas, richly covered overhead with somptuous Canopies of silks and rich stuffs, and rowed by watermen in rich liveryes, as well as the Trumpeters. Thus forrain Embassadors, divers noblemen of the country and strangers of condition wait upon the Doge’s gallie all the way long, both comeing and going. At last the Doge being arrived at the appointed place, throws a Ring into the Sea, without any other ceremony, than by saying ‘Desponsamus te Mare, in signum veri perpetui dominij: we espouse thee, ò sea, in testimony of our perpetual dominion over thee:’ and so returnes to the Church of S. Nicolas in Lio (an Iland hard by) where he assists at high Masse with the Senate. This done, he returns home againe in the same state; and invites those that accompanyed him in his Gally, to dinner in his pallace.’

The musical forces available for Lo Sposalizio
There are few cities into whose music so much research has been made, yet the known detail of exactly what was performed on major feast days in Venice, even during its heyday, is surprisingly slight. The full complement of singers available at St Mark’s at this time was around thirty, most of whom we can assume would have taken part on this, one of the most important occasions of the year. There was a similar number of instrumentalists, to which would be added the ‘outdoor’ musicians—drummers and the Doge’s famous six silver trumpets (the Piffari, the leader of whom, traditionally, did not play). From this large pool of musicians can be seen the possibilities for fanfares and traditional drumming, large-scale music intended for public consumption, and more intimate pieces which (in line with the traditions followed at services within St Mark’s) were intended only for the ears of the Doge and the immediate dignitaries.

The importance of San Nicolò
To a twentieth-century visitor, the Church of San Nicolò al Lido appears a relatively unspectacular building in comparison with the many more ornate churches that the city possesses. Of the hundreds of saints whom the Venetians venerated (many of whom were local in origin, others of whom had seen repositories found for their relics during the time of the crusades, often having been stolen from the East), four took pride of place in Venetian hagiology: Marco (to whom the famous basilica was dedicated), Teodoro (who had been the patron saint in Venice before the arrival of Marco), Giorgio (the same George whose dragon-slaying exploits led to his adoption as patron saint of England) and Nicolò, the patron saint of sailors. Nicolò’s cult in Venice had started at least as early as the eleventh century, and the Venetians had built a monastery on the Lido in his honour in 1053. The site of this monastery, at the gateway to the Adriatic Sea, gave Nicolò added importance to this predominantly maritime population. The ritual homage paid by the Doge and Patriarch to Nicolò suggests that the saint himself may have officiated at early celebrations of the Sposalizio: until 1172 the monastery was the site where the citizens assembled to acclaim new Doges, and throughout the Renaissance was used as a banqueting hall for departing captains general. Only during the succeeding centuries, as mainland Venice expanded, was the monastery eclipsed as a centre of great religious and political significance by the newly built Doge’s Palace and Basilica of San Marco. But by his continued protection of the Venetians at sea, and by his patronage of the Doge and captain general, San Nicolò maintained a balance with Marco, complementing his spiritual functions and maintaining links with the general population by having an urban location for his major shrine.

The processions and journey across the lagoon
Ascension Day begins in St Mark’s Square, with the bell of the basilica. From outside the square emerges a procession of drums, which announces the arrival of the Doge and his guests; this procession is joined, as described by Lassels, by the silver trumpets, playing the ‘Rotta’ fanfare written down by Fantini in his method for trumpet playing. Fantini’s fanfares are heard at several junctures during this recording, and are representative of the more ‘modern’ type of fanfare that was coming into vogue at the start of the seventeenth century, replacing the old-fashioned works previously transcribed by Bendinelli. Once the Doge is in place, the grand madrigal Vieni, vieni Himeneo is performed, set for two choirs of voices and instruments; it solemnly welcomes the assembled company and makes, as Lassels described, ‘Neptune jealous to heare Hymen called upon in his dominions’. Published posthumously in 1590, its style is representative of the later works of the much respected Andrea Gabrieli.

The first instrumental canzona is by another former organist of San Marco, Gioseffo Guami, described by a contemporary as being an ‘extraordinary’ string player. His noble eight-part canzona is a fine work, incorporating harmony of an unusual sweetness and varying textures with great skill, whilst encouraging the cantus players of the two opposite choirs to indulge in ornaments that match those already written out.

Whilst the musicians move for their next piece, on the Doge’s boat three chitarrone players perform a short piece by the Venetian-born lutenist Giovanni Kapsberger, typical of the new style of plucked string writing. Andrea Gabrieli’s splendid twelve-part madrigal Cantiam di Dio is a large-scale work of considerable grandeur, predominantly homophonic in texture throughout its two sections, and containing luxurious tuttis with all twelve voices and instruments; it praises God for creating heaven, earth and, of course, the sea. The drums provide a brief interlude, leading to a more warlike work, Andrea Gabrieli’s canzona La Battaglia, which he specifies should be played on eight wind instruments. The tradition of writing battle music was a popular one in the sixteenth century: Gabrieli’s writing looks back to pieces such as Janequin’s chanson La bataille de Marignan and Hermann Werrecore’s Bataglia taliana, written to celebrate the defeat of the French at the Battle of Pavia. Between the expected trumpet calls and battle fanfares Gabrieli includes writing of exquisite subtlety.

Andrea’s nephew Giovanni provides a sublime musical contrast with his delicious eight-part madrigal Lieto godea sedendo, set in this recording for two falsettists and a rich string accompaniment. First published in 1587, the madrigal proved to be especially popular, being arranged both as a lute duet and also by Gabrieli’s pupil Schütz as part of his Psalmen Davids (1619). In the midst of a traditionally damp Venetian spring its mildly erotic, lovesick tone must have brought on longings for the arrival of good weather. La Folia, here improvised on three plucked-string instruments after the style of Alessandro Piccinini, was newly arrived in Italy from Spain, and enjoying great popularity.

La Leona, the title of Cesario Gussago’s Canzona XIX, refers to the Venetian lion. Predominantly chordal in style, Gussago’s writing is highly attractive in its interplay between the two opposing choirs of instruments. The title may have been his idea—or that of his publisher, trying to make the work more saleable to the Venetian public!

Like La Folia, the Ciaccona was entering Italian music at the start of the seventeenth century: its popularity proved to be such that almost every composer incorporated this new form into a multitude of works. Here, the players improvise on one of the shortest examples of the bass line.

Giovanni Gabrieli’s massive, double-choir, sixteen-part madrigal Udite, chiari e generosi figli is the vocal pièce de résistance of the secular celebrations, with a text full of references to nautical mythological figures; this mythology would have been readily comprehensible to any educated Venetian. Gabrieli sets the work for fourteen voices, supporting them below with basso continuo and above with a lone ‘cornetto muto’. The eight singers of the first choir take the role of Tritons, calling on the citizens of Adria to listen to Poseidon, King of the Oceans (here Adria is an allusion to Venice, rather than the town which sat between the mouths of the rivers Po and Adige). Triton himself was the son of Poseidon, and dwelt in a golden palace at the bottom of the sea. ‘Gradita’ (literally ‘chargers’, or white horses) refers to Triton’s practice of riding sea horses or other monsters. The Tritons (part human, part fish) would, at the command of Poseidon, blow on a trumpet made out of a shell and soothe the waves. The second choir takes the role of Sirens. In mythology, these were sea nymphs who had the power of charming all who heard them with their singing. Ulysses avoided their wiles by tying himself to the mast of his ship and by filling the ears of his companions with wax. When Jason and the Argonauts sailed by, the Sirens sang in vain, surpassed by Orpheus and his lyre; finding someone who was unmoved by their songs, they threw themselves into the sea, and were metamorphosed into rocks. Amphitrite was one of the fifty Nereids (another was Thetis, mother of Achilles) and was the mother of Triton. Gabrieli’s madrigal is a magnificent, large-scale composition, full of word-painting and dramatic contrasts, climaxing in a remarkable sixteen-part final chorus which urges the Venetians to be bold and proud.

Before the Doge reaches the position in the lagoon from where he casts his ring into the waters, the instrumentalists play Lodovico Viadana’s excellent canzona La Veneziana. Part of a collection which names each canzona after an Italian city, this work splendidly manages to combine a lively and fresh opening with music of solemnity, admirably summing up two contrasting aspects of Venice. As the secular part of the Sposalizio closes, the trumpeters sound the fanfare Imperiale prima, joined by the drummers who lead the procession across the lagoon towards the Lido.

The solemn Mass held in San Nicolò
‘… And so [the Doge] returnes to the Church of S. Nicolas in Lio … where he assists at high Masse with the Senate’ … Whereas the sequence of music for the secular ceremonies of Lo Sposalizio has to be largely putative, the form for the music used during the celebration of High Mass is more clearly documented. The major musical highlights are presented here (the full service would have filled two compact discs on its own). The proceedings are announced by the bell of San Nicolò, tolling to announce the start of the Mass. Outside the church, the trumpeters sound a fanfare to herald the arrival of the Doge.

Moving inside the church, the first musical element in the service is Giovanni Gabrieli’s magnificent twelve-part Kyrie. The opening section places a lone solo tenor over four sackbuts in magnificently poised music of great solemnity. In the ‘Christe’ they are joined by a higher choir of instruments in writing that is more personal and penitential. The third part adds the ‘Capella’ (tutti choir) to the existing two choirs of soloists and instruments, creating sumptuous twelve-part textures. Andrea Gabrieli’s remarkable sixteen-part setting of the Gloria, written for four choirs, is an equally striking piece. Three of the choirs are of solo singers and instruments: the fourth is the tutti ‘Capella’. With a long text to set, Gabrieli’s largely syllabic setting functions very effectively, with writing for the alternating choirs contrasting with mighty pillars of sound when all four sound together. The final ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ dances in its new-found triple metre.

A short organ Intonatione introduces Tiburtio Massaino’s brooding Canzon per otto tromboni: another remarkable work, it presents the noble sound of eight sackbuts. The resultant sonorities are striking, showing not only the power of such an ensemble when playing loudly, but demonstrating the surprisingly intimate sound of the instruments when they are played softly. Plainsong chant would have played a large part in the service; here we have the Sursum corda with its special Preface for Ascension Day. It leads directly into Giovanni Gabrieli’s extraordinary twelve-part setting of the Sanctus, with a scoring which parallels that of the Kyrie. Once again, sonority and timbre are used to the full, the ethereal heavens contrasted with the lowly earth, and the ‘Hosannas’ dancing joyously.

Before the Communion motet another Intonatione by Andrea Gabrieli is sounded on the organ, leading into Claudio Monteverdi’s ravishing Christe, adoramus te, subtitled ‘Nella Elevatione di N. Signore’. Here is the master at work, creating a miniature masterpiece: the opening writing is largely in homophonic style, contrasting with the rising chromaticism of ‘quia per Sanctam Crucem tuam’ and the plaintive, supplicatory phrasing of the solo-voiced ‘redemisti mundum’.

Closing the service is Giovanni Gabrieli’s sublime Sonata XX. Written for twenty-two instruments and basso continuo, playing in five separate choirs, this is the composer’s largest-scale instrumental work. Gabrieli’s handling of the large ensemble shows his complete mastery of the form. Each choir is introduced separately and has its own character: the opening six-part choir presents calm solemnity with a gently dotted, rising melody and a contrasting falling motif comprising adjacent pairs of notes. The second choir enters with the traditional dactylic canzona rhythm (long, short, short). The third choir is of lower-pitched instruments, given here to four sackbuts (Gabrieli specifies instrumentation for only three of the twenty-two instrumental lines), and is followed by a more lightly scored fourth choir, echoing the second choir in style and tessitura. The fifth choir is treated quite differently, with writing that is busier and more active—well suited to string instruments. Only after some minutes do we hear the first, sumptuous tutti, first softly, as if ‘testing the waters’, and then a few bars later with more emphasis. Gabrieli moves to a less formal section, featuring a variety of combinations of choirs and occasionally combining all five. The duration of these dialogues becomes shorter and suddenly, as if unable to wait any longer, a high sackbut breaks loose in a wildly exultant, jazzy rhythm. Here is the excuse for which the whole ensemble has apparently been waiting: the combined forces let loose a mighty sonic block. But Gabrieli does not loose all his cannon; returning to a brief section of inter-choral dialogue, the string choir then branches off with a wonderfully exploratory, darkly coloured section in a newly discovered triple metre. Eventually all is brought back to book and returns to the earlier, conventional duple metre, but the seeds have been sown, and each choir takes up the new, elegantly poised triple metre, building to an inescapable climax. A rest for all instruments serves only to emphasize the extraordinary power of the combined forces in another monumental pillar of sound and, as the Sonata moves towards its end, each instrument in turn celebrates with its own fanfare, closing one of the most remarkable instrumental pieces of the age.

As the Doge leaves the church, the footmen throw open the large west doors. As he steps outside the Doge is greeted by the extraordinary sound of the combined church bells of Venice pealing in their celebration of this most glorious of marriages.

Robert King © 1998

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