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.
from notes by Timothy Roberts © 1997