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Claudio Merulo

born: 8 April 1533
died: 5 May 1604
country: Italy

Claudio Merulo arrived from Brescia Cathedral at St Mark’s as Second Organist in 1557, beating amongst others the elder Andrea Gabrieli in the competition, the auditions for which warrant scrutiny for what they reveal—candidates were presented with three tests: in the first, a four-part Kyrie or motet was selected from the Choirbook, the opening bars of which were given to the candidate, who was then expected to extemporize at the organ and to continue the thematic material, maintaining the integrity and independence of the four voice parts as though being sung by four singers. In the second test, a Gregorian theme was provided which the candidate was asked to use as a bass under three improvised parts. The theme was subsequently required to appear in the remaining three parts. Simple accompaniment was to be avoided, and fugal imitation was expected. In the third test, a small choir would sing a deliberately obscure set of verses, possibly fauxbourdons, with the candidate being required to improvise a response at the organ, showing an understanding of the presented mode, in free improvisation which should be both within and outside the mode. This final test was really an invitation for the candidate to show what they could do. One can easily surmise that the focus of these tests was not so much on the keyboard skills of the organist, which were taken almost for granted, but rather on their knowledge and application of complex compositional theory, and it goes some way to explaining the extraordinary level of compositional excellence found amongst the musicians at St Mark’s.

Merulo, having acquitted himself well in very serious competition, began a long stint at St Mark’s, progressing to First Organist in 1566. However, his departure for a relatively low-profile position at the Duomo in Parma was unusual, as it was almost unheard of for musicians to leave St Mark’s, typically dying in post. It is possible Merulo’s move had more to do with the publishing house which he ran in Venice, ownership of which passed to the Farnese family of Parma in 1584, the same year he departed.

from notes by Charles Cole © 2024


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