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The Gabrieli Consort and Players return to the programme that put them on the musical map when it was originally recorded and released in 1990: A Venetian Coronation 1595 is a musical re-creation evoking the grand pageantry of the Coronation Mass for Venetian Doge Marino Grimani. His love of ceremony and state festivals fuelled an extraordinary musical bounty during his reign and formed the background to the musical riches of the period, especially to the works of Giovanni Gabrieli. With cornetts, sackbuts and an all-male consort, Paul McCreesh fully exploits the dazzling polyphony of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli’s music and captivates the audience in a theatrical and ceremonious performance. Two decades later, the Gabrieli's New Venetian Coronation takes advantage of huge developments in early instruments, performance techniques and research into the pieces that were on the original (as well as advances in recording techniques).
The Venetian coronation rite
Venice’s meritocratic form of government, and the role of the Doge as primus inter pares, led to a coronation ritual that differs substantially from most other European rites. After a complex system of balloting by 41 senior statesmen, the election of a new Doge was heralded by the ringing of bells. If the choice proved popular, widespread rejoicing would often follow.
The official coronation ceremonies were tripartite. The Doge entered St Mark’s where he received the Ducal banner and was presented to the people; he was then carried around the Piazza San Marco, throwing specially minted coins to the crowds, and finally he was crowned with the Ducal beretta on top of the Scala dei Giganti in the courtyard of the Ducal palace. These formalities, although performed in the presence of St Mark’s clergy, were essentially secular and it was only with the actual Coronation Mass, celebrated in the Basilica the next morning, that the new Doge’s appointment was solemnized.
The election of Marino Grimani (1532-1605) was welcomed with particular enthusiasm by revellers who ripped up stalls in the Piazza to fuel a huge bonfire. Grimani responded to this popular support by rewarding the populace with ample gifts of wine, bread and money.
The Cappella Marciana
In 1595 St Mark’s maestro di cappella was Baldassare Donato, a sound administrator, if a somewhat insipid composer, who had spent his entire life in the Basilica’s service. Giovanni Gabrieli served as one of the organists, and composed much large-scale festival music. The Cappella Marciana comprised some 16 singers with an instrumental ensemble of cornetts, sackbuts and a few string players, often greatly augmented by freelance musicians. The Doge’s own piffari e trombone and retinue of fanfare-trumpeters were also present at major events, contemporary descriptions mentioning up to 24 trumpeters and drummers. In addition to the Basilica’s two famed organs it was customary to hire additional chamber organs. The introit was usually sung by the Cappella Marciana, but all other plainchant was sung by a separate body of clerics.
There were at least seven areas around the altar area from which musicians performed, including the two organ galleries and the pulpitum magnum cantorum or bigonzo by the screen. The division of forces into two, three or four spacially separated vocal and instrumental ‘choirs’ is one of the most characteristic features of Venetian sacred music. The musicians almost certainly faced inwards towards the altar and the Doge’s seat, the main aim being to tickle the ears of the dignatories rather than fill the Basilica with washes of sound. Much of the music bears this out: even in the very grandest polychoral pieces there is still a delicate interplay between voices and instruments.
It is difficult to date so much of the Venetian repertoire, especially sacred music which was often published in large, retrospective and sometimes posthumous collections. There is evidence that music remained in repertoire some decades after composition, stile antico polyphony rubbing shoulders with motets and concerti in a more up-to-date style. The Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus are performed in settings by Andrea Gabrieli (c1533-1585), Giovanni’s uncle and a previous organist at the Basilica. The four-choir Gloria may date from the Mass of the visiting Japanese Princes in 1585, whilst the more expansive settings of Kyrie-Christe-Kyrie and Sanctus-Benedictus are a masterful blend of poised polyphony and the rich sonorities of three contrasted choirs. The Communion motet O sacrum convivium, probably the earliest work included, is altogether more intimate, at once restrained and ecstatic.
Giovanni Gabrieli’s compositions also feature prominently, including a brilliant setting of the collect for St Mark, Deus qui beatum Marcum, in classic cori spezzati style. The festive motet Omnes gentes, one of the few four-choir pieces written before the new century, is included as a final motet of praise. The text, from Psalm 46, refers in passing to the Ascension, but as this Psalm occurs in the office for all three major feasts of St Mark, Venetians may well have viewed this work as suitable for any festival of state rejoicing. Giovanni Gabrieli’s canzonas and sonatas are a landmark in instrumental music: extensive, elaborately scored works of a wide expressive range. The Canzona a 12 is a wonderfully cheerful work for three choirs of largely equal voices. The Canzona a 15, for three five-part choirs, is an altogether more sombre work for which Gabrieli, unusually, indicates a suggested scoring—the wonderfully sonorous combination of 12 trombones with two cornetti and a single 'violino' (in fact, a viola). Perhaps most surprising of all is the Canzona a 10, predominantly for high instruments in which the two highest parts have solo sections consisting of the most elaborately written virtuosic divisions, prefiguring the later Venetian concerto.
There is no extant Venetian trumpet music, but judging from concordances between the few surviving sources of early trumpet music the repertoire seems to have been pan-European. The fanfares are taken from a contemporary manuscript tutor by the Italian trumpeter Cesare Bendinelli. Organ toccatas and intonations by both Gabrielis punctuate the service at various points. There are descriptions of both St Mark’s organs playing together, but again no music survives. Following the widespread 16th-century practice of organ intabulation, Cesario Gussago’s sonata La Leona has been transcribed for two organs. The music for the Doge’s piffari ensemble of shawms and trombones is by Hans Leo Hassler, a pupil of Andrea Gabrieli and friend of Giovanni Gabrieli, active in Venice in the late 16th century. The chant is taken from a number of Venetian sources, including a 16th-century Gradual from the Basilica’s treasury.
The sequence of music in this performance takes the form of a liturgical reconstruction, not only incorporating the texts and ceremonial procedures of the Venetian Rite, but also reflecting the musico-liturgical practices of the era. In northern Italy it was customary to suppress certain items of the liturgy in order to place greater emphasis on extra-liturgical music. Most often the official text was said by the celebrant ‘in secreto’ at the High Altar. This practice was never sanctioned by the official (Roman) authorities but in Venice, more than anywhere else, it allowed music to take an ever-increasing importance in services—at St Mark’s there was even a rule allowing priests to be fined if they interrupted the music!
Certain points in the Mass were considered particularly suited to musical elaboration with toccatas, motets, sonatas and canzonas, especially the Gradual, Offertory, Elevation, Agnus Dei, Communion, Postcommunion and Deo Gratias. It is not yet clear how much of the official text was spoken, sotto voce, under such music, and in any case there seems to have been considerable flexibility in practice. In Venice, even the Agnus Dei was sometimes omitted and it is possible that almost all the chant items from the Preface onwards were covered by the multiplicity of musical substitutes. The Coronation Mass was celebrated with its own unusual and hybrid liturgy, that of a Mass of the Holy Trinity with the collect of the feast of St Mark.
Venetian liturgical sources are always complex, and research is constantly developing. If some decisions regarding minor aspects of the reconstruction are conjectural, it is nonetheless based on a thorough interpretation of all the major Venetian sources. In any case such details are relatively unimportant—the reconstruction is of necessity speculative in terms of the actual music performed on that April morning over 400 years ago. More interesting is the possibility of recreating something greater than the sum of the individual pieces, and to put all the music into a richer, more colourful and more dramatic perspective. We may have lost our ability to respond to religious and civic ritual so beloved of renaissance Venetians, but in reconstructing such events we can perhaps rediscover something of the artistic and spiritual riches of this great city at the zenith of her powers.
Paul McCreesh © 2012
Catherine Bott: I’d like to begin by taking you back to your early years and to ask when you first heard music by Giovanni or Andrea Gabrieli, and what effect it had on you.
Paul McCreesh: It would have been when I was at University. As with most young musicians, for many years I only knew the music that I played—ie the great symphonic repertoire. As a music student at the University of Manchester, one of the first set works was Monteverdi’s Orfeo. The colours of the old instruments and the different aesthetics of the music, of which I knew virtually nothing, opened my ears to an entirely new sound world. I immediately went on to discover more of this repertoire, including music by both of the Gabrielis, although at this time (the late 1970s) very few of these recordings would have been on period instruments. I do remember Andrew Parrott releasing a recording of music by Giovanni Gabrieli with the London Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble a few years later: hearing that music for the first time on old instruments, played really rather well, was quite a revelation.
What was it that particularly gripped you about this music?
I suspect that for me, as with many people, a great deal of the attraction lay in Venice herself—indeed, many early recordings of this repertoire were issued under titles such as The Glories of Venice. The grandeur of those recordings painted a romanticized picture of Venice, all bronzed mosaics, re-echoing cupolas and the sheer opulence of the sumptuous architecture. But why not? Venice has always been a city of myths: the impossible dream city, built on water, espoused to the Virgin Mary and equally inviolate in her unconquered state. Even in the Gabrielis’ time these tales were intrinsically linked with this fantastical city. You cannot avoid thinking of Venice other than in glorious technicolour—burgundies, mustards, ochres and brilliant azures. Those early brass recordings revelled in all of this, perhaps over-grandly or even crudely, but impressively nonetheless.
When did you decide you were going to start a group and at what stage did you decide to call it the Gabrieli Consort & Players?
I established the ensemble in 1982, as I left University, with a tour of the cathedrals of the north of England. At that time, I was particularly interested in older music and the Gabrielis’ music embodied the beauty and exoticism of all that I loved about this repertoire; maybe the very flamboyance of this music was also a good mirror of my personality at that time. I very much wanted to establish a group that was at once a vocal and instrumental ensemble: the interplay between voices and instruments that is the hallmark of Venetian music has become an important part of my philosophy, so the Gabrieli name has served incredibly well as an identity for the ensemble, whatever the repertoire.
When you started Gabrieli there were several groups named after composers—Gardiner had the Monteverdi Choir, Norrington had the Schütz Choir—in many ways, this was the obvious formula for ensemble names. But from the first time that I saw you and the Gabrieli Consort & Players in action, there was a blazing commitment from you to this music: your understanding and love of the repertoire was unmistakable.
I’m very touched that you comment on my love of the music: that is still there, very much so. I believe that certainly part of my motivation to conduct, and perhaps the most important part of my talent, is a simple generic love of music from all ages. When starting a new ensemble, you have to believe that you have something to say and—like every 20-something year old conductor—that you can do it better than others. As I’ve got older, I’ve learnt that I can’t necessarily always do it ‘better’ (at least not in everyone’s eyes!) but I can certainly do it differently, provided that I feel I have something to say about the music. I think I’m blessed with a very strong response to music, which is crucial for a conductor.
Let’s talk about your early performances of A Venetian Coronation. How did the project come into being?
My interest in liturgical reconstructions stemmed not from any sort of latent desire to enter the priesthood, but rather from my constant concern with programme planning—alas, that’s an obsession that still keeps me awake at night. Careful programming has always been something of a hallmark for the ensemble, but in all honesty it’s something of an agony for me; I spend literally hundreds of hours thinking about how to put music together. When, as in early or vocal repertoire, you have an abundance of short pieces of music, the conundrum of how to structure a programme is even greater. The liturgy itself, and the way it has developed over many centuries, is an interesting and beautiful art form: to employ the structure of the liturgy immediately lends the programme a natural shape and form. It puts the music in a wholly convincing historical and emotional context and lifts the music to another level, so that both polyphony and plainchant shine more brightly in the context of the ebb and the flow of the liturgical service.
How much do we know about the music that was performed at this Coronation? Is there a great deal of historical documentation on the subject or have you had to rely on educated guesses to make musical choices?
Oh, it’s completely speculative! We have no idea exactly what was performed on that April morning in 1595, but of course the real joy of the project is to create something. We have the form of the service, we have the music of the period and we have to use imagination to put the two together coherently, in a way that makes sense both structurally and musically. You might be amused to know that the order that the music appeared on in the original CD was not the order that I had planned (as has happened many times in my life since). That is part of the reason why I want to revisit this project now, 25 years on: even now, I will do it in a slightly different way.
Listening to the original CD earlier this week, I was very struck by the wonderful use that you make of different spaces and acoustics. The atmospheric opening with 50 seconds of bells immediately transports the listener …
Yes, and whilst I think we were the first to do that, it’s an idea that has often been stolen since! It’s an effective but simple way of setting the scene and of drawing the listener in; one thing you can be certain of in any church service is that it doesn’t start with a blazing motet and I wanted to reflect that. This gradual introduction (a simple organ intonation follows the chiming of the bells) reflects both the preparations for the liturgical celebration in the Basilica and the culmination of the procession, as it elaborately wends its way across Piazza San Marco and into the Basilica. For this new recording I suspect we will take this idea even further, painting a yet more elaborate sound picture during the procession and using the more ambient background of a fuller church. Controversial, maybe, but I think it’s good to continue experimenting.
Were you conscious at the time that you were doing something really quite bold and daring?
The period in the late 1980s when I began working on this project remains one of very few times that I’ve ever really sat down to serious scholarly research—I spent a great deal of time in Venice’s libraries (very little of the pertinent information had been published at that time) and in discussion with scholars of the period. Obviously, I had no idea that this recording would enjoy such success and I think it’s important to remember that whilst the recording has been very popular, it is also one of the most scholarly recordings that’s ever been made. That rather gives the lie to the idea that you can only be one thing or the other. In fact, looking back over 30 years of Gabrieli, I think it’s the creative tension between intellectual pursuit and scholarship on the one hand, and my desire to be a very free and expressive musician on the other, that is at the heart of my interpretations.
Few people appreciate that San Marco is not the grand, spacious ‘film set’ of a cathedral that one might expect, but rather a series of chambers. Clearly that has a bearing on music written for that building.
Absolutely: the music of San Marco is essentially chamber music that was mainly intended for the delight of the Doge and his invited guests, seated in the choir area. Of course there is grandeur in the music but the relative delicacy of cornetts, sackbuts and old violins—as opposed to a modern symphonic brass ensemble—demands a subtler approach, which I hope comes across on the recording.
So these liturgical services were for the Doge, not the common people, and the music, similarly, was concentrated at one small part of that enormous building?
I suspect it was a very closed world. There is a school of thought that the music and art of 16th- and 17th-century religion was an attempt to be more inclusive, to bring the ‘great unwashed’ to God, but I suspect that’s probably optimistic religious mythology. The Reformation would not have happened had religion not been almost the exclusive preserve of a very small, educated group of people. My guess is that, even in a relatively egalitarian city such as Venice, the complexities of this sort of religious worship would only have had real meaning for the upper echelons of society.
I have loved reading the personnel listed on your first recording: there are some people who are sadly no longer with us, but by and large it is full of recognizable names—artists who were at the start of their careers then.
Inevitably groups such as Gabrieli change and develop over the years and I am pleased that we have always had a very strong track record for developing new talent. It is wonderful to look back at the names on that disc, which include soloists that I work with frequently, such as Christopher Purves, Paul Agnew, Charles Daniels and Peter Harvey and other renowned musicians, such as Angus Smith (a founder member of the Orlando Consort), David Hurley (now a King’s Singer of some 20 years), James O’Donnell (Organist at Westminster Abbey), Peter Nardone (recently appointed Organist at Worcester Cathedral) … the list goes on! We all started our careers together, very much as equals, and I have learnt a great deal from these and many other colleagues.
How many of the old guard from the original recording have returned to the scene of the crime?
A few! I’m particularly pleased that we have the same principal cornettist on both discs, Jeremy West, and also Sue Addison, Nick Perry, Steve Saunders and Charles Pott, all wonderful musicians who have worked with Gabrieli over many years. In 1989, when we recorded this for the first time, there were barely a dozen excellent cornett and sackbut players in the country. Our first recording of A Venetian Coronation was something of a watershed in that it very much increased interest in these early instruments: today in the UK alone there are 20 or 30 good sackbut players and a host of young players of extraordinary talent coming through the cornett world. The resurgence of interest in these instruments is due in no small part to the wonderful teaching of Gabrieli musicians such as Jeremy West and Sue Addison. I should also add that it’s a great joy that Nick Parker, the producer of the original disc, will be at the helm for this recording too.
What sort of changes should we expect in your performance, when compared to the early recording?
This programme has evolved over the years that we’ve performed it and we’ve changed our performance in many ways, particularly with regard to scoring, tempo relationships and pitch. Most obviously, three of the movements will be done at substantially different pitches: we now have a much greater understanding of the system of clef notation known as chiavette, which means that music in certain sets of clefs has to be transposed down. Maybe I should have noticed this when I was in my 20s, but I think it only goes to show how new this territory was! In addition, the complex relationship between duple and triple time is still widely discussed by scholars. Listeners will notice a variety of tempi, fast and slow, in triple time sections. It’s a very complicated topic, and it is both frustrating and refreshing that there are questions such as this in old music where clear answers remain elusive. Two of the motets are also performed with solo voices, rather than chorally. Over the years I have come to believe that one-to-a-part singing was very common in major cathedrals: certainly Andrea Gabrieli’s magical communion motet O sacrum convivium gains a marvellous intimacy performed in this way. Likewise, Giovanni Gabrieli’s Deus qui beatum Marcum has a very different colour when performed by two solo voices accompanied by eight sackbuts.
We have changed some of the organ music and, more generally, some of the pacing is different. We are including shawm music for the first time—many of the contemporary woodcuts show shawm players in the procession—and we have also made changes to the trumpet music.
It is always refreshing to come back to a programme after a break of a few years as it allows new ideas to come to the surface. Overall, I hope that the recording will have a very different flavour—it should be an interesting re-take on the same idea and it certainly feels quite different to us as performers when we listen back to that early recording. After all, people play Beethoven symphonies time and time again!
How would you like this new re-take on your wonderful Venetian Coronation recording, almost a quarter of a century on, to be greeted?
I hope that people will welcome this recording remembering what an imaginative and ground-breaking project it was all those years ago. Like all recordings, it marked a particular moment in time but I trust that, even now, it stands out as an interesting concept. I think everyone’s understanding of this repertoire has developed over the last quarter century, and so has the playing. One particular challenge of this recording will be for us as performers to recapture the energy and surprise of our first performances of this music.
So has your appreciation of the Gabrielis’ music changed?
I still think they are both extraordinary composers. Andrea’s music is often staid and more sober, but immensely beautiful. Giovanni’s music is generally underestimated because he did not lead the history of music into a new area of development, but he was without doubt one of the great renaissance polyphonists and nobody went further than him in instrumental music for a very, very long time. Indeed, there is no comparable polychoral music from the period, perhaps with the exception of Schütz, who left his own tribute ‘At Gabrielius, Dij immortales, quantus vir’—‘but Gabrieli, immortal Gods, what a man!’
From which I infer that 30 years on, you are still glad that you chose to name your ensemble the Gabrieli Consort & Players?
Indeed, I am! I’ve always been interested in polychorality—or the physicality of space within music making. I’m sure 25 years ago I would never have dreamt that, in the same season as making this recording, I would have released a recording of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts! There are few things more amazing than Berlioz’s use of four brass bands and massed drums in what is perhaps one of the most stupendous climaxes in music, but this effect is foreshadowed centuries earlier in Andrea Gabrieli’s sublime 12-part Kyrie. I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve performed this work in churches and cathedrals all over the world, but that wonderful moment when all 12 parts enter, after such a leisurely polyphonic working out, still sends a tingle down my spine every time.
Paul McCreesh & Catherine Bott © 2012