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In contrast to the state of research of not so many years ago, current knowledge about the music chapel of St Mark’s in Venice is based on an increasingly extensive series of investigations into detailed aspects of the life of the ducal basilica and, more generally, of Venice as a whole. Many studies have appeared in recent years on the structure of the music chapel, on the biographies and on the system of patronage and financial support of its members, on the liturgy of the church and on the ducal ceremonial, on the relationship between these aspects and the repertoires of liturgical and figurative chant in use at the basilica[1]. The data that most characterise the Marcian chapel at the time of the Counter-Reformation are presented here in points, with the addition of some observations and speculations of a more general nature.

1 – Since St. Mark’s Basilica was the private chapel of the doge until the fall of the Republic, the doge was responsible – at least formally – for the authority over it. The doge Andrea Gritti intervened directly to ensure the election of Adrian Willaert as choir master; he and some of his successors interfered from time to time in the affairs of the church to modify the regulations of the chapel. But, in general, the actual powers over the government of the church – including the hiring and firing of musicians – were delegated to the three life-elected members of the Procuratia de Supra, some of whom were known for their strong cultural commitment even in their private lives. The recruitment of new members of the music chapel was carried out with the assistance of Marcian singers travelling outside the city, but above all – given the ‘political’ orientation of the church and the ‘political’ means at its disposal – through diplomatic channels represented by the government authorities of the mainland cities and by ambassadors and other Venetian residents abroad, the latter, above all, for the election of the chapel master (a choice, this one, always made after much reflection) and, in some cases, of castrated sopranos. For example, after the death of Willaert in 1562, the Venetian ambassadors to the Council of Trent, the Milanese, French and imperial courts, as well as the residents of Naples and Genoa, were asked for help by letter. The main musical protagonists at liturgical ceremonies are: the chapel master, the two organists, the choir chapel (mentioned below), the so-called ‘choir boys’ (who were obliged to perform most of the liturgical chant), the group of instrumentalists (four cornettists and trombonists are hired in 1568, another cornettist in 1576), the “pifferi del doge” (six players, possibly also on cornets and trombones, who accompanied the doge in processions on important state occasions, and who sometimes also played in church).

2 – When, in November 1562, the nucleus of singers at St. Mark’s was divided into two parts – the large chapel and the small chapel – it had 29 members: 6 sopranos, 9 altos, 6 tenors, 3 basses and 5 trebles singers. Not everyone had to sing every day. Those in the large chapel (the most numerous, comprising for the most part the best and most reliable singers) had the task of singing “tutti li giorni della settimana eccetto sulum li giorni di zobia e venere (all the days of the week except only the days of Thursday and Friday)”: in November 1562 there were 20 of them (4 sopranos, 5 contraltos, 3 tenors, 3 basses, 5 putti sopranos). The small chapel, comprising 2 sopranos, 4 altos, 3 tenors, no basses and the same 5 putti sopranos, sang on Thursday and Friday feast days. In addition, it had to be present in the basilica and at the disposition of the maestro di cappella on “tutti li giorni che la Serenissima Signoria andrà in giesia, et ancho li giorni et le vigilie de tutte le feste solenne che se aprirà la pala d’oro – (all the days that the Doge will go to the church, and also on the days and vigils of all the solemn feasts when the golden altarpiece will be opened)”, but without singing unless specifically requested by the maestro. At Saturday Mass only, the two chapels sang together. The lists of cantors compiled in 1556 and 1565, when the two chapels were definitively merged, show only slightly lower totals; other lists, from 1589 and 1595, however, reveal a considerable drop in the number of salaried cantors, to just thirteen.

3 – The salaries of the singers varied considerably; in the 1560s they ranged from a minimum of thirty ducats to a reasonably high maximum of eighty (the remuneration of one hundred ducats a year granted to some singers hired towards the end of the sixteenth century was not exceeded for the whole of the following century). The conditions of employment – those, to be clear, that were not written down, but sanctioned by practice – provided for a “life-long”, or at least long-lasting, appointment (there were few dismissals throughout the sixteenth century), the possibility of increasing one’s earnings by providing extraordinary services in other churches, schools and private palaces, and the provision, for old age, of a pension or other subsidy derived from prebends or sinecures administered by the Procuratia. These prebends and sinecures also served – and systematically – to increase the salaries of those singers (most of whom were priests, at least nominally) in the midst of their careers. Some members of the music chapel were also active in the music press, as well as in other areas of commercial life.

4 – As for the polyphonic obligations of the singers during Mass and Vespers, an ordinance of 1562 reminds them of the need to sing “all’Offertorio il Sanctus, Agnus Dei et post comunicationem della Messa et similmente nelli Vespri, et quando cantaranno il Sanctus, Pleni, et Osanna, alla Ellevatione. Debbino quelli cantar con li soi dui e terzi et quanto etiam meglio potrano, et non così cursivamente come si fa – (at the Offertory the Sanctus, Agnus Dei et post Communio of the Mass and similarly in Vespers, and when they will sing the Sanctus, Pleni, et Osanna, during the Elevation. They must sing with their own two and thirds and as best they can, and not so cursorily as is done)“. The use of the phrase “con li soi due e terzi (with only two and third)” may suggest two orientations: 1) the wish of the Procurators that it be sung in polyphony with the usual reduction of textures for some sections of the Ordinary; 2) more hypothetically that these reduced sections be sung by soloists. In 1581, the agent of Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara, Giulio Cesare Brancaccio, visited the church of St. Mark’s several times to ascertain the vocal qualities of a certain “Neapolitan friar of the order of minor contrabasses of St. Mark’s” (with the idea of a possible proposal of employment in the Ferrara chapel), he hears him both “accompanied” and “solo, et tra le altre alcuni terzi et duo”[2], may give the impression of knowledge at St. Mark’s not only of the above-mentioned practices, but also of that whereby a polyphonic text would be performed by a single vocal soloist with organ accompaniment and/or other instruments.

5 – If the relatively large size of the chapel and, at the same time, the notable presence of polyphonic music in the liturgical celebrations help to create, in some way, that image which is most appropriate for a large State chapel, the idea of exclusivity can also constitute a good starting point for the self-definition, in a symbolic sense, of the institution and the State. In the specific case of St. Mark’s there was a liturgy, a liturgical chant and, above all, a ducal ceremonial of a truly unique nature, doggedly defended by the leaders of the Venetian Church and State against the policies of the Counter-Reformation Church, which aimed at centralising ecclesiastical power in Rome and standardising the rite on the Tridentine model. Not exactly exclusive, perhaps, but rather peculiar is the way of performing the Vesper psalms in double choir on the main feasts; documents from St. Mark’s also show that the particular practice of dividing the chapel into two groups for the performance of these psalms – ‘quatuor cantores in uno choro, et reliqui omnes in altero (four singers in one choir and all the others in another choir)’ – is based on an older tradition of performing the relevant liturgical chant. Focusing on the compositions for large ensembles, often in broken choirs, performed on the occasion of the most important ceremonies of a ‘political-religious’ nature and on the main liturgical anniversaries, one can perhaps observe a certain precociousness of development of the Venetian repertoire compared to other Italian centres, but above all a tendency to follow the model of some other famous state chapels. The first publication containing compositions for several choirs originally intended for the Munich chapel of the Dukes of Bavaria (chapel master Orlando di Lasso) dates back to 1564. The music for large ensembles contained in the fifth volume of the Novus thesaurus musicus of 1568 are all – or almost all – attributable to composers active at the Habsburg court; the vast majority of these pieces celebrate one or other member of the ruling house. The first known polychoral piece by the Venetian Andrea Gabrieli – the twelve-voice motet Deus misereatur nostri – appears in this collection, and it is likely that the date of composition of this piece can be traced back to the musician’s time north of the Alps in or around 1562. The musical practices of the Austrian and Bavarian courts must have been well known in Venice, not only through the many contacts between the various institutions and their personnel – one recalls the stays of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Francesco Londariti, Lodovico Zacconi and others north of the Alps, and those of Orlando di Lasso in various centres of the Italian peninsula – but also through the republication in Venice, but also through the republication in Venice in 1569 of Massimo Troiano’s Discorsi delli trionfi, giostre, apparati e delle cose più notabili fatte nelle sontuose nozze dell’Illustrissimo et Eccellentissimo Signor Duca Guglielmo (the first Munich edition dates from the previous year), with its very detailed description of the music chapel of the Dukes of Bavaria.

6 – A hypothesis has been formulated for analysing the liturgical and paraliturgical texts of the music for large ensembles as so many religious allegories of important events in the civil life of the Serenissima, in the same way as that proposed for the figurative allegories of Veronese or Tintoretto. Since St. Mark’s was the official church of the State, where, alongside the normal celebrations of the liturgical year, the events of particular importance for the smooth running of the Republic could be solemnised, it is entirely reasonable to suppose that, as part of these celebrations, any text belonging to the liturgy proper to the day and, at the same time, capable of allegorically expressing that precise moment in the history of the Venetian State could be chosen for rhetorical emphasis through the setting of music for grand organ. The writing of non-liturgical texts would have been based on similar criteria. The ‘mythical’ image of Venice, manifested through historiography, political treatises, oratory, among others, is projected towards highlighting the effective unity between temporal and spiritual government, with recourse to themes such as the divine origin of the city, the divine inspiration of its laws and constitutions. Three examples for all: a) the text of Andrea Gabrieli’s eight-voice motet, Benedictus Dominus Deus Sabaoth, which clearly refers to the victory of Lepanto in 1571, characterises Venice as the heir of Samson, Gideon and, presumably, of the entire Jewish tradition (“Pugnavit Sanson, pugnavit Gedeon, vicit Sanson, vicit Gedeon. Pugnaverunt nostri in nomine Domini”), but also, through the opening words “Benedictus Dominus Deus Sabaoth. Benedicti qui pugnant in nomine Domini”, unmistakably alluding to the Sanctus/Benedictus of the Mass, as a messenger of God, in the image of Christ. b) The text of the eight-voice motet O Crux, splendidior cunctis astris, also by Andrea Gabrieli, perfectly responds to the liturgical requirements of the Mass celebrated on 3 May 1577 (in festo Inventione S. Crucis) for the foundation of Palladio’s Church of the Redeemer, erected by the Senate for the liberation of Venice from the plague of those years, and, no less, to the external, allegorical requirements of a penitential ceremony held in tempore pestis. If the Risen Christ triumphs over sin and death (the plague is understood as punishment for man’s sins), the role of the Holy Cross is well illustrated in the words of the motet: “O Crux, (…) quae sola fuisti digna portare talentum mundi: (…) salva praesentem catervam in tuis hodie laudi bus congragatam”. Thus, the performance of this motet would be placed within a wide-ranging symbolic “system”: the ceremony for the foundation of a church dedicated to the Redeemer, with which God was asked to deliver him from the plague, takes place, as mentioned above, on the occasion of the feast of the Inventio S. Crucis, in a church dedicated – as chance would have it! – to the veneration of the Cross. c) It is surprising how, in the context of the feast of the Ascension celebrated so pompously in Venice, no pieces for large ensembles appear in the printed repertoire. At least not until the coronation of Doge Marino Grimani on 26 April 1595, exactly eight days before the feast of the Ascension, which in that year fell on 4 May. Thus, to put it in liturgical terms, the octave of Grimani’s assumption to the throne of Venice coincided exactly with the eve of Christ’s assumption to the heavenly throne. This coincidence and the related message in “political-propaganda” terms are implicit in the text of the motet O Rex gloriae, qui beatum Marcum, by Giovanni Bassano, published a few years later in 1598, which combines elements derived from two liturgical texts: the first, “O Rex gloriae” refers to the feast of the Ascension; the second, “Deus qui beatum Marcum evangelistam tuum“, is recited or sung on the anniversary of the doge’s creation. This is a phenomenon that could find parallels in the texts of some of the compositions for large ensembles provided by Lasso for the court of Munich, particularly those in praise of members of the ducal house or others that, derived from the normal liturgy, nevertheless contain clear references to concepts that for obvious reasons cannot fail to be of great sympathy to members of the ruling houses (the psalms, also very much in evidence in the Venetian repertoire, also stand out). However, it is certainly not by chance that the phenomenon of political allegory, applied to the interpretation of an ordinary liturgical text, emerged in Venice in those years when the concept of the sacred power of the State, developed over the centuries, clashed with the renewed centralising and monopolising claims of the Counter-Reformation Church.

[1] Such studies and descriptions can be found in G.M.Ongaro, The Chapel of Saint Mark at the time of Adrian Willaert (1527-1562): A Documentary Study, doctoral thesis (Ph.d), Chapel Hill, 1986; J. Glixon, A Musicians’ Union in Sixteenth-Century Venice, ‘Journal of the American Musicological Society’, XXXVI, 1983, pp. 392-421.
[2] Archivio di Stato di Modena, Letterati, busta 11a, letter of 12 December 1581, cited in A. Newcomb, The Madrigal at Ferrara 1579-1597, I, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1980, p. 261.

About Post Author

Andrea Angelini

Born in Bologna, Italy, Andrea Angelini studied piano and choral music at the Conservatoires of Rimini and Ferrara, where he got a Master. He got his Doctorate in Choral Music at the Cesena Conservatoire of Music. He studied Renaissance Choral Music in England and Rome. He is the Artistic Director and Conductor of the professional group Musica Ficta Vocal Ensemble. For many years, Andrea Angelini has conducted concerts with the choir Carla Amori, in Italy and abroad. He has also conducted, as guest conductor, many important ensembles. He has been member of the Jury at many International Choir’s Competitions in Italy, Europe and Asia. He frequently leads choral workshops in Italy and abroad. (Hungary, Malaysia, Russia, China, Moldavia, Romania, Croatia). Mr. Angelini is also the artistic director of the Rimini International Choral Competition, Claudio Monteverdi Choral Competition, Queen of the Adriatic Sea Choral Festival and Competition and Liviu Borlan Choral Festival. He is the Editor of the International Choral Bulletin (ICB), the membership magazine of the IFCM (International Federation for Choral Music). He is a member for Italy of the World Choir Council. Actually he is the President of AERCO, the Emilia-Romagna Regional Association of Choirs.
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