Italian composer and organist Giovanni Gabrieli was one of the most influential musicians of his time. His work represents a culmination of the Venetian School style in a period of transition from Renaissance to Baroque.
Gabrieli was born in Venice. It is thought he studied music with his uncle, the composer Andrea Gabrieli, who was employed at St Mark’s Basilica from the 1560s until his death in 1585.
He travelled to Munich, Germany, to study at the court of Duke Albert V with Orlando de Lassus who became one of the principal influences on the development of his musical style. After the Duke’s death he returned to Venice and in 1585 he became principal organist at St Mark’s, and principal composer the following year.
San Marco had a long tradition of musical excellence and Gabrieli’s work there made him one of the most noted composers in Europe. Students of his work travelled from all over the continent and carried many influences back to their home countries, including Italian madrigals and the grand Venetian polychoral style (described beneath). His music set trends influencing future composers and culminating in the music of J.S.Bach.
Though Gabrieli composed in many of the forms current at the time, he concentrated on sacred vocal and instrumental music that exploited sonority for maximum effect. He is credited with the development of the use of dynamic marking (to indicate whether music should be played more or less loudly) – the Sonata pian e forte was one of the first documented compositions to employ this technique. He also pioneered the use of massive forces arrayed in multiple, spatially separated groups, known as the grand Venetian polychoral style.
The unusual layout of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, with its two choir lofts facing each other, encouraged him to develop the polychoral style and employ striking spatial effects. Most of his pieces are written so that a choir or instrumental group will first be heard on one side, followed by a response from the musicians on the other side. He pioneered the use of carefully specified groups of instruments and singers, with precise directions for instrumentation, and in more than two groups. The acoustics of the Basilica ensured that instruments, correctly positioned, could be heard with perfect clarity at distant points. For example a single string player set against a large group of brass instruments can be made to sound, in perfect balance.
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