Giovanni Gabrieli: In Ecclesiis a 14

Before we begin, a personal aside...

I would like to dedicate this week's Listening Friday to the families of those affected by the tragedy in Boston, those in or near West, Texas at the fertilizer plant (which has so far appeared to have been caused by an industrial accident, but is nonetheless devastating), and those who live worldwide in fear of their lives, held at bay by terrorism.  

I was once told by another band director when I was still in high school that we as young musicians are so lucky if we think about it.  We get to sit in a room with other musicians and play beautiful music for 1 hour a day, 5 days a week, and in that time we are completely insulated from the fear and the terror that characterize the lives of many people in this world.  Other children our age would not be so fortunate.  What we were able to do should be cherished since it is such an amazing blessing.  


As we continue our musical journey back to the beginning of time we will start seeing a dichotomy of recorded history.  Much of what survives this time period tended to fall into one of two main categories: music in the church and music outside the church.

The Secular vs. Sacred battle exists far back into the middle ages and survives today in many ways.  Patrons of religion would employ musicians to write liturgical music for their churches, often in roles where they would lead and organize musicians as well.  Other more secular musical traditions revolved around aristocracy who would encourage public performances, as the wealthy would often build up a staff containing talented musicians for their own entertainment (think Haydn).  Prior to the 1900's for all practical purposes, if you wanted to hear music you either had to learn to play it yourself or find someone who could.

Yeah he's good, but can he play YYZ on Expert?

A sad joke I hear a lot being a band director is that many people claim they only know how to "play" a tape/CD/mp3 player.  Today it is obviously much simpler to find and listen to music and to that end I think it has perhaps devalued the importance of being musically educated and proficient.  However, this is not a political blog and I will leave that discourse to another realm.  Today, we're talking about Giovanni Gabrieli (1554/1557-1612).

Imma take you Venetian Polychoral Style.
Walk into the club, I'm like "What up?  I got a big lute!"

Gabrieli came from a musical family, his uncle being composer Andrea Gabrieli (1532/1533-1585).  Uncle Andrea had been the organist at St. Mark's Basilica since around the time of his nephew's birth and it is believed that he had a great deal of influence on his nephew's upbringing (Giovanni once wrote that he was a little less than a son to his uncle).  In the year that Andrea died, Giovanni took over duties as organist and shortly thereafter the job of principal composer role as well.

The really interesting part about the lives of the Gabrieli men does not necessarily start with their own capabilities.  It starts with the building they worked in.

St. Mark's was constructed in Venice, Italy on its present site in 832 AD.  However, it was burned down, rebuilt, redecorated, and altered many times and in many ways in the intervening years.  At the time of the Gabrieli's through today it was characterized by a unique Byzantine style of construction with choir lofts spaced out on the left and right sides of the structure, facing each other.  This allowed (and encouraged) the composers at the time to write music for separate groups of instruments and voices that would then be staged in the lofts and on the stage.  The music was then orchestrated so each choir would call and respond to the other, this is also known as antiphony.  

The acoustics of the structure allowed for certain instrumentation that is essentially impossible to replicate elsewhere.  For example, there are passages written by Gabrieli (and other composers from St. Marks) where you would have a solo string player combined with a full chorus of brass.  If you attempted to perform such a piece anywhere else, the brass would drown out the poor string musician.  However in St Mark's the acoustics would allow that to balance perfectly if the instrumentalists were positioned correctly.  The resonance of the structure has been studied with a few scientists professing that the building itself was as important to the music as the notes and rhythms on the page.

Byzantine Design:  Turning Jesus up to 11.

The style in which Gabrieli wrote was known as the Venetian polychoral style.  This encompasses a lot of big words that those of you who don't possess degrees in music or have had a luxury of free time to burden yourself with learning about Renaissance and other pre-Baroque musical styles will have some difficulty with. So let me break it down:

Polyphony is a style of music where you have multiple voices (either instruments or people singing) that all have independent moving lines.  This Venetian style also implies another word we have already introduced: antiphony.  

Because Gabrieli liked writing music to suit his performance space and in the Christian church you have a tradition of responsory pieces (both musical and textural in nature) it made since to develop a similar tradition in the music performed.  In the church, you would have balconies for choirs to be placed in lofts, well above the audience as well as groups on stage in front of the audience.  Antiphonal really just means multiple opposing choirs of instruments and vocalists playing back and forth to each other both at different times or together.

To demonstrate this, our listening for today is Gabrieli's masterwork, "In Ecclesiis".  It was written for four separate choirs, two of which were comprised of vocalists and the other two instrumentalists, and basso continuo with organ and string bass.  The video is from a Christmas concert performed at St. Mark's.  These people are performing music that is over 400 years old in the same building in which it was first performed.  

For me personally, there is some music that exists outside of what we can perceive.  Pablo Casals, the famous Catalan cellist, played the Bach Cello Suites at the start of every day to cleanse his spirit because he considered them to be holy works by the master.

With Gabrieli, I see creation.  I see God in the elements, rocking out to Sonata pian 'e forte as from the dust is created life.  

Text from In Ecclesiis:

In churches bless ye the Lord.
In every place of (his) dominion,
bless the Lord, O my soul.
In God is my salvation and my glory.
God is my help,
and my hope is in God.
Our God, we call upon you;
we praise you; we worship you.
Free us; save us; give us life.
God is our helper forever.

Homework: Free write this week.  Write out a stream of consciousness as you listen.

You can leave your answers in the comments.  

See you next Friday.



"The Far Side" God cartoon is property of Gary Larson.