Sakura Salon – 3/1/2015 – Venetian Polychoral Music

The city state of Venice sits in a unique place in history. La Serenissima, the Serene Republic was exactly that, one of the few Republics in existence during its period of life. A state based on trade, it was also unique in culture, religion and in music.

Much if the uniqueness based upon Venice’s geographical position, and I don’t mean just living in a lagoon. Although the region was part of the western Roman Empire, and the Venetian church looked to Rome, Venice was much more influenced by the East than any other part of Western Catholicism. In its early, formative stages, much of its cultural influences and most of its trade was with Constantinople and the Byzantines.

This is true of politics, culture, religion and of course music. A couple of weeks ago we had listened to a number of Renaissance choral works, and one of the latest we listened to was Palestrina. If you listen to the purity and simplicity of Palestrina, you can hear the development from the great composer Josquin, but it is harder to make the leap just a few years later to the Baroque period. What happened?

Palestrina was a member of what has been called The Roman School of Renaissance music, a conservative style of writing endorsed by the Council of Trent. However Venice, often different in all things from Rome (Venice as a city was once excommunicated by Rome) began to develop in a different way, now known as the Venetian School.

A couple of factors led to this. One was, of all things, printing. In the early 16th century, Venice, prosperous and stable, had become an important center of music publishing; composers came from all parts of Europe to benefit from the new technology, which then was only a few decades old. Composers from northern Europe—especially Flanders and France—were already renowned as the most skilled composers in Europe, and many of them came to Venice. The international flavor of musical society in the city was to linger into the 17th century. But it still needed a catalyst.


San Marco

More importantly was a building. Many composers used the acoustics of the churches where they worked – Renaissance religious choral music was designed for the reverberation of a cathedral. However, the Basilica San Marco (St. Marks) in Venice was different. Not only an acoustical marvel, Saint Mark’s was constructed with the constant influence of Byzantine ideas and architectural styles, and possessed not one but two organs in two separate choir lofts opposite each other in the northern and southern extremities of the transept of the cathedral. However, these were difficult to use simultaneously due to the style of choral music at the time, and the difficulties of conducting the widely disparate parts.

Music had languished at St Marks, until the appointment of the Netherland’s composer Adrian Willaert in 1527 as maestro di cappela. When Willaert arrived, he hit upon the quite simple solution to using the basilica. This was antiphonal singing, or as it has become known, the Venetian polychoral style.

In effect, Willaert thought out of the box and realized that he could not use one choir, divided into sections. But he could use two choirs – or groupings of musicians – that were independent of each other yet sang together. They would often sing antiphonally – or a call and response – but also together as two separate choirs (and by choirs I mean groupings of instruments).   Later the front of the church was also used, so that much of the music may have more than two choirs. This polychoral style of composition became the hallmark of music at St. Mark’s, and is still the style of music we associate with the basilica today.


Prior to this much of western music was based on similarities – interest was caused by polyphony, rhythmic stretching and condensing, and long fluid lines. Now we introduce true contrasting into western music.


Basic to the polychoral style is the principle of tonal contrast achieved by the opposition of differently placed vocal or instrumental groups whose performers are either of similar or different ranges and colors. Disparity in the physical placement of the groups is of primary importance, particularly at St. Mark’s, where the resonant intermingling of the opposed sounds in the lofty spaces of the cathedral in part defines the special quality of this music.


This caused a sensation across Europe, with composers from all over Europe coming to Vienna to learn this new style. Imagine the first time in the congregation and, in effect, hearing choirs in stereo with cathedral reverberations – as my son said, the first ‘surround sound’!. This was indeed the glory of Venice.

The peak of development of the Venetian School was in the 1580s, when Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli composed enormous works for multiple choirs, groups of brass and string instruments, and organ. These works are the first to include dynamics , and are among the first to include specific instructions for ensemble instrumentation.

The polychoral style spread throughout Europe, and was especially popular in Germany, and was the direct precursor to the Baroque period and Johann Sebastian Bach. And although the Gabrielis were firmly Renaissance composer, you can start to hear the changes. It was up to their successor at St Marks, Claudio Monteverdi, to mark the transition from the Renaissance style of music to that of the Baroque period.

We will be listening to Monteverdi’s work in a Salon in a few weeks, with an awesome amalgamation of Renaissance and Baroque in his Vespers.



Tonight we listen to a recreation of a Venetian Feast of the Holy Trinity (less the chants and more liturgical music).   The recording is In Festo Sanctissimae Trinitas, Jean Tubery conducting the music of Giovanni and Andreas Gabrielli.


  1. In Ecclesiis a 14
  2. Canzona Seconda a 6
  3. Benedictus Es Dominus a 8
  4. Toccata Ottava (Organo Da Chiesa)
  5. Confitebor Tibi Domine a 13
  6. Ricercar Quinto Tono
  7. Benedictus Sit Sancta Trinitas
  8. Canzon Decimasettima a 12
  9. Jubilate Dea a 10
  10. Canzon Settima a 7
  11. Domine Dominus Noster a 8
  12. Canzon Per Sonar Primi Toni a 8
  13. Dulcis Jesu Patris Imago – Sonata Con Voce a 20
  14. Canzon Seconda
  15. Omnes Gentes a 16


Review of our recording

– This 1998 Belgian recording, which has appeared in several different packages, presents a true historical-performance take on Giovanni Gabrieli, a composer still left mostly to booming choirs, and popular brass quintets. The 16-voice choir and small instrumental ensemble may be quite a shock for listeners attuned to hearing Gabrieli as an opener for brass band concerts, but they ought to stick with the recording — it clarifies Gabrieli’s complex textures and puts the listener in the middle of the intricate spaces of St. Mark’s cathedral (even though it was recorded in Belgium) as few other recordings have done.

The mixed-gender Namur Chamber Choir and the instrumental ensemble La Fenice deliver precise performances of music that in places is really very difficult (hear the brass runs in the Canzon settima à 7, track 10) — instrumental works are interspersed among the vocal pieces. But the real star perhaps is producer and engineer Jérôme Lejeune, who brings out the shifting, kaleidoscopic qualities of these pieces — critical, because a motet that suddenly dissolves into groups of three, for instance, would have had unmistakable symbolic significance for Gabrieli’s listeners. You hear the strings, the brasses, the soloists, the multiple choirs, and nothing is swallowed up.

The contributions of conductor Jean Tubéry work in tandem with the engineering, and the singers cultivate high levels of both expression and text intelligibility. Tubéry makes a good case for the contention that the female sopranos are a better match for the castrati who would have originally performed the music than is a boychoir — the music, though modest in dimension, is gutsy.

No texts are included, and the booklet covers the musical aspects of the Feast of the Trinity in more detail than most listeners may need, but this is nevertheless a recording that may offer a revelation for many listeners who have heard Gabrieli in the usual ways and want to learn more.