Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2621
A MARRIAGE OF SOUND AND SPACE

by Roger Kaza

Today, a marriage of sound and space. The University of Houston’s Music School presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

[Selection from Gabrieli’s Canzon septimi e octavi toni]

That’s the sonorous music of Giovanni Gabrieli, as played by the Canadian Brass. Gabrieli’s music is forever linked to the grand space for which he composed it, the Basilica di San Marco, in Venice. St. Mark’s is a sprawling Byzantine masterpiece, shaped like an enormous Greek cross wider than a football field. And Gabrieli’s music, composed towards the end of the 16th century, is its sonic capstone.

old photo of St. Mark's Basilica
St. Mark’s Basilica. Photo by Carlo Naya (1816-1882)

Yet this marriage-made-in-heaven of architecture and music had one party waiting at the altar…for about 500 years. St. Marks dates from around the year 1063, after a couple centuries of smaller structures on the same grounds. With its gilded mosaics, the church became a status symbol for Venetian wealth and power. It was known as “Chiesa d’Oro” — the church of gold.

The double choir lofts facing each other at St. Mark’s suggested to Gabrieli and his contemporaries an obvious ploy. They instructed the musicians to form into separate groups, and sit in different locations. While they’re at it, they might as well sing or play different music. Call and response? Of course. Echo? The echo built into such a resonant space now became part and parcel of the music. The Venetian composers invented stereo — make that surround sound — almost 400 years before we did. Listen to this back-and-forth bit of echoing:

Selection from Gabrieli’s Canzon in Double Echo

Stylistically, Gabrieli’s music straddles the divide between the Renaissance and Baroque periods of music. But that’s academic. In many ways, he sounds to our ears — like his contemporary William Shakespeare — well, modern. Gabrieli sometimes sounds like he is writing four-part chord progressions, same as in any hymn book, in major or minor keys. Actually, he’s not. Instead, his ideal is still the independent part-writing cherished by composers dating back to medieval times. And those major and minor sounding keys? They’re really from an old church tradition of scales we call modes…think Gregorian chant.

Giovanni Gabrieli painting
Giovanni Gabrieli (1554~1557—1612) Painting by Annibale Carracci

I’m invariably put into a good mood when I hear the music of Giovanni Gabrieli. It’s music of optimism, certitude; great blocks of sound, like the massive pillars holding up St. Marks’ domed ceiling. Their marriage may have been a short one, but, four centuries later, we’re still celebrating.

I’m Roger Kaza, at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the ways inventive minds work.

[Selection from Gabrieli’s Canzon septimi toni]

(Theme music)


Gabrieli is credited with many other musical innovations, including the use of dynamic markings (soft and loud, as in the Sonata pian e forte) and for specifying exact instrumentation in some of his compositions, when the norm at the time was often “whoever is available.”

The Venetian School of polychoral music was likely founded by a foreigner, the Flemish composer Adrian Willaert (c.1490-1562). Willaert composed in the style of the legendary Josquin des Prez, and possibly taught Giovanni Gabrieli’s uncle, Andrea Gabrieli, who probably taught Giovanni. The Venetian lineage ended with the great operatic composer, Claudio Monteverdi.

St. Mark’s Basilica is mostly Byzantine, with elements of Romanesque and even Gothic accretions over the centuries. The original design is modeled after the Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople.

All musical selections from the Canadian Brass CD Echo; Glory of Gabrieli. Also includes works by Scheidt and Monteverdi. Gabrieli’s music was of course not composed for modern valved brass instruments, but has been traditionally played by them. This CD is one of the first to incorporate modern instruments with a historically-informed performance style.

Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.