Giovanni Gabrieli: Biography & Music

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

The music of Giovanni Gabrieli represents the height of the Venetian Renaissance. This lesson discusses Gabrieli's music and innovations and the role St. Mark played in those developments.

Gabrieli's Life

If you were fortunate enough to attend church at the Basilica di San Marco in Venice in 1590, you would have had the sonic experience of a lifetime, thanks to the music of Italian composer and organist Giovanni Gabrieli. As the choirs began to sing and the two organs began to play, the sound would have enveloped you and resonated through every fiber of your being. The music of Gabrieli was a true surround-sound experience.

Giovanni Gabrieli
Portrait of Gabrieli

Gabrieli's birth year is uncertain, but most scholars place it between 1554 and 1557. He was likely born in Venice, Italy, since we know he was raised and had family there. Gabrieli was fortunate to have an uncle, Andrea Gabrieli, who was an outstanding musician. Andrea was Gabrieli's first teacher and a great influence on the young composer.

In 1575, Gabrieli traveled to Munich, Germany, where he spent four years studying with composer Orlando di Lasso and working for the Duke of Bavaria. By 1584, he had returned to Venice to accept the appointment of second organist, a position previously held by his uncle Andrea, at the Basilica di San Marco, or St. Mark.

Basilica di San Marco
Photo of St. Mark exterior

At the time, St. Mark was a little like Vegas and Disney World rolled into one. It was an enormously wealthy church, and everything was done on a large scale with the intent to impress. This included the music for worship. St. Mark was unique in having two choir lofts and two organs, high above the transept, that faced each other. This unusual arrangement encouraged St. Mark's composers to experiment with sound. The church also had the financial resources to hire a large number of musicians. These factors created a veritable musician's play land, and Gabrieli made good use of it.

Music at St. Mark

Upon his uncle Andrea's death in 1586, Gabrieli became the chapel composer for St. Mark. There was already a long tradition of excellent sacred music in Venice, going back to Flemish composer Adrian Willaert, who was the chapel composer in the 1520s. Willaert was the likely originator of polychoral music, which was composed for two or more choirs singing simultaneously. St. Mark was an obvious location for this development with its dual choir lofts. Gabrieli brought this style of choral music to its apex.

Interior of Basilica di San Marco
Photo of St. Mark Interior

Church music at St. Mark was also unusual in the use of instruments. At this time, most worship services featured either an unaccompanied choir or a choir accompanied by organ alone. Of course, St. Mark, with its bigger-is-better philosophy, employed many different instruments, including sackbuts (an early trombone), cornettos (a wooden instrument with a brass-type mouthpiece), and violins. The instruments would also be divided into two or more groups and placed in different lofts for musical effect.

The Venetians called this type of music cori spezzati, or separated choirs. It opened up new compositional techniques, such as antiphonal music. In antiphonal music, one choir sings the first part of a phrase, then the other choir answers back with the rest of the phrase in a call-and-response fashion. Composers could also make use of the natural echo. St. Mark was so large that the resonance and reverberation became a part of the composition, literally surrounding the congregants with sound.

Gabrieli's Music

Gabrieli put the musical heritage of St. Mark on steroids. Where his predecessors used two choirs, Gabrieli employed four, five, possibly as many as seven choirs in his music. He spaced his performers all around St. Mark, making good use of the acoustics to carefully balance different instruments with the voices. The piece Jubilate for double choir and brass was composed in this style.

Gabrieli was the first St. Mark's composer to specify instruments in a musical score with his piece Sonata pian' e forte. Music was usually performed with whatever players were available. Gabrieli wanted more control over the sound of his music. In addition, he indicated specific dynamics, loud or soft, in some of his scores.

Photo of Three cornettos

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