Messa bassa a San Marco
Missa Vexilla Regis
Mottetti a 6 e 7 voci
I Cantori di San Marco
Marco Gemmani, conductor
This nice recording by I Cantori di San Marco is devoted to Andrea Gabrieli (1532 or 1533-1585), one of the most representative composers of 16th century Venetian music together with Willaert, Claudio Merulo and Andrea’s nephew, Giovanni Gabrieli, and the one who brought an international stature to the Venetian school after the pre-eminence of the Netherlandish composers.
There is little information about Andrea Gabrieli’s life (even his birth date is not known for certain), but some details can be guessed by some surviving documents. He was organist at the church of San Geremia from 1555 to 1557 and after that he was in Verona, where he worked with the maestro di cappella of the Cathedral, Vincenzo Ruffo. It was in a Ruffo print of 1554 that Gabrieli’s first published madrigal, Piangete occhi miei, appeared. In 1557, Gabrieli tried to be appointed organist of San Marco in Venice, but he was unsuccessful and did not have the post until 1566. One of the best opportunities of these years was that to know the famous Netherlandish composer Orlande de Lassus, who was with him in the retinue of the duke of Bavaria during a journey to attend the coronation of the emperor Maximilian II.
If Gabrieli’s life is obscure, the success of his works until the 17th century is attested by many reprints of his collections and the publication of his compositions in anthologies. His fame was well established in Italy and abroad, especially in German-speaking regions and in the Low Countries. Gabrieli’s music is not as profound and inspiring as that of his nephew Giovanni, but he had versatility and had worked on all the principal genres of the time (masses, motes, madrigals and theatre music). One of his most important compositions are the choruses for Oedipus tyrannus, premiered in 1585 for the inauguration of the Olympic Theatre in Vicenza, designed by Andrea Palladio, and the only surviving Renaissance music written for tragic theatre.
This recording is a due tribute to Gabrieli and helps to enlighten the musical customs in Venice in the 16th century. The “Messa bassa” (“low Mass”) to which the title refers, is a divine service which originated in the Middle Ages as a simplified form of the Solemn Mass. It was usual that the Doge attended a messa bassa before every procession or any other public event and the service was carried out in a side chapel of San Marco with little pomp. As Marco Gemmati states in the booklet,
The ceremonial, however, ruled that the choir was to sing in any case, whenever the Doge was present in the Basilica. Many clues that are scattered in the Liber Ceremoniale [published in 1562] lead us to conclude that in these morning Masses the music was performed by a small group of singers, often without the accompaniment of the organ. So it is quite likely that on these occasions an a cappella Mass, for instance one of the four six-part Masses published by Andrea Gabrieli in 1572, or some of his six- or seven-part motets drawn from his Concerti of 1587, were performed.
It is worth to remember that these masses and motets are quite different from the Flemish style and are more similar to that of the Roman school, without imitation of the madrigal, as was usual at that time. This is the innovative style which will influence the Venetian composers of the next generations.
The programme of Messa bassa a San Marco includes many motets, written for different moments of the liturgical year: the first three (Maria Magdalenae, Maria stabat ad monumentum and Angelus Domini descendit) are composed for the Easter liturgy, while motets as Hodie Christus natus est and Angelus ad pastores ait were written for Christmas time and Eructavit cor meum takes its words from Psalm 45 (“My heart is inditing”: musically speaking, this is a lucky psalm, because it has been set to music many times, even by Handel). The most interesting piece is anyway the Missa Vexilla Regis, composed on the famous hymn of Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitier (530-609), probably with the purpose of parodying the Venetian version of the hymn in cantus firmus, but there was no opportunity to verify this hypothesis until now.
I Cantori di San Marco, conducted by Marco Gemmati, offer a fine performance of Gabrieli’s motets and mass. The impression I had of these pieces is not as powerful as that of the most sumptuous polyphony, but the relative “quietness” of this works allowed me to appreciate the depth of their inspiration.
Gemmati and his fine chorus give result to the individual character of each voice and create a wonderful and solemn effect, where light is the main feature. They give different characterization to every piece, but the most impressive are the Christmas motets, where it is easy to guess the sweetness and joy of the Nativity, the pleading invocation of O fili Dei, succurre miseris and the Agnus Dei of the Missa Vexilla Regis, with its sense of beatitude which provides the perfect end to the album. These are only few examples, but all the pieces of Messa bassa are interesting and valuable.