Conductor of the Vancouver Cantata Singers since 1974, James Fankhauser has made a name for himself throughout Canada as a dynamic and imaginative choral musician. Holding degrees in music from both [...]
They spoke about it
Venetian sensualism, which was already present before the Renaissance and which blossomed immeasurably in the 18th century, is the baroque style of preference in this city.
Marcel Brion, Venice 1962
The slow political decline of Venice as a world power was well underway by the last decades of the 16th century. Because of its geographical position and thanks to a unique social structure, the Serene Republic had, as port of entry for oriental products destined for the whole of Europe, dominated maritime commerce for ages. But the advantages of location were lost with the discovery of new ocean routes around Africa and constant squabbles with the Ottoman Empire had exhausted her military forces. Her financial reserves and territorial possessions were lost or threatened: Cyprus passed into the hands of the Turks in 1571 as did Crete in 1669, whilst the Dalmatian coast and Morea required constant defense. On top of the debts incurred and which had an effect on the whole population (the number of beggars leapt from several hundred in 1600 to nearly 18,000 in 1760), the well-being of Venice was threatened by political problems, rivalry between the leading families — those who had led the city for centuries — legal and religious quarrels with Rome and various plagues which decimated the population. Though unable to find a systematic way of converting its economy to industry, agriculture or commerce with the continent, the Republic was not yet exhausted. Activities were redirected to the diplomatic sphere and to maintaining peace and, as an oasis of freedom and pleasure, to becoming a popular and lucrative tourist destination. The Venetians were well aware of their situation; a merchant wrote in 1667 that “[whilst] the branches and the top still produce flowers, the roots have been rotting since the last century.” Nevertheless, according to the historians Braunstein and Delort, “one of the major themes of Venetian historiography is the denial of Venice’s decline”. This reaction, which manifested itself in all manner of festivals and divertissements, gave music a principal role, helped by the substantial impetus of preceding generations, notably Willaert and Gabrieli. Once the flames of the great Venetian painters of the Renaissance had died down — Tintoretto died in 1594 — the creative vitality of Venice was redirected to the development of new and virtuosic music, the opening of the first public opera houses and the musical aspect of elaborate religious services. From 1613 until his death in 1643, it was Claudio Monteverdi who was in charge of the musical destiny of the San Marco Basilica. He composed for all the liturgical occasions as well as training and conducting singers and instrumentalists. The singers numbered several dozen, singing in choirs and as soloists; the instruments included those of the violin family, as well as sackbuts and a dulcian — ancestor of the bassoon, which was also called “faggot”. Apparently there were no longer cornettos in the San Marco orchestra at this time, but extra musicians were engaged for the most important celebrations. Monteverdi had in his midst remarkable musicians such as Giovanni Rovetta and Francesco Cavalli, and performed music by his contemporaries including no doubt Lodovico Grossi da Viadana, a promoter of the new concertante style in church music and with whom Monteverdi had worked in Mantua several years earlier. Grossi had tried in vain to obtain the post of maestro di capella at the Basilica in 1612. At San Marco as in the other churches of the city, music occupied such an important place that services were almost like concerts; in 1639 the clergy protested against “abuses not only in the attire of the musicians, who sometimes appear without surplice, but also in the use of instruments other than those regularly heard in church” and were shocked that “in the sung texts greater care is taken to please than to incite devotion.” Music heard during services was extremely varied. Plain chant was intoned by the priest or by singers separate from the choirs, and the setting of the five sections of the Mass Ordinary could be to a style ranging from ancient polyphony or writing for multiple choirs to the most modern concertante style. Aside from these pieces directly connected to the Mass, motets on non-liturgical texts, canzonas and sonatas were played during the Offertory, Elevation of the Host and Communion. It is likely that motets for several voices and continuo in a style disapproved of by the clergy and much influenced by the opera world were directed at the doge or other dignitaries sitting in the Choir section of the basilica. This union or juxtaposition in one ceremony of so many different musical styles using such a great variety of vocal and instrumental forces has been well described by the art historian Carlo Argan who feels that baroque religious architecture resolves “the opposition between internal religious feeling and official dogma, between intimacy and ostentatious expression of emotions”. This recording presents a reconstruction of just such a mass as might have been heard at San Marco on a February 2nd and around 1640, celebrating the Purification of the Virgin Mary. The figure of Mary has always inspired the devotion of the Italians and this enthusiasm reached a peak of intensity in Venice between 1620 and 1640. The cathedral’s treasury possessed an icon of the Virgin Mary which was said to have been painted by St. Luke, and the clergy decided in 1618 to allow it to be displayed publicly. As Roger Tellart notes, Venice considered itself as a “mirror of Mary, at one and the same time a ‘double’ and a child of the pure and incorruptible Madonna”; one can see the resurgence of this association in the 17th century as another means by which the Venetians attempted to obliterate signs of their decline. Probably one of the most talented and interesting of the musicians who worked at San Marco directly under the tutelage of the great Claudio was Giovanni Antonio Rigatti. Born in Venice in 1615, he became maestro di capella at the Udine Cathedral for two years after having studied with Rovetta and having become a priest. He returned to Venice in 1637 to join the San Marco choir and to teach singing at the Ospedale degli Incurabili. At the time of his death in 1649 — he was only thirty four — he was also maestro di capella for the Patriarch of Venice. Rigatti left a dozen volumes of music, mostly religious, in which he demonstrates an exceptional mastery of compositional styles of his time, from polychoral writing to accompanied monody and from old-style polyphony to the most modern concertante style. His significant 1640 collection Messa e salmi parte concertati was dedicated to the Emperor Ferdinand III, perhaps in the hope of obtaining a post at the Viennese Court. The principal work on this disc, the Messa à 8 taken from this collection, is a magnificent example of the concertante style. Monteverdi and the Venetians had gradually abandoned writing for two or more choirs, preferring in large-scale works to intermingle pieces for richly-scored groups of vocal and instrumental soloists with ones for full choir, in a manner which hints at the future form of the concerto grosso. Rigatti’s Mass demonstrates an ease of melodic writing combined with an ever-present sensitivity to contrasting texture, instrumental colour and tempo whilst never obscuring the liturgical text. The conventional metre changes are executed in an extraordinarily dynamic manner. Dance forms appear in several passages — notably in the Gloria — and certain sections borrow blatantly from secular forms such as in the Et resurrexit where the two voices and two instruments evoke the canzonettas of Monteverdi. Various compositional methods illustrate the meaning of the text such as the fugal beginning of the Credo, the quivering of the Crucifixus or the low voices on “et sepultus est’”. These same qualities are also to be found in the motets of voce sola, virtuosic pieces whose sensuality of expression would not be out of place in the theater. A worthy successor to Monteverdi, Rigatti built on his example, and his 1640 Mass, more interesting than Cavalli’s Messa Concertata à 8 which is its contemporary, is certainly one of the most beautiful of the Italian Baroque. It has been regretted by some that Monteverdi left us no instrumental music, but many of his Venetian contemporaries wrote numerous works, varied and of high quality. Amongst theses, Giovanni Picchi was an organist and lute-player. He was organist at the Ca’ Grande around 1615 and later at the Scuola di San Rocco from 1623 on; a year later he attempted to get the post of second organist at San Marco, but without success. He composed various harpsichord pieces and a book of Canzoni da sonar published in 1625. Nothing is known about the life of Dario Castello other than that two collections of sonatas appeared under his name in Venice in 1621 and 1629, written in the stilo moderno for various instrumental combinations. Whether or not he was a violinist at San Marco as had long been thought — it is now doubted that he was the Castello who is listed amongst the cathedral musicians — and whether or not he worked with Monteverdi, Castello nevertheless brought to instrumental music the same subtlety and expressive vigour which is characteristic of his illustrious contemporary’s vocal music. Of the same generation as Rigatti, Massimiliano Neri was for twenty years, starting in 1644, principal organist of San Marco as well as an organist during the same period at Santi Giovanni e Paolo Church. His rise to the nobility in 1651 thanks to Ferdinand III indicates his links to the Viennese court and the high regard in which he was held. 1633 found him in Cologne where he was Kapellmeister to the Elector; he died three years later in Bonn. His instrumental music* combines the richly sonorous style of the Gabrielis with the concertante writing of Castello. To quote Marcel Brion: “Venetian society in the 17th century is comparable to the hours which precede a sunset, as it is during these hours that the sky is most magnificent and colorful.” Thanks especially to music, “because it responded to a sensual and hedonistic conception of existence, which replaced the heroism of an earlier time”, the decline of Venice stretched out over almost two centuries. In hindsight, we think of the grandeur of the City of the Doges in terms of the importance and superb singularity of its artistic outpouring rather than of its commercial prosperity or maritime dominance. *Only the two upper voices and continuo remain from Neri’s 1651 original collection; instrumentation is however specified — due cornetti è fagotto, è tre tromboni — and the Sonata Ottava is heard here in a reconstruction by Herbert Myers.