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Canzon XV

Giovanni Gabrieli (c1553-1612)

Canzone e Sonate 1615 - Canzon XV

Gabrieli’s only other collection of instrumental music (the first being the Sacrae Symphoniae) was Canzone e Sonate which appeared in 1615, three years after his death from kidney stones. He was a conservative composer by nature, but many of the works in this, the last major publication of instrumental music in the sixteenth-century polyphonic style, show the distinct influence of the rapidly developing idioms of the seventeenth century. Instead of opening with a stylised duple metre rhythm as they had in the 1597 Sacrae Symphoniae collection, the canzonas are now much freer, with triple and compound time used at will. The influence of contemporary vocal writing is also evident in many works in the later set, for whereas all the instruments in the earlier works are of equal importance, Gabrieli now often gives the upper parts more florid and concertante lines. This feature is particularly noticeable in the three-choir Sonata XIX, where the top part in each group seems to be trying to outdo the next in brilliance. Similarly, Canzon XVI opens with a theme which is subsequently heard most frequently in the bass part of one or other of the three choirs, contrasting with an ever-changing riot of ornamentation in the upper parts. Even after the last note of the theme has died away the cornetts continue to echo each other until only silence is left.

If the Sonata pian e forte of the Sacrae Symphoniae revealed the more sombre side of Gabrieli’s nature, Sonata XX, the final work of the 1615 set shows him at his most exuberant and has the largest scoring in the collection, being written in 24 separate parts divided into five groups which are introduced individually before coming together in a massive unison. To bring so many players together in Venice was by now a considerable achievement, for the city was in a state of economic decline and this and changing fashion meant that the taste for polychoral music for cornett and trombone was dying out. But Gabrieli was not entirely forgotten. In 1629, his former pupil, the German composer Heinrich Schutz, wrote of his master, ’But Gabrieli, immortal Gods, what a man!’

John Humphries


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