A Renaissance Venetian Christmas - Programme Notes

Monteverdi’s place in the history of music can be justly compared with Shakespeare’s place in the history of literature.

No doubt there are people who will be surprised by this claim by Percy Scholes (taken from the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music) who goes on to say that Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), a fine organist, player of the viol, and long-serving Maestro di Cappella at St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, transformed every genre in which he worked. In 1607 he also composed the first ever work (L’Orfeo) of the genre which we now call opera.

Venice during the Renaissance

When the current St Mark’s was built at the end of the 11th century (it was consecrated in 1073), the Republic of Venice, a city built on 118 small islands, under the authority of the chief magistrate, or Doge, had a unique electoral system as far as public offices went. This system precluded any one noble family or person from acquiring a disproportionate amount of wealth or political prominence. This resulted in a notable lack of artistic patronage, as far as musicians were concerned, and ensured that St Mark’s would become the musical centre of Venetian life for at least the next five centuries. The city of Venice, its great wealth built as a result of its prominent position as a trading post at the top of the Adriatic Sea, and its centuries of trade in grain, spices and silk between Europe, the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world, had built St Mark’s to house the holy remains of the Alexandrian Apostle and Evangelist after which it is named. (The current Byzantine building, with its separate campanile, is the third on the site.) St Mark’s, the private chapel of the Doge, and not a cathedral at the time (it didn’t become a cathedral until 1807), appointed its first musical director, or Maestro di Cappella, ‘Master’ Zuccheto, in the late 14th century, and in 1408 the choir school was founded. In the 1420s there were signs of increasing musical activity, and by 1425 the installation of the first organ had been completed. By 1490 St Mark’s had singers and instrumentalists on the payroll in a small, but significant, way, and in the late 1490s Petrucci’s publishing house opened in Venice. The advent of this new technology was a crucial development for European music and the publication of early anthologies of motets and frattolas (early secular madrigals) was to become the foundation of the emerging Venetian School, which culminated one hundred and fifty years later in the musical style of this evening’s concert. By 1520 the Basilica San Marco had a musical establishment with a Maestro di Cappella and two organists, responsible for the teaching of Latin, plainsong and counterpoint to the boys of the choir school and to young priests in training. The appointment in 1527 of the eminent Netherlander Adrian de Willaert (1490-1562) to the post of Maestro di Cappella (by now one of the most influential musical positions in Europe) further diversified the city’s growing international reputation. Willaert’s influence was to be huge, since most of the musicians who were to follow him were taught either by him or by one of his pupils. More publishing houses were opened, and by 1550 Venice was established as the most prolific and important city for music publication in Europe. Many eminent composers travelled to the city to oversee the publication of their work, and in doing so added, albeit temporarily, to the cultural fabric and diversity of the city, enhancing and promulgating its reputation. Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1613) was appointed to the post of Maestro di Capello in 1585, and music continued to flourish.