The Glory of Gabrieli

Liner notes by John McClure


Columbia Masterworks MS 7071

This record is a first, all right, and also a last. There were many moments along the way when we doubted both our wisdom and our endurance. Yes, it was unforgettable and glorious and satisfying and exciting and all those things. But it was also frustrating and time-consuming and exhausting and maddening and all those things. Not that we are faint of heart. Mr. Biggs' ten-year quest to record Handel, Bach, Haydn and Mozart on organs they had actually played, and his pilgrimages to record each country's music on its own historic organs has taken us into very unlikely and trying places: freezing cathedrals requiring layers of sweaters and batteries of electric heaters, fortified Swiss hilltops needing a safari of equipment-carrying porters, dim Spanish cathedrals with antique hand-pumped organs that doubled as pigeon roosts, and even elegant deer and peacock-adorned country estates in Robin Hood's Sherwood Forest. It has further meant working at hours when decent God-fearing creatures are asleep in order to avoid those twin afflictions - traffic and tourists. 

Despite this commando training, we were ill-prepared for the rigors of Venice. Not only is it remote from the U.S.A., but, thanks to its aquatic situation, access is difficult. Cut off from most of Europe by either the Adriatic or the Alps, it is further protected by the Macaroni Curtain, a spiky and impregnable bureaucracy known as Italian customs. Despite a year of preparation and negotiation, we collided repeatedly with this blockade in a saga that approaches opera buffa.

The recording was further complicated by our bringing choruses from America, recording equipment from Switzerland, brass players from Germany and an organ from Austria. We countered bureaucracy with deceit, resistance with guile, hesitation with aggression and were thus able to overcome both customs and the Church, who, it must be said, had rented us her body but not her heart. I sing the sinewy heroes of this two-pronged assault: Engineer Hellmuth Kolbe, boring from without, and Sylvio Cerutti of CBS Italiana, undermining from within. Masters of bluff and brinkmanship, we salute you! 

The blame for all this sturm und drang must, in candor, be placed squarely on E. Power Biggs' shoulders. His involvement with Gabrieli goes back twenty years, long before the musical public was even aware of the familiar Sonata Pian e Forte for brass and one violin. While collaborating on a recording of Gabrieli brass canzonas some years ago in Cambridge, our enthusiasm for the music so carried us away that we resolved on the spot to make San Marco's famous acoustics resound once again to the aural pageantry of Giovanni Gabrieli's music. Now we are five years older and less cocky, perhaps, but we are also three glorious LP's richer, and that counts for something, after all.

But what is the music on this record and how did Gabrieli arrive at this distinctive style? The composer's genius is probably best expressed through his many motets for single, double or triple choir, each one supported by an instrumental group or an organ-a technique that is virtually peculiar to Venice. Both Gabrieli and Monteverdi, writing in the early 1600's, culminate a style that began a century earlier when San Marco's unique interior layout induced the imported Flemish maestro da capella Adriaan Willaert to develop the antiphonal use of cori spezzati, or separated choirs.

By mid-century, the composer and San Marco organist Andrea Gabrieli further refined and strengthened Willaert's style so that when his nephew Giovanni joined him as organist in 1584, the music of Venice had not only lost its Flemish polyphonic character but had taken on a more vertical, chordal style that was very emphatic in its voice leading in order to meet the need for clarity in the reverberant acoustics of the building. The chromatic complexity of the contemporary madrigalists Luzzaschi and Gesualdo would have produced chaos in that rich six-second echo, so the development turned perforce from harmony to rhythm, retaining the inherited antiphonal exploitation. This period was Venice's musical zenith. She was the cynosure of European musical life. Musicians and laymen came from everywhere to marvel at the richness of the music and the vast resources of singers and instrumentalists that produced it.

The music may have a religious format and rationale, but it is very secular in feeling and expression, shorn of all false piety, coming as it did from a cosmopolitan and sophisticated city-state whose relations with Rome and the Pope were usually strained. Don't be fooled by the liturgical titles. The pieces were written just as often for state and ceremonial occasions as for Mass. In contrast to the scholarly and often dull Germanic recreations of this music, we have tried to retain the dramatic and exuberant feeling, very self-assured, that leaps off every page of music and from colorful descriptions of the life of the period.

Being somewhat ambivalent on the subject of "authenticity" we hired musicians who were equally at home on modern and antique instruments. We then mixed purity with common sense and used our ears as referees. Some pieces sounded very beautiful on the zinks and old trombones, while some needed the extra power and brilliance that would set the basilica's acoustics ringing. Being doctrinaire in this matter is often self-defeating, we have found.

In addition to the logistics and other temporal problems of the recording, we found that being the first to record Gabrieli on his home ground, in his very choir lofts, had unique difficulties of its own. With the sixty-foot separation of the two galleries and the resultant time lag, ensemble was a major problem, and communication was no picnic, either, especially considering the tri-lingual nature of our operation.

We have tried as well as we could to recreate the musical goings-on in the San Marco of Gabrieli's day. Of course, it is not the same as actually standing there in that exotic, Byzantine building dating from 1100, bathing in the golden haze of its ancient mosaics and lapped in unduplicatable sound and splendor, but we think you'll love the taste you get and that you'll be glad to make the closer acquaintance of one of history's great composers.

A project of this complexity is always the work of many people. So much is owed to some that we feel they must be mentioned here. Thanks in abundance to: Hellmuth Kolbe and Sylvio Cemtti already mentioned above; to tireless, cheerful, musical Vittorio Negri, to Gregg Smith and his Singers and to George Bragg and the Texas Boys Choir, both of whom journeyed far and worked devotedly; to Denis Stevens who produced our scores and instrumental material, and above all to E. Power Biggs, the prime mover and shaker of the project, and one of Nature's noblemen. 

-John McClure
Director of Masterworks