Susanne un jour

“Those who saw and heard me play, instead of being delighted, were often forced to laugh. Realising I was in error, and resolving to get out of it, I went to various cities, finally coming to this most illustrious city of Venice. In the most famous temple of San Marco I heard a contest of two organs played with so much skill and beauty, that I left almost beside myself, eager to meet those two great champions. I waited by the door, where I saw Claudio Merulo and Andrea Gabrieli appear, both organists at  San Marco. I devoted myself to them, especially to Signor Claudio.”

So wrote Girolamo Diruta, a monk from Umbria, in his Il Transilvano, an exhaustive treatise on keyboard playing, the first volume of which was printed in Venice in 1593. He commended on Merulo’s poise at the instrument, and his relaxed and elegant hand position. Diruta tells his pupil, a Hungarian prince, that the works of ‘Signor Claudio’ contain all that is needed in learning to play “with polish and charm”. This is no empty praise, for Merulo was indeed the outstanding master at a time when Venice – alongside all its other achievements – was Italy’s leading centre of keyboard  music, both sacred and secular. Fortunately he wrote down his music in painstaking detail, and thanks to Venice’s flourishing publishing trade was able to have much of it printed, thus bequeathing us a uniquely precise picture of the art of keyboard ornamentation.

Two substantial works by Merulo, a toccata and a decorated chanson, form the core of this recital, which presents music from the remarkably long period (about two and half centuries) during which harpsichord music was composed or published in Venice. The earliest sources of this repertoire are hand-written, and tracks 1 and 2 are short pieces from a manuscript in the Biblioteca Marciana, dating from about 1530. La Lodexana (Venetian dialect for ‘The girl from Lodi’) is a galliard-like dance tune, which I play twice, the second time with the right hand an octave higher. Che la morte de la mia signora is a simple but eloquent setting of what was presumably a popular song, showing three colours originally available on the 1531 harpsichord: 8′ register an octave higher; 4′ register alone; and 8′ register at written pitch. (See below for more information on the twin harpsichords heard on this disc.)

There are a number of 16th-century Venetian sources of mostly anonymous dances and other short keyboard pieces, one of the most notable being a collection issued in 1551 by Antonio Gardano (or Gardane), a Frenchman who founded a successful and prolific music publishing business in the late 1530s. Gardano himself was a competent composer and could perhaps have compiled the 1551 edition himself. Some of the dances are ‘standards’ that appear in other collections. The five galliards selected here (tracks 4-8) emerge as remarkably varied in mood and colour when played on the Trasuntino harpsichord. (Tu te parti is played an octave lower than written.)

Diruta remarks in Il Transilvano that “the holy Council of Trent has forbidden the playing on church organs of passi e mezzi and other dance pieces, along with licentious and indecent songs.” In his setting of the Passamezzo Antico theme (track 9), Andrea Gabrieli (Merulo’s celebrated colleague at San Marco) shows how a ground could be varied in a serious, learned way, in a piece perhaps suited to the organ as well as the harpsichord. Gabrieli’s keyboard works were published only after his death, in editions overseen by his nephew Giovanni (who had succeeded Merulo at San Marco in 1586). Both the Passamezzo and the Fantasia allegra (track 3) – here played on the 4′ register alone – appeared in the Terzo libro de ricercari tabulati per ogni sorte de stromenti da tasti of 1596.

Such titles confirm that, despite the impression given by Diruta, quilled keyboard instruments (harpsichord, virginals, spinet) were used in a wider range of repertoire than just dances and popular songs, including forms that originally had a primarily liturgical function: the toccata, canzona and ricercar. Dictionaries traditionally define the toccata as a technical showpiece, citing the supposed derivation from the Italian word toccare, to touch or to play an instrument. But there is also a connection with the Shakespearean word ‘tucket’, a fanfare or flourish, and in Venice early toccatas certainly resemble the short organ ‘intonation’, designed as an imposing introduction to chanting, ‘intoning’ one of the church modes. In Merulo’s 20 published toccatas the art of highly decorated polyphony is developed on a broad canvas. The toccata recorded here (track 11) has three free sections separated by two fugal ones. Unlike the music of Frescobaldi, with its Baroque emotionalism, Merulo’s flows smoothly, even without clear breaks between the sections. The expression is very much in the detail of the garlands of fast notes, the refined ornamentation so highly praised by Diruta.

The same could be said of Merulo’s arrangements of vocal chansons, which include a fine intabulation (transcription for a single instrument) of Orlando di Lasso’s Susanne un jour from 1560 (track 13). Many composers were attracted to this serious 5-part chanson on the subject of the Old Testament story of Susanna and the elders, perhaps because its harmonic strength and clarity make it a good basis for variation. There are keyboard settings by Andrea Gabrieli, Antonio and Hernando de Cabezón, Manuel Rodrigues Coelho (four Susanas), Francisco Correa de Arauxo and others. Merulo’s masterly version (which I decided to play rather slowly) uses typical keyboard divisions – long notes broken up into smaller figures in eighths or sixteenths – in a highly expressive way. The Venetian love of dialogue, and of the contrast of high and low, is reflected in the eloquent alternation of treble and bass.

Alongside his madrigals, church music and revolutionary ensemble canzonas, Giovanni Gabrieli composed a relatively small amount of keyboard music, most of it in contapuntal forms. Some of it is preserved only in German sources – a great deal of Venetian music crossed the Alps, to all parts of Europe – and the Fuga in the ninth mode (track 10) exists only in a copy by Schütz’s pupil Mathias Weckmann. This is indeed a real Baroque fugue, with one leaping main theme reappearing throughout, and a contrasting stepwise figure providing episodic contrast. Conversely, the fantasias (‘or canzonas’) of the Bolognese organist and madrigalist Adriano Banchieri are more old-fashioned, composed as a string of contrasting sections, some of them repeated or recapitulated. The 1603 collection, from which tracks 12 and 14 are taken, was printed in four-part open  score, the title page explaining that the fantasias/canzonas may be played by an ensemble as well as by keyboard instruments.

With the Intavolatura di balli d’arpicordo of 1621 by the Venetian lutenist and organist Giovanni Picchi, the city’s tradition of idiomatic keyboard dances reaches a high point of extravert brilliance. The short dances of the 1551 Intavolatura could have been used to accompany actual dancing, but Picchi’s settings seem to be too complex for that; the interest is in the figuration and the surprisingly colourful harmony. The dissonances and sometimes rough-and-ready part-writing of his Passamezzo variations (track 15) suggest an imaginative improviser at the harpsichord.

Picchi’s collection was the last book of Venetian keyboard music printed in the city for many decades. We know the names of significant 17th-century keyboard players in the Most Serene Republic, some of them, such as Cavalli, Lotti and P.A. Ziani, well-known composers in other fields. But not a note of their keyboard music survives. This may be principally because liturgical organ music was still a largely improvised art; while the publishing trade was in decline from its Renaissance heyday. Yet significant collections of keyboard music by composers outside Venice were occasionally printed there, such as Frescobaldi’s great liturgical collection Fiori musicali of 1635, and in 1664 a characterful collection by an otherwise unknown master active in Messina, Sicily: Bernardo Storace’s Selva di varie compositioni. Among Storace’s many harpsichord dances, his setting of the chaconne bass (track 16) seemed an appropriate choice here, given the theme’s fame as the basis of a real Venetian piece: Monteverdi’s tenor duet setting of Rinuccini’s Zefiro torna.

The Serene Republic’s most famous Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi, also seems to have written no solo keyboard music, and this recital ends with sonatas by two of his contemporaries. The harpsichord sonata of 18th-century Venice was associated with the city’s ‘academies’ – aristocratic gatherings where the arts were debated and music performed. Benedetto Marcello was himself of noble birth, and became internationally famous for his settings of the Psalms, in which he emulated the purity of the music of antiquity, as well as for his essay Il teatro alla moda, which satirized the absurdities of Italian opera. He published a dozen harpsichord sonatas in Venice in c.1712-17, and about 35 more survive in manuscripts. They establish a style later developed by Galuppi, Platti, and indeed the sonata genius Domenico Scarlatti, who lived in Venice from 1705 to 1709: a rococo style reliant mainly on clear two-part textures and natural singing melodies. Marcello’s three-movement Sonata in B flat (tracks 17-19), the last movement of which is in G minor, was liked by Bartók, who played it in many of his recitals and published a piano arrangement of it in 1930.

The last Venetian harpsichord master, Baldassare Galuppi, was, like most sonata composers, principally a composer of operas. Born on the Venetian island of Burano (famous then as now for its glass factories), ‘Il Buranello’ studied with Lotti, who was then organist of San Marco, and as a young man played continuo for Vivaldi. Galuppi travelled widely, not only in Italy, but also to London (1741) and St Petersburg (1764-69; he visited C.P.E. Bach on his way there). About 130 of his keyboard sonatas are known, some in editions from London, Nuremberg and Paris. The second part of the very individual E minor Sonata (track 20) includes a cadenza-like section that could be a reminiscence of Vivaldi’s violin playing. As Goldoni, author of some of his librettos, said of Galuppi: “What music! What style! What masterworks!”

Timothy Roberts Deià, Mallorca, 2004