Canzon Septimi Toni No. 2

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            There is perhaps no composer more beloved by modern brass players, and yet, relatively unknown to the general audience for symphony concerts, than Giovanni Gabrieli.  Standing at the juncture of the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque eras in music, he was a musical giant whose influence spread far beyond his native Venice.  Luminaries such as Heinrich Schütz traveled from Germany to study with him, and experience the glorious sound of the compositions he wrote for the ornate Basilica di San Marco.  Among the cathedral’s significant architectural features are multiple choir lofts, which inspired and situated the polychoral style for which Gabrieli and his compatriots are known, including Adrian Willaert, Giovanni’s uncle and mentor, Andrea, and Claudio Monteverdi.

            Fundamental to the style are multiple, relatively small groups of singers and instrumentalists, separated from each other in the multiple choir lofts overhead, who echo back and forth in a kind of call and response.  This antiphonal style combines frequent sections of everyone together, as well, for a stunning acoustic experience.  Today, of course, the average tourist in Venice has little idea of the musical importance that the unique architecture of the edifice fostered.

            Gabrieli’s second great collection of compositions was the Sacræ Symphoniæ, from 1597, containing both vocal and instrumental music; the Canzon Septimi Toni No. 2 was one of the fourteen canzonas contained therein.  “Canzona” is derived from the French “chanson” of the late Renaissance, basically a bouncy, little secular song.   The Italians took its texture and general style and wrote compositions for instruments in like manner, and called them canzonas.  “Septemi toni” simply means that what we, today, would call the key, the Italian composers of the time called the seventh mode, or mixolydian (think of G major without the F sharp).

            While Gabrieli would have probably intended his canzonas for almost any combination of the popular instruments of the time, his works were often performed by groups of trombones and cornettos—the modern trumpet didn't come along until well over three hundred years later.  Cornettos were wooden instruments played with cup mouthpieces and fingered rather like a recorder.  They covered the soprano parts.  Difficult to play well, they were characterized by one contemporary writer as “seldom well sounded, because the labor of the lips is too great.”  So true!

            But, it doesn’t matter.  Today, Gabrieli’s compositions are commonly played by modern brass, and they sound great!  As one experiences the call and answer between the two groups and the power of them combined in this canzona, think of the stunning cathedral that inspired it and the splendid works to follow in the inimitable Italian Baroque.