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Sacred treasures of Venice

Sacred motets from the Golden Age of Venetian polyphony
The London Oratory Schola Cantorum, Charles Cole (conductor) Detailed performer information
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: March 2023
St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Tom Mungall
Release date: February 2024
Total duration: 66 minutes 30 seconds

Cover artwork: Madonna and child with Saint Catherine and Saint Mary Magdalen (c1480/1500) by Giovanni Bellini (c1430-1516)
© Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice / akg-images

It’s tempting to imagine that this is how the music might have sounded four centuries ago in the glorious surroundings of St Mark’s. Certainly, any comparisons are unlikely to be to the disadvantage of these exceptional young singers: this is repertoire in which they excel.


‘This classically conceived and executed recital gives us a few of the usual suspects (the two Gabrielis and Monteverdi) but also several other prominent musicians associated with St Mark’s Basilica, including Claudio Merulo and Giovanni Croce. The London Oratory boys’ choir has a solid presence, with good balance and body. Giovanni Gabrieli’s well-known Jubilate Deo is an ideal opener, nicely delineated; his Beata es virgo Maria skilfully alternates different moods’ (Gramophone)

‘We might be back in St Mark’s Basilica in the late 16th century, so haunting and crystalline are these recordings by the London Oratory choir of works from the golden age of the Renaissance. Immersion in sacred pieces by Gabrieli uncle and nephew, Monteverdi, Merulo and others proves a spine-tingling experience’ (The Sunday Times)

‘The boys seem to have this music in their DNA, and Cole’s direction is faultless … I recommend this disc for the wonderful performances by a talented and well-trained choir, and for the repertoire. The recording also does the whole project justice’ (MusicWeb International)

‘It is a splendid thing to compile and record an album of late Renaissance Venetian choral music, especially since the ordinary forces of parish choirs (and even cathedral choirs) can only occasionally muster enough musical forces to mount this mostly polychoral repertoire … even more splendid, however, is to produce an album with such an interesting and varied program, sung magnificently entirely by choristers brought up from within the ranks of just one school in London … do give this latest album in the Sacred Treasures series produced by the Schola a listen—it is inspiring in every aspect’ (New Liturgical Movement)

‘This undoubtedly is a very fine choir, and it is nice that it has been given the opportunity to present itself by the Hyperion label. I hope that there is more to come’ (musica Dei donum)

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Although Monteverdi would ultimately dominate the early Venetian Baroque, a remarkable period immediately preceded his arrival at San Marco—the period of the ‘Three Giovannis’. It is almost impossible to imagine such great talents as Giovanni Gabrieli, Giovanni Bassano and Giovanni Croce all working alongside each other in the same place at the same time, but such a unique situation could only have existed at St Mark’s: Gabrieli as First Organist, Bassano as maestro of instrumental music, and Croce as the overall maestro di cappella, all three of them writing music of incredible quality.

Giovanni, the younger of the two Gabrielis, studied with Lassus in Munich during the 1570s before returning to Venice, where he was appointed Second Organist at St Mark’s in 1584, rising to First Organist the following year on the death of the incumbent, his uncle Andrea. The First and Second Organists would alternate week by week, covering all duties in the Basilica alone; however, both were required for major feasts, when the primo would accompany the choir, the secondo playing with the instruments and accompanying soloists. Giovanni Gabrieli’s famous eight-part setting of Jubilate Deo draws together a number of verses from the psalms, including the text ‘Deus Israel coniugat vos’, the word ‘coniugat’ undoubtedly recalling in the minds of the Venetians the annual conjoining of the Doge and the lagoon in the ceremonial marriage of the Serenissima and the sea. A relatively late work, not published until a year after his death, the absolute mastery of the construction and its polished craftsmanship show Gabrieli at the height of his powers. Interestingly though, it is harmonically far more conservative than the next three motets, which were published as part of Gabrieli’s earlier 1597 collection Symphoniae sacrae I. The six-part Beata es virgo Maria was intended for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, and the double-choir Ego sum qui sum is a setting of a Matins text for Easter Sunday. In these, Gabrieli is more willing to exert a gentle pressure on the tonality. The wondrous sonorities which arise are especially spectacular in the seven-part O quam suavis for Corpus Christi which includes a poignant quotation of the Gregorian second-mode Magnificat tone at ‘dimittens inanes’. The powerful downward melodic gestures in the trebles at ‘demonstrares’ meet with opposing upward force in the lower voices, bracing the harmonic structure, whilst the final cadence, arguably unsurpassed in this anthology, achieves a fragile and delicate beauty like the finest Murano vase.

The next Giovanni, Bassano, was renowned as a cornettist and most famous for an important treatise on instrumental ornamentation. He was named by Praetorius as being the inventor of the bassanello, a Renaissance precursor of the bassoon, although the more probable inventor was in fact Bassano’s father, Santo. Setting text drawn from the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes, Dic nobis Maria is a tightly constructed piece which revolves around the number three. There are three sections, the first of which has three iterations of a rondo refrain, introduced at the opening by the upper three parts, then joined by the lower three. Mary Magdalen’s three iterations of what she saw are combined into the resulting inner episodes. The second section, ‘Surrexit Christus’ in triple time, now divides the six voices into two overlapping groups of four. This inner section is repeated before the third section, a highly syncopated Alleluia (barely any lead is unsyncopated) which evokes sparring cornettists in a virtuosic display.

Claudio Merulo arrived from Brescia Cathedral at St Mark’s as Second Organist in 1557, beating amongst others the elder Andrea Gabrieli in the competition, the auditions for which warrant scrutiny for what they reveal—candidates were presented with three tests: in the first, a four-part Kyrie or motet was selected from the Choirbook, the opening bars of which were given to the candidate, who was then expected to extemporize at the organ and to continue the thematic material, maintaining the integrity and independence of the four voice parts as though being sung by four singers. In the second test, a Gregorian theme was provided which the candidate was asked to use as a bass under three improvised parts. The theme was subsequently required to appear in the remaining three parts. Simple accompaniment was to be avoided, and fugal imitation was expected. In the third test, a small choir would sing a deliberately obscure set of verses, possibly fauxbourdons, with the candidate being required to improvise a response at the organ, showing an understanding of the presented mode, in free improvisation which should be both within and outside the mode. This final test was really an invitation for the candidate to show what they could do. One can easily surmise that the focus of these tests was not so much on the keyboard skills of the organist, which were taken almost for granted, but rather on their knowledge and application of complex compositional theory, and it goes some way to explaining the extraordinary level of compositional excellence found amongst the musicians at St Mark’s.

Merulo, having acquitted himself well in very serious competition, began a long stint at St Mark’s, progressing to First Organist in 1566. However, his departure for a relatively low-profile position at the Duomo in Parma was unusual, as it was almost unheard of for musicians to leave St Mark’s, typically dying in post. It is possible Merulo’s move had more to do with the publishing house which he ran in Venice, ownership of which passed to the Farnese family of Parma in 1584, the same year he departed. His two six-part motets come from a 1593 publication, with Adoramus te Domine using a variant of the more usual text and Beata viscera being a Communion for the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The arrival of Monteverdi at St Mark’s represented a major change; a Venetian outsider, he had not worked his way up through the ranks as a singer or even vice-maestro at St Mark’s. A willing exile from a difficult experience in Mantua, he was long overdue a fulfilling and fruitful environment, which he certainly found at St Mark’s. One of his earliest innovations concerned the music provided for Low Masses: the Doge was required to attend Mass in the Basilica on certain days when ceremonies would also take him elsewhere, and even at these Low Masses, there was a modest provision of music usually sung by a small unaccompanied choir of around four to six parts. As there was insufficient repertoire for these Masses, repetition of music was frequent and Monteverdi sought to remedy the problem. Unconstrained as he was by a certain Venetian hauteur towards Roman music, Monteverdi persuaded the authorities to purchase volumes of four-, five- and six-part works by Palestrina and Soriano to address the need.

It seems possible that Adoramus te Christe and Cantate Domino, six-part motets from a 1620 collection published by Monteverdi’s pupil Giulio Cesare Bianchi, may also have been written to broaden this area of the repertory. In his treatise on musical theory, Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558), Gioseffo Zarlino, who was maestro at St Mark’s during the second half of the sixteenth century, wrote of the importance of the harmonic self-sufficiency of choirs—in other words, that composers should be careful to ensure that each individual choir was not lacking any element of the full harmony, particularly when cori spezzati (separated choirs) were employed. However, by the seventeenth century, composers were starting to rely on the harmonic infill provided by the basso continuo, which means that it is arguably something of a stretch to sing these two motets a cappella as we do here, with a few chords missing a third, but these are sonorities to which we have grown accustomed. Monteverdi’s death in 1643 was marked with the highest honours of the Republic and burial in one of Venice’s grandest churches, the Basilica di Santa Maria dei Frari.

The Frari, as it is better known, was where Giacomo Finetti served as maestro, and he is the only composer represented on this recording who was not employed at St Mark’s. Born in Ancona and later ordained priest, he served as maestro at the nearby Jesi Duomo, then held positions in Ancona and Padua before arriving in Venice in 1615 to take his place at the Frari. He died in the great plague of 1630-31 which claimed the lives of a third of the Venetian population. Much of his prolific output embraced the newer style of continuo accompaniment, though O crux ave, spes unica, the text of which comes from a verse that was added latterly to Vexilla regis, is a poignant motet for Good Friday which can be sung a cappella, marked by its tender and lingering repetitions.

Andrea Gabrieli was the much beloved uncle and mentor of Giovanni (who said ‘I am little less than [his] son’). He studied under Willaert, and amongst his own pupils were his nephew Giovanni and the German composer Hans Leo Hassler. Having finished runner-up to Claudio Merulo at his first audition at St Mark’s, Andrea was nevertheless successful when the position became vacant again, on Merulo’s promotion to primo in 1566. When Merulo departed for Parma in 1584, Andrea moved to primo, conveniently vacating secondo for his nephew. In fact, Giovanni would spend only a year as secondo, taking over as primo on the death of his uncle in 1586. Andrea seems to have been somewhat reticent about publishing his music, which Giovanni sought to amend after his uncle’s death. In the touching dedication to the 1587 publication of music by Andrea, he wrote that there are ‘few indeed composers and organists as excellent as he is’. Andrea Gabrieli nevertheless took time to emerge from the shadow of his nephew, and it is not insignificant that the current musicians of St Mark’s hold him in the very highest esteem amongst their sixteenth-century predecessors.

While motets written in ten, twelve, sixteen or more parts were commonplace amidst the opulent musical splendour of high Venetian ceremony, the more modestly scored motets by Andrea Gabrieli recorded here seem likely to have been intended for the Low Masses. Laetare Jerusalem, a setting of the Introit for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, demonstrates a considerable dynamic sensitivity to the text. Over the course of just a few bars there is a jubilant triple-time treatment of ‘gaudete cum laetitia’, then a more subdued quadruple-time descending melody for ‘qui in tristitia’, followed by the ‘ut exsultetis’ leads which leap joyfully upwards. The rising phrase at ‘consolationis’ is a strong and distinctive melodic gesture around which Gabrieli builds the conclusion of the motet. Maria Magdalene draws its text from St Mark, the favoured evangelist of the Venetians. The characterful entries at ‘Nolite expavescere’ are followed by a monumental passage at ‘Jesum’, before ‘surrexit’ re-captures the jubilant mood which continues into the closing Alleluia.

‘Il Chiozzotto’, the Chioggian, is the sobriquet by which Croce, the third of the ‘Giovannis’, was known, named after the small fishing port at the southern end of the Venetian lagoon. Zarlino appointed Croce, aged around eight, as a contralto in the choir of St Mark’s, having spotted him in the cathedral choir at Chioggia. Croce was ordained priest and served at Santa Maria Formosa in Venice, but he remained in the choir at St Mark’s, which was close by. A fascinating document in the hand of Baldassare Donato, the maestro at San Marco, gives some insight into the status of the choir circa 1590, naming and providing a comment on each of the singers. Croce’s entry gives his name in the local dialect: ‘Padre Zuanne Chiozzotto: a most efficient singer, and where he lacks the delicacy of voice, he makes up for it by good singing.’

Croce may have been appointed vice-maestro at St Mark’s in 1595, and certainly on Donato’s death was elected maestro there in 1605. Just two years later, Bartolomeo Moresini was appointed vice-maestro to aid him as his health was weak, and he died in 1609. Croce grew a significant international reputation as a writer of madrigals, influencing among others the English composer Thomas Morley. When John Dowland visited Venice in 1595 it was Croce, rather than Gabrieli, whom he came to see.

Despite embracing the world of secular music, Croce’s motets are much more conservative than those of Giovanni Gabrieli and closer to the world of Palestrina. There is a sense of practicality too, as the provision of four-part motets such as Cantate Domino and the intensely devotional O sacrum convivium perhaps points to his association with a smaller church in Venice and an awareness of the needs of liturgy on a more modest scale. Of particular interest is In spiritu humilitatis, a rare musical setting of the Offertory prayer spoken privately by the priest. Croce, priest and composer, gives a special insight into this very personal prayer, with the breath-taking suspensions at ‘Domine Deus’ achieving a truly transcendental beauty in a league of its own. Perhaps one sees more of the secular Croce in Buccinate in neomenia, which feels much more madrigalian and spontaneous, yet always maintains a dignified elegance as it surges onward towards its conclusion, sparkling with wave after wave of vibrant energy.

Charles Cole © 2024

Sacred treasures of Venice continues our anthology of sacred music which is drawn from the liturgical repertoire that we sing at the London Oratory. With one exception, all of the composers represented here were closely associated with St Mark’s, the Doge’s Ducal Chapel which was very much the hub of the spiritual and political power concentrated in Venice, and consequently attracted the greatest musicians. These composers all share something else in common, in that they lived and worked through the culmination and final bloom of the polyphonic age, a unique period of musical transition of which they could not have been unaware, right at the end of the Renaissance and at the beginnings of what would become the Baroque era. The new style would see an increasing mingling of choirs and instruments, which is perhaps what many people have come to expect when they hear Venetian music; however, our recording focuses on the a cappella repertoire.

The Schola is at its heart and purpose a liturgical choir, and we present this recording as an insight into the liturgical life of the London Oratory, where this music can be heard in its proper context. The boys come from The London Oratory School, with the Newman Choral Scholars drawn from recent alumni, and on this recording the average age of all the singers, across the four voice parts, is fourteen. We are, once again, delighted to share this music with a wider audience.

Charles Cole © 2024

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