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Timeline 018: Giovanni Gabrieli And The Origin Of The Sonata

Giovanni Gabrieli is one of the most influental Venetian composers and his work influenced the development of instrumental Baroque music.

The Latin word Cantata means “to sing”, the word Sonata means “to play.” That last title is vague enough to cover a multitude of instrumental genres. Vocal music comes with a built-in structure for the composer to follow.

The text or lyric informs the music and greatly influences the form. But what about music without words? How is instrumental music structured? What forms and rules does it follow and  who developed those rules? To answer some of these questions, let’s look at the music of Giovanni Gabrieli and the development of the Baroque sonata.

In the late Renaissance, Venetian composers became extremely influential. Gabrieli represents the one of the highest points of that school, his work influencing the development of instrumental Baroque music. We know very little about Gabrieli’s early life, except that he was certainly taught his craft by his uncle Andrea Gabrieli, another prominent Italian composer and organist.

Giovanni’s early compositions were influenced greatly by his uncle and other Venetian composers. But it is Giovanni’s later works that show his individualism and style. He was noted for writing a great deal of instrumental music, especially larger ensemble pieces. These works show a spirit of experimentation in instrumental music, playing with the roles of soloists and accompaniment.

You’re hearing an excerpt from Gabrieli’s Sonata piano and forte (1597). This is not the first piece to use these dynamic markings but it is an early experiment in contrast, not just playing soft and loud but by using the relationships of two groups of four instruments each. 

In his work, Canzon duodecimi toni he employs a technique which will influence the Baroque concerto, having two cornets play as soloists as the rest of the ensemble plays the accompaniment. 

Finally, Giovanni’s Sonata for 3 Violins was one of the first instrumental works to use a basso continuo.  In other words, there is such an emphasis is on the solo lines of the violins that is some cases the accompaniment is not even completely written out but left to the performer.

The vocal style of the music of Monteverdi had now found a place in the instrumental music of Giovanni Gabrieli.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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