Giovanni Gabrieli

Composer Giovanni Gabrieli

Venetian composer and organist, guardian of the grand, opulent, sacred music style favored in Renaissance Venice at the height of its power.

Vital Statistics
Venice, between 1554 and 1557
1612, in Venice
Performed As:
Organist for the Cathedral of San Marco
During Lifetime:
Victory over the Ottoman Turks in 1571 helped bring Venice to the height of its wealth and influence. Painters Caravaggio and El Greco created their masterworks.
Biographical Outline
  • Family ties: Gabrieli’s uncle Andrea Gabrieli also composed and played the organ at San Marco .
  • Over the mountain, 1570s: Gabrieli studies in Munich under Orlando di Lasso and also works for the Duke. His first published pieces appear during these years in Bavaria.
  • Big break: By 1584, Gabrieli holds a post as temporary organist of San Marco. After winning a competition in 1585, his appointment is made permanent.
  • Publications: Two volumes of Sacrae symphoniae (Sacred Symphonies) are published in 1597 and, posthumously, in 1615.
Fun Facts
  • Free food: In Gabrieli’s time, much expense and effort went into the many special feast-day masses and civic processions with which the Venetian city-state celebrated its power and history. No wonder the place was crawling with musicians.
  • German admirers: Gabrieli taught and influenced many northern composers, most notably Heinrich Schütz.
  • Innovator: The second Sacred Symphonies publication contains one of the earliest scores that indicates specific instruments for its parts.
Explore the Music
  • Sacred: Gabrieli wrote mainly sacred music – motets and masses. In addition, he shone in his instrumental canzoni and sonatas. He published only a fraction of what he probably composed.
  • San Marco style: Musicians before Gabrieli had developed a special style for use in the enormous spaces of San Marco. The cathedral had two organs and two choir lofts. Using both allowed for back-and-forth (antiphonal) exchanges between two choirs. The Venetian term for this was cori spezzati (separated choirs).
  • Bring on the sackbuts: Low-key organ playing aside, Catholic religious services didn’t use instruments until the Venetians introduced them into the services of San Marco, in the 16th century. Like everything else, they did it in a big way, and by Gabrieli’s time the combined forces were large indeed. The instruments also played in divided choirs.
  • What is a sackbut?: A trombone (early version). Other instruments you’re likely to hear in Gabrieli’s music include violins and cornettos (wooden tubes with a mouthpiece like a brass instrument and fingerholes like a recorder.)
  • Bigger is better: Each divided choir was accompanied by an organ. One record of a reimbursement to Gabrieli for the hire of seven (!) organs likely means that he conducted seven mixed choirs at one event. And that probably wasn’t the limit.
Recommended Websites
  • Giovanni Gabrieli: Canzonas Sonatas and Motets/ Venetian Church Music
  • Taverner Consort/ Andrew Parrott (Virgin Veritas double CD 1991)