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A Venetian Coronation, 1595

Gabrieli Consort

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 06, 2016
Category: Classical

It’s good to be king — or, in Venice, Doge.

The Doge was the chief magistrate. Thus, a man of a certain age and accomplishment. And, in Venice, a man of great power.  

To everything there is a downside, and that was true even of the Doge. To make sure that he did not betray Venice or trade his integrity for gold, he couldn’t open a dispatch from another country without aides present. When he died, there was an accounting of his tenure, and if a commission discovered any bad deeds, it might well take a bite out of his estate.

On the upside, the Venetian who received a life-long appointment as Doge was confined for the rest of his life to the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica di San Marco. Not shabby real estate.

And, also on the upside, there were parties galore in Venice, and no celebration was bigger than the celebration for the Doge’s coronation.

In 1595, there was a new Doge — Marino Grimani — and on the morning of April 27, there was a Coronation Mass in his honor at San Marco.

It was quite the event. Giovanni Gabrieli, an organist at San Marco, composed a festival piece that featured trumpets, sackbutts, a dulcian, violin, viola, drums and two organs. To that he added sixteen singers. And then he did something novel — he positioned the singers and players in as many as eight locations in San Marco.

The effect was like — okay, bad example, but you get the idea — hearing Pink Floyd’s "Dark Side of the Moon" played at midnight at a planetarium’s light show. Or a musical tennis match, with people turning their heads to follow the music. Memorable, even in Venice. 

Jump ahead almost four centuries. In 1982, Paul McCreesh launched The Gabrieli Consort & Players, a group dedicated to authentic reconstructions of the greatest music of the Baroque, played on period instruments. In 1990, this group recorded McCreesh’s 71-minute recreation of that 1595 Coronation Mass — and, in the process, cemented its reputation as the greatest interpreter of Baroque music we have. [To buy the CD of "A Venetian Coronation" from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

The recording wasn’t made in Venice, but in Brinkburn Priory, Northumberland, an English church with superior acoustics. And we don’t hear the music in surround-sound, but from two speakers. It’s not the full experience, but it comes close. The singers produce a sense of crossfire — this is a dramatic piece. And the bells and chimes add a sense of historical authenticity. The total effect is calculated to induce a sense of awe and holiness.

Like this:

Turn up the volume. Lower the lights. Hear the pealing of the bells, the rich organ chords, the flare of brass. In seconds our century has disappeared. And that is heaven.