Cento concerti ecclesiastici

Lodovico Viadana, 1602

Some of the more dour Protestant movements such as Calvinism and its characteristically English version, Puritanism, took their objections to showiness in worship to an extreme. For music, it meant in some venues that only the homeliest hymn tunes were sung in unison; in others, it meant no music at all. Ethereal beauty or sensuality in art were seen as, at best, distractions from the serious business of repentance, at worst, temptations by the evil one. To the standard–bearers of the Counter–Reformation, such ideas were antithetical. God imbues each of us with inherent talents and the ability to appreciate their fruits; using them in His service is an earthly reflection of His glory. Hiding them under a bushel is not merely nonsensical, it borders on the blasphemous.

Thus in spite of dictums of the Council of Trent and the Caeromoniale Episcoporum, various Catholic officials demanded not less music, but more. Unfortunately, as contemporary corporate types might say, expectations frequently outstripped resources. In Italy especially there were scores of churches where masses and daily offices were conducted, and few of them could be expected to support a dedicated body of singers and players to match the splendour of the larger centres. Feast days would have been an even greater burden.

The Caeromoniale itself laid down rules for the so–called ‘organ mass’, which had been around for some time. Very few churches were without an organ, and it was often used alternatim, in which a verse of the chant was played by the organist, alternating with the singers, who took the succeeding verse. In other situations, entire portions of the liturgy were replaced by the organ. Thus a canzona might be played during the Gradual, or a toccata during the Elevation.

Another common remedy for a dearth of singers was a practice called concerto or concertato, in which a work for many voices intended for a capella rendition was performed with only three or even two singers, or one; the remaining voices were supplied by the organ. It had been going on since at least the middle of the sixteenth century, and is one of the more obvious factors in the otherwise mysterious emergence of the basso continuo at the beginning of the seventeenth.

Lodovico Grossi was born in Viadana, a town in the political orbit of Mantua, about 1560, and later took the town’s name as his own. He took holy orders sometime in his twenties, and is rumoured to have studied music at the cathedral of Mantua, where he became maestro di cappella in 1594. He spent time in Rome beginning in 1597, and took the post of maestro di capella at San Luca in Mantua in 1602.

That same year Viadana published his famous Cento concerti ecclesiastici a una, a due, a tre, & a quattro voci con il basso continuo per sonar nell’organo (“One hundred church concertos for one, two, three and four voices with continuo bass for organ”). In his preface, he talks about the shortcomings of concertato that result from dropping voices: the failure of points of imitation among voices, or the number of longish passages in which nobody sings, because the replaced parts have been taken by the organ. His one hundred concertos, he says, are designed specifically for smaller forces without these drawbacks.

One of the most familiar of Viadana’s concertos is Duo seraphim clamabant (“Two seraphim cried out”) for two sopranos and continuo. The more or less exact imitations between the two voices are strongly suggestive of echo, with delays between the two voices ranging from entire phrases to just a few beats. The continuo provides a simple supporting background, alternating between two or three chords, or standing on a single one for a number of beats. The voices join in a more obviously homophonic texture beginning at tres sunt qui testimonium dant (“There are three who give witness to this”); at the focal et his tres unum sunt (“and these three are one”) Viadana writes over the organ part qui l’organista sona e canta (“here the organist plays and sings”), and writes the lyrics. For the closing phrase, the two voices return to their imitative work over more sustained bass notes.

Viadana, Duo seraphim clamabant (excerpt)



The equally popular Exsultate Iusti (Psalm 32 (33), “Rejoice, ye righteous, in the Lord”) for four voices is entirely homophonic throughout, although it changes from triple to duple meter and back with a reprise of the first phrase. There are brief rests in each of the voices, but they are not extended, and even when the bass is absent, the tenor is clearly taking its place. The melody, as far as it can be called such, is carried by the soprano, with phrases often repeated exactly. The few imitations that do appear are rudimentary. With the possible exception of the soprano, any voice could be dropped as long as a continuo bass made up for the lack.



Viadana historically has received much of the credit for the invention of the small–scale sacred concerto, perhaps somewhat unfairly. According to the preface by one Asprilio Pacelli in his 1599 Chorici psalmi et motecta (“Choral psalms and motets”), the concertato practice was commonplace in Rome — had been since the middle of the century. Pacelli’s Chorici included psalms and magnificats, antiphons and motets mainly for four voices, but for which he recommends that at least one voice be omitted. Significantly, Viadana spent about five years in Rome before publishing his Concerti.

Nor is Pacelli alone in describing concertato, along with falsobordone, as commonplace techniques. Some see in Viadana’s preface the same sort of self–aggrandizement characteristic of his contemporary monodists. Be that as it may, there was just as much room for innovation in the circles of sacred music as in secular, and there was certainly more to come. Cavalieri had produced his Rappresentatione in 1600, and it was hardly to be the last of its kind.

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