It may be that Alessandro Grandi is less well–known than one might otherwise expect because of the
enormously long shadow cast by his superior, Claudio Monteverdi. Grandi found success early on as a soprano, then later as
(Wikimedia Commons) maestro di capella at several academies and confraternities in and around Venice, later as maestro at the cathedral of Ferrara.
He was also notably engaged at Saint Mark’s in Venice as an elite singer in the company of Giovanni di Coro, who were required to sing every day. It was an especially important privilege insofar as the requirement that a Giovanni was to have reached at least twenty years of age was waived: Grandi was still in his mid–to–late teens.
In 1617, he was taken on as a singer in the ducal chapel of Saint Mark’s, and rose to maestro di canto the very next year. Finally, in 1620, he was elected vice–maestro to the master himself.
Grandi’s contribution to concertato style and the repertory of the early seventeenth century motet for small forces — solo voice in particular — was considerable. The genre was used for everything from replacing certain portions of Vespers or the mass to private personal devotions. While stile moderno would have been used as a matter of course in Venice, it enjoyed popularity in other centres as well, not least of all, Rome.
One of Grandi’s most famous works is the solo motet O quam tu pulchra es (“Oh how beautiful thou art”), based loosely on words from the Song of Songs. The passage is especially suitable for experimenting with the new modes of expression explored in the early Baroque: its sometimes steamy imagery was believed to be an allegorical reference to the beauty of the blessed Virgin, or to the relationship of Christ as bridegroom to his congregation of believers, the Church, as bride. In a religious setting, of course, a certain dignified restraint would be observed.
Evidence suggests that the relationship between Grandi and Monteverdi was not always amicable. There seem to have been disputes about working in other venues, but that was true of almost every musician, and not just in Venice. Perhaps Grandi felt that he had advanced as far as he possibly could — certainly the procurators of Saint Mark’s were not about to see Monteverdi’s position interfered with. In any event, Grandi applied for and was awarded the post of maestro di capella in Bergamo, at the west end of the Veneto, sometime in the mid 1620s. Now he could manage things as he saw fit.
In 1630, his Messa e salmi concertati (“Concerted mass and psalms”) was published in Venice, adding to an already impressive collection of sacred songs in the new style. His works were immensely popular and were disseminated throughout Italy and Europe in both original publications and numerous reprints. Ironically, his works can be hard to come by nowadays.
Grandi’s time in Bergamo was sadly all too brief. In 1630 he and all of his family were claimed by the plague that killed so many others in the north of Italy.