Tarquinio Merula


Whether bellicose by nature or impatient with authority, Tarquinio Merula seems never to have remained very long in one place, and especially in later life frequently found himself in trouble for one reason or another. Likely born in Busseto around 1594, his first job was as organist at San Bartolomeo in neighbouring Cremona, the city where, probably, he first studied. Tarquinio Merula
Tarquinio Merula
(IMSLP Petrucci Music Library)
Near the end of 1616 he went to Lodi, taking the position of organist at Santa Maria Incoronata. Then in 1621 he moved to Warsaw to take up his new duties as organist to Sigismund III, King of Poland.

By 1624, he was back in Cremona working at various venues until, in 1631, he succeeded Alessandro Grandi as maestro di capella of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo. Grandi had left Venice in 1627 to take the post, but died during the outbreak of plague suffered by much of northern Italy around 1630, as did many of his choristers. But at the end of 1632, Merula was fired for indecency toward some boys in the choir, and was threatened with criminal proceedings if he didn’t leave quietly. He did, retreating once again to Cremona, where he was reinstated as maestro di cappella at one of his former posts. Nor did that last: he feuded with authorities over his salary and duties, and in 1638 returned to Bergamo and Santa Maria Maggiore. And apparently quarrelled with his fellows and superiors there too.

He is known principally for his innovations in sacred music, but Merula published four sets of exclusively instrumental music, beginning in 1615 with his Primo libro delle canzoni a quattro (“First Book of Canzonas for Four Voices”), Op. 1. Of the dozen works it contains, the most popular is perhaps the one titled La Lusignuola (“The Flatterer”) with its nervous, rushing passages, as much in the Renaissance as the Baroque tradition.



His most famous instrumental work is the ubiquitous Ciaccona, written on a ground or ostinato bass which repeatedly plays the same pattern as the two soloists converse with one another in imitation, to hypnotic effect.



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