Canzon Primi Toni

Giovanni Gabrieli, publ. 1597

It seems that Andrea Gabrieli wasn’t especially interested in publishing his work, despite a growing publishing industry in Venice. Fortunately his nephew felt otherwise, and published works by both himself and his uncle, preserving material that might otherwise be lost.

Giovanni Gabrieli also published collections entirely comprising his own work. The Canzon primi toni appeared in his Sacrae symphoniae (“Sacred Symphonies”) of 1597, along with a number of similar works. The exact date it was written is unknown, but it is fairly representative of a mature polychoral tradition; it was written for eight parts, divided into two choirs of four parts each. It begins with a theme based on a characteristic long–short–short rhythmic pattern (the ‘dactyl foot,’ —∪∪) announced by the first choir, which is repeated by the second choir.

Gabrieli, Canzon primi toni (excerpt)

There follows a passage played by both groups, who toss several themes back and forth in imitation

Gabrieli, Canzon primi toni (excerpt)

before arriving at a cadence on the “tonic.” The whole thing is then played again from the beginning.

Next comes a slight change of texture in a section where the two choirs engage in some “call–and–response” imitation; the first choir plays a phrase which the second repeats in response. These are modified back and forth

Gabrieli, Canzon primi toni (excerpt)

until the two come together again with some closer imitation before coming to a cadence on B♭ (the “relative major”). Some more call–and–response follows in closer succession, this time with the second choir calling and the first responding, and coming together to finish the section on the “tonic major.” The call–and–response pattern continues in a triple–meter section with a phrase in the first choir echoed by the second. After another section where all parts play, tossing more imitation back and forth, the triple–meter section is repeated, but this time the choirs trade places, with the first responding to the second. The same material that followed the first triple—meter section returns, again with the choirs trading places, and the work concludes with a brief coda–like section of a few bars.


If the two choirs were stationed in different parts of Saint Mark’s, the effect must have been impressive. Even more suggestive of an echo effect is the manner in which imitations are compressed to within several notes of one another, between individual voices or between the choirs themselves or in which rapid flourishes succeed one another, particularly in the upper voices. Whether the choirs were stationed far apart as, say, in opposite galleries, or performed in closer quarters, as perhaps left and right, there would be no mistaking the polychoral division into two groups. Unfortunately, reproducing the effect in a recording is quite difficult, so the live experience is priceless.

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