Benedetto Marcello
"The Michelangelo of Music"

Should we live in the nineteenth-century Europe, it would prove unnecessary to introduce Benedetto Marcello (Venice, 1686-Brescia, 1739). In fact, after many years of "Vivaldi craze" throughout Europe during the first few decades of the eighteenth century, the grand public became tired and bored of the great master's works. Sadly enough, Vivaldi (1678-1741) was still alive, and the situation led him to death in extreme poverty and unfair oblivion. Some time later his music was replaced, as the paradigm of the late Venetian baroque,  by Benedetto Marcello's. It is also sad that Marcello was already dead. In any case, his music knew a long period of high, steady, and certainly deserved esteem. During the nineteenth century, his compositions were continuously performed and reprinted, and his vocal works were translated into numerous languages. The Conservatorio in Venice was given his name. "Because of the soaring flight of his ideas, he was called the Pindar among composers, and because of the power and justness of his expression, the Michelangelo of music" (E. Gerber). This enthusiasm lasted up to the beginning of the twentieth century, when Vivaldi was rediscovered and Marcello, in turn, unfairly forgotten.

Benedetto Marcello was not a professional musician, although he was talented and skilled and, being a member of a Venetian aristocratic family, he had a solid musical education.  His duties as a patrician at the service of the Serenissima didn't leave much free time for composition. Therefore, together with his elder brother Alessandro, he cultivated music as a dilettante.  He managed, nevertheless, to produce several oratorios, operas, scenic serenate, more than 400 solo cantate, chamber and orchestral music, and instrumental works. Marcello developed a concise and rigorous, but tasteful style, with impressive  counterpoint technique, transparent but often audacious modulation and harmonic progression, and daring  treatment of dissonance. "We find slow movements of rich harmonic substance in addition to fast movements of contrapuntal vitality" (E. Selfridge-Field). Many of his concertos, where he fully exploited instrumental capabilities, are at the technical level of the best instances of his time.

Marcello was strongly critical about fashionable music, which pervaded musical production in Venice and practically everywhere in Europe. It must of course be pointed out that -in contrast to Vivaldi, for instance- he did not depend on the public success of his music to survive. Anyway, he argued against such kind of music, composed mainly to satisfy the vanity of singers and performers, especially, in the extravagant frame of baroque opera. His merciless satire Il teatro alla moda (ca. 1720) summarizes his views on these topics. He advocated for a regeneration of music, returning to the pure, monodic style of the Ancients. Of course, these were vain voces clamantes in deserto. However, Marcello brought to practice his ideas in his last and most ambitious work, the Estro poetico-armonico. This is a collection of vocal compositions on a paraphrase of the first fifty biblical psalms, for one to four solo voices with basso continuo and occasional solo instruments. For these compositions Marcello took musical motifs from the Venetian Jewish liturgy of his time. He remarked that "fashion has not changed the music of Venetian Jews," and thus aimed at coming closer to the radical and profound style of the Ancient Masters. The output of his effort is a music where decorative effects are banished, text dominates, complicated harmony and counterpoints are found, and archaic, melismatic elements alternate with unexpected modulation and dissonance. For the performance, Marcello prescribed that "it should be precise and without arbitrary ornament, particularly in the solo parts, keeping in mind that we are singing to God of divine matters to be expressed in the skill of a fine voice, with the solemnity and affection of a devoted and resigned heart. It should not be done without brilliant musicians, giving the exact tempo, perfect vocal support, well articulated and with the right intonation."

Marcello's psalms were heard during the eighteenth century at concerts in Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig and London. In Rome, Cardinal Ottoboni decreed that every one of his accademie was to begin with a composition from the Estro poetico-armonico. Innumerable reprintings, as well as translations even into Russian, appeared in Europe during the nineteenth century. Now, unfortunately, this monumental work is practically unknown except to specialists. Following this link, you will have access to midi-format transcriptions of several parts of the Estro poetico-armonico. Enjoy them.

Bibliography

Discography


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