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  • Born


  • Died

    16 August 1617 (aged 59)

Giovanni Bassano (c.1558–1617) was an Italian composer of the Venetian School and cornettist of the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras. He was a key figure in the development of the instrumental ensemble at St Mark's basilica, and left a detailed book on instrumental ornamentation, which is a rich resource for research in contemporary performance practice. It is not known if he was related to Antonio Bassano a member of a well-known Venetian family of musicians.

Nothing is known of Bassano's life before his arrival as a young instrumental player at St Mark's, probably in 1576 at the age of eighteen. He quickly acquired a reputation as one of the finest instrumentalists in Venice, and by 1585 had published his first book, Ricercate, passagi et cadentie, which details exactly how best to ornament passages when transcribing vocal music for instruments. In that same year he became a music teacher at the seminary associated with St Mark's. In 1601 he took over the job as head of the instrumental ensemble from Girolamo Dalla Casa, and he remained at this post until his death in the summer of 1617. The exact date of his death is not known, but the approximate date is inferred from both of his posts becoming vacant simultaneously.

Bassano was the person most responsible for the performance of the music of the Gabrielis, both as a performer and a director. It is likely that Giovanni Gabrieli had Bassano in mind for his elaborate cornett parts.

As well as directing the music at St Mark's, Bassano was busy elsewhere in Venice; he directed several groups of piffari, bands of wind players including bagpipes, recorders, shawms, flageolets, bassoons, and conceivably other instruments, which were used in other churches (such as San Rocco) or even street festivals.

Bassano was also a composer, though his accomplishment in this regard has been overshadowed by his renown as a performer and his associated performance treatise. He wrote motets and concerti ecclesiastici (sacred concertos) in the Venetian polychoral style, and he also wrote madrigals, canzonettas, and some purely instrumental music. His canzonettas achieved some fame outside Italy: Thomas Morley knew them, printing them in London in 1597 in English translation.

Some of Bassano's instrumental music is ingeniously contrapuntal, as though he were indulging a side of his personality he was unable to display in his more ceremonial, homophonic compositions. His fantasias and ricercars are densely imitative and contain retrograde and retrograde inversions of motivic ideas, a rarity in counterpoint before the twentiethth century.

The similarity of Bassano's motets to the early work of Heinrich Schütz, who studied in Venice with Gabrieli, suggests that the two may have known each other; certainly Schütz knew Bassano's music. At any rate Schütz carried the Venetian style back with him to Germany where it continued to develop into the Baroque era.

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