Giovanni Gabrieli Biography

(Italian Composer, Organist and One of the Most Influential Musicians of His Time)

Born: 1557

Born In: Venice, Italy

Giovanni Gabrieli was a noted Italian composer and organist of the late Renaissance, and a prominent member of the progressive group of composers within the Venetian School. Development of the Venetian School reached its zenith during the 1580s when Giovanni and his uncle Andrea Gabrieli produced numerous works for multiple choirs, groups of brass and string instruments, and organ. Dynamics in music notation were used for the first time in these works, which are also considered among the first ones that included specific instructions for ensemble instrumentation. One of the most influential musicians of his time, Giovanni served as principal organist and composer at the prestigious St Mark's Basilica, and as organist at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. A master of the Venetian polychoral style with a rich oeuvre of brilliant compositions, Giovanni rose to prominence as an eminent composer in Europe, discernable from his influential volume Sacrae symphoniae that led several composers from across Europe, particularly from Germany, to come and study in Venice. His famous piece Sonata pian' e forte, an example of the Venetian polychoral style, was one of the earliest known compositions that specified loud and quiet passages in print. Another masterpiece of the composer, In Ecclesiis, a fine example of the virtuoso’s use of the polychoral techniques, epitomizes Baroque and Renaissance styles.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 55


father: Piero Fais

mother: Paola Gabrieli

siblings: Angela Gabrieli, Domenico Gabrielli, Marina Gabrieli, Matteo Gabrieli

Born Country: Italy

Composers Organists

Died on: 1612

place of death: Venice, Italy

Cause of Death: Kidney Stones

City: Venice, Italy

Childhood & Early Life

Giovanni Gabrieli was born in Venice either in 1554 or in 1557 as one of the five children of his father who hailed from the region of Carnia. The latter moved to Venice just before Giovanni was born. Although little is known about early life of Giovanni, it was most likely that he came under the tutelage of his uncle Andrea Gabrieli, a composer and organist of the late Renaissance, who emerged as the first internationally reputed member of the Venetian School and played an influential role in spreading the Venetian style in Italy and Germany. Starting from 1566 Andrea served as organist at St Mark's Basilica, and held this prestigious position for the rest of his life. Most probably, Giovanni was raised by Andrea, as the junior composer described himself as little less than a son to Andrea in his 1587 book of concerti.

During the 1570s, Giovanni possibly went to Munich and studied with renowned composer Orlande de Lassus, who at that time was serving at the court of Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria. Lassus, the main representative of the mature polyphonic style in the Franco-Flemish school and a leading composer of the later Renaissance, influenced the development of Giovanni’s musical style to a great extent. Giovanni stayed in Munich possibly till 1579.

Continue Reading Below

Giovanni went back to Venice by 1584. In 1585, he was inducted as principal organist at St Mark's Basilica after Claudio Merulo suddenly left the post. Andrea died same year on August 30 and his position of principal composer at St. Mark's was filled by Giovanni in the end of 1586. Although Andrea was reluctant to publish his own music, Giovanni held his uncle’s works in high regards. So following Andrea’s death Giovanni devoted considerable time in compiling, editing and publishing the works of his uncle, which would otherwise have been lost. Majority of the 77 works published by Giovanni in the 1587 volume of Concerti were that of his uncle’s besides some of his own polychoral motets. The use of dialogue and echo effects in his motets reflects influence of Andrea’s style. Working in the unique acoustical space of St. Mark's, Andrea and later Giovanni played an instrumental role in development of the grand Venetian polychoral style. The concertato style also developed in Venice during the late 16th century, mainly through their work.

While serving at St. Mark's, Giovanni bolstered his career by taking the additional post of organist at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and retained this post for his entire life like the ones he held at St. Mark's. San Rocco was in its heyday at that time and was counted as the most prestigious and wealthy Venetian confraternity after San Marco. Considered as an important patron of music, San Rocco employed musicians and witnessed performance of renowned singers and instrumentalists in Italy. An elaborate description of musical activities at the San Rocco, with polychoral and instrumental music by Giovanni and other noted composers are given in the travelogue Coryat's Crudities: Hastily gobled up in Five Moneth's Travels published by English traveller and writer Thomas Coryat in 1611. Giovanni wrote and composed much of his music specifically for San Rocco, however he possibly also composed much more for San Marco that was reputed for its musical excellence.

Development of the Venetian polychoral style reached its pinnacle during the late 1580s and 1590s when Giovanni was serving as organist and principal composer at San Marco. The style involving spatially separate choirs (chori spezzati—literally, broken choruses) singing in alternation emerged as a major stylistic development paving way to the formation of the Baroque style. The echo device, the antiphonal use of the choirs involving meticulous alternation of two contrasting bodies of sound, for instance chorus against chorus or solo voice against full choir or instruments against voices or alternation of high and low voices performed in the unique acoustical space of St. Mark's Basilica with the different choirs and/or instrumental groups occupying positions across the basilica created striking spatial effects and fantastically effective music, which quickly became popular.

The works that Giovanni composed for San Marco raised him to prominence as one of the most distinguished composers in Europe. Most of the compositions of Giovanni were written in such a way that a choir or instrumental group will perform first from one side followed by performance of musicians from another side. Sometimes even a third group located on a stage close to the main altar in the center of the church would perform.

The magnificent sonorous music of San Marco garnered immense fame, which quickly spread across Europe. One of the principal publications of Giovanni was Sacrae symphoniae, a collection of: 45 motets published in 1597. Giovanni appeared to move away from the technique of close antiphony in Sacrae Symphoniae, which comprised of instrumental church music or massive choral and instrumental motets for the liturgy. Instruments formed an essential part in some motets, such as Omnes Gentes, in which the choirs marked as Capella were only performed by singing group. Sacrae Symphoniae influenced several composers from all over Europe, so much so that many of them, particularly from Germany, came to Venice to hear, study and absorb the style. Giovanni not only taught his new pupils the Venetian polychoral style that he pioneered, but also instructed them to study the Italian madrigals, which led them to absorb and bring back what they learned to their own countries. One of the noted students of Giovanni was the German early Baroque composer and organist Heinrich Schütz who remained under the tutelage of the senior composer from 1609 to 1612 and inherited a ring from his teacher shortly before the latter died. Schütz played an instrumental role in bringing the Italian style to Germany and in continuing its development from the Renaissance into the Early Baroque. In fact composers in Germany, most notably Schütz, started to work in a locally-modified form of the Venetian style, although polychoral works in the style of the Venetian School were also composed by others musicians elsewhere, like the several masses written by the most famous Spanish composer of the Renaissance, Tomás Luis de Victoria.

Giovanni was possibly the first composer who specified instruments, including large choirs of sackbuts and cornetti, in his published works. He was also possibly one of the earliest composers who specified dynamics and developed the echo effects which bolstered his fame to new heights. One of the finest pieces of Giovanni that uses soft and loud dynamics and exemplifies the Venetian polychoral style is the Sonata pian' e forte published in 1597. It is counted among the earliest known compositions that specified loud and quiet passages in print.

It appears that style of Giovanni markedly changed after 1605, the year in which Italian composer Monteverdi published Quinto libro di madrigal. Compositions of Giovanni thereafter were more homophonic in style with sections called Sinfonia dedicated purely for instruments. The virtuoso was a master in diligently positioning the specified groups of instruments and singers in different areas of St. Mark's Basilica as the acoustics in the church are such that when the instruments are rightly positioned, these become audible with perfect clarity even from distant points. A fine example of use of such techniques can be seen in the famous motet of the virtuoso titled In Ecclesiis, his masterpiece that showcased most of the innovations of his late style.

Credited as the first to indicate dynamics in music notation, Giovanni composed in several of the forms prevailing at his time, however liked to compose sacred vocal and instrumental music more than anything else. His works on secular vocal music were mostly executed early in his career following which he concentrated more on composing sacred vocal and instrumental music. He however refrained from writing lighter forms, like dances. His second volume of Sacrae Symphoniae was published posthumously in 1615.


Giovanni started suffering from health issues and his increasing illness and deterioration of health after about 1606 led the church authorities to appoint deputies to take over some of the duties and responsibilities of the composer which were becoming taxing for him to perform. He developed complications from a kidney stone and succumbed to it on August 12, 1612, in Venice.

See the events in life of Giovanni Gabrieli in Chronological Order

How To Cite

Article Title
- Giovanni Gabrieli Biography
- Editors,

People Also Viewed

Ludovico Einaudi Biography
Ludovico Einaudi
Ennio Morricone Biography
Ennio Morricone
Francesco Cavalli Biography
Francesco Cavalli
Gaetano Donizetti Biography
Gaetano Donizetti
Gioachino Rossini Biography
Gioachino Rossini
Giuseppe Tartini Biography
Giuseppe Tartini