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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 12 (2006) No. 1

The Cappella Musicale of San Petronio in Bologna under Giovanni Paolo Colonna (1674–95): History, Organization, Repertoire. By Marc Vanscheeuwijck. Etudes d’Histoire de l’Art 8. Brussels: Brepols, 2003. [422 pp. ISBN: 90-7446-152-2. €49.]

Reviewed by Anne Schnoebelen*

1. Introduction

2. The Cappella musicale and Debates about Performance Practice

3. Music and Composers of San Petronio

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

1.1 Scholars of seventeenth-century Italian sacred music, and especially those who have labored in Bolognese institutions, can be grateful to Marc Vanscheeuwijck for his comprehensive study of Giovanni Paolo Colonna, maestro di cappella at the basilica of San Petronio from 1674 to 1695. Over a span of five years the author mined both the musical and historical archives of this important church, placing Colonna’s music in “the political, economic, architectural, social, institutional, and aesthetic matrix” of the last quarter of the seventeenth century (p. 16). This study is taken from his dissertation (in Dutch), an even broader examination of the Bolognese high Baroque.1

1.2 Using such raw materials as documents regarding services and duties of musicians, their application letters to the cappella musicale, minutes of vestry-board meetings, payment lists for both the regular cappella and the splendid patronal celebration on October 4 each year, local chronicles, newspapers, etc., he creates a fascinating context for his observations on Colonna’s sacred music. He also was able to reconstruct the local liturgy from the above sources and from contemporary missals, breviaries, and ceremonials. And, as a Baroque violoncellist, he participated in performances and recordings made in the basilica, a fine sample of which is included in the volume on a CD.

2. The Cappella musicale and Debates about Performance Practice

2.1 In Part 1, Chapter 1, he begins with a useful clarifying summary of the rather complicated political organization of the city in the seventeenth century, after which he moves to a discussion of Bolognese sacred music in the city’s many churches and convents. He makes the important point that the eventual primacy of the San Petronio cappella would not have been possible without collaboration by the city’s composers, organists, instrumentalists, and singers of both church and civic institutions. He highlights the important role of music printing in Bologna in both the formation and dissemination of a particular Bolognese style. In discussing the Accademia Filarmonica, founded in 1666, he notes that in its fledgling days during Colonna’s tenure at San Petronio it probably did not have the much-vaunted control over Bolognese musical style that it eventually would have. However, as it increased its membership, its stylistic influence undoubtedly grew, helping eventually to create a true Bolognese style.

2.2 An interesting chapter on the basilica itself begins by describing the traditional devotion to St. Petronius as a symbol of the citizens’ newly found freedom from feudal overlords and the restoration in 1376 of government “of the people and the arts” (“del popolo e delle arti”). The decision to build the basilica followed soon and it remains to this day a symbol of civic pride. The square in front of it, the Piazza Maggiore surrounded by civic buildings, is Bologna’s front porch where citizens still gather to socialize, celebrate, argue politics, and talk sports. The complicated and prolonged history of the basilica’s construction is traced in some detail, which leads to a discussion of the special acoustical phenomena in San Petronio.

2.3 Basing his admittedly non-scientific observations on empirical data (i.e., his own ear and his performing experience in the basilica), he makes the interesting and valid claim that composers in this period took into account the particular acoustics of the basilica when writing their music, heard optimally in the apse/choir behind the altar where clergy and civic authorities would have been seated. However, music heard from the nave is a different matter. In a footnote he takes issue with me for stating that “choral polyphony becomes seriously obscured” (60, n.78) without indicating that my context was indeed that of music heard from the nave of the church. Though he claims not to have formulated any opinions about the quality of the acoustic, Vanscheeuwijck characterizes the music heard from the nave: “Even though these compositional features, typical of Colonna, were perfectly audible in the choir of the building, their effect in the nave was somewhat more confused but always overwhelming” (212). Perhaps I overstated the effect, but it is problematic even though, as the author states, “the function of the music was only to elevate the spirit and stimulate prayer” (62). He also writes: “Moreover, Schnoebelen has not experienced the acoustics in the choir where the Cappella used to hold its performances. As a harpsichordist she participated in a Colonna recording conducted by Tito Gotti (Erato, 1965), but the musicians performed in front of the altar (as has unfortunately been done again since 1992), where the acoustics are inferior” (60, n. 78). I beg to differ. Even though it was forty years ago, I distinctly remember performing on the floor of the apse, behind the altar in the choir, though not on the second-level cantoria where the seventeenth-century musicians would have been. (A second recording of the music of Giovanni Gabrieli and other Venetian composers was made at the same time, which was at least partially performed in front of or to the right side of the altar.) In the Colonna recording, which also featured music by Cazzati and Perti, who preceded and followed Colonna as maestri, we did experience the wonderful acoustics of the apse/choir which were aptly captured on that recording. All this aside, it is certainly true that San Petronio composers reinforced bass lines, featured bass singers and castrati, and wrote for the penetrating sound of the trumpet in response to the basilica’s particular acoustics. The author elaborates on Colonna’s individual answer to these problems in Chapter 6.

2.4 Chapter 3 treats the evolution of the Cappella Maggiore as a musical institution, touching first on the archive of the vestry board (Fabbriceria) and the musical archive. A recent reorganization of the Archivio della Fabbriceria by archivist Mario Fanti has made possible the thorough investigation offered here by Vanscheeuwijck. The musical archive, recently under the care of the late Oscar Mischiati, has reverted to the numberings offered by the original (partial) catalogue of Giani and Bonora, published in 1938.2 The author continues with a history of the first 150 years of the institution through the installation of the two organs in 1475 and 1595 respectively, the reforms of Maurizio Cazzati in 1657 and 1658, closing with the tenure of Colonna as maestro di cappella, 1674–95. Here he discusses data of personnel, salaries, size of ensembles, both regular and those hired for special occasions, and the decision after Colonna’s death to abolish the cappella musicale to save money because of necessary repairs to the roof.

3. Music and Composers of San Petronio

3.1 Part 2 discusses the music for San Petronio, beginning with a chapter on the musical organization of the cappella in Colonna’s time, its hierarchy and functioning, and the relationships of the musicians and the maestro di cappella . For this he draws on the reform documents published by Cazzati and the decrees of 1701 made by the Fabbriceria when the cappella musicale was restored after its dissolution in 1696. He then turns to the organization of the liturgical year, utilizing in addition to the above documents the rich resources of Antonio Masini’s Bologna Perlustrata to reconstruct a very useful approximation of a liturgical calendar for San Petronio during Colonna’s tenure.

3.2 From there he goes on to discuss the life and works of Colonna, compiling a more complete and accurate biography than has appeared to date. Among the works he notes is his own important rediscovery of Colonna’s score to a musical introduction for an equestrian ballet to be performed for the marriage of Count Ercole Pepoli and Beatrice Bentivoglio in Ferrara.3 Brief biographies follow of other musicians who composed music for services in San Petronio: Petronio Franceschini, Domenico Gabrielli, Giuseppe Torelli, and Giuseppe Maria Jacchini. Mention is made of the organists Giulio Cesare Arresti and Bartolomeo Monari, as well as Giacomo Antonio Perti who would follow Colonna as maestro after the 1701 reorganization but whose involvement at San Petronio in Colonna’s time was probably minimal if any at all.

3.3 Chapter 6 discusses the music composed for San Petronio from 1674 to 1695 by Colonna and his colleagues. Following largely the taxonomy of the theorist Angelo Berardi, Vanscheeuwijck classifies some 349 compositions into three broad categories, of which 28% are in stile antico, 60% in stile concertato and 12% instrumental music. Various sub-categories according to the size of the ensemble further refine his classification system. Numerous musical examples in Appendix 5 clearly illustrate his stylistic discussions. In support of his theory that composers adjusted their compositional style to accommodate the acoustics of the basilica he notes, for instance, that in Colonna’s homophonic music, he uses small rhythmic variants to create an impression of imitative counterpoint, thanks to the reverberation in the church. Or, conversely, passages which begin in imitative counterpoint will proceed homophonically once all voices have entered in order to preserve acoustic transparency even with eight voices. He also notes the enhancement of the major third, and even its audible appearance as an overtone of a pitch and its fifth in the acoustics of the apse. In minor-key sections Colonna always assigned the inevitable Picardy third to a less audible inner voice, perhaps so as not to diminish its eventual acoustical appearance after a long reverberation time.4 With such a thorough examination of the entire available opus of Colonna’s sacred music, he is able to generalize about Colonna’s style with regard to melodic, rhythmic, and textual characteristics and, to a lesser extent, that of his San Petronio colleagues.

3.4 In an epilogue, Vanscheeuwijck summarizes his research and musical analysis, emphasizing that he has approached the repertory with the eye and ear of late seventeenth-century composers, performers, and theorists and the acoustical requirements of the basilica itself. He concludes with a description of his own performing experiences there, especially the results of placing the musicians in the cantoria as was done in Colonna’s time.

3.5 The remaining half of the book—in terms of pages not prose—consists of appendices containing an enormous quantity of archival documents, payroll records, a catalogue of Colonna’s works, a list of musical compositions written for San Petronio, musical examples, bibliography, and index—truly a scholarly gift with its potential for further research. The documents are arranged as they appear in the text, followed by a systematic listing by type of archival material. Most welcome are the complete monthly payment records for this period, the Mandati di pagamento, which are essential in determining the comings and goings of the musicians and the resulting size of the cappella musicale at any given time. These documents were partially presented by Osvaldo Gambassi but with incomplete listings, rendering them difficult if not impossible to use for precise dating.5

4. Conclusion

4.1 Vanscheeuwijck’s writing is readable and clear, with just a few minor caveats: “devote” for “devout”, “cartons” for “cartoons,” and misuse of the word “precludes.” His illustrative tables add much to the presentation. I could have done with fewer explanations of his intentions as the chapters proceed, but that is a matter of personal taste.

4.2 In conclusion, Marc Vanscheeuwijck has given us a fascinating narrative, an invaluable set of documents, and most of all, has presented an important syncretic and contextual analysis of late seventeenth-century sacred music in Bologna. It should go far in illustrating the essential role of sacred music in our knowledge of late Baroque style.


* Anne Schnoebelen (aschnoeb@rice.edu) is the Joseph and Ida Kirkland Mullen Professor Emerita of Music at Rice University, Houston, Texas.

1 “De religieuze muziekproduktie in de San Petronio-kerk te Bologna ten tijde van Giovanni Paolo Colonna (1674–1695): Een onderzoek naar culturele, historische, liturgische en muzikale aspekten uit de Bolognese Hoog-Barok”, 2 vols., Ph.D. diss. (University of Ghent, 1995).

2 Alfredo Bonora and Emilio Giani, Città di Bologna: Biblioteca della R. Accademia filarmonica, Biblioteca privata Ambrosini, Archivio e museo della Basilica di S. Petronio (Parma: Officina Grafica Fresching, 1939; reprint, Bologna: Forni, 1989). Also, the author refers in a footnote to Sergio Paganelli’s unsuccessful attempt to re-order the musical archive in the 1960s and early 1970s. Though Paganelli may be faulted for his uncompleted work, those of us who profited from his generous access to the archive outside the normal opening hours will always be in his debt.

3 GB-Cfm Music ms. 778: “Le Stelle combattute dagli Elementi, Torneo rapresentato in Ferrara da diversi Cavalieri” (1676). See Vanscheeuwijck, The Cappella Musicale, 141–2.

4 Vanscheeuwijck’s statement (203) is not entirely clear: “[Colonna] tried to keep … this major third ‘hidden’ in the texture (in order to avoid the major third still becoming audible after a reverberation time of nine or ten seconds).”

5 La Cappella Musicale di S. Petronio: maestri, organisti, cantori e strumentisti dal 1436 al 1920 (Firenze: Olschki, 1987), 51–336.

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