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Ritual, Myth, and Humanism in the Origins of the Venetian Style


The so-called Prima Prattica style of sixteenth-century polyphonic music was largely codified through the music of Adriano Willaert and the theoretical writings of his protege Gioseffo Zarlino, both musicians attached to the Chapel of San Marco, the central musical organization of the Republic of Venice. As the century progressed, however, the elements of Willaert's style that were emphasized and emulated by subsequent generations of Venetian musicians took the ceremonial music of the Republic in an aesthetic direction that prioritized expression over balance, sonic effects over contrapuntal clarity, and, at times, bombast over contemplation. The stylistic chasm that developed between this specifically Venetian music and what could be heard elsewhere in Europe at the time has yet to be adequately acknowledged or explained, a problem for music history especially due to the profound international influence wielded by later Venetian or Venice-adjacent composers such as Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Schütz, and Vivaldi.

In this dissertation I explore the ways in which the distinctive cultural, political, religious, and artistic background of the Venetian republic created particular demands which, in conjunction with the unique background and inclinations of Adriano Willaert, led to the creation of this Venetian musical style. In my first chapter, through a brief examination of the foundational preoccupations of the republic and Church of Venice, I establish broad, categorical differences between the cultural demands of it and neighboring states. Next, in chapter two, I more closely investigate the historical circumstances of Venice in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in order to show how material factors influenced the creation of the Venetian style to occur when and how it did. My third chapter looks specifically at the role of literary humanism in the Venetian cultural florescence of the early sixteenth century and in the work of Willaert, through the composer's own humanistic activities, particularly his Horatian secular motet Quid non Ebrietas Designat. Finally, in chapter four I examine Willaert's music for the Church of Venice, specifically his dual-choir, coro spezzato psalm settings, as a response to the specifically Venetian aesthetic demands set up in the previous chapters.

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