Monteverdi, Grandi and The Company of San Marco

2009 December 10

While reveling in the beauty of music from the past, we seldom consider the “office politics” and professional competition that surrounded its composition and original performance. The goal of simultaneously creating beauty and paying rent has always been proven challenging and even among highly respected and gainfully employed artists, competition has frequently led to conflict.

The Floor of the Basilica of San Marco

The Floor of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice

In his biographical sketch of Alessandro Grandi, published previously on this blog, Steven Saunders mentions the composer’s rapid rise to positions of authority at the Basilica of San Marco after returning from Ferrara in 1617. Among the positions that he attained was capo, or head, of the Compagnia di San Marco, a group not unlike a modern musicians’ union that organized singers for “freelance work” outside the basilica.

Already in the 15th Century, musical activity outside the Basilica had been organized through confraternities known as Scuole Grandi. In his seminal article on organizations of musicians in Venice, Jonathan Glixon relates that “sometime in the years before 1553 the singers of the ducal cappella organized themselves into two companies that competed for work at the Scuole and elsewhere. The rivalry between the two became intense and bitter, making it difficult not only for them to secure engagements, but also to work together at San Marco. The solution to this problem, and the ensuing resolutions, petitions, and counter- resolutions, are preserved in a fascinating series of documents that provides unique insights into the business of music in sixteenth- century Venice.”

In spite of the official agreements drawn up in 1533, conflicts inevitably arose from time to time and by the turn of the 17th century the competition engendered by special occasions those at San Rocco led to the same problems that had initially sparked the creation of the Company. In 1601, the Company, with new statutes, was reconstituted as an official organization of the cappella: it was headed by the vice maestro di cappella and included all of the adult singers. The new bylaws dealt chiefly with the duties of the singers in their official roles as members of the cappella. As Glixon notes, “the only reminder of the previously central relationship between the Company and the Scuole, which allowed a singer who had to “go to his Scuola on ordained Sundays” to send a replacement to San Marco. He was obligated, however, upon completion of his duties at the Scuola, to return immediately to San Marco, even if he arrived while a service was already in progress.”

So, it was in this volatile milieu that Grandi and Monteverdi found themselves in the second decade of the new century. As Saunders explains:

Grandi’s quick ascent came just as rumors began swirling about the possibility that Monteverdi might leave Venice to return to Mantua. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Grandi’s rise in stature under these conditions may have occasioned resistance and even resentment.

Apparently in 1617, before Grandi’s return to Venice, the Doge had intervened in some internal disputes within the Company, ordering a thorough reorganization, including the election of new officers.  In addition, he barred Monteverdi, as maestro di cappella, from holding membership in the group.  A few months later, in July 1617, the company still was not thriving, and appealed again to the Doge for help, asking for permission to elect “someone outside of our organization, some valorous man known and beloved by the city, who will use his power and authority in our interest [by] directing our music, marking the beat and giving us new compositions according to our need.”

Monteverdi scholar James Moore has guessed that the “valorous man” might have been Monteverdi—indeed, the singers who presented the petition to the Doge may even have had Monteverdi in mind—but the date of the document confirming Grandi’s election as capo of the company (22 September 1617) makes clear that the post fell instead to Grandi.

Grandi’s leadership of the company seems not to have sat well with Monteverdi, however, as Saunders describes in the excerpted passage below.

On October 16, 1620, Doge Antonio Priuli, after having listened many times both to Monteverdi and to several singers about “diverse causes for disgust and disorder” when the company performed at churches in the city, invested Monteverdi with responsibility for supervising the singers both inside and outside the basilica.  In other words, he made Monteverdi capo of the company, presumably relieving Grandi of those duties.  In what may have been a conciliatory gesture, however, the Doge designated the vice-maestro of San Marco the vice capo of the singers’ company.

At the time of the Doge’s decision, the post of vice-maestro had been vacant for nearly a year and a half, since Marc’ Antonio Negri’s resignation on 30 April 1619.   It is not clear whether this administrative shake up in the Company of St. Mark’s was related to another change that was about to take place: Grandi’s confirmation as Monteverdi’s vice-maestro just a month later.  Tensions over the leadership of the Compagnia di San Marco notwithstanding, Monteverdi must have supported Grandi’s appointment as his assistant; just a few months before Grandi’s selection, he wrote to Alessandro Striggio boasting that the procurators did not appoint organists or the assistant director without his “opinion and report.”

In any event, Grandi’s new position as vice-maestro did not put an end to controversy.  A few months after his election, he appealed to Marc’ Antonio Cornaro, the abbate primicerio of St. Mark’s (and the official responsible for settling disputes between musicians who were not clerics) asking that his motets appear under Cornaro’s protection to repel “the haughtiness and rage of savage and hateful tongues, which shamelessly consider it nothing to disparage and destroy the fame and honor, I would say not only of others’ work, but even of [other] persons themselves.”  Whether this is a reference to his removal as capo of the Company of St. Mark’s, or to some new intrigue remains, like so much else in the composer’s biography, shrouded in mystery.

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