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Baldassare Donato and Chi la Gagliarda

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Baldassare Donato or Baltasare Donati (1525/1530 – June 1603) was an Italian composer and singer of the Venetian school of the late Renaissance, who was maestro di cappella of the prestigious St. Mark’s Basilica at the end of the 16th century, and was an important figure in the development of Italian light secular music, especially the villanella.  Details of Donato’s early life are unavailable.  He was born c. 1527, but it is not even known where. The first record of Donato is as a singer at St. Mark’s in Venice in 1550, and he was given charge of the musical training of the boys there in 1562. When Gioseffo Zarlino took over the post of maestro di cappella from Cipriano de Rore in 1565, Donato was demoted back to being a singer; conflict between the two men seems to have been a feature of life at St. Mark’s, culminating in a climactic fight in 1569, publicly and scandalously, during the Feast of St. Mark. In 1577

Donato took a position at the Scuola Grande di S Rocco, another Venetian church with an impressive musical tradition and substantial performing ensemble; however he failed to get along with his employers there as well, resigning by 1580. In 1588 he became assistant maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s, while Zarlino was still alive.  Whether this was because of reconcilement or politics is not clear.  Then in 1590 he took over the post of his former antagonist.  Donato represented a progressive trend in the Venetian school, which was already a progressive tradition compared to the other major contemporary Italian musical styles (especially as compared to the Roman School). The progressive trend in the Venetian school was represented by composers such as Donato, Giovanni Croce, and Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli; the conservative trend involved composers and theorists such as Zarlino, Cipriano de Rore, and Claudio Merulo, who tended to follow the Franco-Flemish style which was predominant almost everywhere else in Europe until after mid-century.

Donato’s sacred music is the most conservative portion of his output, usually using polyphony in the Palestrina style, but also using some of the grand polychoral effects of the Gabrielis. In spite of his evident disdain for Zarlino’s conservatism, he clearly absorbed some of his style and teaching, as can be seen in his smooth mastery of counterpoint and Zarlinoesque use of dissonance, at least when he was deliberately composing in the Franco-Flemish style. Probably his greatest significance to music history is in the development of a light secular form known as the villanella, a lighter form of madrigal, of Neapolitan origin. Some of these pieces may have been intended for dancing, and they were evidently popular. They are similar to the French chanson, often have a memorable melody in the topmost part, contain vigorous cross-rhythms, and avoid the polyphonic and chromatic complexity of the mid-century madrigal.

As the successor to Zarlino, the older composer’s influence can be apprehended in Donato’s compositions. Being a singer perhaps provided the motivation that made Donato the singularly best secular composer of his era. His madrigals and motets are informed by characteristic spirited rhythmic accents, lucid patterns and developing diatonic melodies. High parts of Donatos pieces are always pleasant and contain the melodies of his compositions. His goal as a composer was not to depict the words through the music (although this appears to have started); rather, Donato’s music was conducive to depicting emotional timbres. “La napolitane et alcuni madrigali” was an early collection by Donato that went through several editions addressing the import and popularity of his work.  Donato also wrote madrigals in a more serious style, as well as psalm settings, motets, and ceremonial music.  He held his position at St. Marks until his death at Venice in June of 1603.

My collection includes the following work by Baldassare Donato:

Chi la Gagliarda.

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