Benedetto Marcello

Benedetto Marcello

1686 - 1739



Benedetto Marcello was an Italian composer, writer, advocate, magistrate, and teacher. He was a member of a noble family and his compositions are frequently referred to as Patrizio Veneto. Although he was a music student of Antonio Lotti and Francesco Gasparini, his father wanted Benedetto to devote himself to law.

Indeed, Benedetto Marcello combined a life in law and public service with one in music. Marcello served the Venetian Republic as a magistrate from about 1708 until 1728, when he was exiled to the resort city of Pula, now in Croatia. In 1711 he was appointed member of the Council of Forty (in Venice's central government), and in 1730 he went to Pola as Provveditore (district governor. In 1738 Marcello was appointed to his final position as chief financial officer of the city of Brescia, but died after less than a year in this job on or around his 53rd birthday.

Benedetto Marcello was what 18th century chroniclers called a "dilettante"; not a dabbler as in the current vernacular, but an aristocrat who also pursued musical composition as a sideline (one of his appellations was 'Princeps musicae'). Marcello was a younger contemporary of Antonio Vivaldi in Venice and his instrumental music enjoys a Vivaldian flavor.

As a composer, Benedetto Marcello was best known in his lifetime and is now still best remembered for his massively influential eight-volume publication Estro poetico-armonico (Venice, 1724-1726), popularly known as the "Psalmi." It is a collection of the first 50 Psalms (as paraphrased in Italian by his friend G. Giustiniani.) musical settings for for voices, figured bass (a continuo notation), and occasional soloist instruments. Marcello's Psalms were heard during the 18th century at concerts in Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig and London. In Rome, Cardinal Ottoboni decreed that every one of his accademie was to begin with a composition from the Estro poetico-armonico. Innumerable reprintings, as well as translations even into Russian, appeared in Europe during the 19th century. They were much admired by Charles Avison, who with John Garth brought out an edition with English words (London, 1757). Marcello's sacred vocal music was revered by most of his contemporaries as representing the supreme example of contrapuntal technique, and he was in use in teaching through the end of the 19th century. Now, unfortunately, this monumental work is practically unknown except to specialists.

Scarcely less popular was his treatise, Il teatro alla moda (1720), a satire that skewered the opera world of his time. Marcello wrote nearly 400 cantatas, some so well known that they exist in up to 25 contemporary manuscript copies, in addition to oratorios, operas, and nearly 100 small chamber works for singers. His surviving instrumental catalog is less generous, mostly consisting of keyboard sonatas, but also containing a few sinfonias and concertos. All of Marcello's instrumental music was composed by 1710 or thereabouts; the set of 12 concerti published as Marcello's "Op. 1" in 1708 is lacking its first violin part.

The library of the Brussels Conservatoire possesses some interesting volumes of chamber-cantatas composed by Marcello for his mistress. Although Benedetto Marcello wrote an opera called La Fede riconosciuta and produced it in Vicenza in 1702, he had little sympathy with this form of composition, as evidenced in his writings. He vented his opinions on the state of musical drama at the time in the satirical pamphlet Il teatro alla moda, published anonymously in Venice in 1720. This little work, which was frequently reprinted, is not only extremely amusing, but is most valuable as a contribution to the history of opera.

Before the early years of the 20th century, any list of significant Western composers from past eras would have included the name of Benedetto Marcello. Through his advocacy of a return to the proportional values and simplicity of ancient Greco-Roman civilization, Marcello helped set the stage for the Classical era in Western music, soon to unseat the aesthetic norms of the Baroque in which Marcello lived and worked. Nonetheless, controversy and confusion surrounding his works and history have considerably dimmed Marcello's star. Many of the instrumental works once believed by Marcello are actually by others. Composer Alessandro Marcello (1669-1747) was Benedetto's older brother, and some of Alessandro's music has been misattributed to Benedetto. Various instrumental pieces attributed to Marcello are merely instrumental arrangements of his Psalmi, in some cases made decades after his death. Benedetto Marcello's music is "characterized by imagination and a fine technique and includes both counterpoint and progressive, galant features" (Grove, 1994). On the other hand, "Today his music is generally found dry and quirkish." (Oxford Composer Companion J.S. Bach, 1999). The composer Joachim Raff wrote an opera entitled Benedetto Marcello, based loosely on the life of Marcello.