Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739)
Born in 1686 to a noble Venetian family, Marcello was the youngest of three surviving sons. All three studies jurisprudence. All three indulged in various artistic and literary undertakings. Two—Alessandro and Benedetto—were musicians and composers.
Three factors distinguish the creative efforts of all three Marcello brothers from those of earlier and later generations. These were their academic orientation, their striving to excel in multiple areas of artistic enterprise, and the tendency (shared by Benedetto and Gerolamo) to a moralizing tone. Alessandro, the eldest, was of a more hedonistic turn.
By the time Benedetto Marcello was born, many distinguished families in the Venetian nobility were oriented towards honing their intellectual and cultural skills. Venice itself appeared to be in robust economic and political health, but its influence was starting to wane and its markets were contracting. These problems became acute as Marcello reached his maturity. It is noteworthy that, despite the decline of collective fortunes, Marcello chose to commit his most important musical works to musical scores made available with the utmost attention to graphical detail.
Contrasting Profiles: Marcello vs Vivaldi
Benedetto Marcello, a Venetian polymath, was a direct contemporary of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). The difference between them could not have been greater. Marcello descended from a noble family that had made numerous contributions to the civic and governmental life of the Venetian Republic, while Vivaldi descended from a family of small merchants. Marcello was educated in the manner of most noble Venetian males: at the Colleggio dei Nobili and at the University of Padua. Vivaldi was a day student at a district seminary. Marcello was a cellist, Vivaldi a violinist. Marcello was also an accomplished keyboard player.
As adults, Marcello served in a long series of magistracies and government posts in Pula (then part of the Venetian peninsula, now within the borders of Slovenia) and, finally, in Brescia, where he died. He was something of an outcast in the last decade of his. Vivaldi accrued one accolade after another as a virtuoso but increasingly involved himself in the world of opera. He too suffered various career setbacks in the final decade of his life and died a pauper in Vienna.
Marcello was sometimes envious of Vivaldi's fame, particularly in the face of musical and theatrical practices the nobleman considered specious and superficial. Recent research suggests that there were deeper motives for this antagonism. They issued from confrontations between the two in the equivalent of small-claims courts. Many of Vivaldi's operatic productions were financial disasters. Local magistracies had the duty of setting things to rights.
The recent popularity of Vivaldi's music has completely eclipsed the substantial repertory that Marcello created. Marcello's numerous achievements fall in very different places from those of Vivaldi. The course of his career as a composer, which was interwoven with his career as a magistrate, moved from one genre to another.
Marcello's music is wholly unlike Vivaldi's. The genres in which he specialized reflect his learnedness as a Venetian nobleman. Many of his peers were far less bookish, but Benedetto's family was one of the oldest in Venice. Other members of his family--especially his brothers Alessandro and Gerolamo and his mother, Paolina Capello--were all noted intellectuals. All centered their friendships on members of the learned academies they frequented. (Academies of the time were not institutions granting diplomas or degrees but groups of talented persons who met at frequent intervals to share interests, curiosities, and newly created works.)
Marcello's Cantatas and Duets
Marcello's Instrumental Music
Marcello's Psalm Settings
Marcello's settings of the Psalms of David were truly famous throughout Europe from about the time of their composer's death (1739) until the early twentieth century. They were translated, reprinted, arranged, and segmented into smaller forms (such as "motets" and "anthems") ad infinitum.
The Psalms appeared in eight folio (large-format) volumes between 1724 and 1726. Marcello anticipated a familiar feature of the internet publication in (1) collecting endorsements from other learned musicians, (2) reproducing their enthusiastic replies, and (3) enjoying the recommendations of these writers over the coming decades.
Few of the correspondents are widely known today, but all were highly respected in their time.
The musical settings are based on vernacular translations from the original Hebrew by another Venetian nobleman, Gerolamo Ascanio Giustiniani II. The family resided in a modest northeast-facing palazzo on Venice's Grand Canal in the parish of San Barnabà, and the first performances of the works are thought to have been presented privately on a salon facing the water. Since Marcello's time the Psalms have been performed in large numbers of diverse settings. Although not intended as music for worship, they have been used in churches all over Europe.