Marcello Psalms

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Marcello's Psalms of David constitute an unusual chapter in the history music. They are widely misunderstood to be sacred works. In the composer's mind they were secular works intended to enhance discussion of literary and intellectual themes popular in Arcadian circles. All of them had their debut performances at academic gatherings. Musically, they are atypical of the larger culture in which they existed, where opera and chamber music predominated. Yet they are also highly intricate works that reflect in their musical construction the elaborate poetic schemes of David's psalmistry.

God, Man, and Arcadian Values

The Psalms of David that were published in Venice in eight folio volumes (1724-1726) bring into convergence an array of approaches to composition. Yet all of them pursue a single goal: to suit the antiquity of the subject to allusions to antiquity in the music. Marcello was precocious in adopting this aim. He was a leader among Venetian noblemen in the breadth of his intellect and the depth of his commitment to Antiquarianism. Peter Gay's term "pagan Christianity" (which applies to an impetus of the time) sums up Marcello's methods of appealing of the sensibilities of other enthusiasts of pre-classical culture.

Sebastiano Ricci's drawing of King David on his throne, his harp leaning against a pedestal, in Book III (1725) of Benedetto Marcello's Psalms of David.

We can see from Sebastiano Ricci's stern depiction of God in the frontispiece of Book III (1724) that Old Testament justice could be harsh. Yet the Psalms that that describe David's prayers and his pleas for mercy provide sharp contrasts for the menacing scenes of fear and efforts to escape God's wrath. Dramatically, the Psalms fluctuate in mood. The notion of a pagan Christianity aptly characterizes the way in which Marcello makes his evocation of the fluctuating relationship of Man to God subservient to the devises promoted by rising interest in classical archaeology and ancient forms of literature. The Biblical figure of King David was ancient but he was also an articulate poet and a moving orator.

The Terrestrial Network of Psalm Admirers

Marcello was a master of networking in the Arcadian Academy, a network of noblemen and women committed to certain ideals of ancient Greece. Much of pastoral imagery in art and music reflected this stance. The primary instance of Arcadia issued from the hills of the Janiculum in seventeenth-century Rome. Upon her passing, many cities of the Italian peninsula established their groups who explored explored poetry and music through verse, cantatas, and serenatas. Leading figures in Rome were Arcangelo Corelli and Bernardo Pasquini.

In planning their publication (in eight handsome foglio volumes issued by Domenico Lovisa, 1724-26), Marcello took the unusual step of soliciting testimonials from leading composers, music masters, and noted poets and dramatists. He included a few of these testimonials in each volume.

Among the respondents, the best remembered today are Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), the Hamburg Kapellmeister who was also a prolific writer on music, and Georg Philip Telemann (1681-1767), Hamburg's most prolific composers. Eminent Italian composers included Francesco Gasparini (1661-1727), the maestro di cappella of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Geminiano Giacomelli (1692-1740) (Piacenza), Domenico Sarri (Naples), Antonio (1677-1726, Modena) and Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747, London), and the emigrant composers Francesco Antonio Conti (Vienna) and Stefano Andrea Fiorè (Turin). The rest (including Domenico Lazzarini and Girolamo Ascanio Giustiniani) were poets and dramatists who were committed to the same ideals as Marcello.

Musical Allusions to Ancient Cultures in the Psalms

Renaissance Counterpoint in the Psalms

Psalm Categories and their Vernacular Translations

Subsequent Editions and Adaptations==

Through the year 2013, at least 23 complete editions of Marcello's Psalms of David have been published. Only three of these reissues (1776, 1803-05, 1835) come from Venice. The first foreign edition was published in Prague (1729), then in Rome (1739). Parisian prints of the nineteenth century seem to have prompted the interest of Cherubini, Rossini, Paer, and Bizet. Giustiniani's texts have been translated in German, French, Swedish, English, Czech, and Church Latin (for ecclesiastical use).


The Newcastle organist Charles Avison (1709-1770) was the greatest champion of Marcello's Psalms in England. He labored intensely in the preparation of the eight-volume edition published by John Garth, the organist of Durham Cathedral, in 1757. Avison provided a biography of Marcello in the first volume. "The Psalms," Avison wrote, "are so excellent, and the great and affecting touches of nature and art so numerous, that few subjects of censure will be found. They appear to me fraught with every musical beauty." Above all, Avison found the harmonies of the works their outstanding quality. As a composer of concertos, Avison had a direct interest in the harmonic aspects of music. His Essay on Musical Expression (1752) was the first of its kind in English. He was an enthusiast of Italian music styles.

The Psalms in the Context of Marcello's Oeuvre

Benedetto Marcello was physically distant but intellectually close to Rome's Arcadia. He strove to express Arcadian values in music. His 379 cantatas for solo voice, almost 100 for two voices, and various works for 3-5 voices were intended for performance at weekly gatherings of individual colonies. The social practice underlying these gatherings waned in Italy by 1750, but his secular music found its way into other assemblies all over Europe, where it enjoyed respect through much of the nineteenth century.