Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739)

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The Man

Born in 1686 to a noble Venetian family, Marcello was the youngest of three surviving sons. All three studied jurisprudence. All three indulged in various artistic and literary undertakings. Alessandro and Benedetto were musicians and composers, though between them Benedetto Marcello composed far more than his brother.

Their creative efforts can be distinguished from those of earlier and later generations by the intensity of their intellectual orientation, their attempts to excel in multiple areas of artistic enterprise, and, in the case of Benedetto and Gerolamo, their moralizing tone. Alessandro, the eldest, was as much a bon vivant as a man of letters. All three served in a variety of government offices, as was required by the sons of noblemen. (The Marcellos were one of the oldest families in Venice.)

By the time Benedetto Marcello was born, many distinguished families in the Venetian nobility were investing considerable time in their intellectual and cultural pursuits. The influence of the Republic of Venice was waning, its trade markets contracting in the face of Austria's rise. Despite the decline of family fortunes, Marcello chose to commit his most important musical works to scores produced in elegant formats with utmost attention to graphical detail (and probably, therefore, at great personal expense). In comparison to Venetian music publishing, which had declined sharply in 1700, Benedetto chose to issue all of his printed music with Italian presses. Yet none of his secular or sacred vocal music was printed. This privilege was reserved for his early sonatas, his madrigals, and his Psalms of David as well as his satirical treatise on opera, Il teatro alla moda.

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 life. 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.

Marcello's Music

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.)

Cantatas and Duets

The illuminated first leaf of Marcello's pastoral cantata "Un guardo solo" in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice, MS 10742. The date 6 October (6 Xbre) 1713 probably indicates its first performance. The illuminated capital letter V was synonymous with U in Italian.

Most of Marcello's cantatas, duets, madrigals, and serenatas owe their existence indirectly to Marcello's fundamental commitment to the Arcadian movement. Noblemen and women were admitted to the Arcadian Academy after demonstrating superior intellectual and civil virtues. Upon entry, they took an Arcadian pseudonym and usually published their creative works under that name. Since, however, Marcello's Arcadian works survive almost entirely in manuscript, his nickname was rarely used. Arcadians emphasized simplicity in both their poetry and their music, but they also liked clever jokes and forms of literature for which ancient models existed. Horatian satires and myths as conveyed through Ovid's Metamorphoses were particular favorites. There are numerous evidences that Marcello was well acquainted with both.

More than two dozen of Marcello's cantatas for solo voice were written for weekly meetings of the Venetian branch of the Arcadian Academy in Venice. We know from dates penned onto the first page of each exactly when they were first performed (a rarity at the time), but we are led to believe that the singers would have been members of the academy. Marcello himself could have played the keyboard or the cello.

Pastoral cantatas

Marcello's pastoral cantatas were composed, like much of the rest of his music, in the 1710s. They constitute the overwhelming majority of his roughly 500 secular vocal works. Most relate an incident in a bucolic but at times arcane variety of pastoral life in which nymphs and shepherds taunted one another in order to deceive a third one of their number. The skeleton of the tale mattered little. It was the literary and dramatic devices, together with the music, that gave the works their cachet. Pastoral cantatas invited melodious arias in regular meter. In most cases, a cantata had two arias separated by a recitative. Most opened with a recitative as well.

Epic and tragic cantatas

After setting the paraphrases of the Psalms of David and long after he had abandoned the composition of pastoral cantatas, Marcello turned to epic tragedies, in which he exploited the full potential of what later became known as expressionism. The two signal works of this turn were Arianna and Timoteo, o Gli effetti della musica sulla poesia (Timothy, or The Effects of Music on Poetry). Both were composed in 1727.

  • Arianna

Like his earlier Psiché, Marcello's intreccio scenico musicale called Arianna was based on a text by the local poet and dramatist Vincenzo Cassani. This dramatic work is scored for five voices, chorus(es), strings, two trumpets, and basso continuo. It may have been intended for the extended visit of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni to Venice in 1726. It is not clear whether its trumpet parts originated with Marcello.

  • Timoteo

Antonio Conti wrote the text for Timoteo. He also wrote a commentary on March 4, 1727, describing its first performance, which was received with great acclaim. A chromatic canon on the word "distruggo" (I destroy) was striking to audiences. Both Timoteo and Handel's later Alexander's Feast (HWV 75, 1736) were inspired by Dryden's epic for the feast of St. Cecilia ("From harmony, from heavenly Harmony"). Marcello's work was scored for two voices, the ranges of which varied considerably over the large number of copies that survive. It was not published until modern times.


Marcello's Canzoni madrigalesche Op. 4 (Bologna, 1717) seem to have enjoyed almost as much respect as his Psalms of David. Marcello had made several visits to Bologna in connection with his acceptance by the Accademia Filarmonica (1711), the musical equivalent of a literary academy in which judgment was passed on newly presented works. (His acceptance was based on a mass in honor in Clement XI.) Marcello addressed his preface to "sages and wizards of counterpoint" (dotti e savii contrapuntisti). He held that there should be a difference between vocal chamber music and ecclesiastical music. With respect to the nomenclature of musical genres, Marcello said this volume contained canzoni (songs) and arie (arias), which collectively bore the label madrigali (madrigals). contained xx madrigals for various numbers of voices.

Marcello wrote a diatribe (his Lettera famigliare) against the madrigals of Antonio Lotti (1667-1740). A noted San Marco organist, Lotti enjoyed great recognition both for his operas. His life was markedly contrasted to Marcello's, for Marcello sought no role in music for the theater or the church. As a nobleman he was duty-bound to spend all of his adult life in government offices that were originally concentrated in Venice but by 1730 began to stretch eastward to an outpost in Pula on the Istrian peninsula, then westward to Brescia, where he died in 1739. (Marcello is buried in the church of San Giuseppe, where Costanza Antegnati was once an organist and where a diocesan museum is now found.) In his Op. 4 Marcello reset several madrigals from Lotti's set of Duetti, terzetti e madrigali a piu voci (Venice, 1705). He had held that Lotti's polyphony was marred by an excess of melismatic passagework and arbitrary treatment of dissonance. (It appears that Lotti's understanding of Renaissance chromaticism was incomplete.)

In Marcello's volume, the the two-voice works are relatively short and simple. It is the four canzonas for three voices and the two madrigals for four in which he invests his great love of Renaissance polyphonic practices. The three-voice works were "Il quel sol che in grembo al Tago", "In una siepe ombrosa", and "Piange l'amante ucciso." The first had been set earlier by Alessandro Stradella, the second (a 5) and third (a 4) by Lotti. Through the intermediation of Maurice Greene, G. B. Bononcini passed off Lotti's setting of "In una siepe ombrosa" as his own at London's Academy of Vocal Music (1731). This precipitated an investigation by the Academy of Ancient Music (1732), as a result of which both figures resigned from the Academy.


Marcello's legitimately attributed serenatas were few. We can count four serenatas on pastoral subjects and four of an encomiastic nature. Most were probably performed only once for a specific occasion. Several works of the time are falsely attributed to Marcello. The legitimate ones include Calisto in orsa for five voices and strings (1725?); La gara amorosa for three voices and strings; La morte d'Adone for three voices, strings, and oboe (performed in Rome in 1709); two versions of Le nozze di Giove e Giunone for double chorus and strings (possibly 1720); a serenata (possibly spurious) for the name-day of the emperor Charles VI; and the intreccio scenico musicale (musical intrigue) called Psiché for five voices (1711?).

Instrumental Music

Marcello's best known instrumental pieces come from Op. 1, a set of 12 concertos for violin, strings, and harpsichord (Venice: Sala, 1708); no part for Violino Principale survives for most of the opus. A Violino Principale part is available for Op. 1, No. 2, and one movement of Op. 1, No 8. Op. 1, No. 2, is especially well known for its fugal subject, which finds an analogue in Vivaldi's violin concerto Op. 3, No. 11 (1711). The same theme also appeared in J. S. Bach's keyboard transcription of a "concerto by Marcello," which is preserved in a Berlin manuscript associated with J. G. Walther. It is clear that the pieces were well known and widely circulated in the years immediately following their publication.

Marcello's instrumental works otherwise consist of more than 40 sonatas for harpsichord (circulated only in manuscript); a set of six cello sonatas (Amsterdam: Witvogel, 1732); a further set of six sonatas for two cellos (Amsterdam: Witvogel, 1734); and a dozen sonatas for recorder and basso continuo (Venice: Sala, 1712, as Op. 2; reprinted in Amsterdam, 1715, and London, 1732). A handful of sinfonias, probably composed to introduce longer vocal works, can also be found in manuscript.

Benedetto's brother Alessandro composed chamber music for voice, strings, and woodwinds. The D-Minor oboe concerto transcribed by Bach (sometimes shown or played in C Minor) for keyboard, which appeared in a 1717 anthology printed in Amsterdam, was by Alessandro.

Psalms of David

Marcello's settings of the Psalms of David (1724-1726) 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. See principal coverage here.


Most of Marcello's few oratorios fell relatively late in his career as a composer. He had composed a number of sacred vocal works, although many itemized in earlier centuries have no known source today.

  • La Giuditta (1709), for which he composed the poetry as well as the music, was dedicated to a Roman patroness, Livia Spinola Borghese, whose family was resident in Venice during that year. It is an accomplished work displaying great imagination and careful articulation in the scoring. Of the three known copies, one was owned by Domenico Dragonetti, who gave it to the publisher Vincent Novello (1781-1861). Judith was the subject of many oratorios of the period from 1690 through 1720, the best-known today being that of Vivaldi (Juditha triumphans, 1716/7).
  • Joaz (1727) was based on a text by the Venetian dramatist Apostolo Zeno (1669-1750), now court poet at the Hapsburg court in Vienna. The court Kapellmeister Antonio Caldara (1670-1736), who had received his early training in Venice and elsewhere, had set the same text for imperial court use in April 1726. The occasion for the composition of Marcello's work is unknown. Set for chorus, strings, and basso continuo, it may have had some intellectual relationship with the Psalms of David, which Marcello finished setting the year before. A second-hand copy of Marcello's work was performed on Easter 1729 at the Jacobite monastery in Florence.
  • Il pianto e il riso delle quattro stagione (The Sorrows and Joys of the Four Seasons). This oratorio for four voices, strings, and continuo was given at the Jesuit monastery in Macerata in 1731. Its librettist was Giulio Vitelleschi, a resident in the institution. Its seasonal images include thunder, lightning, and ice; jasmine, olives, myrtle; roses, apples, and other fruits.
  • Il trionfo della poesia e della musica (The Triumph of Poetry and Music). Scored for six voices, strings, and basso continuo, this work calls for choirs of the Liberal Arts and of Veteran Musicians. It was performed in Macerata in 1733 in celebration of the Blessed Virgin but may also have been performed at the Clementine College in Rome. As in Il pianto, the instrumental parts are carefully articulated.

Satirical Music

Marcello's satire on opera, Il teatro alla moda (1720), is a work that has not been out-of-print for 300 years. It is a slender volume that appeared at the start of the winter season 1720-21. To those involved in opera at the time, its targets were transparent. Succeeding generations have turned over and over Marcello's comments (now seen as generic) on composers, prime donne, violinists, stage mothers, and other figures that populated theaters of his time.

Marcello also composed musical satires, for which he likely wrote the text.

Satirical madrigals

These madrigals, which are included in Op. 4, are likely to have been composed in 1715 or 1716. They satirize the relationship between a choir of mixed voices and a choir of castrati. This pair, collectively called "Il flagello dei musici", are separately entitled:

  • No' che lassù ne' cori almi e beati ("You, up there in the pious, blessed choirs")
  • Si che laggiù nell'Erebo profondo ("You, down there in the depths")

The first, labeled a Capriccio for five voices (soprano, two tenors, two basses), is one of the most widely circulated of Marcello's works. Its popularity was greatest in Italy and Germany, but the madrigal also found its way to England, Poland, and the United States. Tenors and basses predict that castrati will burn in eternal damnation.

The castrati respond gaily at the start of the second work, scored for two sopranos and two altos. They demonstrate their ability to sing in "good taste" (Marcello crusaded for singing uncluttered by endless ornamentation), then show their accuracy in singing contrapuntally. They then launch into a series of diminutions which lead them, at an ever faster tempo and an ever high pitch, to the final phrase, "Those who are castrati will be blessed." When they reach the second syllable ("ah") of the word "beati", they find themselves lured into a musical maze from which they cannot escape.

Satirical cantatas and intermezzi

Letter cantatas were a minor sub-genre spun off from letter scenes in operas, where letters served to convey action that took place off-stage. Marcello's "Carissima figlia" is an entirely different species of work.

  • Carissima figlia

This work purports to convey advice to the prima donna Vittoria Tesi from her father in Bologna. In it the singer satirizes the styles of several ranking donne of the time. It is the portrayal of the styles of each that gives the work its force. Since we have no recordings of singing at any time in the eighteenth century, it gives us a faint notion (probably exaggerated) of how each of the singers represented a unique style.

  • Spago e Filetta

In the performance of dramatic tragedies on stage, it was usual in the 1720s to separate the acts with musical intermezzi. As in opera, they were often farcical. Marcello's intermezzi for Spago e Fileta, which was intended for performance with the tragedy Lucio Commodo (1719), is as much a satire on comic intermezzi in opera as it is an autonomous musical work. Comic intermezzi frequently focused on unlikely pairings (e.g. a serving maid in pursuit of a rich widower). Spago enters with the recitative, "How much would it cost me to get married?" and continues with the aria "I would like Fileta." Fileta takes pride in her ability to teach other young women how to attract a man. To spark Spago's interest, she demonstrates the steps of the minuet, recently imported from Paris, in response to which Spago makes unflattering asides.

Poetry and other writings

The three Marcello brothers--Alessandro, Gerolamo, and Benedetto--all wrote poetry and essays on abstract subjects. Almost certainly their motivation was presentation in an academic setting. Some of their works have been digitized by Google Books.

  • Benedetto's first book of Sonetti (Venice, 1718) were said by the author to have been products of the "argent passions" of his youth.[1]
  • In more sober middle age, Benedetto offered another series of sonnets called A Dio (Venice, 1732). Preserved in the National Library in Rome, it includes "other rhymes as well as sacred and moral arguments."

Gerolamo Marcello (the middle brother) was the author of other religious writings, although he was mainly active as a lawyer in diplomatic outposts.

Il Teatro alla Moda (1720)

Pictorial satire of the violinist Antonio Vivaldi in a small boat with the impresario Giovanni Orsato at the prow.

Marcello's satirical treatise on opera (Venice 1720) has never been out of print since its first appearance at the end of 1720. Much of the satire could be described as superficial. Its focus is on categories of people who made up the world of opera--singers, composers, copyists, "stage mothers", theater managers, instrumentalists, scenery painters, and so forth. Its front-page depiction of "a bear in a boat" (l'orso in peata) made fun of Vivaldi in his priest's garb and an impresario named Giovanni Orsato (orso = bear), who is seen at the prow of the boat (peata). Subtitled "A Secure and Easy Method to compose and perform Good Operas in the Modern Style," Marcello's title page anagrams the names of several singers and one composer, although his ire was distributed broadly across many other colleagues who are identifiable from the content.

Alessandro Marcello

Alessandro Marcello was older than Benedetto and outlived him. He was far more of an extrovert. He occupied loftier positions in the Venetian hierarchy and scattered his talents between drawing and etching, writing poetry, cultivating friendships, and dabbling in musical composition with a strongly Arcadian flavor.


Alessandro Marcello's Cantate da camera were published by Antonio Bortoli (Venice, 1708) under the composer's Arcadian pseudonym, Eterio Stinfalico. They form a core to which other works in manuscript can be added, for a total of 18 surviving cantatas. All but three are scored for soprano and basso continuo.

The most elaborate ones are these:

  • Gli amanti fedeli, a pastoral for Irene, Fileno, and choruses of nymphs and shepherds (one only from an undated libretto).
  • Lontananza, crudel lontananza, for soprano, alto, strings, wind trio, and harpsichord. In the manuscript, cues indicate the singers to have been Checchino and Pasqualino, two castrati, the first of which would have been Francesco de Grandis, who was active until 1717.

Like Benedetto, Alessandro wrote his own poetry. The cantata "Ecco l'aurora che luminosa sorge dal Gange," contains a manuscript cue to the castrato Farinelli (Carlo Broschi). Its opening "leaps up" in arpeggios to suggest the sun rising from the River Ganges.

Sonatas and Concertos

The start of Alessandro Marcello's Violin Sonata No. 12 (Augsburg, 1738)

Alessandro was clearly an accomplished violinist with a strong attraction to French dotted rhythms and triple stops. These features are repeatedly exhibited in the collection of 12 sonatas for violin and basso continuo published in Augsburg in 1738. A manuscript version of the final work in A Major gives some sense of the liberties taken elsewhere. Several sonatas preserved in manuscript in Dresden particularly emphasize virtuoso skills.

Alessandro is also the composer of a dozen concertos, of which six were published in Augsburg (1738) for two oboes, strings, and basso continuo. His unpublished concertos include the famous D-Minor one for oboe, strings, and continuo copied by J. S. Bach (BWV 974). Its slow movement is based on the tetrachord lament so common in Venetian operatic laments, but the triadic melody that complements it draws most praise for the work. Several concertos in manuscript in Venice may have been intended to offer an extension to the printed set (they contain Roman numeral designations between XIII and XVIII). A concerto for seven recorders and muted strings opens with a sprightly Presto. A concerto for harpsichord and double orchestra in a Swedish manuscript appears to have been elaborated from a trio sonata.


  1. This copy survives in the Biblioteca Lucchesi-Palli (C.III.15 G.L.44.X.18).


Commentary (2017) by Eleanor Selfridge-Field. Website managed by Craig Stuart Sapp.

  • Bizzarini, Marco. Benedetto Marcello. Palermo: L'Epos, 2006. ISBN 978-888-3022968.
  • Burden, Michael (ed.). Benedetto Marcello: Il pianto e il riseo delle quattro stagioni. Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, Inc., 2002.
  • Burden, Michael (ed.). Benedetto Marcello: Il trionfo della Poesia, e della Musica. Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, Inc., 2016.
  • Canfori, Tiziana. Benedetto Marcello. Un dilettante di contrappunto nella Venezia del Settecento (Benedetto Marcello: A counterpoint dilettante in eighteenth-century Venice). Genoa: San Marco dei Giustiniani, 2005. ISBN 978-887-4941674.
  • Selfridge-Field, Eleanor. The Music of Benedetto and Alessandro Marcello. A Thematic Catalogue, with Commentary on the Composers, Repertory and Sources. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1990. ISBN 0-19-316126-5.


Copyright 2017 Center for Computer Assisted Research in the Humanities, an affiliate of the Packard Humanities Institute. Commentary by Eleanor Selfridge-Field, technical editor Craig Stuart Sapp.