Gioseffo Zarlino

Biography

Born: 1517; Chioggia, Italy   Died: 1590; Venice, Italy  
The major music theorist of the late sixteenth century was the brilliant, eccentric Italian, Gioseffo Zarlino. In his time, there was controversy in thinking musical circles over the demands of "musica theorica" vs. those of "musica practica" -- the mathematical, theoretical understanding of how music works or should work vs. the practical knowledge of how it is, can, and must be played. He went further in resolving this issue than any other Read more theorist of his day. One of the most significant sentences that may have ever flowed from his pen addresses the issue directly: "Music considered in its ultimate perfection contains these two parts (pratica and theorica) so closely joined that one cannot be separated from the other." This straightforward wisdom was so well digested by European musical culture that it's still quoted among performers today.

Zarlino was born in Chioggia, a small town across the lagoon from Venice. The earliest record of him as a musician is as a singer and organist in the Chioggia town cathedral between 1536 and 1540. He showed up in Venice by 1441, where he studied under the great Flemish composer Adrian Willaert. Zarlino would eventually exert tremendous influence on both musica theorica and pratica, teaching organists and composers of the first rank, and publishing an extremely valuable treatise, Istitusioni harmoniche, in 1558. Parts of the Istitusioni were used as late as the eighteenth century. The most important aspect of the Istitutioni is the centerpiece: a textbook on counterpoint. Istitutioni is said to possess an odd cerebral exuberance, as if written out of a vigorous enthusiasm that couldn't be silenced. In 1565, he succeeded the composer Cipriano de Rore as maestro di cappella at St. Marks. He would hold that position, one of the most prestigious in Italy, until his death.

In another famous statement, Zarlino, declared that his contemporaries, including his teacher, Willaert, had brought music to a new state of perfection that summed up all the accomplishments of their predecessors to such a degree that there wasn't much further any composer could hope to go. In retrospect, since Renaissance music did reach the autumnal, if beautiful, stage of over-ripeness, Zarlino's opinion is uncannily sharp; the Baroque was about to emerge, an age with profoundly different musical ideals and attitudes. The music Zarlino knew and loved so deeply would soon become part of Europe's past. Read less

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