There was a time in my life when I was quite possibly the world’s expert on something (although probably not). Unfortunately, it was when I was about 19. I wrote an independent research paper — cobbling together scraps of information from ‘divers’ sources, about the wind ensemble I called the pifarri. They were an Italian phenomenon that never stayed the same for a century. Mutable creatures. They started out being homogenic shawm bands, with shawms of different pitches. You know, your average bass shawm. Shawms are, for those who didn’t bother to click, basically loud bagpipes without the bags.
Then came the lovely, my heart’s desire, the cornetto. I mourn that the cornetto got lost, and had largely disappeared by the time the great classical composers arrived (although it hung around in German drinking bands for a while). It has a beautiful, soft sound. It’s versatile and lovely. The cornetto played in mixed ensembles with sackbuts (a trombone predecessor), and that is the 16th century ensemble I dream of.
It was for that grouping that Giovanni Gabrieli, arguably the best and most important composer of his century, wrote his Sonanta Pian e Forte — the first known piece with dynamic markings. He is also one of my favorite composers. He wrote in Venice, in St. Marks cathedral. They would get two bands of these pifarri — 12 or 16 players in all, and put them antiphonally on balconies on either side of the church. The music written for these circumstances intertwines, opposes, combines in rich an luscious ways. And it was so specifically written for one geography, this one church, that I longed to go. (Of course, what I was really longing to do was to be a pifarro, but that’s another story.)
I bring this up because after longing to go my whole life (or since my sophomore year of college), I will hopefully be going to Venice this October. I will stand in St. Marks. If I’m very, very lucky perhaps I will be able to hear antiphonal brass choirs calling to each other from across the congregation and echoing in the dome.
I wonder if it can possibly be as splendid as I imagine it. I hope so.