Sonata Pian’e Forte means an instrumental piece using soft and loud dynamics. A “Sonata” (at this time) meant a piece for instruments (as opposed to voices). It was probably written to be played as part of a service at St Mark’s, Venice. This is the earliest known piece to specify both the instruments to be played AND the dynamics in the written music.
Gabrieli was born in Venice sometime between 1554 and 1557 and studied with the renowned Dutch composer Orlando di Lassus. He also studied with his uncle, Andrea Gabrieli, and eventually succeeded him as the organist and composer at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Already renowned as a musical centre, Venice became a magnet for composers wishing to study with Gabrieli after ‘Symphoniae Sacrae’ was published.
Like many of his works, Sonata Pian’e Forte was written to take advantage of the unique layout of St Mark’s, which had galleries on three sides where the musicians could be placed to create novel spatial effects – utterly new and exciting for sixteenth century listeners. Sonata Pian’e Forte has two different antiphonal ‘choirs’ and in this arrangement the band is split into two groups to reflect Gabrieli’s innovative idea. Ideally the two groups should be clearly separated so the the antiphonal effect comes across clearly, although this will of course depend on the performance space. On no account should the band remain in its normal seated formation!
As Gabrieli didn’t have any percussionists (and percussion was widely thought inappropriate for music performed in church anyway) there are no percussion parts in this music.