The Learned One
Life has its trials. Would-be doctors study the difficult subject of organic chemistry. Would-be soldiers learn to take apart and reassemble their rifles—blindfolded. And in the late Baroque era, would-be composers, too, had their rite of passage. They learned counterpoint— the highly complex art of setting melody against melody, so that the music can say two things at the same time. Luckily for some students, there was Giovanni Battista Martini. A teacher, priest, composer, and music scholar, Martini welcomed visitors with kindness and grace. They called him simply Father or Padre Martini, and they came from across Europe to his composition school in cultured and prosperous Bologna, Italy. Pupils included Johann Christian Bach, son of J. S. Bach; the opera composer Christoph Gluck; and a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who at age 14 studied with Martini for a summer.
At 19, Martini was a teenager himself when he became chapel master at San Francesco, a position he held nearly all his life. A quick learner, he had studied violin (first with his father), harpsichord, and singing, as well music theory, math, and classics, and for a time seemed bound for life as a monk. The skill of his compositions, both church music and secular, led friends to suggest he open a school of music. Though Martini rarely left Bologna, the world, in time, came to him. His reputation as a teacher and music scholar brought students from afar. He corresponded often with scholars outside music and former students. Eventually, a visit with Padre Martini became a regular stop for any musician passing through Bologna. Small wonder, perhaps, that he passed up a more prestigious job as music director at Saint Peter's, the major church in the Vatican.
Martini’s music is almost unknown today, but his legacy as a passionate collector of books and manuscripts matters deeply to historians of music. This passion, in fact, seems to have posed the only awkward aspect to a visit with Martini. Books, manuscripts, and letters covered the tables, harpsichord, and chairs, reported one guest. Martini was a fine host, but locating a free place to sit was difficult! His collection, more than 17,000 books, resides today in Bologna and Vienna. Of his own work, Martini composed hundreds of choral pieces for church services, a dozen concerti for strings and soloists, and many keyboard sonatas and canons. He published little of this music but much writing: a two-volume set on counterpoint and fugues and the first three parts of a planned five-volume history of music—from the music of Biblical times and ancient Greece up to his present age.
© Andrew Campbell