Breaking the canon: Padre Martini’s vision for the canonic genre

April 5, 2018
Ray Heigemeir
An image of the pigskin-reinforced spine and front page of the “Canoni” manuscript in the Memorial Library of Music

Giovanni Battista Martini, Canoni

Memorial Library of Music, MLM 643

Guest blogger: Gabriel Ellis

By the mid-18th century, canons—compositions for several instruments or voices in which all the musical material is derived from a single written line of music—had acquired a reputation for abstruseness. They were often deliberately presented as puzzles, utilizing arcane devices like imitation in retrograde, augmentation, diminution, or at a given interval, and leaving it up to the performer to divine the intended manner of performance. Their brevity, complexity, and self-contained nature also made them apt emblems of musical craftsmanship, and they often appeared in artistic depictions of composers. In this portrait of the 18th-century composer and scholar Padre Giovanni Battista Martini by Angelo Carescimbeni, the composer can be seen holding his canon “Quid Vides.”

A portrait, painted by Angelo Carescimbeni, of Martini holding a manuscript of his canon “Quid Vides”


A manuscript of 303 little-known canons by Martini in Stanford’s Memorial Library of Music, known only by the general title “Canoni” as its front page has been torn off, represents a striking deviation from this tradition. Martini was certainly no stranger to the intellectual side of canonic composition: the first two volumes of his treatise on music history included a series of notoriously difficult puzzle-canons of his own devising on ancient Latin texts. But in this manuscript, the texts he sets—mostly Italian and Bolognese poems he wrote himself—tend toward the lighthearted. In one, he complains of crooked doctors:

Io professo medicina I practice medicine
E batezzo per maligno And I christen as the [work of the] Devil
Ogni mal che non intendo Every ill that I didn’t intend.
La moneta intanto prendo In any case I take the money
E tra me poscia soghigno And I sigh to myself
Che vi sia gente sì pazza  That there are people crazy enough
la qual paghi chi l'amazza To pay the one who kills them.


Elsewhere, Martini vents about the incompetence of singers or lavishes praise on fellow composers or performers. He also depicts humorous moments from his everyday life. In one text, he becomes so excited about a snack that he veers off into nonsense syllables rather than complete the rhyme:

O Canone, o Canone Oh Canon, oh Canon
Due fette di Melone Two slices of melon
A me che l’ho composto To me who composed it
Almen per carità At least out of charity
La ra, la ra, etc. La ra, la ra, etc.


Even when texts are trivial, Martini pays close attention to their musical setting. For “Gia ride primavera,” which describes the play of spring breezes through grasses and flowers, he writes music replete with gentle sighing gestures:

Performance by Gabriel Ellis and Maria Massucco; translations by Maria Massucco.

The music of another canon, depicting amateur singers who “don’t know solfege,” is deliberately stilted, resembling a vocal exercise. And although compositions of this frivolity are surprising in what is presumably a collection intended for publication, this seems to be the entire point. If Martini is trying to prove that canons can be accessible, personal, and even irreverent, he certainly seems to have succeeded with his student Mozart, who would go on to write the infamous canon “Leck mich im Arsch.” Martini’s letters do suggest that he saw in the canon an eminently performable genre and pedagogical tool, as well as an intellectual exercise—in 1761, he wrote that he was considering publishing a book of canons specifically in order to interest young composers in the genre. 

We may speculate that this manuscript is that book. But even if not, clues in its format and contents do suggest that it was intended for publication rather than for Martini’s private records. The manuscript is carefully handwritten throughout in Martini’s own hand, and also seems designed to be durable: the paper is thick and the spine has been reinforced with pigskin. An index of first lines has been provided, and the manner of performance for each canon has been made clear by signs indicating the number of voices and the point at which they are to enter. Martini would hardly have needed these indications, but a publisher would have—and in his later years, Martini was preoccupied with getting his canons published. Although he succeeded once in 1775, when a collection of just 52 was published in Venice, his letters indicate that he continued making inquiries with publishers until nearly the time of his death in 1784. 

Martini’s writings elsewhere indicate that he thought the best teaching was done by example, and this manuscript seems to be just that—an example of Martini’s vision of what the canon could be. For us, the most notable compositions in it are the most trivial, as it is these that open the clearest windows onto the everyday reality of both the 18th-century Italian musical world and the life of the composer. And yet, we cannot ignore the manuscript’s conclusion, where Martini breaks the lighthearted character with a remarkable set of twenty canons on the complete Latin text of the Dies Irae from the Mass for the Dead, followed by a final canon on the simple text “Amen. Amen. Amen.” These settings display a musical sophistication befitting their solemn text, and their inclusion may be merely an attempt to demonstrate compositional prowess and versatility. But we can imagine that to Martini, who was a priest as well as a composer and scholar, they served a dual purpose—at the end of a collection containing more than a little irreverence, this Dies Irae might just represent his little bit of repentance.

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With thanks to Astrid Smith, Rare Book and Special Collections Digitization Specialist, and the Digital Production Group for providing downloadable images of this item; and to Aude Gabory, Assistant Conservator, for stabilizing this fragile object.

Gabriel Ellis Guest blogger Gabriel Ellis is a doctoral student in musicology at Stanford University. His research focuses on popular music, how it intersects with technology, and how its performers formulate their identities. He also occasionally performs as a countertenor.
Maria Massucco Maria Massucco is a PhD student in the Department of French and Italian with a background in voice and opera performance.