Exploring Alessandro Grandi's 1625 Celesti Fiori

January 20, 2023
Ray Heigemeir
Crossing arches, Saint Mark's Basilica, Venice

Guest blogger: Zachary Haines

In 1619, there was a great theft in the city of Venice. Over the course of two to three years in St. Mark’s Basilica, a singer named Leonardo Simonetti likely heard and sang the beautiful music of his colleague, Alessandro Grandi. In secret, Simonetti acquired the drafts of these songs and edited them into a collection of motets which were then printed under the title Celesti Fiori.

This theft was no secret. In fact, Simonetti’s confession to the crime is seen in the preface of every printed vocal partbook. He states that he “furtively collected” the music and even felt remorse for the “theft”[1]. But Simonetti’s thievery and publication of the motets without Grandi’s permission may have been a strong-armed way of honoring his fellow singer, as in the same preface, Simonetti declares that Grandi’s music had “...been judged very worthy of being heard by the most delicate ears,” despite his refusal to have the drafts published. Grandi entered Saint Mark’s as a singer in 1617 and his skill as a composer would have been quickly recognized, as the Celesti Fiori was now his fifth book of motets. This would later help him for a promotion to Vice Maestro di Cappella under Claudio Monteverdi in 1620, and Simonetti would continue to collect Grandi’s sacred music until his death.[2] The success of this publication was seen in their lifetimes and lasted beyond his death, as a total of four printing runs spanned two decades.[3] Thankfully, a complete collection of Celesti Fiori has survived an almost four-hundred-year journey, and made it into Stanford’s special collections with its own story to tell.

San Marcoplein te Venetië La maravigliosa Piazza di S. Marco

This Celesti Fiori is a collection of five partbooks containing 16 concerted motets, which are settings of sacred texts that primarily feature virtuosic solo voices and an instrumental accompaniment. The concerted motet is a highly dramatic genre and heavily ornamented for textual emphasis. It is considered another musical development that marks the departure from the Renaissance into the Baroque. The five partbooks include: Canto, Tenore, Alto, Basso, and Organo, with the latter being the instrumental accompaniment in a simplified notation known as basso continuo. Although the music printed in a publication can tell us much about the nature of said publication and its place in music history, I think the reversal is often more important, especially for performers. Exploring a specific publication’s personal history can give us a richer understanding of the music within.

The first thing one might notice about these partbooks is their fine condition, despite their age. This is likely due to the careful addition of an outer cover for each part, made of a strong paper and secured to the partbooks by threads. On the front of these covers, there are beautifully handwritten titles for each part, and across the partbooks there are several small tears and markings. This indicates that these partbooks were valued enough to protect, and were likely opened more than once, but by whom? Very little is known about Stanford’s edition of Celesti Fiori and its provenance before acquisition is difficult to trace. However, we can try to answer why the owner sought to preserve them. Could they perhaps have been used as a reference for copying parts? Or were they strengthened to withstand use in actual live performances? A bottom corner tear can happen for a number of reasons, but it is enticing to think that it may have been the result of a hasty page turn mid-performance!

There are several things in these partbooks that endorse their potential as music once used in live performance, and illuminate certain aspects of historical performance practice to inform today’s musicians. Looking at the Anima Christi for two Tenors (or two Cantus voices), the two respective voice parts are located in both the Tenore book, the Bassus book, with the Organo book containing the accompaniment. Particular to Stanford’s copy, it is also clear that either a former owner, singer, or careless musicologist decided to use a pencil to draw in a few bar lines and make small rehearsal markings. They are more numerous in the Tenore part, especially where the rhythms and text setting become a bit harder to discern. There are stronger lines in each part that highlight cadences, which can be moments of unity for each musician that might allow them to regroup should any of them make a counting mistake. While it is possible that these books were used as a reference for copying out parts, in that case one might expect to see more thorough markings for each motet, and there are relatively few markings across the collection. As a singer myself, I have made my fair share of rehearsal markings when performing early 17th-century motets, and I see a bit of myself reflected in these scribbles!

Anima Christi page 8 tenor partbook

Anima Christi tenore partbook

Another unique feature of this set of partbooks is hinted at in the title on the cover of the Organo partbook. The handwriting reads “Basso continuo”, while the printed part has “Organo” as the title. Simonetti may have indicated that this part was to be played on the Organ, but the binder of these partbooks did not care to be as specific. Basso continuo is a term for a general instrumental practice in which a player of a keyboard or chordal instrument realizes a contrapuntal progression above a bassline informed by figures written underneath it (or above it in this case). Does this mean that the binder believed that these motets should be performed with a variety of basso continuo instruments? It is possible, but given that this is a publication of sacred music intended for performances in sacred spaces, I would say the organ is still the most appropriate instrument for a standard performance. However, the binder’s decision to title this partbook by its musical practice embodies an inherent mutability of early baroque music, especially when considering the creativity and the musical needs of a maestro di cappella that might have acquired these motets.

Detail from Celesti Fiori title page

To conclude, exploring the manner in which this collection of motets was first composed, compiled, edited, and printed grants access to the lives and historical performance practices of early 17th-century Venetian musicians. This particular collection also shows the unique ways that printed music can reveal the unique stories of those who once held them. I invite you to turn these pages for yourself. I leave you with a recording of Veniat dilectus meus, a motet in this collection for Basso, Canto, and two Tenors. Try to follow along with any voice part and see just how different it is with little help to find your place if you get lost. You might want to start drawing a few bar lines of your own!


Zachary Haines Zachary Haines is a PhD student in Musicology at Stanford 

[1]raccolti furtiuamente” and “la conscienza mi rimorde del furto” or “My conscience pricks me for the theft”

[2] Arnold, “Alessandro Grandi, a Disciple of Monteverdi.”

[3]Schlager and Albrecht, Einzeldrucke Vor 1800 [i.e. Achtzehnhundert]