Details on Gabrieli's early life are sketchy. He was probably a native of Venice, most likely the parish of S. Geremia. He may have been a pupil of Adrian Willaert at St. Mark's in Venice at an early age. There is some evidence that he may have spent some time in Verona in the early 1550s, due to a connection with Vincenzo Ruffo, who worked there as maestro di cappella Ruffo published one of Gabrieli's madrigals in 1554, and Gabrieli also wrote some music for a Veronese academy. Gabrieli is known to have been organist in Cannaregio between 1555 and 1557, at which time he competed unsuccessfully for the post of organist at St. Mark's.
In 1562 he went to Germany, where he visited Frankfurt am Main and Munich; while there he met and became friends with Orlande de Lassus, one of the most wide-ranging composers of the entire Renaissance, who wrote secular songs in French, Italian, and German, as well as abundant Latin sacred music. This musical relationship was immensely profitable for both composers: while Lassus certainly learned from the Venetian, Gabrieli took back to Venice numerous ideas he learned while visiting Lassus in Bavaria, and within a short time was composing in most of the current idioms, including one which Lassus entirely avoided: purely instrumental music.
In 1566 Gabrieli was chosen for the post of organist at St. Mark's, one of the most prestigious musical posts in northern Italy; he retained this position for the rest of his life. Around this time he acquired, and maintained, a reputation as one of the finest current composers. Working in the unique acoustical space of St. Mark's, he was able to develop his unique, grand ceremonial style, which was enormously influential in the development of the polychoral style and the concertato idiom, which partially defined the beginning of the Baroque era in music.
His duties at St. Mark's clearly included composition, for he wrote a great deal of music for ceremonial affairs, some of considerable historical interest. He provided the music for the festivities accompanying the celebration of the victory over the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto (1571); he also composed music for the visit of several princes from Japan (1586).
Late in his career he also became famous as a teacher. Prominent among his students were his nephew Giovanni Gabrieli; the music theorist Lodovico Zacconi; Hans Leo Hassler, who carried the concertato style to Germany; and many others.
The date and circumstances of his death were not known until the 1980s, when the register containing his death date was found. Dated August 30, 1585, it includes the notation that he was "about 52 years old"; his approximate birth date has been inferred from this. His position at St. Mark's was not filled until the end of 1586, and a large amount of his music was published posthumously in 1587.
Gabrieli was a prolific and versatile composer, and wrote a large amount of music, including sacred and secular vocal music, music for mixed groups of voices and instruments, and purely instrumental music, much of it for the huge, resonant space of St. Mark's. His works include over a hundred motets and madrigals, as well as a smaller number of instrumental works.
His early style is indebted to Cipriano de Rore, and his madrigals are representative of mid-century trends. Even in his earliest music, however, he had a liking for homophonic textures at climaxes, foreshadowing the grand style of his later years. After his meeting with Lassus in 1562, his style changed considerably, and the Netherlander became the strongest influence on him.
Once Gabrieli was working at St. Mark's, he began to turn away from the Franco-Flemish contrapuntal style which had dominated the music of the 16th century, instead exploiting the sonorous grandeur of mixed instrumental and vocal groups playing antiphonally in the great basilica. His music of this time uses repetition of phrases with different combinations of voices at different pitch levels; although instrumentation is not specifically indicated, it can be inferred; he carefully contrasts texture and sonority to shape sections of music in a way which was unique, and which defined the Venetian style for the next generation.
Not everything Gabrieli wrote was for St. Mark's, though. He provided the music for one of the earliest revivals of an ancient Greek drama in Italian translation: Oedipus tyrannus, by Sophocles, for which he wrote the music for the choruses, setting separate lines for different groupings of voices. It was produced at Vicenza in 1585.
Evidently Andrea Gabrieli was reluctant to publish much of his own music, and his nephew Giovanni Gabrieli published much of it after his uncle's death.
Only a few of Gabrieli's secular vocal pieces have survived. But a collection of madrigals by his student Heinrich Schuetz, printed in 1611 as the fruits of an apprenticeship with Gabrieli, suggests that the teacher was deeply interested in the genre. Among Gabrieli's madrigals is the eight-voice Lieto godea for two choruses. Here, as in the sacred pieces, antiphonal effects, created by means of vertical, chordal combinations, replace the linear movement of the older polyphonists.
Many more of Gabrieli's instrumental pieces have survived, including numerous canzonas, ricercars, and sonatas. Some early canzonas such as La Spiritata are conventional, sectional pieces in imitative, multithematic polyphony. Several of the monothematic ricercars, on the other hand, are virtually forerunners of the latebaroque fugue. Of particular interest is Gabrieli's Sonata piano e forte, the first composition ever to bear this title. In addition to marking dynamics throughout the individual parts, the composer prescribed the instrumentation of the sonata--a novel departure from Renaissance practice, in which instrumentation was usually an ad libitum matter. Among his late instrumental pieces is a Sonata con tre violini e basso se piace, for which the master made the decisive turn to the basso continuo, the foundation voice of most baroque music.
Of all Gabrieli's works, first place must go to the motets. Polychoral writing (cori spezzati), as promulgated by Adrian Willaert and continued by Andrea Gabrieli, found its most brilliant exponent in Giovanni Gabrieli. In his collection Sacrae symphoniae (1597) there were motets for six to sixteen parts and arranged for one to four choruses. For these works he replaced the older, imitative, melismatic polyphony of the Franco-Flemish school by syllabic, harmonic writing. Bass parts moving in fourths and fifths supported separated choirs responding antiphonally to one another in short, declamatory phrases. For Gabrieli, who designed his creations for large spaces, traditional counterpoint was less important than dramatic changes in texture and dynamics.
Gabrieli's second volume of Sacrae symphoniae, printed posthumously (1615), contains early as well as late pieces in the new concerted idiom. Characteristic of the late compositions are the juxtaposition of voices and instruments, virtuoso solo writing, and the basso continuo.
The motet In ecclesiis reveals most of the innovations of Gabrieli's late style: solos and duets supported by organ (basso continuo) or instrumental ensemble; a solo quartet of voices responding to or joining the chorus; and instrumental ensembles accompanying the singers or playing independent sinfonie. With such a work resplendent with color, Gabrieli helped inaugurate a new musical epoch that was carried forward by many 17th-century Roman masters and, even more significantly, by the Germans Heinrich Schutz and Michael Praetorius.