Iacobus Gallus Carniolus

Slovenian Renaissance composer of note

Jakob Handl, called Gallus was possibly the most famous of all Slovene composers of the Renaissance period in central Europe of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Born sometime between April and July of 1550, he remains a man of some mystery.

Seemingly a quiet, modest person by nature, he was one of the most progressive and innovative composers of the Renaissance. Apart from his love of music, to which he appeared dedicated to the exclusion of almost all else, virtually nothing is known of his childhood and youth. He first appeared on the music scene in 1580, with the printing of his Masses: he was then thirty years of age. He died eleven years later at forty-one, compressing into this short period an entire professional and public life, together with the composition of up to 500 works. Gallus' masterwork was the Opus Musicum, four books of motets created for the annual liturgical feasts of the Church. His humanism did not limit him to church compositions alone, however, but also inspired secular works based on texts from the classic Roman poets. He died in Prague in 1591, leaving behind no personal belongings other than his compositions , nor any debts. After his death several poets contributed elegies in his honour to an anthology that also contained his woodcut portrait.
Our knowledge of his Slovenian origins comes from this portrait and the description of himself as Carniolanus or Carniolus, that is, a man of Carniola, Kranjska (an older name for Slovenia). Since he lived in a time and place when Latin and German were the predominant languages, it was natural for his surname to be translated accordingly, as happened with others, and he was known variously as Handl or Handel or by the Latin version of his name, Gallus (Petelin in Slovenian, meaning rooster). But while it appears that people were not in general concerned about the lack of a clearly outlined national identity, there was nevertheless an awareness of individual national character as noted by Gallus in a preface to his Harmoniae Morales:

“The Italians enjoy themselves with the madrigals, they love the Neapolitan songs and the villanelas. What is sung in one's own language is what they want and this the Germans and the French applaud."

He himself was demonstrably keen to preserve his Slovenian identity, consistently adding the 'Carniolus' to his name, and using traditional Slovenian melodies as cantus firmus for his compositions, like the folksong "Šel sem, šel sem cez gmajnico" in the motet Preparate corda vestra. As for the texts used in his works, Gallus preferred Latin to German, a choice in keeping with the rebirth of interest in classical Greek and Roman culture. Indeed he went further than many, being (it is said) the only Renaissance composer to set all his secular works - the Harmoniae Morales and Moralia - to Latin lyrics.

He seemed similarly intent to protect his artistic identity, something which became an issue with the printing of his earliest known works, the Missae, in 1580. Sources tell us that these had already been in circulation in manuscript form, but in the Preface to the volume for seven and eight voices, he presents the selection as work brought to light for the first time, corrected by the author - nunc primum in luce datae, ac correctae ab Authore Jacobo Handl.  It indicates that he felt the need to retain creative control over his compositions, and to be known to do so. As editor, Gallus was actively involved with the printing of his works, which was handled by Bohemian publisher Jiri Czerny (Georgius Nigrinus), and their collaboration ensured that almost the entire opus was printed during Gallus' lifetime. That his work met with official approval was made evident when Rudolf II twice granted him Imperial privilege for its publication. This notice, in effect a copyright law, prohibited the copying, importing, and publishing of Gallus' compositions other than in their official form, bearing the privilege. A sympathetic spirit in the emperor, whose move to Prague in 1577 coincided with the first public record in that year of a work by Gallus (the Missa super Levavi oculos meos), may have provided the composer with the stimulus to make his authorship secure.
After his death in 1591 the remainder of his work, forty-seven madrigals for eight to five voices, with the title of Moralia (M), was published by his brother.

Gallus wrote of his devotion to music from an early age (Preface, OM III) but not of his education, which he may have received at the School of Music of Stična Abbey, a great educational centre in the 16th century. We know that between 1572 to 1578 he resided in the monasteries of Melk, Zabrdovice - Zeliv and Wroclaw, and from August 1579 and July 26 1585 in Olomouc. (Loparnik disputes Mantuani's claim that Gallus studied in Vienna as a youth). The composer spent his remaining years in Prague, as choirmaster in the Church of Sancte Ioannes in Vado - saint John in the Hill, of which Rudolf was patron.  Gallus' work there had been extraordinarily  prolific.  He had already published the Selectiores Quædam Missæ (SQM) sixteen masses of eight to four voices, in 1580. Then, inspired anew, he worked from 1586 to 1591 on the Opus Musicum (OM) - 374 motets divided into four books, the first three following the liturgical year of the Catholic Church - Advent, Christmas, Easter, Lent - the fourth was dedicated to the saints (Pars de sanctis). The motets were composed for groups of four to twenty-four voices, and of one to four choirs. Gallus was also neat in the arrangements of his works: they were divided into volumes according to the number of voices in a composition: the book of the Masses thus consisted of four volumes, the first containing masses for eight/seven voices, the second, masses for six voices, the third for five voices, and the fourth, masses for four voices. The third book of the Opus Musicum was also arranged in this way, as was the Moralia.

During this period Gallus had been asked to compose some secular music as well, and he produced the Harmoniæ Morales (HM), fifty-three Latin madrigals for four voices. In addition he created three occasional pieces, two of which were included in books on other composers. Like all artists Gallus both belonged to his age and stood outside it, following musical conventions but also 'bending' them to suit his own original vision, and so surpassing them. Gallus has been called a complex personality, but critics views about him and his work are often contradictory. His apparent preference for the short musical form suggests a fundamental simplicity of character (although individual compositions are often very complex in their interior structure). But it is most probable that his premature death did prevent him from extending his creative parameters. Perhaps that does not matter: the motets and madrigals perfectly express his ideas and are as perfectly fashioned, creating a sense of captive but intense and at times almost irrepressible life. As such, his music sums up one of the most exciting and unforgettable eras in human history, the Renaissance.


Cvetko, Dragotin, Slovenska Glasba v Evropskem Prostoru, Ljubljana, 1991
Jacobus Gallus and his time, European Music Year - symposium, Ljubljana, 1985
Loparnik, Borut, dissertation: De Jacobo Gallo Carniolo Historia, Ljubljana, 2000
Krones, Hartmut Jacobus Gallus: Harmoniae Morales and Moralia, Vienna, 2000
Allen,  Skei, and Danilo Pokorn, 2nd ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, MacMillan, 2001
Škulj, Edo ed., Gallusovi Predgovori in drugi dokumenti, Ljubljana, 1991
Šavli, Jože, Slovenian Music in its European Setting.