Claudio Merulo

Claudio Merulo, Venetian School composer and organist, was most famous for his innovative keyboard music and polychoral style ensemble music.

Born Claudio Merlotti in 1533, he Latinised his surname (meaning little blackbird) to Merulo; when he became famous in Venetian cultural circles.

Girolamo Diruta’s famous two-part treatise of keyboard technique “Il Transilvano” (1593 and 1610), was dedicated to Merulo; indicating his status as one of the most important keyboard players of the late Italian musical Renaissance.

His keyboard music was hugely influential: his ideas can be seen in the music of Sweelinck, Frescobaldi and others, culminating in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach.



Claudio Merulo – LIFE

He was actually born Claudio Merlotti (meaning little blackbird), in Correggio, in the region of Emilia-Romagna on the 8th April 1533. He Latinised his surname to Merulo, when he became famous in Venetian cultural circles.

Little is known about his early life except that he studied in Correggio, with Tuttovale Menon; a famous French madrigalist who also worked in the Ferrara court. He also studied with Girolamo Diruta, an organist and theorist and Gioseffo Zarlino at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. While in Venice, he also developed a lifetime friendship with Costanzo Porta, another forward looking Venetian school composer, teacher and contrapuntalist.

Claudio Merula, Venetian School of MusicOn 21 October 1556, he was appointed organist at the Duomo Vecchio (Old Cathedral) of Brescia  His impressive skill as an organist led him in 1557, to become organist at St. Mark’s Basilica; one of the most prestigious positions for an organist in Italy. He was selected from a list of candidates, that included Andrea Gabrieli and went on to be considered to be the finest organist in Italy.

At St. Mark’s there were two organs; one in each of the lateral choir lofts and two separate organists were appointed to play them. In 1557, Merulo was appointed as second organist, to Annibale Padovano; who remained as first organist. After Padovano’s hurried departure from Venice in 1566, Merulo was appointed to the first organ, whilst Andrea Gabrieli was appointed to the second position.

Claudio Merulo, wrote music of celebration for Henry III of France, who visited Venice in 1574. He was appointed as ambassador of the Venetian Republic, at the marriage of Franceso de’ Medici and Bianca Cappello in 1579.

In 1584, for reasons for this are not understood, he suddenly left this position in Venice. This was somewhat surprising, as his position in Venice was of importance, well-paid and his reputation was good.

However, in December 1584 his name appears in payment register of Alessandro Farnesia, Duke of Parma and Piacenza. In 1587, he was appointed as organist in Parma Cathedral and from 1591, in the Church of Santa Maria della Steccata.

While here, he requested improvements to the organ, carried out by Costanzo Antegnati; the last heir of the great Brescian family of organ makers. New compositions, were based in the style of his Venetian experience.

During this period in Palma, he made several trips to Venice and Rome; where he published his famous two volume “Toccate per organo”.

Merulo died in Parma on 4 May 1604 and was buried in Parma Cathedral near to the tomb of Cipriano de Rore; the Franco-Flemish composer and associate of Adrian Willaert. He left behind his wife, Amabilia Banzola and a daughter.



Merulo is famous for his keyboard music, in particular his Toccatas were innovative.

Claudio Merula, Venetian School of MusicHe was the first to contrast sections of contrapuntal writing with passageworks; often he inserts sections which could be called ricercars into pieces which otherwise are labelled toccatas or canzonas. (Note. In the late 16th century, these terms are only approximately descriptive; different composers clearly had different ideas of what they meant).

Often his keyboard pieces begin, as though they are to be a transcription of vocal polyphony; but then gradually add embellishment and elaboration, until they reach a climactic passage of considerable virtuosity.

Especially in his later music, he sometimes develops ornaments which acquire the status of a motif, which is then used developmentally. This anticipates a principal generative technique in the Baroque era. Often Merulo casually ignores the “rules” of voice-leading, giving the music an expressive intensity; more associated with the late school of madrigalists than with keyboard music of the time.











Even though the fame of his instrumental music has overshadowed much of his “a cappella” vocal output, Merulo was also a madrigalist. As a member of the “Venetian School”; he also wrote motets for double choir, in the manner of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli.

He published two books of “Madrigali a 5 voce“(1566 and 1604), one of “Madrigali a 4 voce” (1579) and also one of “Madrigali a 3 voce” (1580).

The famous essay of keyboard technique “Il Transilvano” (1593), by Girolamo Diruta, was dedicated to Merulo; indicating his status as one of the most important keyboard players of the Italian musical Renaissance, transitioning into the Baroque era.

His keyboard music was hugely influential and his ideas can be seen in the music of Sweelinck, Frescobaldi and others. Because of the immense influence of Sweelinck as a teacher, much of the virtuoso keyboard technique of the north German organ school, culminating in Johann Sebastian Bach; can claim to be descended from the innovations of Merulo.


  • Ricercari d’Intavolatura d’Organo, Libro primo (1567):
  • Toccata del terzo tuono from Il Transilvano, part I, by Diruta (1597)
  • Toccate d’Intavolatura d’Organo, Book 1 (1598):
  • Toccate d’Intavolatura d’Organo, Book 2 (1604):
  • Canzoni d’Intavolatura d’Organo, a quattro voci, fatte alla francese, Book 1 (1592) :
  • Canzoni d’intavolatura d’organo fatte alla francese, Book 2:
  • Canzoni d’intavolatura d’organo fatte alla francese, Book 3:
  • Madrigali a 5 libro I (1566) e II (1604)
  • Madrigali a 4 (1579)
  • Madrigali a 3 (1580)
  • Mottetti a 5 libro I (1578), II (1578)
  • Mottetti a 6 libro I (1583), II (1593) e III (1605, postumo)
  • Sacrae Cantiones (1578)
  • Mottetti a 4 (1584)
  • Sacri Concentus (1594)
  • Messe a 5 (1573)



Other related posts in the category of Art-Music-Literature

The Venetian School of Music   

Major members of the Venetian School of Music. 

Adrian Willaert (c.1490-1562) 

Jacques Buus (c.1500-1565)

Andrea Gabrieli (c.1532-1585)

Nicola Vicentino (1511-c.1576)

Cipriano de Rore (c.1515-1565)

Gioseffo Zarlino (1517–1590)

Baldassare Donato (1525–1603)

Annibale Padovano (1527–1575)

Costanzo Porta (c.1529-1601)

Gioseffo Guami (c.1540-1611)

Vincenzo Bellavere (d.1587)

Girolamo Diruta (c.1554-after 1610)

Girolamo Dalla Casa (d.1601)

Giovanni Gabrieli (c.1555-1612)

Giovanni Croce (c.1557-1609)

Giovanni Bassano (c.1558-1617)

Giulio Cesare Martinengo (c.1561-1613)

Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643)


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