The Italian composer, organist, and teacher Claudio Merulo (1533-1604) was particularly important in the evolution of an independent style in organ composition, and he made significant contributions to the development of the keyboard toccata.
Claudio Merulo, whose real name was Merlotti, served briefly as organist of the Cathedral at Brescia. He then became second organist at St. Mark's, Venice, in 1557 and first organist, succeeding Annibale Padovano, in 1566 (at which time Andrea Gabrieli became second organist). In 1586 Merulo entered the service of the Duke of Parma, became organist in the Cathedral there the following year, and returned to the ducal service as organist in 1591. He was also active as a publisher of music, and he seems to have taken an active interest in organ building. Most of his works were published posthumously or at a long enough period after their composition to make dating of the various stylistic innovations difficult.
As yet, not enough is known about Merulo's vocal works; it is possible that he should rank with the great Venetian masters of sacred vocal polyphony. There are some Masses in the Venetian polychoral manner, as well as some motets. His four volumes of madrigals (published 1566-1604) are well within the normal style of the period.
In organ music, Merulo and his contemporaries stand at the critical point at which a distinctive idiomatic style and appropriate forms for the instrument were emerging. In his Canzoni d'intavolatura d'organ…. Lib. I (published 1592) there are four pieces in keyboard tablature that appear in another source in separate part books for instrumental ensemble, showing that the idiomatic distinction was not absolute.
The toccatas of Padovano and Andrea Gabrieli take as their point of departure the rather free style of the intonation (small introductory pieces played by the organist to give pitch to singers, particularly to the celebrants). In his Toccate d'intavolatura d'organo (1604, two books) Merulo introduces several elements designed to tighten the form. He incorporates, between sections in the normal rhapsodic manner of the toccata, one or two sections in the imitative manner of the ricercar. He also introduces some imitative work into the opening and closing sections, achieving structural connection by using identical thematic material. Such interest in structural strength is also shown by the tendency in his ricercari (Ricercari d'intavolatura d'organo, 1605) toward monothematic treatment. In some cases he returns, late in the piece, to a countersubject introduced earlier and treats it imitatively.
Merulo also wrote organ canzonas, organ Masses, a few original instrumental works, and some intermezzi (stage works with incidental music, performed at the courts).
During the 16th century brilliance of performance and improvisation played an important part in the activity of the organists at St. Mark's. Merulo enjoyed such a reputation as a performer that his practice and teaching were made central in the definitive work on performance that came from the pen of his pupil Girolamo Diruta (II Transilvano, part I, 1593; part II, 1608).
There is no definitive work on Merulo. A discussion of his works and those of his contemporaries is in Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959).