He looked, and saw a spacious plain, whereon Were tents of various hue; by some, were herds Of cattle grazing; others, whence the sound Of instruments that made melodious chime Was heard, of harp and organ; and who moved Their stops and chords was seen: his volant touch Instinct through all proportions, low and high Fled and pursued transverse the resonant fugue. (John Milton, Paradise Lost, XI, 556-63, 1667)
Frederick Hammond, one of Girolamo Frescobaldi’s most eloquent advocates and author of a fine biography (Girolamo Frescobaldi: His Life and Music, Harvard University Press, 1983), offers the tantalizing suggestion that in these lines from Paradise Lost we hear the faint echo of a gathering in Rome around the year 1639. It is not out of the realm of the possible: Milton travelled for over a year in France and Italy beginning in May 1638, and spent a considerable portion of that time in Italy where he became acquainted with many important members of Italy’s intellectual community, including Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679). He may well have heard Frescobaldi at one of the Cardinal’s gatherings or in a performance at a Roman institution such as the Oratorio of the Crocifisso: Frescobaldi was in Barberini’s service by 1634 and was an active participant in the sessions of vocal and chamber music that were part of the Barberini accademie, and was also a frequent performer at the Lenten concerts of the Crocifisso.
Born in Ferrara, Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) studied with Luzzasco Luzzaschi, organist to Duke Alfonso II d’Este. The Este court boasted one of the most celebrated musical establishments in Italy at the end of the sixteenth century. There he was exposed to Franco-Flemish polyphonic masses and motets and to contrapuntal keyboard works such as ricercars and fantasias by Willaert and Luzzaschi. He was also immersed in the effervescent tide of solo and polyphonic madrigals by Luzzaschi, Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Dowland, Caccini and others, many of whom passed through Ferrara during his formative years. Perhaps the works that had the most impact on him were the madrigals for one to three high voices written by Luzzaschi for the virtuosi who made up the concerto delle dame principalissime. The three women of this elite ensemble also played harp, viol and lute, and Luzzaschi’s madrigals for them feature graceful vocal arabesques that find equivalent gestures in Frescobaldi’s toccatas.
By 1608 Frescobaldi was settled in Rome where he took up the post of organist of the Cappella Giulia at St. Peter’s. His first printed works, a set of madrigals dedicated to Guido Bentivoglio and a set of keyboard fantasias dedicated to Duke Francesco Borghese, appeared earlier that year. In the dedication of the Fantasie, he notes that he performed them for Borghese while at the home of Bentivoglio the year before. This sets the pattern for much of his professional career, mixing service for the church, where he likely played solo organ works and accompanied small vocal ensembles, with performances in the service of powerful patrons.
His next two printed collections, the Ricercari e canzone and the Toccate e partite… Libro primo, were both published in 1615. Again, we note the dedications to powerful patrons, first to Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini for the Ricercari, and to Cardinal-Duke Ferdinando Gonzaga for the Toccate. We also note the simultaneous publication of works in the prima prattica, or conservative, rule-bound style of the sixteenth century in the case of the Ricercari, and the seconda prattica, or freely-expressive, text-inspired style of the early seventeenth century in the case of the Toccate. His preface to the toccata collection offers the performer hints for the “new manner of playing with affetti cantabile,” or song-like affect: Frescobaldi conceives of these works as the keyboard equivalent of the expressive madrigals in the modern style of Luzzaschi, Monteverdi or Gesualdo. Two more collections of keyboard works appeared during this first period in Rome, Il primo libro di capricci in 1624, and Il secondo libro di toccate in 1627. A considerable measure of his fame rests on the effect created by these two collections of toccatas.
From 1628 to 1634, he was in Florence in the service of Ferdinando II, Grand Duke of Tuscany. He returned to Rome in 1634 under the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew to Pope Urban VIII. His final publications include the Fiori musicali of 1635 and re-publications of several earlier collections. Particularly notable are the 1637 editions of the two books of toccatas. The new edition of the first book featured a lengthy Aggiunta, or addition, of music in a much lighter vein than the earlier works. It included several sets of Balletti and other dance movements, including the monumental Cento partite sopra passacagli.
Cardinal Barberini, who had been among the judges at Galileo’s trial and who led a faction that sought lenient treatment for Galileo, was one of the most important promoters of cultural activity in Rome; Milton was only one of many artists and intellectuals living in or visiting the city to follow in his orbit. Along with other members of his family, he sponsored performances of opera and chamber music and established a sizable library of musical scores and treatises. While little evidence remains of the music performed at such gatherings, we can imagine what Milton might have heard from Frescobaldi during his 1639 visit. The re-publication of the two books of toccatas in 1637 might have suggested several works, particularly the more recent pieces. The toccatas from the second collection of 1627 in particular extend the techniques used in the first collection; new features include triple and compound meters and short, canzona-like segments, along with bold and expressive turns of harmony. The canzonas of the 1627 collection are considerably more developed than their 1615 counterparts. They feature constant variation of the subject over the course of sections in contrasting meters and occasionally mix in short, toccata-like sections at the boundaries between sections. Finally, a letter written in 1640 by Pietro Della Valle notes that Frescobaldi had of late been playing “in another manner, with more galanterie in the modern style… this manner [is] more elegant, though less learned.” Such playing may be reflected in the graceful and light-hearted dances found in the 1627 collection; many of these works were widely circulated in contemporary manuscript collections of popular songs and dances.
Frescobaldi may also have been eager to show off newer, unpublished works as a way of refining them for publication (and possibly in search of a patron to subsidize their publication). A large number of manuscripts contain works attributed to Frescobaldi not known from any of his printed collections. One such manuscript in the Vatican Library, MS Chigi Q.IV.25, part of a large set of seventeenth-century keyboard collections, contains an inscription on the flyleaf, in the hand of Frescobaldi’s son Domenico, which attributes the manuscript to Frescobaldi. Among its final works is a set of three toccatas that may constitute the beginnings of a third cycle of toccatas. These works were likely current during Froberger’s stay in Rome between 1637 and 1641, and many of their features inform the toccatas of Froberger and other composers of the 1640s. Frescobaldi may also have been working on a set of keyboard canzonas that remained incomplete at his death. A posthumous set of canzonas appeared in Venice in 1645, and there is evidence that Frescobaldi had been in contact with their publisher, Vincenti, about such a collection.
Much of Frescobaldi’s reputation rested on his skill in improvisation, and the Cento partite sopra passacaglia may represent an idealised improvisation that showcases his virtuosity and his invention. This remarkable set of variations explores the relationship between the harmonic patterns of the chaconne and the passacaglia, and includes a brief corrente section. The rapid modulations and transformations were surely intended to dazzle the ear; perhaps the final cadence in E, a tone higher than the opening key of D, was meant to amaze or leave the listener breathless. Certainly the appearance of enharmonic chromaticisms (e-flat and d-sharp) in the same piece is unusual. Perhaps Frescobaldi meant to show off his skill on an instrument with more than 12 notes per octave, or to demonstrate the potential of equal-temperament, or, as in this recording in quarter-comma mean-tone, to demonstrate a certain audacity in letting an e-flat stand in for a d-sharp.
As much as Frescobaldi may have embraced lighter and more popular styles, it is difficult to imagine him relinquishing his early love of counterpoint. The opening and closing pieces heard here are from the 1624 collection of capricci. This collection contains 12 pieces constructed from a variety of subjects ranging from the picturesque to the deliberately learned. One piece is built around a descending minor third, d to b, representing the call of the cuckoo, another is based on a popular melody (La Spagnoletta), while yet another is built around the wayward conceit of resolving all suspensions upwards—wayward indeed, as, according to the rules of strict counterpoint, all resolutions should resolve downwards. Frescobaldi employs every contrapuntal device available since the late Renaissance: the material used to generate each piece is heard forwards, backwards, in augmentation (in which the length of each note is augmented by some, usually integer, value), in diminution (in which note lengths are made shorter), and in stretto (in which a voice brings in the subject before another voice has finished presenting it). In addition, the generating material is frequently varied by a process known as inganno, in which one note is replaced by a note from another hexachord with the same syllable name. The collection is also marked by the presentation of its material in a variety of guises, now heard as a strict ricercar, like the contemporary motet or mass, now as a canzona, and again as a dance such as the galliard, with occasional transitional moments resembling the florid gestures typical of the toccata. Not until Bach’s encyclopaedic explorations of form and compositional process a century later does one find such a delight in the near-obsessive investigation of process and form.
The capricci heard here are based on the raw material of music itself, the six notes of the hexachord. The first is built on the rising form of the hexachord, Ut Re Mi Fa Sol La (the first six notes of what we know today as the major scale), the second, on the same notes in reverse. All of the modes or scale-types generally in use by composers through the end of the seventeenth century (and sometimes beyond) could be generated from three hexachords, one starting on C, called the ‘natural’ hexachord, one starting on G, the ‘hard’ hexachord, and one starting on F, the ‘soft’ hexachord. Melodic lines were created by combining and transposing the hexachords in various, well-defined ways. In these pieces, the hexachord is subjected to all of the contrapuntal processes described above. A particularly obvious example of an inganno can be heard in the opening section of the first capriccio, where, after several presentations of the rising hexachord in its basic form, the final note of the sequence is not the expected high ‘a’ (La in the ‘natural’ hexachord) but an ‘e’ (also called La, but in the ‘soft’ hexachord). There are many examples of hexachord pieces by composers such as Sweelinck, Froberger, Byrd, and Bull. These pieces can be heard as the musical equivalent of a still life painting—virtuoso displays of technical ability and awareness of other examples of the genre. The two heard here are certainly technical masterpieces—careful examination of the score reveals great depth of artifice and mastery of compositional process. What makes these pieces particularly remarkable is the variety of affetti, now touching and sweet, now dancing, now severe, and the naturalness of their progression. There is plenty here to delight both the casual listener and the connoisseur, with appeals to both the intellect and the senses. They would surely have found appreciative ears at the gatherings hosted by Cardinal Barberini.
Hank Knox, Brule Shore, NS, 2008