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ClassicsOnline Home » FRESCOBALDI: Keyboard Music from Manuscript Sources
Girolamo Frescobaldi was the most celebrated keyboard musician, teacher and composer in Italy in his day, serving various nobility and the Church in Rome from 1608 until his death in 1643. He had the greatest influence of any musician in the seventeenth century on the keyboard music of Germany, Austria, The Netherlands and Denmark. The music presented here is attributed to Frescobaldi from various manuscript sources dating between 1630 and 1650 and is not otherwise included in the volumes of his music printed during his lifetime.
By David Denton
The first thing you will notice is the distinctly unique sound of this harpsichord dating from 1658 and faithfully restored three years ago by Keith Hill. It was made by Jerome de Zentis, an Italian who travelled through Europe making instruments for the wealthy, including many royal families. Why he became so famous is obvious when listening to the very individual qualities that the instrument has to offer, the resonance creating the feel of a sustaining pedal, yet it has such clarity that the fast passages never become tonally blurred. The tuning will strike you as odd as the interval between notes is not that to which modern ears have become accustomed. Does it go slightly out of tune as the recording progressed or is it just my ears? It is, of course, very appropriate to Italy’s foremost composer of keyboard music in the early 17th century, Girolamo Frescobaldi. The present disc is devoted to works that never appeared under his name, but has survived in manuscript form and generally accepted to be from his hand. Whether they were from his younger years and thought unworthy of publication, or whether they were simply teaching pieces for his pupils is unclear. Whatever their use, the mixture of pungent Toccatas with Caprices, Ricercare and Correntes makes for a most interesting disc. Maybe the melodic material was not of the quality to create master works, but try track 8, a Toccata in C major, as a sample of the many delights. It is played by Martha Folts, a product of the University of Michigan who has specialised in Baroque, her major career established in the United States. A very lucid practitioner who moves around the keyboard with an elegant ease, she makes a good case for the music. The instrument is recorded quite close, and either one note is in difficulty, or it is catching the microphone. Other than that it is a good honest product that will give considerable pleasure.
Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643) Keyboard Music from Manuscript Sources
Born in Ferrara in 1583, Girolamo Frescobaldi was the most celebrated keyboard musician, teacher and composer in Italy in his day, serving various nobility and the Church in Rome from 1608 until his death in 1643. Frescobaldi had the greatest influence of any musician in the seventeenth century on the keyboard music of Germany, Austria, Holland, Belgium and Denmark. Johann Jakob Froberger from Stuttgart travelled widely and disseminated Frescobaldi’s music and compositional ideas throughout Europe.
The music presented here is attributed to Frescobaldi from various manuscript sources dating between 1630 and 1650. The works are not otherwise included in the volumes of Frescobaldi’s music printed during his lifetime. The manuscripts also include music of other composers and are copied by hands other than Frescobaldi. It is not known whether this music is early work of Frescobaldi, composed before he reached his artistic maturity, or composed as teaching pieces with certain interpretive problems to be solved, or a combination of these two possibilities.
In the preface to his first book of toccatas (1615) Frescobaldi asks that the approach to playing his toccatas resemble the non-polyphonic new madrigal style, a repertoire for solo voice with accompanment. This new style was characterized by flexibility of tempo, a variety of affetti (embellishments) and uneven treatment of the rhythm, all with the purpose of interpreting the text with more soul. The music that inspired this idea probably came from Luzzascho Luzzaschi, a musician with whom Frescobaldi may have studied in Ferrara. Another major influence on Frescobaldi’s vocal approach to his harpsichord music was Giulio Caccini, the famous singer and vocal teacher from Florence, who published two volumes of solo voice madrigals (1602 and 1614) demonstrating the “new style”. In the preface to the first of these volumes Caccini presented his views about expression of a text through improvised vocal ornamentation, affetti, and dynamic variation on a single note.
Describing this “new style”, Frescobaldi states that the manner of playing must not remain subject to a beat (imitating the practice of the solo madrigal style of Caccini and others), letting the tempo reflect the mood or “Affect” of the music or text. He says the beginnings of the toccatas should be played slowly, and arpeggiated. This compares with Caccini’s advice for the singer to begin a madrigal slowly, with a gradual crescendo or decrescendo on a single note. The crescendo of the singer and the arpeggio of the keyboardist are ways of seeking a similar expressive effect at the beginning of the music. Frescobaldi also says harsh dissonances are to be repeated where they occur so as not to leave the instrument empty of sound. He emphasizes that this re-striking is to be at the pleasure of the player. He encourages the player to follow the “Affect” or mood of a given section by applying the appropriate ornaments, embellishments and tempo fluctuations. This promotes “sprezzatura” or “noble negligence” as Monteverdi called it, performance with a kind of nonchalance which projects ease, relaxation, non-intensity, and yet a focused, intentional presence to the performance.
I approach this music taking Frescobaldi’s performance suggestions seriously, allowing the music to sound as vocally oriented as possible. This includes freedom of tempo; allowing individual voices to sound “not together” but rather like characters in conversation with one another; improvising embellishments freely within phrases; allowing the hands and even the fingers to be free from each other, the right hand leading forward at times, and the left hand leading at other times; freely accelerating and decelerating the music. I ornament for expressive purposes, using frequently the vocal ornament known as the “trillo”, a single note repeated several times at the end of a phrase or section.
There are five types of pieces represented here. The toccata is intended to sound as if improvised, alternating lively and slower sections. The capriccios are of two types: ones with several sections, each having its own motive treated imitatively; and a set of variations (Capriccio fatto sopra il Cucchù) using the wittily imitative two-note motive of the cuckoo’s call. Both the ricercare and the fantasia are predecessors of the fugue. The Fantasia from the Bauyn Manuscript has a particularly vocal feel, vacillating between three and four voices, and finally the corrente, a lively dance in triple metre with syncopations.
Jerome de Zentis built instruments first in Rome, then in Florence for the Medici family, in London as the ‘King’s Virginal Maker’, in Stockholm as the instrument-maker at the court for Queen Christina, then in Viterbo to make instruments for the Pope, and finally to Paris for the King of France. The instrument used in this recording is one he made upon his return to Italy after ten years in Sweden as the instrument-maker royal to Queen Christina. One might well ask why this particular maker was such a favourite with those music-lovers with the most sophisticated taste. The answer, I believe, rests with the power this maker had to manage and control the precise musical behaviour of his instruments. He clearly figured out how to create an almost angelic “charm” in the sound of his instruments, if this one is any indication. Every note has a pronounced and radically different timbre yet all the notes work perfectly together in a harmonious whole. He achieved sweetness of tone not by having an ultra-refined unified timbre (so common in instruments made today) but through the intensity of resonance of each note and through his careful selection of ratios that dominate his acoustical thinking. The result is that every note begins with a “Cercare de la Nota“ (a technique used by the greatest singers at the time in which a note was begun, sounding silently, deep in the chest and rising rapidly to the intended note). This effect informs the ear with greater clarity of what each and every note is about, and with it what the music means. It helps us recognise what is happening in the music as each note, even in the most complicated polyphony, utters its unique voice distinctly and unequivocally. These qualities are shared by every great antique musical instrument from the violins of Stradivari and Guarneri to the organs of Schnitger and Ebert.
For more information about this instrument, visit www.keithhillharpsichords.com/1658dezentis.html
Full details of manuscript sources:
* Corpus of Early Keyboard Music: A modern printed collection of the works from the MS sources in three volumes (30/1,2,3), published by the American Institute of Musicology in 1968, edited by W. R. Shindle.
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