Girolamo Frescobaldi

1583 1643

Girolamo Frescobaldi

Composer

Biography

The Italian composer Girolamo Alessandro Frescobaldi was one of the key founders of early Baroque music. An accomplished keyboardist, his works for harpsichord and organ and his innovative way of treating musical structure and tempo would become the gold standard for the next hundred years.

Born in Ferrara, Italy, it is likely that Frescobaldi began studying music with his father, who is believed to be an organist. It is known that while he was still very young he entered the tutelage of master court organist Luzzasco Luzzaschi. Frescobaldi was deeply influenced by his first and only teacher, adopting his progressive harmonies and intricate ornaments into his own music. At the age of fourteen, he was appointed to his first professional position as organist at the Academia della Morte.

Following the Catholic Church’s integration of Ferrara as an ecclesiastical state in 1598, Frescobaldi moved to Rome to pursue more varied opportunities. His early years there were shrouded in mystery, and there is little record of his existence until 1607, when he is on record as serving as a church organist at Santa Maria for a few months. However he ended his contract abruptly to travel to Flanders with his patron, the Archbishop of Rhodes Guido Bentivoglio. During the year he spent there he lived mostly in Antwerp and became familiar with many of the prominent Dutch and Belgian composers, as well as English exiles who were unwilling to renounce their Catholic faith and swear allegiance to King James I.

While in Antwerp, Frescobaldi formally left behind his studies by releasing his first work, a collection of five-part madrigals which were published in 1608. Several of these pieces were soon featured in collections which included works by his teacher, Luzzaschi, and the great composerGiovanni Gabrieli.

Later in 1608 Frescobaldi returned to Rome to accept the position as the organist at St. Peter’s Basilica. He would leave for a brief stint working in Mantua from 1614-1615 and a slightly longer stay in Florence from 1628 to 1634, but otherwise he remained at St. Peter’s for the rest of his life.

Soon after his return to Rome, and a corresponding pay raise, Frescobaldi published hisFiori Musicali (1635), which would end up being his best-known work.Fiori Musicali is a collection of three Masses for organ in which Frescobaldi showed himself to be a true maverick by including several capriccios based on secular themes which featured intense chromaticism and dramatic modulations. Widely viewed as the pinnacle of organ music from the early Baroque period,Fiori Musicali influenced almost all of the next generations of composers, with evenJohann Sebastian Bach meticulously copying out the entire book by hand.

One of the most groundbreaking aspects of Frescobaldi’s compositional style was his unique approach towards tempo. Whereas the older style of Renaissance music was more or less in strict time, Frescobaldi pioneered a new, more fluid, approach in which the performers accelerate or decelerate at key points of the piece, such as cadences. One the subject, Frescobaldi said “Should the player find it tedious to play a piece right through he may choose such sections as he pleases, provided only that he ends in the main key.… The opening passages should be played slowly so that what follows may appear more animated. The player should broaden the tempo at cadences.” The latter part of this statement describes an approach that would essentially become the foundation of how tempo is treated in Western Classical music.

Treatment of tempo was not the only way in which Frescobaldi’s works were at times shockingly original. In particular his use of counterpoint and chromaticism was so progressive that it sounded complete distinct from everything that had come earlier, and caused nearly every subsequent composer to imitate him. Partly due to his relative lack of formal training, his compositions frequently broke many of the established rules, but did so in an exciting and new way.

There were however many ways in which Frescobaldi’s music was surprisingly traditional. In particular, his use of form and harmony were old-fashioned. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not invent any new forms, and he only used forms that were at least fifty years old. Indeed, form appears to have been the one weak area in his compositions, and he often mislabeled his pieces, for example by mistakenly calling a partida a capriccio. In addition, Frescobaldi shunned the new fashions of monody and basso continuo, preferring to write exclusively using traditional counterpoint.

Known primarily during his lifetime as one of Europe’s premier organ virtuosos, it is mostly through his printed works and his students that Frescobaldi’s reputation as an innovative composer grew. His best known student was Johann Jacob Froberger, who was so enamored by Frescobaldi’s music that he left his position as the Viennese Court organist to study for four years with Frescobaldi in Italy. It was through Froberger that Frescobaldi’s style began to permeate the German Baroque School, as Froberger was a major influence on Johann Pachelbel, who taught Johann Sebastian Bach.

Although a large amount of Frescobaldi’s music has since been lost, his keyboard works have largely survived intact through the centuries. Many of them contain several annotations and updates, as Frescobaldi was a perfectionist who was constantly revamping older works. His fascinating catalogue of both secular and religious works is truly on of the most original and influential of the 17th century.

Images courtesy of public domain