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Girolamo Frescobaldi: Overview


Girolamo Frescobaldi: Girolamo Frescobaldi (b. Ferrara, Sept 1583; d. Rome, 1 March 1643).



Girolamo Frescobaldi, the greatest Italian organist of the 17th century, was born in Ferrara in 1583 and studied with Luzzasco Luzzaschi, the Cathedral organist. Girolamo Frescobaldi is known to have had a beautiful singing voice, and it is certain that as a young man he enjoyed a considerable reputation both as singer and organist. He is sometimes also referred to as an accomplished lutenist.



In January or February 1607 he was appointed organist at the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome, but the appointment was short-lived and during the summer of that year he journeyed to the Netherlands where Sweelinck was, by now, at the height of his powers. Girolamo Frescobaldi remained in the Low Countries for a year (the preface of the First Book of five-part madrigals is signed 'Antwerp, 1608") but returned to Italy presumably in the autumn of 1608 when the second book of his Fantasie a 4 was published in Milan.



On the 1st November 1608, Girolamo Frescobaldi became organist of St Peter's in Rome, and his first performance there is said to have attracted an audience of thirty thousand. He remained at St Peter's until 1628 when he accepted an invitation to become organist to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando de' Medici, in Florence. Eventually social and political uncertainties obliged him to leave, and on the 1st May 1634 he was reinstated as organist of St Peter's, Rome - a position which he occupied until his death. Girolamo Frescobaldi's great art of organ playing was passed on to other schools through his numerous pupils, the most notable of whom was Froberger who lived in Rome between 1637 and 1641.



Girolamo Frescobaldi is chiefly remembered today as a composer of keyboard music - his vocal works are rarely heard. His keyboard compositions, which include toccatas, ricercari, canzoni and variations, were published in a series often volumes (though there is a certain amount of duplication, revision and enlargement). The music was published in score in Fiori Musicali complete with a recommendation in the preface from Girolamo Frescobaldi that: "I consider it of great importance for the player to practise playing from score, not only because I think it necessary for those who wish to intensively study the fcrm of these compositions, but particularly also because it is a test which distinguishes the genuine artist from the ignorant."



The pedagogic value of open score was likewise fully appreciated by Bach as we know from the Art of Fugue. Girolamo Frescobaldi transformed the style of the toccata inherited from Merulo; his bold understanding of harmonic effect infused considerable dramatic contrast - indeed, tension. The toccatas had several functions - as preludes to larger pieces, as complete compositions in their own right and, of course, they were used at certain points in the Mass (the Elevation of the Host). The 'alternatim' practice (substituting organ for choir in alternate verses of plainsong) required contrapuntal treatment of the chant; the 'cantus firmus' may appear in a web of counterpoint, or act as the subject of a fugal paraphrase. Girolamo Frescobaldi demonstrates both these methods to perfection in the Fiori Musicale which appeared in 1635 and later made such an impression on Bach that he copied it out in full.



Complete contrapuntal understanding is also apparent in the strictly fugal ricercari, of which the 'Ricercare Cromatico' is a particularly notable example. Girolamo Frescobaldi enlarged the scope of the canzona by introducing variation technique - where contrasting sections are unified by transformation of a single theme. Among his most popular, and brilliant, keyboard works are the variations or 'Partitas' as they were called - particularly 'Romanesca', 'Ruggiero', and 'La Follia'. Girolamo Frescobaldi often prefixed his publications with an introduction to the performer, extremely valuable today for the light thrown on contemporary 17th-century performance style. Precise indications are given for the correct interpretation of certain phrases, yet on the other hand, in the preface to Fiori Musicali we learn that 'Some Kyries may be played vivace, others slowly, whichever the player considers correct.'



Girolamo Frescobaldi, as an organist, was fully aware of the practicalities of service accompaniment - that the music required might differ widely in terms of duration, according to individual circumstances. Thus we are told that: "In the Toccatas I have not only paid regard to the fact that they are rich in varied passages and ornaments but also that the individual sections may be played separately from one another, in order to enable the player to make a conclusion at will, without having to end the Toccata. (Preface to Toccate d'intavolatura di Cimbalo et Organo... Libro Primo, 1637)"



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