Girolamo Frescobaldi and His Music

Girolamo Frescobaldi was born in Ferrara in 1583 and received his early musical education from musicians at the Este ducal court. By 1607 he had moved to Rome, and the following year, after a sojourn in the Spanish Netherlands, he was appointed as organist at St. Peter’s in Rome. Thus at the youthful age of twenty-five, he held what was at the time probably the most prestigious organ position in the Christian world. He remained at this post until his death in 1643, except for a brief stay at the Gonzaga court in Mantua and a longer one with the Medici in Florence. In Rome he also enjoyed the patronage of the leading families, in particular of the Barberini.

Frescobaldi was the first major composer in the history of Western music to concentrate on instrumental music. In quantity his surviving keyboard works far surpass those of any predecessor or contemporary, and encompass virtually every type of keyboard composition known to the period. He was indisputably the most influential composer of keyboard music prior to Johann Sebastian Bach. Composers throughout Europe––Bach included––continued to study his works well into the eighteenth century and beyond (see also The Frescobaldi Legacy). In modern times the highly original language of his music is once again attracting musicians. The twentieth-century composer Béla Bartók adapted some of his works for piano and credited Frescobaldi with having influenced his own compositions.

For many years, knowledge of Frescobaldi’s music was largely based on a series of publications of keyboard music that appeared during the composer’s lifetime or shortly thereafter, here referred to as Frescobaldi Canonical Publications (see Definitions,..). Through more than two centuries since their publication, musicians who were not able to able to acquire them (because they were too expensive or out of print) made their own hand-written copies, and most later editions of his works drew exclusively upon the contents of the canonical publications. Numerous works for voices and/or other instruments were also published during the composer's lifetime, but those seem to have been rapidly forgotten: few if any copies of the original editions and hardly any manuscript copies survive. Not until modern times did new editions of these works––which include madrigals, motets, arie for voices and continuo, and canzonas for instrumental ensemble––become available. They are perhaps not as innovative as his keyboard music, but they have enough to offer to have made their way into the repertories of early music ensembles.

But the terra incognita of the Frescobaldi œuvre, only beginning to be explored in the last half century, is the large body of unpublished keyboard music attributed to his name in European manuscripts. More and more of such pieces have begun to surface in previously unexplored library collections. In fact, the FTCO includes several works that have never before been reported in the Frescobaldi literature, and that remain unpublished. However, the status of many of the manuscript works remains contested. Sometimes the quality of the pieces has been judged not to measure up to that of the published works. Even when they show credible Frescobaldian traits or mannerisms (by no means always the case), they often seem sketchy, simple, or routine, lacking the fecundity of imagination evident in the printed pieces. Does this mean that they are the work of students or imitators, as some suggest, or are they examples of juvenalia or drafts that the composer put aside, as others have proposed? The answer may be one or the other, depending on the piece. Sometimes the manuscript pieces include passages seemingly borrowed from canonical compositions, or alternate versions of entire works, but these pose a similar dilemma: do they present earlier stages of the published works––and thus fascinating glimpses into the composer’s workshop––or are they corrupt copies, if not instances of outright plagiarism? Thanks to the identification of the hand of the composer and some of his assistants (see Annibaldi [1985 and 1990] and Jeanneret [2009]), a significant number of manuscript works are now indeed accepted as authentic. They are––in some instances for the first time––reported as such in this catalogue, thus substantially augmenting the body of his works.

Certain qualities are observable throughout Frescobaldi's music in all its different forms and formats. Some of those qualities have often been noted, including the expressive figuration and audacious progressions, as well as the masterful command of counterpoint. Others have only recently begun to receive attention, such as the ceaseless play with motives, forms, and genres and the irrepressible wit and humor evident, for instance, in the capriccios. A notable characteristic is his fondness of the Ruggiero, encountered in his arie for voices and his ensemble canzoni, as well as in several of the keyboard collections both printed and manuscript, often with the nearby presence of its companion, the Romanesca. The Ruggiero may well represent a tribute to Frescobaldi’s native land of Ferrara and first patrons, the Este family (see Macey [1994]). If so, the Romanesca may represent an homage to the city that became home for most of his life.