Girolamo Frescobaldi

In younger years I had occasion to read various potted histories of music that were euphemistically characterized as ‘concise’ due to their brevity. Other similar reading material ostended a somewhat questionable objectivity in expressing the facts as the author believed they should have been, rather than as (I later discovered) they actually were, perhaps in an effort to afford Thomas Rowlandson, ‘Three Clerical Scholars’
Thomas Rowlandson, ‘Three Clerical Scholars’
(Wikimedia Commons)
some interest to an otherwise dull subject. It left me with a mistrust of nineteenth–century style authoritative writing and a healthy respect for the meticulous tedium of scholarship.

And yet there is always an “on the other hand.” It is extraordinarily tempting not to romanticize the positions and ultimate influence of the two greatest keyboard players and composers of the early seventeeth century: Sweelinck and Frescobaldi. One worked for the extreme Protestants known as Calvinists, the other at the center of Tridentine Catholicism in Rome. One was educated in and spent his life in northern Europe, the other in its southern extreme, in Italy. Yet both bridged the traditions of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and both would have a formative impact on perhaps the greatest keyboard player and composer ever: Johann Sebastian Bach, a moderate Protestant Lutheran who lived in the German lands between Italy and the Netherlands. Imputing some sort of providence to this happenstance may be misguided, but it is wholly understandable.

Girolamo Frescobaldi was born in Ferrara into a family of apparently comfortable means. Both he and his brother were to become organists, but Girolamo became very well known at an early age Girolamo Frescobaldi
Girolamo Frescobaldi
(Wikimedia Commons)
as a keyboard prodigy, gaining favour for himself among a number of influential nobles throughout Italy. He studied under Luzzaschi who, aside from his famous work with the concerto delle donne, was an accomplished and renowned keyboard player and composer in his own right, especially of the archicembalo, an early attempt to address the problems associated with the fixed tuning of keyboard instruments. Unfortunately, none of Luzzaschi’s keyboard music survives, but Frescobaldi would have enjoyed a thorough education under his teacher’s direction. Living and studying in Ferrara also meant that Frescobaldi almost certainly met famous musicians like Monteverdi, Dowland, Lasso, Merulo and Gesualdo.

Some time between 1604 and 1607, Frescobaldi left Ferrara for Rome. Between January and May of Santa Maria in Trastevere
Santa Maria in Trastevere
(Wikimedia Commons)
1607, he worked as church organist at Santa Maria in Trastevere. Thereafter, his employment with Guido Bentivoglio, archbishop of Rhodes, took him to Brussels, where Bentivoglio fulfilled his appointment as nuncio to Hapsberg Flanders. It was during this trip that Frescobaldi is rumoured to have met Peter Phillips of Fitzwilliam Virginal Book fame, exiled from Elizabethan England for his Catholic faith — there is no evidence that the meeting actually took place. But Frescobaldi also said he visited Antwerp during this time, close to the border with Protestant Netherlands and not especially far from Amsterdam and Sweelinck.

While he was abroad, Frescobaldi’s first book of madrigals was published and, in July of 1608, he was elected as organist at Saint Peter’s Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome
Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome
(Wikimedia Commons)
Basilica in Rome. He eventually returned to Italy to take up this position in October after a stopover in Milan, where his first book of fantasies was published. Two years later, he entered the service of the Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini who had assumed governorship of Ferrara after it was swallowed into the Papal States on the death of Alfonso II d’Este in 1597.

An echo of Monteverdi’s troubles in Mantua came oddly in October 1614, when Frescobaldi was engaged by Ferdinand I Gonzaga for service in his court. Monteverdi was already in Venice, and Ferdinand was apparently after a suitably first–class name to keep up appearances. The atmosphere in Mantua on Frescobaldi’s arrival apparently proved, however, to be extraordinarily and inexplicably uncomfortable, not to say tense, and by April of 1615, he was back in Rome. More collections of his keyboard music appeared later that year.

Frescobaldi was well–known in and around Rome, working and playing in various churches as well as at Saint Peter’s. He continued to work for Aldobrandini until the Cardinal’s death in 1621.

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