Ricercare e canzone francese

Girolamo Frescobaldi, 1615

Frescobaldi’s Recercari et canzoni francese fatte sopra diverse oblighi (“Ricercars and Canzonas upon Diverse Themes”) of 1615 might initially seem closer in spirit to the Fantasies of seven years earlier. They were published in partitura, i.e. each voice appears on a separate stave, suggesting a more serious contrapuntal approach, with enumerated soggetti (“subjects”) or stipulated solfège syllables as themes. Ironically, an early connotation of ricercar, at least when applied to keyboard music, implied a fairly improvised method of checking the soundness of an instrument, or of exploring the harmonic implications of a theme.

The verb ricercar literally means to seek or to search thoroughly; at least one English dictionary traces the origin of the word ‘research’ through the related Middle French recercher. Even with the often muddled use of formal terminology in the early Baroque period, the ricercar for polyphonic instruments — keyboards, lutes, etc. — was to crystallize as the venerated contrapuntal capstone of the late Baroque, the fugue. It would be helped in this by the canzona francesa, which is also often cited as a main ancestor of the sonata.

The ricercar of the early seventeenth century came in two basic strains which Frescobaldi was in a unique position to appreciate. The Venetian cultivar tended to be subdivided into relatively distinct sections of contrasting texture or thematic material. Composers further south around Naples — Trabaci, Macque, et al. — tended to use several soggetti and treat them in one more or less homogeneous movement. Frescobaldi’s time in Ferrara exposed him to both kinds through his proximity to Venice and through connections with Naples via his teacher Luzzaschi.

Thus the 1615 publication contains a variety. The second number begins with a question–and–answer theme and its inversion (or if you prefer, two soggetti and their inversions, or four soggetti, depending on how you like to count). It proceeds by

Frescobaldi, Ricercar II (excerpt)

treating these fragments in small, loose sections divided loosely by cadences, before taking up new subjects about halfway through. The third ricercar is similar, but the enigmatic original theme

Frescobaldi, Ricercar III (excerpt)

is heard throughout, unable to escape the pull downward to its first note, and finally surrenders in the closing Phrygian cadence. Numbers four through eight are named for specific intervals, and their themes too are heard throughout, mostly in long sustained notes and sometimes doubled or quadrupled in value.

Number nine, on the other hand, is written with four subjects, which are combined and swapped numerous times from beginning to end. To be sure there are sectional cadences, but neither the texture nor the themes change. In all of the ricercars, there is less rhythmic variation of the soggetti than was seen in the earlier Fantasies.

The five canzone francese (“French canzonas”) are considerably more lively than the ricercars yet still contrapuntal in texture, again similar to the 1608 Fantasies. They are much more markedly sectional than the ricercars, all featuring at least one section in triple time, in addition to the signature dactyl rhythm of the traditional canzona.

⇐ Partitas

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