Toccate e partite d’intavolatura di cembalo (I)

Girolamo Frescobaldi, 1615

Historical evidence suggests that Frescobaldi’s relationship with the Bentivoglio family soured around 1612, not just because of what has been called his somewhat abrasive demeanour: Frescobaldi’s first son was born out of wedlock in May. That was hardly unusual in the Rome of the day, but the scandal nevertheless would have strained relations with his patron. Nor was it an isolated episode: it seems there had been improprieties with another woman in 1609.

Indeed, although Frescobaldi did the noble thing and married the child’s mother in February of the next year, a second child, a girl, was born five months after the wedding. Coming as he did from a relatively privileged family in Ferrara, along with his popularity, perhaps Frescobaldi was exercising what Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini
Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini
(Wikimedia Commons)
he believed was license for extraordinary behaviour.

He was not left wanting for long. While continuing work at a variety of engagements, Frescobaldi gained the support of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, nephew of Pope Clement VIII who ran the affairs of the duchy of Ferrara for his uncle when Alfonso d’Este died without heir in 1597. Aldobrandini promptly put Frescobaldi on his payroll but left him free to pursue work at other venues.

A year after his third son was born, 1614, Frescobaldi published his Toccate e partite d’intavolatura di cimbalo libro primo (“Toccatas and Partitas in Tablature for Harpsichord, First Book”) and dedicated it to Ferdinando Gonzaga of Mantua. The Duke had struck a deal whose terms were particularly generous but, after spending several months at the court, Frescobaldi quickly abandoned the appointment, citing the same sorts of difficulties — artistic and financial — that had plagued Monteverdi. Fortunately, Frescobaldi’s talent and reputation were such that his ties in Rome remained intact.

From the Italian verb toccare, “to touch,” comes the term toccata, an instrumental work in which improvisation figures significantly, applied to instruments that were played by touch, such as keyboards, lute, chitarrone, or Spanish guitar. Andrea Gabrieli, for example, improvised toccatas comprising alternations of chords in one hand with figurations such as scale passages in the other. As often happened in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the term came to be applied to other kinds of music — the opening of Monteverdi’s Orfeo was called a toccata — but it retained an association with showy, dramatic music in keeping with the spirit of the early Baroque.

The keyboard player par excellence associated with this sort of brilliant improvisation and drama was Frescobaldi, as evidenced in his very first collection of 1614. The pages are speckled

Frescobaldi, Toccata terza (excerpt)

with black notes, but the underlying structure is anything but random. When the score is stripped of passaggi and reduced to the underlying chords, the immediate impression is the outline of a monody.

Frescobaldi, Toccata terza, harmonic scheme (excerpt)

Indeed, Frescobaldi’s remarks in the foreword make the link explicit. He emphasizes extreme freedom of tempo similar to the manner in which madrigals — monodies — are performed, and with the same ultimate aim, namely to communicate the affect of each passage. In that respect, the Toccatas are improvised performances captured and written down, a hint at the expertise behind Frescobaldi’s immense fame as a performer.

The collection’s title specifically mentions the cembalo — harpsichord — but some of the works were clearly conceived for the Frescobaldi, Toccatas & Partitas, Title Page
Frescobaldi, Toccatas & Partitas, Title Page
organ. The similarity between the two ends at the keyboard mechanism: depressing a harpsichord key results in the plucking of a string whose sound dies away very quickly, whereas the pipe organ produces notes whose sound continues undiminished as long as the key remains held down. Thus the techniques for playing them are very different.

Contemporary advice indicated that not all notes of a chord should necessarily be played at once on a harpsichord; rather, they should be broken so as not to “leave the instrument empty,” i.e. have the sound of the entire chord die away to complete silence before the next chord is heard. Similarly, sustained notes were customarily re–struck several times, and ties were summarily ignored. On an organ, on the other hand, the problem is the opposite: sustained notes look after themselves, and the problem lies instead in the clear articulation of all the notes in passages that comprise rapid scale runs or ornaments.

Hence in numbers like the eleventh toccata, sustained chords are played, their component notes changing one or two at a time like dappled sunlight through the leaves of a tree,

Frescobaldi, Toccata undecima (excerpt)

but there are still plenty of passages treating points of imitation and dramatic declamatory mannerisms similar to those recommended by Caccini and other monodists, not to mention chromatic indulgences cultivated by Luzzaschi and Neapolitan composers.

Frescobaldi, Toccata undecima (excerpt)

Frescobaldi’s 1614 Toccatas usually mark the beginning of the orthodox canon of his works. The original publication included twelve toccatas and three partitas, but it was re–issued with additional material in 1616, then re–printed in 1618. Along with a couple of other forms, the keyboard toccata became tightly associated with Frescobaldi during the early Baroque.

Fantasies | Extemporization ⇒

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