Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger

Il Tedesco della tiorba

Details are scanty in the extreme concerning the early life of Giovanni Girolamo (or Geronimo) Kapsberger, including his year of birth and where it took place. He was the son of an Austrian military official who settled in Venice, hence many place his origins there in about 1580. Although nicknamed Il Tedesco (“the German”) and Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger
Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger
(Wikimedia Commons)
sometimes called Johann or Johannes, he was otherwise an Italian known by his italianized name. Where he studied and with whom are not known.

But clearly he studied. In 1604, his Libro primo d’intavolatura di chitarrone (“First Book of Chitarrone Tablature”) was published, and he very quickly made a name for himself as a virtuoso of both the chitarrone and the lute in Rome after moving there some time in or after 1605. He married in 1609, and was soon publishing a varied series of collections: a book of madrigals in 1609, villanellas in 1610, dances for lute in 1611, a book of motets, a book of airs and a book of cantatas (this latter is lost) in 1612, and a book of sinfonias in 1615.

Kapsberger’s works for lute and chitarrone can be quite demanding: some are characterized by unusual rhythms and unorthodox counterpoint in perhaps a seconda pratica vein. Widely acclaimed during his own lifetime, Kapsberger’s reputation has not always been an even one. Stefano Landi said he was more ‘careful’ as a performer than as a composer, and after an apparent falling out with the critic Giovanni Battista Doni, whose initial praise turned to denigration, editors and critics in later centuries have sometimes unfairly repeated condemnation without bothering to check the merits of Kapsberger’s work for themselves. He had considerable influence on other composers and the music written for plucked–string instruments through most of the Baroque period.

Among Kapsberger’s earliest and most often performed works is the Toccata arpeggiata from the first tablature book for chitarrone of 1604. The toccata designates an improvised work with relatively free rhythm and tempo, while arpeggiata indicates a style of playing broken chords on a plucked–string or keyboard instrument — the Italian arpa means “harp.” Kapsberger provides a mere succession of chords on which the player is expected to improvise while, as he says in the preface “the strokes are to be reiterated for the duration of the indicated time.” In other words, the strings are to be plucked repeatedly, forming chords that resolve one into the next. Intriguingly, broken chords were often played by drawing the thumb or fingers along the strings from one side to the other which, because of re–entrant tuning on the chitarrone, would not necessarily mean that the notes would always sound in succession from lowest to highest.

Kapsberger, Toccata Arpeggiata (excerpt)



The same collection contains the Aria di Fiorenza (“Air of Florence”), an arrangement of the closing extravaganza O che nuovo miracolo for full chorus and orchestra from the still very much talked–about Pellegrina of fifteen years earlier. In addition to the rather sedate version of the air Kapsberger provides nine partite or variations, some of which require not just remarkable dexterity, but stretch rhythmic diversity to extremes.

Kapsberger, Aria di Fiorenza (excerpt)



The 1611 collection for lute includes, like the earlier anthology for chitarrone, various dances, along with some demanding toccatas. Both works were published in tablature which, for an unaccustomed eye like my own, presents challenges when trying to sort out what the music actually sounds like strictly from sight. Transcription can present a somewhat clearer picture, but even re–writing in an attempt to make the imitation among voices plainer does not do the work justice, since it may not account for sustained chords that emerge as different strings are plucked to create the melody.

Kapsberger, Aria di Fiorenza (excerpt)

The last four notes of the fourth ‘bar,’ for example, continue to vibrate as a chord because of the choice of strings for each individual note.

One might speculate that because Kapsberger lived and worked in ultra–conservative Rome but played fast and loose with rhythms and counterpoint, his approval among other musicians later suffered. Certainly politics were at least as rampant in Rome as anywhere else. But he was highly praised in his own day and, after all, he worked during the early Baroque period when experimentation was common. Obviously he was anxious to explore the possibilities of lute and chitarrone — the latter had only recently been invented — and naturally he was more concerned with their individual idiosyncrasies than with the strict rules of prima pratica rulebooks.

⇐ Salamone Rossi

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