Faà di Bruno, Giovanni Matteo [Horatio, Orazio] 83

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(It.: ‘false bass’, from Fr. fauxbourdon).

A chordal recitation based on root position triads, with the form and often the melody of a Gregorian psalm tone. Mostly intended for the singing of vesper psalms, falsobordoni are in two sections, each made up of a recitation on one chord followed by a cadence. As a style, the falsobordone occurs in a wide variety of compositions from the 15th century to the 18th, particularly in psalms, responses, Passions, Lamentations, reproaches, litanies and settings of the Magnificat. It is found less often in other pieces, such as masses, villancicos, frottolas, laude, madrigals, operas and sacred concertos.

The ‘classical’ form and style of the falsobordone, associated with the harmonization of psalm tones, appeared in southern Europe in the 1480s. It was known in Spain as ‘fabordón’, a variant of the French ‘fauxbourdon’, but there is little apparent connection between the two beyond that of the name. Unlike the older fauxbourdon, both the Italian falsobordone and the Spanish fabordón chiefly use root position triads and have all four parts written out. The origins of the style probably do not lie, as some claim, in organum, chordal declamation, the ‘formulae’ of certain theorists, or fauxbourdon, but rather in the addition of late 15th-century cadences to the Gregorian psalm tones. Its close relation to these Gregorian melodies is shown by the fact that a falsobordone performance was sometimes called mos gregorianus (more gregoriano). There is strong evidence, too, that singers improvised falsobordoni in the late 15th century and certainly in the early 16th. Clarity of form, a cappella style, triadic writing, four-part harmony, homophonic texture (especially in the recitations) and a bass line that moves by 4ths and 5ths are striking features of these early pieces (ex.1; crosses in the tenor mark the cantus firmus). The genre is thus a perfect example of the monumental change taking place in the late 15th century from successive to simultaneous composition. The performance of falsobordoni may have involved full chorus, soloists, a single soloist supported by instruments, or instruments alone. Instrumentalists usually embellished the repeated chords of the recitations, just as soloists embellished the cadences.

In the second half of the 16th century (about 1570) composers began to treat the psalm tone melody loosely and eventually abandoned it, but the style and form of the falsobordone remained intact. Fals0bordoni for keyboard, such as Cabezón’s Fabordon y glosas del octavo tono (W. Apel, Musik aus früher Zeit für Klavier, Mainz, 1934, ii, 18ff), were especially important examples of the genre; it is likely that such pieces, with their cantus firmus treatment and idiomatic style, were models for later Venetian intonations and toccatas. In Venice the use of falsobordoni alternating with Gregorian chant psalm verses also played a key role in the later development of Venetian polychoral music. Falsobordoni may have had an earlier influence on many keyboard preludes; some by Kleber, Kotter and Jan z Lublina, for example, are based on psalm tones. Falsobordoni also appeared as solo songs with accompaniment (Mudarra, Guerrero, Santa María) and as embellished pieces or falsobordoni passaggiati (Bovicelli).

After about 1600 falsobordoni were almost invariably accompanied by a basso seguente, and compositions for solo voices and basso continuo began to appear (Viadana, Banchieri, Victorinus). Embellished falsobordoni were equally in demand (Viadana), or were embellished in performance as a matter of course (see Schütz’s preface to Historia der … Aufferstehung … Jesu Christi, 1623), and the style often took on an agitated spirit characteristic of the early Baroque period (Monteverdi, Conforti, Severi). Although theorists continued to mention the genre, after 1640 it existed mostly as a tradition, cultivated above all in the Cappella Sistina, but also in Spain (Lorente), southern Germany (Bernabei), and to a far lesser extent Protestant Germany (as at Leipzig, where Calvisius, Schein, Vopelius and J.S. Bach wrote or printed such pieces). At the time when the practice of falsobordone writing was declining on the Continent, however, it received fresh impetus in England where it came to be known as Anglican chant. English falsobordoni had appeared as early as the 16th century and were cultivated throughout the following years, but publications increased dramatically after 1750. On the Continent, it was revived as part of the 19th-century Cecilian movement, and falsobordoni appeared in scholarly editions of early music (Proske, Pedrell). The Motu proprio of 1903 allowed the genre a continuing place in the Catholic liturgy, a place it still holds in parallel liturgies, such as Anglican and Lutheran.


MGG1(‘Psalm’, §C; L. Finscher)

G. Baini: Memorie storico-critiche della vita e delle opere di Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (Rome, 1828/R)

C. Proske, ed.: Liber vesperarum, Musica divina, iii (Regensburg, 1859)

F. Pedrell, ed.: Hispaniae schola musica sacra, vi: Psalmodia modulata (Barcelona, 1897/R)

J. Amann: Allegris Miserere und die Aufführungspraxis in der Sixtina nach Reiseberichten und Musikhandschriften (Regensburg, 1935)

E.T. Ferand: Die Improvisation in der Musik (Zürich, 1938)

E. Trumble: Fauxbourdon: an Historical Survey, i (Brooklyn, 1959)

K.L. Jennings: English Festal Psalms of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (diss., U. of Illinois, 1966)

M.C. Bradshaw: The History of the Falsobordone from its Origins to 1750 (diss., U. of Chicago, 1969)

T. Göllner: Die Mehrstimmigen liturgischen Lesungen (Tutzing, 1969)

T. Göllner: ‘Falsobordone-Anklänge in Prologen und Auftritten der frühen Oper’, GfMKB: Bonn 1970, 179–83

M.C. Bradshaw: The Origin of the Toccata, MSD, xxviii (1972)

R. Hudson: ‘The Folia, Fedele and Falsobordone’, MQ, lviii (1972), 398–411

M.C. Bradshaw: ‘The Toccatas of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’, TVNM, xxv/2 (1975), 38–60

J. Bettley: ‘North Italian Falsobordone and its Relevance to the Early Stile Recitativo’, PRMA, ciii (1976–7), 1–18

M.C. Bradshaw: The Falsobordone: a Study in Renaissance and Baroque Music, MSD, xxxiv (1978)

J. Aplin: ‘“The Fourth Kind of Faburden”: the Identity of an English Four-Part Style’, ML, lxi (1980), 245–65

M.C. Bradshaw: Preface to F. Severi: Salmi passaggiati (1615), RRMBE, xxxviii (1981)

E.E. Lowinsky: ‘Canon Technique and Simultaneous Conception in Fifteenth-Century Music: a Comparison of North and South’, Essays on the Music of J.S. Bach and Other Divers Subjects: a Tribute to Gerhard Herz, ed. R.L. Weaver (Louisville, 1981), 181–222

S. Unmack and R. Hartwell: ‘Baroque Ideals of Text Declamation and their Relevance to the Falsobordone Genre’, Bach, xiv/4 (1983), 15–24

M.C. Bradshaw: Preface to G.L. Conforti: Salmi passaggiati (1601–1603) (Neuhausen-Stuttgart, 1985)

T. Göllner: ‘Falsobordone und Generalbass-Rezitativ bei Heinrich Schütz: Auferstehungshistorie’, Heinrich Schütz in seiner Zeit, ed. W. Blankenburg (Darmstadt, 1985), 249–66

M.A. Radice: ‘Heinrich Schütz and the Foundations of the Stile Recitativo in Germany’, Bach, xvi/4 (1985), 9–23

M.C. Bradshaw: ‘The Falsobordone as an Expression of Humanism and Ritual’, Musica antiqua VIII: Bydgoszcz 1988, 135–59

M.C. Bradshaw: ‘The Influence of Vocal Music on the Venetian Toccata’, MD, xlii (1988), 157–98

M.C. Bradshaw: ‘Lodovico Viadana as a Composer of Falsobordoni’, Studi musicali, xix (1990), 91–131

J. Bettley: ‘La compositione lacrimosa: Musical Style and Text Selection in North-Italian Lamentations Settings in the Second Half of the Sixteenth Century’, JRMA, cxviii (1993), 167–202

I. Fenlon: ‘St Mark's before Willaert’, EMc, xxi (1993), 547–63

M.C. Bradshaw: ‘Giovanni Luca Conforti and Vocal Embellishment: from Formula to Artful Improvisation’, Performance Practice Review, viii (1995), 5–27

I. Macchiarella: Il falsobordone: fra tradizione orale e tradizione scritta (Lucca, 1995)

M.C. Bradshaw: ‘Text and Tonality in Early Sacred Monody (1599–1603)’, MD, xlvii (1993), 171–225


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