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Frescobaldi, Girolamo [Gerolamo, Girolimo] Alessandro [Geronimo Alissandro]

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Frescobaldi, Girolamo [Gerolamo, Girolimo] Alessandro [Geronimo Alissandro]

(b Ferrara, bap. mid-Sept 1583; d Rome, 1 March 1643). Italian composer and keyboard virtuoso. He was one of the greatest keyboard composers of the first half of the 17th century.

1. Ferrara, Rome and Flanders, 1583–1608.

2. Rome, 1608–15.

3. Mantua and Rome, 1615–28.

4. Florence, 1628–34.

5. Rome, 1634–43.

6. Pupils.

7. Portraits.

8. Works: characteristics and historical importance.

9. First publications: ‘Madrigali’ and ‘Fantasie’ (1608).

10. ‘Recercari, et canzoni’ and ‘Primo libro di toccate’ (1615).

11. ‘Capricci’ and ‘Secondo libro di toccate’ (1624–7).

12. Music for voices and for instrumental ensemble (1627–30).

13. Last keyboard publications (1634–7).

14. Manuscript repertory.

15. Influence and reception.



FREDERICK HAMMOND (1–7, bibliography), ALEXANDER SILBIGER (8–15, work-list)

Frescobaldi, Girolamo Alessandro

1. Ferrara, Rome and Flanders, 1583–1608.

Frescobaldi was born into the last flowering of the musical culture of Ferrara under Duke Alfonso II d'Este (for his baptismal entry see Cavicchi, 1983). His father, Filippo, was a man of property and standing, possibly an organist like Girolamo and his half-brother Cesare. There is no evidence that the Frescobaldi of Ferrara were related to the homonymous Florentine noble house (Kirkendale, 1993, notwithstanding).

Although he had other artistic interests, Alfonso II's greatest passion was for music. He maintained a musical establishment, described in Ercole Bottrigari's Il desiderio (1594), which included both Italian and Flemish performers; a music library comprising more than 250 items; and a comprehensive instrumentarium: keyboard players alone had their choice of four claviorgans, five organs and five harpsichords, all maintained by professionals. The principal jewel of Alfonso's musica was the jealously guarded concerto delle dame principalissime, an ensemble of virtuoso female singers who also played harp, viol and lute, accompanied by keyboard (Luzzasco Luzzaschi, the ducal organist) and archlute (Ippolito Fiorini, the ducal maestro di cappella). For the concerto delle dame Luzzaschi composed virtuoso works for one to three high voices and written-out keyboard accompaniment (Madrigali, 1601). Among the musicians who visited Ferrara during this period were Porta, Marenzio, Merulo, Dowland, Wert, Lasso, Bardi, Corsi, Rinuccini, Caccini and Monteverdi, who prepared a collection of madrigals for dedication to Alfonso II. The most important visitor was Carlo Gesualdo, who arrived in 1594 to marry Eleonora, the sister of Alfonso's heir Cesare d'Este, with a suite including the keyboard player Scipione Stella, the lutenist Fabrizio Filomarino and Rinaldo dall'Arpa. Gesualdo ‘set himself to imitate Luzzasco’, and in return Luzzaschi was stimulated to a renewed production of polyphonic madrigals.

Little is known of Frescobaldi's musical training and early years. Superbi noted his precocity as an organist; Libanori described him as a child prodigy both as singer and an instrumentalist, especially on keyed instruments, who was ‘brought through various principal cities of Italy’, a career also suggested in a contemporary encomiastic poem. A list of organists of the Ferrarese Accademia della Morte made in 1683 names the 14-year-old Frescobaldi as successor to Ercole Pasquini (a pupil of Alessandro Milleville, second organist of the Ferrarese court) on Pasquini's departure in 1597 to become organist of the Cappella Giulia in S Pietro (Cavicchi, 1961). Possibly through the Accademia, Frescobaldi attracted the patronage of two members of the Bentivoglio family, the greatest Ferrarese nobles after the Estensi and sons of the celebrated singer Isabella Bendidio. Marchese Enzo Bentivoglio (c1575–1639) was a courtier, horseman and soldier who became the most important impresario of early 17th-century Italian spectacle, notably the 1628 wedding celebrations in Parma. His brother Cardinal Guido (1577–1644) was an intellectual, writer and ecclesiastic who at his death was a candidate for the papacy. In addition to the Bentivoglio brothers and Luzzaschi (who stood godfather to another of Filippo Frescobaldi's children), the Ferrarese circle of the young Frescobaldi included Fiorini and Antonio Goretti, a distinguished musical amateur who served as Monteverdi's collaborator and assistant for the Parma wedding.

In the dedication of his 1624 Capricci (A.5) Frescobaldi declared himself a pupil of Luzzaschi, who was considered one of the great organists of his time as well as one of the few players capable of performing on (and even composing for) Nicola Vicentino's arcicembalo. (In 1619 Frescobaldi was described as the only keyboard player in Rome capable of playing a similar instrument in the possession of Cardinal Alessandro d'Este.) Until recently only four authentic keyboard works of Luzzaschi were known, three of them written to order for Girolamo Diruta's Il transilvano (1593–1609). The rediscovery of a manuscript copy of the second of Luzzaschi's three known volumes of four-part keyboard ricercares permits a wider knowledge of his style. Features which the ricercares share with comparable early works of Frescobaldi include modal organization, the employment of various combinations of clefs and a sparing use of triple-metre sections. Their texture is often dense, unlike the sometimes awkward extensions of Neapolitan keyboard music. The unusual format, four-staff units across an opening (verso and recto), is employed as well in Frescobaldi's first keyboard publication, the Fantasie of 1608 (A.1). Frescobaldi also studied the works of a great northern composer working in Venice. A letter of 1607 states that on his departure for Flanders he had left with Luzzaschi a volume of ‘old Ricercari without words of Adriano [Willaert] made only for playing’ – possibly the Fantasie recercari et contrapunti a tre voci first published by Gardano in 1551. (In his preface to Tullio Cima's Vespertina psalmodia of 1673 Frescobaldi's pupil Giovanni Angelo Muti recounted that he had learnt in his youth ‘to play Partitura, and to make Counterpoints in three parts’.)

Apel claimed to trace the origins of many of the distinctive features of Frescobaldi's keyboard style to Neapolitan sources, a judgment accepted uncritically by later writers. The most pertinent of Apel's observations concern the supposedly Neapolitan origins of Frescobaldi's chromaticism and his employment of ‘rhythmical variants of the theme in the canzona’. Harper (1978–9), Ladewig and Newcomb (see Silbiger, 1987) argued that many Neapolitan characteristics and many Frescobaldian traits originated in a common north Italian tradition. They linked Frescobaldi's chromaticism with the inganno, a device for generating new motivic material by hexachord equivalences. Apel's ‘rhythmical variants’ were recognized by Ladewig as an important form, the variation canzona.

On the death of Alfonso II in 1597 and after an abortive claim by his cousin Cesare, Ferrara reverted to the papacy. Clement VIII Aldobrandini and his nephew Cardinal Pietro made a splendid visit to the city in 1598, where the pope celebrated a double royal wedding in the cathedral and the papacy began the wholesale exportation of Ferrarese art treasures to Rome. The three Piccinini brothers, celebrated Ferrarese lutenists, entered Cardinal Pietro's service and returned to Rome with him. Luzzaschi visited Rome in 1601, where he dedicated his Madrigali to the cardinal.

The date of Frescobaldi's departure from Ferrara for Rome is not known, but he may be identified with the ‘Girolimo Organista’ employed at S Maria in Trastevere from January to May 1607. (The statement in Cametti, 1908, that Frescobaldi became a member of the Roman Congregazione di S Cecilia in about 1604 is without foundation.) In dedicating his Fantasie to Francesco Borghese, Duke of Regnano, the brother of Pope Paul V, Frescobaldi stated that he had played the works for Borghese while staying in Rome with Monsignor Guido Bentivoglio in spring 1607. In May of that year Bentivoglio was named titular Archbishop of Rhodes, and on 11 June he set out as nuncio to the court of the archdukes in Flanders. He was accompanied by a large suite, including Frescobaldi and Girolamo Piccinini, and arrived in Brussels on 9 August. The visit to Flanders marked a new stage in Frescobaldi's career: his first and only journey outside Italy, to a court celebrated for music and religious spectacle and employing Italian, Spanish and English, as well as Flemish, musicians. The court organists included Peeter Cornet and Peter Philips, but it is unlikely that Frescobaldi had any contact with Sweelinck in Amsterdam, as is sometimes claimed.

Perhaps the death of Luzzaschi in September 1607 accelerated Frescobaldi's growing independence. In 1608 he published his first complete work, a collection of 19 five-part madrigals printed by Pierre Phalèse of Antwerp (C.1). His dedication to Guido Bentivoglio, dated 13 June 1608, states that he had composed them in the nuncio's service, that he had come to Antwerp to see the city (the only interest he ever expressed in his surroundings) and that the local musicians greatly enjoyed his work and insisted on its publication (a well-worn trope). His avowed resolution to begin to submit his works to the judgment of the world, however, marked the beginning of the series of carefully considered publications on which his fame rests.

On 21 July 1608 the chapter of S Pietro, Rome, elected Frescobaldi organist of the Cappella Giulia, the resident musical establishment of the basilica, in succession to Ercole Pasquini whom they had dismissed ‘for just cause’ the previous May. The post was procured for Frescobaldi by Enzo Bentivoglio, who was Ferrarese ambassador to Rome and who coerced his financially embarrassed brother into transferring Frescobaldi to his own household musical establishment. Frescobaldi probably left Flanders in mid-May but delayed his arrival in Rome, pausing in Milan to publish the Fantasie. After much pressure from the Bentivoglio circle, Frescobaldi arrived in Rome from Ferrara on 29 October 1608. He took up his duties at first Vespers of All Saints (31 October) and played for the following two celebrations, All Saints and All Souls, ‘with great satisfaction and commendation’. Libanori's assertion that Frescobaldi's fame drew 30,000 people to hear him at his first appearance is unlikely. Frescobaldi was a relatively minor participant in grandiose and complex papal ceremonies; his role was probably mostly limited to playing continuo on a portable organ, and in any case organ music was forbidden in theory and kept to a minimum in practice in the All Souls services.

Frescobaldi, Girolamo Alessandro

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