Girolamo Frescobaldi

Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) was an Italian composer, teacher, and organist. His keyboard works are the culmination in the development from the Renaissance keyboard style to that of the baroque era.

Girolamo Frescobaldi was born in Ferrara, which, through his fifteenth year, was a rich cultural center under the Este court. He studied with the court organist Luzzasco Luzzaschi, who introduced him to a number of illustrious native and foreign musicians and to many species of music. Undoubtedly important among these contacts was a familiarity with the radical madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa.

In 1598 Ferrara became an ecclesiastical state and the opulent cultural life of the court came to an end. Frescobaldi, perhaps influenced by these developments, went to Rome, possibly with the support of the Bentivoglio, a noble family of Ferrara. In 1604 he was organist and singer with the Congregation and Academy of S. Cecilia in Rome; in January and February 1607 he was organist of S. Maria in Trastevere. At that time Guido Bentivoglio went to Brussels as nunzio and Frescobaldi accompanied him. This gave him an opportunity to become acquainted with many important musicians of the Low Countries, including some of the English exiles resident there.

The year 1608 may be taken as the end of Frescobaldi's formative period; his first work, containing five-part madrigals, was published in Antwerp (such a work often signified the end of an informal apprenticeship). His music also made its first appearance in an anthology, one that included works by such renowned masters as Luzzaschi, Claudio Merulo, and Giovanni Gabrieli. Frescobaldi returned to Rome and in November 1608 became organist at St. Peter's.

Growth of His Reputation

Frescobaldi's reputation grew rapidly; his stipend, however, was small. He frequently received permission to be absent from his post. Undoubtedly he spent several periods in Venice, since many of his works were published there. In 1614-1615 he was in the service of the Duke of Mantua, but, finding a cool reception, he returned to Rome, having neither resigned his position nor moved his family. In 1628 he accepted a position in Florence as organist to Ferdinand II de' Medici.

In 1634, possibly because of plague and civic upset, Frescobaldi returned to his position at St. Peter's, with an increase in stipend, and entered the most illustrious portion of his career. In 1635 he published what is probably now his best-known work, Fiori musicali, a collection of organ works to be played during various portions of the Mass. He remained at St. Peter's until his death.

His Works

At one time Frescobaldi was thought to have developed, almost single-handedly, the baroque keyboard style. More recent scholarship has shown that many of the stylistic innovations attributed to him already existed, and he must be seen as perfecting rather than introducing many of the elements that characterize his music. He brought to a high level the control of the form of the whole. Like others, he reduced the number of sections in multipartite forms, introduced thematic relations between the sections, and used other structural devices to relate the sections, thus strengthening the formal arch. He used various musical devices, such as pungent harmonic colors, in a baroque manner for expressive purposes, rather than for primarily esthetic satisfaction, as had been done in the Renaissance.

Although many of Frescobaldi's works have been lost, probably including a major part of his vocal music, his extant works are still numerous. His keyboard music in secular forms (partite), primarily for harpsichord, are outstanding examples of the use of the variation technique. His various forms for organ were intended for occasional use (such as introductory music) or as parts of the liturgy; they include toccatas, ricercars, and canzonas that are both structurally unified and highly expressive. In his vocal works—Masses, motets, arias, and the like—he used contemporary techniques but not the most advanced styles of his day.

Further Reading on Girolamo Frescobaldi

Frescobaldi's music is discussed in Willi Apel, Masters of the Keyboard (1947), and Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach (1947).

Additional Biography Sources

Hammond, Frederick, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, 1983.