Michael McCooe: Composer – Girolamo Frescobaldi

Girolamo Frescobaldi was a 17th Century Italian composer. Frescobaldi is regarded as one of the most important keyboard composers of the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods.

Musical beginnings

Girolamo Frescobaldi, born in Ferrarra, Italy, came from a musical family, as his father Filippo was a prominent organist. In his youth, Frescobaldi studied with Ferrarese court organist Luzzasco Luzzaschi, a famous composer of madrigals. His career began at the age of 14, he became the organist at Accadernia della Morte. Frescobaldi eventually moved to Rome and after training at the prestigious Accademia di Santa Cecilia, became the organist at Trastevere’s Church of Santa Maria in 1607.

1608 was a big year for Frescobaldi. In this year, he became the organist at Rome’s iconic Saint Peter’s Church, a post he retained, with the exception of a short break, until his death. At the same time, he started publishing, with the release of 12 fantasias in open score, composed of five-part madrigals. These fantasias are notable for their high contraptual mastery and variety. After leaving the service of the Bentivoglio family, who he had been with for years, in 1615, Frescobaldi published prolifically.

Composing music

In 1615, Frescobaldi published Toccate e partite d’intavolatura di cimbalo, libro primo. Designed primarily for the harpsichord and organ, this included 12 toccatas written in a flamboyant improvisatory style with affetti, alternating fast-note runs and short bursts of contrapuntal imitation. This also included four partitas and four correntes. Alongside the revised edition of this book which the Italian published in 1637, this was one of Frescobaldi’s most important keyboard works.

He followed this with Recercari et canzoni franzese fatte sopra diverse oblighi in partitura, libro primo in 1626. This open score work has ten ricercars, written in the old-fashion, pure style, five canzonas and 11 capriccios. In its Preface he shed light on how the works should be performed, writing: “Should the player find it tedious to play a piece right through he may choose such sections as he pleases, provided only that he ends in the main key.… The opening passages should be played slowly so that what follows may appear more animated. The player should broaden the tempo at cadences.”

High water-mark

Frescobaldi’s output only rose from here. In 1627, he released Liber secundus diversarum modulationum, a book of 32 motets. In 1628 he became the court organist in Florence, before moving back to Rome in 1634. From 1628 onwards, he started expanding beyond keyboard music. The Italian published a book of 40 ensemble canzonas that same year. This key first volume of canzonas could be played with any instrument and were designed for one, two, three and four parts over thorough-bass.

The high water-mark of Frescobaldi’s career came in 1635, with the release of his iconic Fiori Musicali. This was the Italian’s only book of church music and it included three organ pieces designed to be played at key points in masses, as well as two capriccios. This is heralded as his most important composition and it influenced iconic Baroque composers, including most famously Johann Sebastian Bach. Frescobaldi died in 1643 and his last work, a book filled with 11 canzonas or unspecified instruments with basso continuo, was released posthumously in 1645.

Frescobaldi’s legacy

Girolamo Frescobaldi helped define the concept of tempo in modern music. Defying convention, he made heavy use of variation, injecting his works with a dramatic inventiveness, but he combined this with logical elements, by adopting clear, effective construction in his compositions. This style, which was especially apparent in his many keyboard compositions, but also his vocal and other instrumental works, ensured that Frescobaldi left a lasting legacy, helping shape the Baroque period of music.

You can listen to some of my favourite classics on my Michael McCooe SoundCloud profile, which is updated on a regular basis.