article 2:   Merula's "Sonata Cromatica": a Case of Misattribution?

This famous piece has as its source a famous manuscript: DD/53 of the Civico Liceo Musicale in Bologna. Recent opinion seems to be that it is too "modern" (Willi Apel) or too "dreary" (Alexander Silbiger) to be by the great organist of Cremona and Bergamo, Tarquinio Merula (1590-1665).

The attribution to Merula is the only one in the early 18th-century hand of the manuscript's sole scribe. The first half of the volume consists of almost the whole corpus of Johann Kaspar Kerll's keyboard music, in the order of his own thematic catalogue. There is considerable doubt and confusion about the rest. Silbiger, in his introduction to the Garland facsimile edition, establishes that one block of compositions is by the San Marco organist Carlo Francesco Pollarolo (ca. 1653-1723), and thinks all the rest, except the final two, are by the same composer. These last, a sonata movement and a menuet in a style of ca.1720, he speculates may be by Pollarolo's grandson Giovanni Battista Pescetti (ca. 1704-1766), also organist at San Marco. Further speculation on a student-teacher relationship between Kerll and Pollarolo rounds out the picture of a family compilation - an attractive hypothesis.

I have three objections:

1) Silbiger goes overboard with his theory that Pollarolo composed all the rest of these pieces. Starting with nr. 48, then from nr. 50 until the end of the book (except the last two), we clearly have the work, not of a master like Pollarolo, but of a student struggling to imitate an older style, including a group of versetti in 11 different keys - an assignment in composition class; all written, I should think, by the author of the final two pieces, which stand quite alone stylistically, being truly from his own epoch.

2) The family connection with Pescetti is attractive. But there must have been 50 other Italian keyboardists of the period who could have assembled the collection - the works of the famous "Cherli", some pieces by the famous Pollarolo - and added the rest on their own.

3) The sole attribution in the MS pops up in the middle of the "student" section - the "Sonata Cromatica di Tarquinio Merula" (86v.) - and this is rejected on stylistic grounds. I personally am a fan of the kind of speculative theory advanced by Silbiger as noted above; modern musicology seems to have lost its nerve in the exclusive pursuit of "solid" documentation. But it does seem, by contrast, a little cavalier to reject such a direct attribution from somebody almost 300 years closer to the event than we are.

What do we know about Merula's keyboard style? Not much, as Silbiger himself points out in his Italian Manuscript Sources of Seventeenth-Century Keyboard Music. A piece on a similar subject, "Cromatico overo Capricio", generally accepted as Merula's, is definitely from an earlier era than our "Sonata" (probably not the original title); but the man lived to be 75 years old. Are we to reject Beethoven's Op.111 because it doesn't resemble the "Kurfürsten Sonatas"?

The Sonata Cromatica seems to me to date from around 1640 - a time when sequences and repetition were on the increase, to the detriment of the fertile wit and dynamism of an earlier style, but had not nearly reached the proportions found after the appearance on the scene of Bernardo Pasquini, harbinger of the ultimate decline of Italian keyboard style. Michelangelo Rossi's toccatas (published pre-1644) could be cited as a point of stylistic comparison; rampant chromaticism there as well, along with a slight tendency to ramble - but still plenty of twists and turns, plenty of well-wrought counterpoint, many superb moments. Frescobaldi's mastery is a recent memory, not yet diluted by the passage of time. Pollarolo's genuine works* are definitely from the declining side of that great divide - they have quite a different feel from the Sonata Cromatica.

I see no reason at all to doubt the attribution of Bologna 53's scribe. That Merula's piece - whatever he may have originally called it - is anything but dreary, I hope the accompanying recording will demonstrate.

click to listen (mp3 file)

(free mp3 player download)

Glen Wilson

* The attribution of two wretched "Capricci" to "Seignore Polaroli" in the Andreas Bach Book can, I think, be safely relegated to the realm of hoax. They resemble a 12-year-old J.S. Bach's revenge on his brother Johann Christoph (their scribe) for forbididing him to copy certain "dangerous" works from his library.

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