From the birth of music printing in the early 16th century the complex textures of keyboard music vexed publishers and led more often than not to unacceptable numbers of errors. Open-score printing of polyphonic music was a more reliable method than reduction onto two staves or various systems using letters and numbers, but reading from score was beyond most non-professionals, and more rambunctious forms like the toccata were not really appropriate to the procedure. Keyboardists usually had recourse to their own manuscript copies, laboriously transferred into one form of keyboard notation or another from part-books – a process known as intabulation.

The problem wasn’t really solved until the advent of engraving on copper plates from models transferred from paper. Its disadvantages were twofold: labor and material expense, and limited tirage due to the soft material. The earliest datable example (with the exception of an unsuccessful lute tablature of 1535) comes from Rome. In 1586, one Simone Verovio commenced a series of at least four publications in folio of vocal music with the addition of intablatures per il cimbalo on two staves, and a lute tablature as well. These are available at IMSLP, s.v. “Verovio”.

Verovio states that he was born in ’s Hertogenbosch, now in the Dutch province of Brabant. Van der Straeten conjectured that his real name may have been Werrevick, after a town in Flanders. It is far more likely that he was born Simon Verhoeven, a common Netherlandish name, the pronunciation of which would have stymied any Italian. Adaptations to the more musical tongue were usual, as in the cases of Adriaan Willaert (who became, among other variants, Adriano Vuilart), or my favorite, the Amersfoort painter van Wittel, known in Rome as Vanvittelli.

Verovio had appeared in Rome by 1575, and died there in 1607. A professional calligrapher, he designed and engraved his prints himself. Another Dutchman named van Buyten provided some fanciful frontispieces. A remarkable aspect of the harpsichord scores is their addition of considerable ornamentation and, where 3-part originals are concerned, a fourth filler part. The question arises as to who provided these arrangements; it may have been Verovio himself, since he included a composition of his own in one of his publications. His roster of more established masters includes the greats of the time – Palestrina, Marenzio, Quagliati, Soriano, de Macque – as well as numerous lesser lights.

Most often represented, however, is Felice Anerio, a Roman composer in Palestrina’s manner. This connection explains why his younger brother, Giovanni Francesco, had Verovio engrave his harpsichord and lute intabulations of 16 galliards, with no indication of date or place of publication, or name of the engraver. It is dated 1607 in New Grove and elsewhere, but this is merely a terminus ante quem, determined by the date of Verovio’s death. While Felice remained conservative to the end, G. F. crossed the line into the seconda prattica, and composed what is arguably the earliest oratorio, his Teatro armonico spirituale of 1619. His last post was as maestro di cappella in Warsaw to King Sigismund III Vasa of Poland.

The high point of Verovio’s art came with Claudio Merulo’s publication of his two books of toccatas (1598, 1604), the most elaborate keyboard music to have yet appeared, magnificently engraved by the man from Den Bosch.

Verovio was involved in another epochal event in the history of keyboard music, the publication in 1601 of Luzzasco Luzzaschi’s madrigals of 1, 2 and 3 parts with obbligato keyboard accompaniment – the first such publication in music history, after many similar arrangements for voice accompanied by lute or vihuela.

Frescobaldi’s revered teacher tells his dedicatee, Cardinal Aldobrandini, that the music is from the time of his employment at the court of the last duke of Ferrara, Alfonso II d’Este, who died in 1597, resulting in the controversial reversion of the dukedom to the Papal State. These highly virtuosic madrigals were written for the famous concerto delle donne, a changing group of court singers whose roots went back to the 1570’s. A letter of 14 August 1571 reports a performance by two of the ladies, both separately and together, with Luzzasco at the harpsichord on the occasion of a reception near Parma for two sons of the Emperor Maximilian II. (See article 7.) So, although Luzzaschi’s book is only designated per cantare & sonare – that is, for accompaniment on any instrument – the harpsichord would seem to be the logical choice.

An earlier dating of Luzzaschi’s madrigals would open a question of priority. His book gets all the attention because it contains original compositions by one composer, whereas Verovio’s spectacular series of arrangements per il cimbalo counts for nothing, being mere intabulations... Who knows when the practice of obbligato harpsichord accompaniment originated, or how widespread it had become by the time either man went into print? It surely began with keyboardists intabulating polyphony from part-books, and performing with whomever happened to be present. Whether Luzzaschi inspired Verovio, or Verovio’s prints inspired Luzzasco to recast his madrigals, must remain moot.

May 7, 2021

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