article 73: On the polyphonic keyboard works of J. J. Froberger

I first started sniffing around the edges of Frescobaldi’s music in 1968. I was 16, a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts when it was a fledgling institution housed in an old school building. My teacher, the late Dr. John S. Mueller, gave me Toccata nona from book I, and I played it on my senior recital next spring, before graduating from high school “with a major in harpsichord” as stated on my diploma. Dr. Mueller briefly showed me the polyphonic pieces, which I found less attractive than the toccatas. He tried to explain the different genres – fantasia, ricercar, capriccio, canzona – but was a little vague on the qualities that distinguished them one from another.

My former lack of interest was shared by a fellow jury member at one Bruges competition some 20 years later. When I rejoiced at the long-awaited appearance of Tome 2 Volume 1 of Howard Schott’s new edition of Froberger, this distinguished colleague said, “Oh, those are just the polyphonic pieces.” By that time it had begun to dawn on me that the category accounted for most of the effort put in by both Frescobaldi and his German student, and that vigorously engaging with them resulted in deeper and more satisfying rewards than those which the stylus phantasticus or the glitter of suites in the French style had to offer. Since being forced by a stroke to study, edit and record the masterpieces of the 16th century, this notion has become a fixed conviction.

Frescobaldi actually has pretty clear borderlines separating his polyphonic genres, some of them explained in his prefaces. His first collection is an outlier, the type discussed in the previous article 71 – a dense thematic mosaic. The ricercars are mostly simpler; stately, motet-like, sectional, using thematic variation and countersubject techniques as established in the 16th century. The canzonas are a livelier version of the same thing. Frescobaldi’s capriccios are a more difficult category, using special tasks, restrictions and themes, to be worked out...capriciously.

Froberger uses the same nomenclature and general dimensions, but I was always troubled by vagueness about his typology in my own mind, similar to what I recall from Dr. Mueller regarding Frescobaldi. After rejecting the Bourdeney Codex mosaic-style ricercars as an object of old-age study, I decided to clear out those cobwebs once and for all. Stimulus was provided by preparation of a ricercar (V / 1656) for a recent private teaching session in America.

I used to give Froberger’s ricercars to students at Würzburg as an introduction to 4-part polyphonic playing, and was always struck by their marvelous craftsmanship – especially the way Hanß would slowly build interest and intensity using a slow crescendo of difficulties. As a piece progresses, entries of the subject become more hidden or unexpected, contrapuntal combinations more complex, dissonances more audacious; general tension rises. Two months ago in Washington I was impressed again, and thought it might at long last be time to unravel the fantasias, ricercars, canzonas and capriccios.


With a few possible exceptions, Froberger’s polyphony comes down to us in the autograph manuscripts. Three are kept at the Nationalbibliothek in Vienna. A fourth and final autograph, recently discovered and auctioned in London, has been held prisoner to date by its anonymous purchaser.

1649: 6 Fantasias, 6 Canzonas
1656: 6 Ricercars, 6 Capriccios
1658: 6 Capriccios, 6 Ricercars
1666: 6 Fantasias, 6 Capriccios

The 1649 autograph is divided into four parts: six toccatas, six fantasias, six canzonas and five suites plus a partita. The canzonas can be taken as a given in terms of type. In them, Froberger sticks quite closely to his teacher’s example except for the luxuriant toccata endings, expanded from some examples in Frescobaldi’s 1627 secondo libro di toccate and the 1635 Fiori musicali.

The group of fantasias was of less interest than I had anticipated. With a couple of exceptions, they are normal ricercars. The closest he comes to the Ferrara-style fantasia is number IV, a fairly dense treatment of la-sol-fa-re-mi, Josquin’s lascia fare mi, used as a second subject to a long-note theme. The piece is actually more like one of Frescobaldi’s capriccios than his fantasias. The parallel crops up again with Froberger’s Fantasia I, a hexachord fantasy printed by the mad Jesuit polymath, Anastasius Kircher – the only work published in the composer’s lifetime. (Mozart began a transcription of it.) Frescobaldi must have picked up the genre on his 1608 visit in the entourage of the papal nuncio to the Spanish Netherlands, where English Catholic musicians were prominent. He divides the ascending and descending hexachord over two separate pieces, whereas his student’s innovation is a fully chromatic variant of the theme.

There are some prominent usages of inganno in this set, but these crop up in the later ricercars as well. On the whole, the title “fantasia” is puzzling. Perhaps the word was more familiar than “ricercar” to the intended Viennese audience?


In the 1656 autograph, divided again into four parts, ricercars and capriccios appear instead of fantasias and canzonas as parts II and III. It is a little startling to see how ricercars I-IV have become imbued with lively canzona aspects as their sections progress. Number I traverses some Ferrarese-Frescobaldian territory with its double subject, a rising and falling scale of a fifth with a chromatic half-step in the middle. V stands out in terms of quality and its uniformly quiet, single-section layout; a result, perhaps, of a study of the Willaert ricercars in his teacher’s library? VI, in F-sharp minor, is in the dissonant style of durezze e ligature, but with livelier sections and thematic variations as in I - IV.

The 1656 capriccios are similar in many ways to the canzonas they replaced from the 1649 lineup, especially in their generally allegro character with sections based on thematic variation and countersubjects. There are differences, however: no obligatory opening canzona rhythm, varying number of sections (Froberger’s canzonas usually have three, his capriccios anything from 1 to 6), and numerous little difficulties and oddities not usually encountered in the canzonas, fantasias and ricercars.

This last aspect brings Froberger’s capriccios somewhat closer to modern associations with the word “capriccio”. They are still a long way, as far as complexity is concerned, from Frescobaldi’s 1624 examples. The preface to that formidable opus warns us, “...non ho tenuto stile così facile come ne’ miei Ricercari” (“I haven’t held to a style as simple as that found in my ricercars”). This is an understatement, to which the composer wisely adds: “Ma non si deve però giudicare la difficoltà loro prima di mettergli bene in prattica nell’instrumento dove si conoscerà con lo studio l’affetto che deve tenere.” (“But one should not judge of their difficulty before having put them thoroughly into practice at the instrument, where the appropriate affect will be revealed through study.”)

Capriccio I marks the first appearance of folksy Austrian jollity in Froberger’s polyphony. There is much freedom in his treatment themes and fragments of themes, especially in two gigue-like sections, one in common time and the other compound. Number II, heavily chromatic, is in capriciously sharp contrast to its neighbor. V is a rather strained effort to toy with the old problem of the Lydian mode – i.e. F-major without a B-flat in the key signature.

Otherwise, the title “capriccio” is more or less justified in this first set by grotesqueries – odd modulations and intervals, extravagant cadence improvisations, unexpected twists and turns.


The sober 1658 autograph, prepared during the mourning period for Ferdinand III, is stripped of toccatas and suites. I’m ashamed to say this is the first time I ever gave it more than a cursory glance. The capriccios add nothing new in terms of typology. They are a bit more restrained than the previous set, and a consolatory affect prevails. The only really notable one is VI, a not terribly successful (and possibly symbolic) treatment of a chromatic scale rising through a fifth and descending on the second entrance.

The ricercars are also mostly a repeat of 1656, at least as far as their basic structures go. VI even mirrors its predecessor in its use of a distant key, in this case C-sharp minor. B-sharps and E-sharps appear, but there are fewer durezze, and Froberger spends most of his time in the parallel key of A-major.

I had forgotten that ricercar IV uses the do-re-fa-mi-re-do theme found in the two noblest pieces of polyphony known to me: the E-major fugue from Well-Tempered Clavier II and Byrd’s five-part consort fantasy in C. The latter was transcribed by Thomas Tomkins for keyboard. That was the version I recorded for NAXOS, with Byrd’s extension of this final theme in doubled note-values. I believe that was done in order to symbolize the continuity of the Stuart dynasty after the accession of James I.

According to Alfred Dürr’s notes to my TelDec/Das Alte Werk recording of WTC II, Bach took the E-major theme from JCF Fischer’s Ariadne Musica, and I think the great scholar was right. I can’t imagine how Bach could have known this obscure ricercar by Froberger, in spite of his professed admiration for the older man. In any case, the theme was probably a centuries-old stock subject for polyphonic composition. Byrd’s and Bach’s treatment of it is in a different galaxy altogether from Froberger’s modest effort.


I can say nothing about the 1666 autograph, which bears the surprising and orthographically quirky title Livre Primiere. The same page asserts that Froberger was imperial court organist, which would imply that he had been rehired by Leopold I before his death at Montbéliard. I haven’t seen the many unknown works it contains, including six capriccios and six fantasias. I doubt whether I ever will. It is a matter of infinite regret that the world should be denied access to such treasures on the whim of an anonymous person of wealth.

Note that Froberger chose to return to the title “fantasia” for the first time since 1649. Could he have been conjuring of the ghost of the composer-emperor Ferdinand III for the benefit of his son, the new emperor Leopold I? The latter would go on to be the most prolific of Habsburg composers.


Various German manuscripts contain five otherwise unknown capriccios, two ricercars and a fantasia ascribed to Froberger. Two pieces go back as far as the circle around Pachelbel. The rest are transmitted only from 18th-century Berlin, where there was a brief fad for old-fashioned counterpoint. Some of them got ornamented adaptations by Gottlieb Muffat, who was in contact with Berlin. If these Anhängsel tell us anything about Froberger, it is that he was no more immune to an occasional bad day than the rest of us – but I think they are all just the usual anonymous homages to a great musical ancestor.


The author of the 1980 New Grove article was a bit unfair when, speaking of Froberger’s polyphony, he says that, “...even the best examples tend to be thematically monotonous,” and that his fugues are “at times conventional”. That may be the case in comparison with Frescobaldi, whose allegedly facile ricercars sometimes use multiple subjects in the style of Trabaci and various obblighi. He was at this point (1615) already experimenting with aspects of his complex 1624 capriccios, and two of the incomparable ricercars of Fiori musicali are based on obblighi as well. The most amazing thing about Frescobaldi is that he was capable of both the highest level of Ferrarese Renaissance contrapuntal thought and all the extravagances of early Baroque.

By contrast, I think Froberger’s looser, simpler style was generally attuned to the atmosphere of the Austrian capital, and possibly even to imperial practitioners. He shrank from over-complexity at a time when the arts, even in Rome, were slowly moving towards a classical revival after the fever dream of the early decades of the 17th century. The former choirboy from Stuttgart indulged in easy episodes, improvisatory cadences and interesting harmonies, rather than exerting himself in heavy layers of contrapuntal learning. But honesty compels me to admit that I often have the feeling Froberger is just going through the motions of writing “serious” polyphony – i.e., doing what was expected of a composer of the epoch: to keep alive a grand tradition. He true interests lay elsewhere.

There is more than a little of Carissimi in Froberger’s polyphony. The youthful student was apparently in close contact with that Roman master of the bold strokes and easy accessibility which led straight to Handel. “The Lesson of Frescobaldi” (to paraphrase Henry James) which comes through most clearly in Froberger is found in the improvisatory sections of the toccatas; and even those works are more clearly organized than his teacher’s fragmented masterpieces. Their graft onto a French vine led to the most fascinating hybrid in music history, the prélude non mesuré. At the same time it was bearing its most delicious fruits, the junk food of Bernardo Pasquini had begun lulling Rome into musical turpitude.

November 9, 2022

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