article 76: Frescobaldi’s FIORI MUSICALI: The Secular Side

To readers who wish to accuse me of following a labyrinthine path through music history, I say: so sue me. My defense will rest on three pillars: 1) nobody has contracted them to read or judge these scribbles, written merely for the author’s edification and in hopes of stimulating a few readers to further thought, 2) modern physics has opened the door to the possibility of time flowing backwards, and 3) an old curmudgeon can damned well follow his nose wherever it leads him.

Kidding aside – while working on Article 72 regarding Froberger, it became obvious that my logical next focus as Privatgelehrter would be his teacher, Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) from the magical city of Ferrara. Here again I will be working backwards, starting with his final and most famous keyboard collection, Fiori Musicali (1635).

The title page says the collection (printed in open score) is Utili per Sonatori – useful for instrumentalists – but the composer’s preface says his main purpose is to assist church organists. To that end he offers three “organ masses” which include Kyrie and Christe versets for alternation with plainchant in the usual way. Many, but by no means all the other movements are assigned places in the Roman Catholic liturgy.

Two authorities, Willi Apel (“The History of Keyboard Music to 1700”) and the composer’s biographer Frederick Hammond state unequivocally that all of them are intended to be played in place of Mass propers. Adriano Banchieri, the best contemporary source for the use of the organ in the liturgy, is too vague to confirm that assertion, and specific enough to contradict it in some instances. Scholarly speculation about how, precisely, the Fiori were intended to be used in church is abundant. Were they all, or only some of them, substitutes, or interludes? Apel and Hammond think the chromatic ricercars dopo il credo function as offertories and during the preparation of the host. If they are right, the music’s character is very different from the joyful offertories of other nations and epochs, which I always interpreted as encouragement to congregational generosity.

The whole subject of liturgy is ultimately one of little interest to an atheist like me, who cares only about musical quality and a composer’s intentions regarding interpretation. In any case, I want to concentrate here on the pieces to which Frescobaldi assigns no clear liturgical destination, as well as those for which he does, but which are indistinguishable from secular works. This rules out the brief toccata preludes avanti la Messa, the Kyrie and Christe versets which use plainchants associated with a particular Mass, and the two free elevation toccatas. These are strictly the territory of organists. The rest can be honorably filched for the harpsichord.

Messa della Domenica (Orbis factor)

The first “organ mass” opens with a gorgeous short toccata clearly suited to the oldest keyboard instrument. The first piece which could work just as well on the harpsichord is the Canzon dopo la Pistola, which is Frescobaldi’s startling way of writing dopo l’Epistola. All but one of the five canzonas in Fiori are standard variation canzonas with countersubjects, the genre which I find least satisfying in Frescobaldi’s corpus. They are obviously still of a very high standard, but the man just seems to be less interested in jollity than in drama, languor, mystery and musical chess games.

The brief, simple recercar dopo il credo is followed by an Alio modo, si placet (“A different way, if you like”) which marks a sudden and emphatic return to the “mosaic style” discussed in Articles 71 and 73. The previous subject and countersubject are both varied using a total of 235 thematic notes. 16 notes are fragments of the countersubject. Only 61 notes are free filler, and 16 make up the final cadential chords.

The toccata chromaticha per le levatione is really a short ricercar with two sections, both with double subjects. The work, unique among Frescobaldi’s elevation toccatas, is given that title (instead of “ricercar”) probably for reasons of tradition, and also because of two free passages before the polyphony begins.

A canzona post il comune closes the first Mass. It echos the construction of the previous movement; an alio modo varies the theme and CS with a thicket of entrances, but one not quite as impenetrable as that in the elevation toccata-ricercar.

Messa delli Apostoli (Cunctipotens genitor Deus)

The Toccata avanti la Messa is another beauty, full of the trills which call for a slowing of the tempo according to the preface. This one, too, is better suited to the sustained tones of the organ.

After the Kyrie and Christe versets comes another Canzon dopo la Pistola which displays no unusual features except its brief Adasio prelude. That idea is expanded with a separate Toccata avanti il Recercar which follows. Its companion Recercar Cromatico post il Credo uses some of Frescobaldi’s most extreme chromaticism. The remarkable main subject is one which, like Scarlatti’s “Cat Fugue” (K. 30), makes no sense without its countersubjects. There are three sections; in the first, later countersubjects are briefly heralded in a harmonic environment which evokes the free elevazione style. The second has two countersubjects in shifting combinations, and the third uses the main theme in cantus firmus style.

This impressive piece is followed by an Altro recercar, without any liturgical specification. It would be musically unacceptable to stop at any of the three fermatas to avoid incurring the clergy’s impatience, because the fourth and last section combines all three contrasting themes of this classic triple fugue. It is not only a masterpiece of contrapuntal combination, but also one of Frescobaldi’s most harmonically cohesive, melodious and seemingly effortless efforts. Confronted with such a masterpiece it is inevitable that thoughts drift forward a hundred years to a composer who copied Fiori Musicali and wrote similar triple fugues, 1000 km due north of Rome.

After the elevation toccata for organ comes one of Frescobaldi’s most remarkable ricercars. A place in the liturgy is not specified, but an obligo (a special restriction) del Basso is. The bass line is only allowed to repeat the first subject in long notes, do-mi-fa-re-do. It does that on every practicable step of the scale: C, D, E-flat, E, F, F, G, A and B-flat, moving by circles of fifths. There is even an entrance in the tenor in parallel tenths, with the bass starting on C-sharp, but that doesn’t keep the strict solmisation pattern of the bass. Its entrance on E-flat brings in A-flat as sol, which led Tagliavini to think a split-sharp organ was required. On the other hand, the composer is documented as having approved something approaching equal temperament. In the temperaments which John Koster has shown were prevalent in Frescobaldi’s era and before, all twelve notes of the octave were usable.

More important than such questions is the actual content of the piece. A faster-moving countersubject appears immediately, and is inverted at its next entrance. In the course of the piece it is varied twice, the variants are inverted, and all six forms appear in different combinations towards the end, sometimes rectus and inversus simultaneously, all the while with the main theme appearing transposed in all voices. All this puts the work squarely in the category of the 1624 capriccios – but to allow such a title in a collection ostensibly intended for the church would have gone too far. In terms of thematic density the ricercar is quite close to the fantasias of 1608, and the effect is similarly labored. It is an impressive piece of intellectual esprit, but as a whole, not one of great musicality.

The Canzon quarti toni Dopo il Post Comune which concludes the second Mass has three sections, all of them ending with Adasios which sound very well on the harpsichord.

Messa della Madonna (Cum jubilo)

Skipping again to the Canzon dopo la Pistola, we find the Netherlandish allemande-tune Bruinsmedelijn as primary subject. This is a love song which again undermines the supposedly sacred character of Fiori. It is joined at the outset by a second subject which also looks like a song tune, one which I haven’t been able to identify. The two themes are woven together with unusual intensity for a canzona, and varied in a second section in triple time. The second subject’s rising fifth is filled up stepwise in the variant. One would like to know what is going on here under the polished surface.

That the second theme* is the slightly altered subject of a brilliant keyboard work of Bach’s youth, the Canzona in D-minor BWV 588, was pointed out to me by John Koster. The piece’s conclusion appears as a fragment in the Möller MS of around 1705, a decade before Bach’s copy of Fiori Musicali which is dated 1714. The Arnstadt organist, still in his teens or barely into his 20’s, used a bit of Frescobaldi’s counterpoint to lengthen the theme and make room for a Frescobaldian chromatic countersubject.

Frescobaldi was “geliebt und studirt” by Sebastian Bach, according to his son C. P. Emmanuel. It has often been noted that Fiori Musicali served at its centennial as a model for Bach’s own “organ masses”, Clavierübung III. Either Bach had gotten to know Fiori (in Hamburg with Reincken, in Lüneburg with Böhm, or in Lübeck with Buxtehude?) before he made his own copy, or the theme was a commonplace. The latter may be the case, but I think it a very unlikely reason for its choice in BWV 588, given the identical two-section layouts of both canzonas with their second sections in 3/2 time, and Bach’s use of Frescobaldi’s counterpoint for his lengthened theme.

The recercar dopo il credo which follows is once again highly chromatic, with a faster-moving countersubject. Both themes are varied in the second section, but the countersubject gets a dense, almost fantasia-like treatment with equal shares of rectus and inversus.

The next ricercar has no liturgical assignment. It is preceded by a toccata which seems eminently suited to the harpsichord, and the ricercar itself is the most secular of all the Fiori. In another echo of the 1624 capricci, it has an obligo to sing a hidden fifth part in the tenor without playing it, a procedure hardly appropriate to the Holy Mass. Frescobaldi gives the secret theme in advance, in triple-time breves and semibreves. The time signature is the empty circle of tempus perfectum prolatio minor with a proportion of 3/1; but this composer’s use of mensural signs is notoriously quirky. The hidden vocal part also serves as the main theme of the ricercar, but morphed into common time (C) in fitting with the rest of the piece.

The 1953 Pidoux edition prints eight entrances for the singer which don’t all quite fit, in halved note values, forced into in the prevailing C time signature but with an altered rhythm, and in one instance transposed up an octave. Christopher Stembridge’s edition (Bärenreiter) simply says, “While the print gives the obligo in large values in triple time, the editorial reduced values resolved into duple time represent the form in which it should be sung.” He arrives at the same solutions as Pidoux, marks the entrances with the re used in the capricci, and offers Pidoux’ altered rhythm as an “alternative”. L. F. Tagliavini (Suvini Zerboni / Monumenti Musicali Italiani) puts the original triple-time version in the same locations, but the typography indicates that he wants to shift the positions of single notes from case to case, and in one instance he changes a note value.

Mr. Stembridge kindly informed me (if I understood him correctly) that he thinks the triple-time notation of the quinta parte should be seen as minor coloration (blackened notes, which can lead to duple resolution) – basically Pidoux’s interpretation. But the theme to be sung is given in white notation...and is the 3/1 proportion sign to be taken seriously? Mr. Stembridge’s lengthy and erudite preface admits the whole thing is “strange”, but he thinks all two-against-three or three-against-four passages in Frescolbaldi should be adapted to whatever time prevails. He specifically mentions Toccatas IX (Non senza fatiga si giunge al fine) and XI from Book II, but I can see no real parallels with the present case.

My own opinion is that such cross-rhythms were fairly common challenges to player’s skill and ingenuity; see, for example, Morley’s “Plaine & Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke”, and passages in the Virginalists. C. P. E. Bach says that if they prove too difficult, less advanced players can adapt them.

The six-note mystery quinta parte is accompanied by a quote from Petrarca: “Intendomi chi può che m’intendo io.” (Let him understand me who is able, since I understand myself.) Could there be a misprint involved? Whatever the solution to the riddle, Frescobaldi is being intentionally, not to say unnecessarily obscure, and possibly didn’t quite know what he was doing. But to quote Melania Trump’s famous jacket: I don’t really care, do you? There are so many more interesting things to consider, and so little time.

Case in point: the last two pieces, a Bergamasca and a capriccio (there now, he’s come out and admitted it!) sopra la Girolmeta which follow the last elevation toccata. They are so blatantly secular that commentators are at a loss to find a place for them in the liturgy. Most think that, since they take the place of the post commune canzonas of the first two Masses, they should be accorded the same function. Others see them as service postludes. Peter Williams calls them “extra pieces” analogous to the four Duetti in Clavierübung III, but those are integral parts of Bach’s conception, symbolizing the four daily prayers required by Lutheran doctrine. All such speculation strikes me as futile; better to study and play these two masterpieces on whatever keyboard instrument you like, or even use the open score for an instrumental ensemble.

The Bergamasca gets a doggerel epigram: Chi questa Bergamasca sonarà / non pocho imparerà. Just playing it, however, will not teach you all that much. Only an acribic analysis will reveal the true depths of Frescobaldi’s longest Fiore. If this is the work that inspired Buxtehude to compose his variations on the Bergamasca (which I think eventually inspired the “Goldberg Variations” – see the notes to my Buxtehude CD on NAXOS), it might be a clue as to where Bach first came in contact with Frescobaldi’s print.

There are four themes: the first two snippets of the melody, a counterpoint to the second of those, and the first four notes of the bass line (expanded by Bach to his Aria’s first eight bass notes for the 14 canons BWV 1087). These are varied and combined so ingeniously, not to say relentlessly, that one’s head spins. The density is at near-fantasia levels, and the concomitant sense of contrivance sometimes arises – as if the clever juxtapositions had been assembled in advance, clicked on and dragged-and-dropped into place with perfunctory connective tissue and no organically necessary growth. But that occasional feeling is leavened by the jolly character of the thematic material. And there is a happy ending when all four themes come together in their natural form, like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place.

The Girolmeta, the starting point for the last work in Frescobaldi’s last book, was a popular Napolitana which crops up in instrumental and vocal works from the late 16th century on. Usually called Girometta, the title here is likely a play on “Giro(lamo) metà” – half of Frescobaldi’s given name. He also divides the melodic chromosome and extracts its recombinant DNA to construct one of his most lighthearted works – certainly the most sunny of all his capriccios. The song’s line, “Tocca ben quel bordone che t’ha fatto che ti stà si ben.” (“Play that bourdon well, the one you composed and which suits you so nicely.”) can be seen, alongside the altered title, as the proud gardener’s signature to the whole.


What were Frescobaldi’s true intentions in publishing his musical bouquet? He tells us he wants to aid organists, but it is difficult to imagine someone in the loft of a parish church struggling with the more complicated movements, reading them from open score (or even an intabulation) during a Mass. The preludes, versets and two of the elevations wouldn’t present that much of a problem, but the confusing aspects of the big polyphonic works actually go against the precepts of the Council of Trent. So many of the movements can be played just as well, if not better, on the harpsichord. If the composer is really helping organists in some of those, I think it must be to aid their growth as composers, not to furnish usable substitutes for the proper of the Mass. Then again, it might be that this “dangerous man” (sic Gustav Leonhardt) is just showing off.

We have observed how fuzzy, not to say non-existent, the boundaries between sacred and secular Fiori are – obviously not the first or the last time that kind of thing occurred in music history. The whole collection might have been assembled rather like Das Wohltemperierte Clavier II or the B-minor Mass from pre-existing, transposed and new pieces. From that point of view it could be seen as as the product of an aging man angling for merit in heaven while indulging sub rosa in worldly occupations. I feel sure the Almighty would have appreciated being in on the joke. What matters is that Fiori Musicali is a shining eternal tribute to a fading human spirit.

November 16, 2022

*With rhythmic alterations: note-repetitions omitted for the sake of a big German organ; eighth notes instead of Frescobaldi’s two sixteenths to allow pedal performance?

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