article 77: On the 1615 Ricercars of Girolamo Frescobaldi

After the outrageous contrapuntal virtuosity Frescobaldi unveiled in the Fantasie of 1608, his second keyboard collection of ten ricercars and five canzonas is considerably more relaxed. He chooses open score in movable type again, by far the cheapest and clearest method of printing strict counterpoint. It has the added advantage of forcing the player to work harder, unless they want to make their own intabulation. The pieces are organized by ten ascending modes from D to A, a compromise between the traditional eight and the twelve proposed by Glareanus in the previous century. They all have an original and unique construction. There is no example of the old through-composed motet style, with several themes treated briefly, one at a time in overlapping sections.


The first ricercar has a triple subject, each presented as the first entrance in their respective voices in the manner of the Neapolitan Trabaci. They are very successfully intertwined, with many fake entrances and rhythmic inganni. If Frescobaldi wanted an entrée to the club of published ricercar composers, this was a powerful foot in the door. The first subject is almost identical to that of Bach’s C-sharp minor triple fugue in Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier – except that the Thuringian, always raising the stakes, ups the second note by a half-step, changing the interval to the next into a diminished fourth.

Number two is a novelty of planning. There are three sections divided by cadences. In each, two subjects and their inversions are presented. At this point in the history of the ricercar we would not be surprised to find a connection between the sections in the form of thematic variation, after the manner of the new “variation canzona”. This might be such a case, but the elements that could be considered variation material are so general and tenuous (do four notes in stepwise motion count?) that doubts are not misplaced. Many absurd “quotes” are claimed by researchers, not just within a composer’s own works, but across centuries. A far more palpable unifying factor in this fine piece is the excitement caused by a constant increase of motion and melodic eloquence.

With Recercar terzo we arrive in the third mode, the Phrygian. I get the feeling that this environment hinders the composer’s harmonic freedom. There are again three sections, but a different layout. The lovely first exposition makes one long for the simple life; Frescobaldi’s lyrical qualities are unleashed, but then he descends into mere cleverness. Harbingers of the second theme increase until, soon after its full debut, it is joined by the first, and after 14 breves by the third.

The first theme was planned for a final Phrygian bass entrance; the second, partly derived from the first, to fit with it in playful thirds or tenths; and the third to fit with the first appearance of all three together. He then manages half a dozen pre-planned different combinations, all less satisfactory and sometimes using alterations to get a decent fit. We are now well and truly in a world of complications, which will only become more suffocating as we proceed. As François Couperin said about excessive technical bravura, I am more astonished than touched.

The previous ricercar makes the impression of being an early work, and the Recercar quarto sopra mi, re, fa, mi goes back even farther, to Andrea Gabrieli. Here is the old single-section layout based on augmentation with several countersubjects, one of them chromatic – the only faintly Baroque element in the piece. The last section in double augmentation (the original semibreve subject in tied breves) sounds like Gothic cantus firmus music. The transposed third mode strengthens the effect of a somewhat labored homage to the past.

Some aspects of number five lead me to think this might be the earliest work in the present collection: the archaic opening bicinium, the work’s length, its weak harmonic orientation (caused in part by waffling between the Lydian mode and F-major), and the general openness of the texture.

The plan is interesting in and of itself: three subjects, first treated together in two voices, then each subject separately in four, then all together in varied combinations. But it feels like the work of a composer still searching for mastery. As in number three, the final section is planned around the only really satisfying pre-planned combination of all themes, with the first taking its natural place as the bass line preparing the last cadence in solid F-major.

Ricercar number six is the first of three where the solmisation theme (fa-fa-sol-la-fa) takes over one entire voice, with alterations in its length. This one is the most mathematically elaborate, with the theme appearing appearing in the alto doubled, tripled, quadrupled, halved, and at lengths of 3/4 and 3/2. It also appears in the other voices as the first subject, in halved values, with a countersubject. Other countersubjects appear in the course of the work, and the last section with extreme augmentations is enlivened by three countersubjects, manipulated in the usual ways but stuck in the mud of long organ tones. The result is a dismal exercise which could date back to Ferrara days under Luzzaschi’s tutelage.

The same can be said of Recercar settimo sopra sol, mi, fa, la, sol, built on a simpler plan: only single and double augmentation. The piece is really a canzona which babbles along in spite of the tenor, which is the exclusive property of the long solmisation theme. There is much ingenuity in the way the two countersubjects are manipulated – in the last phase rectus and inversus simulateously – but once again, not much music.

It is surprising to find a capriccio avant la lettre at number eight, with an obligo not to move by step. Repeated notes are allowed. Sad to say, the musical desert continues. The restriction results in broken-chord subjects, variations and countersubjects which are all so similar, and a harmonic landscape so formless, that one has the feeling of wandering in a labyrinth. Vertigo ensues towards the end, with quarter notes swarming in all directions. Serial music led to desolations like this in the 1950’s, but without the relief of tonality. To my limited understanding they all seem like parlor games.

After this dry stretch it is a relief to come to a Trabaci-style ricercar with four subjects announced in the title. This too seems like a student-era work. The level of counterpoint reminds me of the set of ricercars published by Girolamo Cavazzoni and composed, as he tells us, when he was little more than a boy. Still, lyricism untrammeled feels like an oasis.

The tenth and last piece is another solmisation title. It continues the previous pattern, giving the theme to the soprano, this time in many different rhythmic manifestations; the notes are always the same. This leads again to limitation of the harmonic ambitus. Constant cadences in the home key of A minor cannot be avoided, and we are left with another example of countersubject puzzle-pieces slotted into each other.


In this publication Frescobaldi was still establishing his credentials as a serious composer. He would continue that task more successfully and in a more whimsical vein nine years later with the Capricci. I feel certain that the present collection represents many years of formative work, stretching back as far as his time in Ferrara. What is almost as striking as the contrapuntal ingenuity is the effort made to present new and original plans for the ricercar as a genre, even in those that hark back to the past. Whether he was entirely successful can be doubted. The first two pieces in the congenial Dorian mode and with few outside restrictions are the most satisfying. Is it conceivable that the excess gamesmanship Frescobaldi invested in his first two collections was part of the reason Froberger took an easier road? (See article 73.)

It is odd that none of these pieces comes close to the sculpted beauty and conviction of another quasi-ricercar first published in the same year – the fugal section of Toccata nona / Libro Primo. When cutting that little diamond I think Frescobaldi didn’t feel burdened by the weight of history or the demands of strict composition. He simply followed the example of the form’s great protagonist, Andrea Gabrieli, and his own innate genius.

A contemporary sneered that all of Frescobaldi’s knowledge was in his fingers. That is patently ridiculous, but taking a closer look at these ricercars has given me a grain of sympathy with the standpoint. The toccatas and partitas, overflowing with astounding illusions of spontaneity, will remain the enduring monuments to the man from Ferrara.

November 28, 2022

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