Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Baroque Composers I - Frescobaldi

I’m going to start my survey of Baroque and earlier composers with Frescobaldi for no particular reason. I know the name because of 1001 Classical Recordings to Listen to Before You Die, but, while I’ve found the recording mentioned on Classicsonline, I’ve never listened to it because it’s two hours of harpsichord music and I have trouble listening to that particular keyboard for that long; I may have to work on my tolerance.

Girolamo Frescobaldi was an Italian composer of the late Renaissance and early Baroque and it seems an important figure in the transition from one to the other, at least in terms of keyboard music. His main job was actually as an organist and he held prominent positions during his lifetime, most notably at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but he also worked for an Archbishop and a Cardinal or two. Surprisingly he didn’t publish much church music however.

His major works are collections of keyboard pieces like Ricercars and Canzones, which were older forms that eventually evolved into Fugues and Sonatas respectively, and a book of liturgical organ music, Fiori musicali. It was highly influential and pieces from it were used in the teaching of counterpoint for at least a century.

He was quite innovative in terms of tempo as well, bringing more colour to instrumental music which had previously been much in the shadow of vocal music. His influence lasted long after his death in 1643 and can be seen in the works of no less than Pachabel, Purcell and JS Bach, who copied the Fiori musicali for his own use – as in he wrote it out note by note so he had his own copy of the score.

Particular note should be made of his two books of Toccatas (1615 and 1627). They follow the same structure but the development in his use of rhythm is indicative of the broadening of instrumental music in the period.

So clearly he was an influential composer, but what is his stuff like to listen too? Looking to YouTube once again I've found a lot of long entries of complete sets rather than individual canzones or toccatas.

I started with his first book of Toccatas performed by Roberto Loreggian, it appears to be disc one of a Brilliant Classics release. Most of the toccatas are played on the harpsichord but the last couple are on the organ and I have to say I really do appreciate the former better now. I can't imagine these pieces being as good on a modern piano either, I think they'd lose a certain amount of warmth and colour. The pieces are highly virtuosic in parts but shift suddenly in tempo quite regularly, it's something of a feature that keeps the listener from becoming bored. The organ pieces didn't really do it for me and sounded somewhat off.

To be honest that's all I've managed to listen to so far and I've been sitting on this blog for over a week. There's more out there though and I'll be getting into it for sure. For now, it's time to move on. Enjoy - and keep exploring!

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