Frescobaldi: a brave new world of music

Girolamo Alessandro Frescobaldi (1583-1643) is a well-known figure in western classical music of the early baroque and honoured as one of the ‘fathers of Italian music’ on his tombstone. He was a master of the keyboard, philosopher of music, as well as prolific, inventive and innovative composer, and generous teacher and mentor. He held perhaps the most senior music position in the Catholic Church, organist at St Peter’s in Rome.

I’m very excited to be presenting five of the Toccatas of Frescobaldi over the five weeks of Lent, as postludes to mass. These are serious works, designed to showcase the technical capacity of instrument and performer, illicit the full breadth of emotions in the listener, and, to prove that instrumental music can be given form and shape without text.

Frescobaldi was a musician’s musician from a well established musical family. His talent on the keyboard was said to have been identified as a child and he was in demand as a performer and a teacher by the time he was in his teens.

He grew up in the city of Ferrera which was a bustling international city and while we don’t know for sure, it’s highly likely he would have come into contact with distinguished composers such as Claudio Monteverdi, John Dowland, Orlande de Lassus, Claudio Merulo, and Carlo Gesualdo. He was well placed to make a contribution to the new styles and expressions of music as the formal rules composition established in the Renaissance period slowly fell out of fashion.

It’s during this period that the old system of modes is replaced by the more dynamic and expressive major and minor keys, and that musical form starts to take shape away from the structure and text of the Mass. All very exciting for Frescobaldi, but it seems a long way away from us here in Melbourne.

However, the organ at St. Oswald’s provides us with a link to Frescabaldi’s world of sound. It’s ideal for these works.

In fact, the organ he played on at St. Peter’s was not much bigger than the one at St. Oswald’s. Without electric motors to run blowing machines or connect keyboards to the ranks of pipes, everything was manual and done by hand, so it wasn’t technologically possible to have large instruments.

Not only that, but Italian instruments favoured flute pipes over reeds. So the sound palate of the organ at St. Oswald’s is also close to what Frescobaldi would have expected for these works.

So how to approach listening to the Toccatas of Frescobaldi?

These works are quite experimental and free flowing in form. Each is made up of several sections, which with different themes or figures, but held together by two elements. One is the tempo which sits like a heartbeat, regular and consistent, in the background as we travel through slow and fast sections of the work. The other is emotion; each section should have a feeling or emotion assigned to it as a unifying force.

There are no dance sections but there are some sections with strong rhythmic motives. It’s important to remember that these works were written before the sonata form had been created. Frescobaldi is taking us on an uncharted musical journey.

I used to play these Toccatas before mass at St. Peter’s and a professional jazz musician once told me that he particularly enjoyed listening to them because they inspired him. I’m not sure if it’s because of the endless creativity in writing, or his ability to shift the emotional tack 360 degrees in the blink of an eye. Either way, Frescobaldi’s Italian spirit shines through.

And in conclusion, Frescobaldi’s compositions, teachings and his philosophising about music had a direct impact on the development of western classical music. Henry Purcell, Johann Pachelbel, and Johann Sebastian Bach, to name just a few.

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