Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583 — 1643) was the founder of the Franco-Netherlandish-Italian tradition during the early Baroque period. He devoted his life to the creation of solo keyboard music, and popularized a great many genres that flourished in the middle-to-late Baroque period, leaving behind a profound musical legacy for later composers.
Frescobaldi was born in the Duchy of Ferrara in what is now northern Italy. As a young man, he traveled and performed extensively throughout Europe and, in 1608, was appointed organist of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, remaining in this position until his death. In 1615, Frescobaldi published two major works of keyboard pieces: the first book of Ricercari et canzoni and another first book of Toccate e partite.
The term ricercar derives from Latin, and has the meaning of “searching out” or “seeking.” In the early 16th century, the genre was akin to the improvisatory nature of a fantasia. In Frescobaldi’s compositions, the music starts from one shorter theme in single voice and is then followed by multiple voices played on the keyboard in the exploration and development of the theme through imitation, with runs and passagework similar to polyphonic church cappella singing.
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In 1627, Frescobaldi produced a second book of Toccate e partite, further demonstrating his exquisite, complex organ-playing technique. The term toccata comes from the Italian verb “toccare” meaning “to touch” and, as such, toccatas were warm-up pieces for the musician to play prior to the performance of a major work. Being essentially warm-up pieces, toccatas were generally played with an impromptu feel without rigid tempo instructions. Frescobaldi’s pieces, developed to demonstrate technical virtuosity, with their rapid scale runs and changes in voicing, occasionally include contrapuntal sections, and sometimes incorporate intimate or contemplative passages, demonstrating the expressive diversity of organ music.
Contemporary and later musicians regard Frescobaldi as the most important founder of keyboard music. His development of the ricercar and toccata genres and the expressive effect achieved by rapid changes in mood, together with his arrangements of strongly contrasting passages, were essential to the development of the North German organ school tradition and the stylus fantasticus that would come to the fore soon after.
(Translated by Paul Cooper, Taipei Times)
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