Monday, September 15, 8583

Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) - Serpent

Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)

Canzona Due
(1643) (Cornetts)

Canzona Quarta (1643) (Serpent)

Girolamo Frescobaldi (baptized mid-September 1583, Ferrara - March 1, 1643) was an Italian musician, one of the most important composers of keyboard music in the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods. There is no evidence that the Frescobaldi of Ferrara were related to the homonymous Florentine noble house.

Frescobaldi studied under the organist and famous madrigalist Luzzasco Luzzaschi at Ferrara and is also considered to have been influenced by Carlo Gesualdo, who was in Ferrara at the time. His patron Guido Bentivoglio helped him get the position as an organist at the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome in the spring of 1607. Frescobaldi travelled with Bentivoglio to the Low Countries before Frescobaldi became organist of St Peter's in Rome in 1608, a post he held until his death. From 1628 to 1634 he was organist at the court of the Medicis in Florence.

Frescobaldi died in Rome at the age of 59, and a grave bearing his name and honoring him as one of the fathers of Italian music exists in the Church of the XXII Apostles in the same city.

The greatest majority of Frescobaldi's extant output consists of keyboard music. His renowned prowess at the keyboard earned him several important international students, such as Johann Jacob Froberger, who composed pieces highly reminiscent of Frescobaldi's. The Fiori Musicali and the two books of Toccatas and Partitas are his most important keyboard works.

The Fiori musicali (1635) is a collection of organ works designed to be played during the mass service. It also features ricercari, a delicate and sophisticated form of musical counterpoint which includes imitative (or fugal) devices.

His two books of Toccatas and Partitas are written in copper-engraved keyboard tablature for the harpsichord or organ, and were published between 1615 and 1637. Both books open with a set of twelve toccatas written in a flamboyant improvisatory style and alternating fast-note runs or passaggi with more intimate and meditative parts, called affetti, plus short bursts of contrapuntal imitation. In these toccatas, Frescobaldi makes ample use of sharp, unprepared dissonances and other harmonies daring for the time, as well as of virtuosic techniques that make some of these pieces challenging even for modern performers -- such as his Toccata IX of Book II, which he himself labeled with the words "Not without toil will you get to the end."

Besides the toccatas, these books feature partitas on popular motives and basses of the time, as well as 6 canzoni, dances, hymns and other compositions such as the Cento Partite Sopra Passachagli, one of his most virtuosic and experimental works. These two books are prefaced by Frescobaldi's own advice on interpretation, where the composer articulates the "theory of musical affections" prevalent at the time.

His other extant instrumental output consists chiefly in the 1st Volume of Canzoni to be Played with any Type of Instrument, 1628. This work includes instrumental canzonas for one, two, three and four parts over thoroughbass, as well as a few other pieces such as the Toccata for Spinet and Violin.

His vocal music includes a number of masses, motets and madrigals.

Frescobaldi was one of the inventors of the modern conception of tempo, making a compromise between the ancient white mensural notation with a rigid tactus and the modern notion of tempo, which is characterized by acceleration and deceleration within a piece.

Frescobaldi's music was a very important influence on later composers, among them Johann Jakob Froberger and Johann Sebastian Bach (Bach is known to have owned a copy of Frescobaldi's Fiori musicali).

Sometimes jovially referred to as "Frisky Bald Guy" in musicological circles. A play on his name, it is a fitting description of his characteristically sporadic style of composition, and the receding hairline that is evident in his later portraits.


[A man playing the serpent: Engraving from Filippo Bonanni's Gabinetto Armonico pieno d'Instromenti (Roma, 1723)]

A serpent is a bass wind instrument, descended from the cornett, and a distant ancestor of the tuba, with a mouthpiece like a brass instrument but side holes like a woodwind. It is usually a long cone bent into a snakelike shape, hence the name. The serpent is closely related to the cornett, although it is not part of the cornett family, due to the absence of a thumb hole. It is generally made out of wood, with walnut being a particularly popular choice. The outside is covered with dark brown or black leather. Despite wooden construction and the fact that it has fingerholes rather than valves, it is usually classed as a brass, with the Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification placing it alongside trumpets.

The serpent's range varies according to the instrument and the player, but typically is two octaves below middle C to at least half an octave above middle C.

The serpent usually has six holes, which are ordered in two groups of three. On early models, the fingerholes were keyless, like those of a recorder. However, later models added keys as on a clarinet, although they were for additional holes (out of reach of the fingers), while the original holes remained unkeyed, and are to be covered or uncovered directly by the fingers of the player.

While it does not have the kind of rigidly defined fingering system that other wind instruments enjoy, the serpent requires an extraordinary amount of effort from the player, who must select the desired pitch with his or her lips, usually overriding the tone the instrument prefers to sound with any particular fingering. The serpent player also has a unique right-hand finger position, in that the index finger may be further down the tube towards the bell than the other fingers of that hand. In this respect the fingering of the right hand is reversed to that found in all other keyed wind instruments, where the keys and holes controlled by the index fingers are further up towards the mouthpiece than the other fingers. This is because the serpent was originally held vertically, with both of the player's hands oriented palm-down; in this position the right hand fingerings are not reversed in the manner described above. Later, players began to hold the instrument horizontally, necessitating a reversal of the right hand to palm-up, with the fingerings changing accordingly.

The instrument was invented by Canon Edmé Guillaume in 1590 in Auxerre, France, and was first used to strengthen the sound of choirs in plainchant. Around the middle of the 18th century, it began to be used in military bands and orchestras, but was replaced in the 19th century by a fully keyed brass instrument, the ophicleide, and later on by valved bass brass instruments such as the euphonium and tuba. After that the Serpent dropped off in popularity for a period of time.

Bernard Herrmann used a serpent in the score of Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959).

In the 1970s instrument-maker Christopher Monk began playing and later making Serpents, and in 1976 he founded the London Serpent Trio. Since then, the instrument has been undergoing a revival of sorts. In 1987 the first (and so far, only) concerto for the instrument was written by Simon Proctor. The Serpent Concerto was first performed on October 21, 1989 at the First International Serpent Festival (celebrating the 399th anniversary of the serpent) with Serpent soloist Alan Lumsden. Since that time, the Serpent Concerto has been performed in public on many occasions, most notably by Douglas Yeo of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops Orchestra, who played the solo part with the Boston Pops under the direction of John Williams. The concerto appears on a commercial CD recording Le Monde du Serpent (The World of the Serpent), on the Berlioz Historic Brass label, BHB 101, with the Berlioz Historical Brass, Gloria Dei Cantores choir, members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra et al.

The serpent underwent an evolutionary process that led to a variety of related instruments. There are two main types of serpent: curved (serpentine, or double-S, shaped) and straight/upright (the tube is mostly straight, but is folded back on itself in the middle, much like a bassoon). Within the curved style, there are two variations; Church (also called French) and Military (also called English). The Church serpent is the original type, invented in France, and is distinguished by gentle, sweeping curves and little (if any) metal reinforcements. The Military serpent was primary made in England, and is characterised by having tighter bends and a slightly more compact overall size as a result, with lots of metal bands and stays between the tubing. Furthermore, there are several different sizes besides the common "church" Serpent, including Contrabass ("anaconda"), Tenor ("serpent") and Soprano ("worm"). Only the original bass size, and possibly the tenor, were made during the serpent's heyday. The soprano is a fanciful modern variant, and the contrabass is based on a single known original made after the serpent was already fading in popularity.

From its beginning as an instrument held vertically between one's knees with both palms facing down, Hermenge (in his serpent method - Paris, 1817) suggested a horizontal playing position that resulted in the right hand palm faced upward. This position was adopted by English military serpents and the instrument was made of a more robust construction (owing to marching or riding on horseback) with thicker walls of the wood and metal stays between the "S" bends of the serpent. The "English bass horn" was a variant on the "cimbasso" (= corno di basso), a form of upright serpent of metal consisting of a tube folded back on itself (rather like the modern bassoon). Mendelssohn scored for the English bass horn in the first edition of his "Midsummer Night's Dream" although the ophicleide was substitituted with his consent after the English bass horn fell rapidly from favor. Coeffet (Paris, active 1810-1845) invented the "ophimonocleide," an upright serpent with six holes and a single key (ophi = serpent, mono = one, kleis = key/covering). Upright serpents called the "basson Russe " (often referred to as the "Russian bassoon") - neither Russian nor a form of bassoon - often had a zoomorphic head like the buccin. The "serpent Forveille'" (pronounced "serpent forvoe" or "forvay" and named after its inventor) featured a small receptacle in the bocal to collect condensation that results from the warm breath of the player. Whereas other upright serpents usually had metal bells and either a metal or wooden body, the Serpent Forveille was half wood on the part from the middle up to the bell, and metal from the middle to the mouthpiece. Gradually keys were added to serpents (the most appear to have been 14, on instruments made by Thomas Key (London, c. 1830) on display at the Museum of Welsh Life in Cardiff, Wales (another specimen is owned but not displayed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City). The extraordinary contrabass serpent (in nominal CC) made by the Wood brothers in Huddersfield, England, c. 1840) has all of its holes covered by keys but, owing to the varying sizes of the holes and "chimneys" extending from each hole which are in turn covered by flat keys, is really more of a wooden contrabass ophicleide in serpentine shape.

The evolution of the serpent was completed with the invention of the ophicleide (again, ophis = serpent, kleis = key/covering, therefore "keyed serpent",) patented in France by Halary in 1821.

[8583 Gibbons / 8583 Frescobaldi / 8582 Ravenscroft]