The Epoch of Polyphonic Music

The first harpsichord players were organists, and it was a very long time before there was any differentiation of harpsichord music from organ music. Whatever was written for one was played indifferently on the other The prevalent style was that of strict polyphony, though the dance forms gradually assumed a more lyric character and approached the monophonic style, developing the simple period forms. The harpsichord was the popular household instrument in Italy, Germany, England, and, indeed, wherever music was cultivated.

In Italy, Venice was the city where instrumental music was more especially cultivated, and the successive organists of St. Mark’s church distinguished themselves also as harpsichord players.

The most celebrated of these was Adrian Willaert, a Netherlander, who founded the Venetian Music School in the first half of the sixteenth century. He wrote ” Fantasies ” and ” Ricercari ” in a free contrapuntal style, and was a great musician and composer. In his day, the so-called ” Ecclesiastical Keys ” prevailed, and he was among the first to suggest the division of the octave into twelve semitones, an innovation out of which all our modern key relationship and modulation has grown.

This change was greatly forwarded by the influence of two of Willaert’s pupils, Nicolo Vincentino and Cipriano de Rore, and by still another pupil, Giuseffo Zarlino, a renowned theorist.

Other distinguished Venetian organists and harpsichordists of the sixteenth century were Claudio Merulo di Correggio, Annibale Padovano, Andrea Gabrieli and Giovanni Gabrieli, most of them pupils of Willaert, and all partakers of his ideas. They wrote toccatas, full of lively passages and arpeggios, calculated especially with reference to the evanescent tones of the harpsichord as contrasted with the continuous sound of the organ ; Canzoni, in a more lyric style ; and Sonatas, in free counterpoint.

The change to the monophonic style was a very gradual one. One of the most important agencies in effecting it, as already pointed out in a former chapter, was the invention of opera at Florence in the last half of the sixteenth century. For the first time solo singers were provided with recitatives and arias, to which was added a simple accompaniment for the harpsichord.

It soon became customary to write only a bass part for the harpsichordist or organist, the harmony being indicated by means of figures over the notes.

But the player was commonly expected not simply to play the chords indicated by the figures, but to invent an accompaniment in imitative counterpoint, and this remained the custom for more than a hundred years. The ability to do this was regarded as one of the greatest tests of musicianship.

But there was more or less of free accompaniment in simple harmony, and the transfer of the recitatives and airs to the instrument, with the accompaniment, gradually familiarized players with the idea of a monophonic instrumental style.

Still, the very ease and simplicity of it was in some sense a hindrance to its adoption. Musicians prided themselves on their ability to overcome the difficulties of elaborate counterpoint, and he who could most easily master its intricate mysteries was accounted of the highest rank in his profession. The highest tests of excellence were intellectual ones; music had, not yet come to be considered primarily in its relation to emotion.

The ability required of players was the ability to play a complex web of voice-parts interwoven according to the rules of counterpoint, and, on occasion, to invent counterpoint to a given figured bass.

Among the most renowned players and composers of this period ought to be mentioned Girolamo Frescobaldi (1588-1645 ?), said to have been an original genius, and to have written with especial reference to the capacities of the harpsichord as distinguished from the organ. He was organist at St. Peter’s in Rome all the latter part of his life.

His pupil, Johann Jacob Froberger (1635-1695), court organist to the Emperor Ferdinand, was the most celebrated German player of the last half of the seventeenth century. Bernardo Pasquini(1637-1710), organist at St. Mary’s in Rome, occupied a similar high rank.

In England there was a school of distinguished players and contrapuntists. Thomas Tallis was organist to Queen Elizabeth in 1575, and so was his pupil, William Bird (1538-1623). Other distinguished names are those of Dr. Bull (died 1622), Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)), and especially Henry Purcell (1658-1695).

Specimens of their works are given in Weitzmann’s ” Geschichte ” and in Burney’s ” History of Music.” Some examples quoted by Burney from Dr. Bull are full of remarkable difficulties in the shape of passages in double thirds and sixths, some of which seem almost impossible of execution.

In France the most distinguished players and composers of this period were Jean Henry D’ Anglebert, court harpsichordist to Louis XIV, and Frangois Couperin (1668-1733), a composer of much greater importance. His pieces were polyphonic, but the upper voice-part was often the predominant melody, and all the voices were ornamented with trills, mordents, appoggiaturas, etc.

Contemporary with Sebastian Bach were Louis Marchand (1669-1732), a very distinguished player, and Jean Phillippe Rameau (1683-1764), whose work as a composer, though important, was much less significant than his labors as a theorist. He published a work on thoroughbass, i.e., the science of chords and the art of harmonic accompaniment to a given voice, in which the old polyphonic standpoint was forsaken, that of monophony, the style in which one melody should be principal and the others subordinate was fairly occupied, and the ground was prepared for the development of lyric harpsichord music and of the sonata, which took place in the next generation.

In Germany, besides Froberger, already mentioned, the seventeenth century had many excellent organists and harpsichordists, among the most distinguished of whom were Hans Leo Hasler (1564-1612), born in Nuernberg, but court organist to the Emperor Rudolph II, in Vienna, a composer of very great merit; Adam Gumpeltzhaimer, Melchior Franck, Samuel Scheidt, in the first half of the century; Johann Kaspar Kerl (died 1690), Johann Pachelbel (1653 – I706), George Muffat, Andreas Werckmeister, Dietrich Buxtehude (died 1707), and Friedrich Wilhelm Zachau, Haendel’s teacher, in the latter half.

FROBERGER (1635-1695) deserves more extended mention, both on account of his prominence and because of his romantic adventures. He was the son of a cantor in Halle, and, showing great talent, was taken to Vienna by the Swedish ambassador, who had heard him play, and introduced to the Emperor Ferdinand III.

The Emperor became his patron, and sent him to Rome to study with Frescobaldi. After three years, having finished his studies, he went to Paris and Dresden, and then, returning to Vienna, became court organist. In 1662 he received permission to visit London. He was robbed on his way through France, and, barely escaping with life, reached Calais in rags. He managed to take passage to London, but when near the English coast, the ship was taken by pirates, and he jumped overboard and swain ashore to avoid captivity or worse. Taking refuge in some fishermen’s huts, they furnished him with one of their old suits, and in this guise he begged his way to London.

There he entered St. Paul’s, during service, to give thanks for his deliverance. At the close of the service he was accosted somewhat roughly by the organist, who learning that he was hungry and penniless, and knowing nothing of his character as a musician, offered him the job of blowing the bellows. This Froberger accepted in his need, said nothing of his profession, and continued in his humble office until the marriage of Charles II with Catherine of Portugal. On this occasion he was so absent-minded as to let the wind out of the bellows, and the playing came to an abrupt and mortifying close in an important part of the solemnities. The organist flew at him furiously, bestowed on him some kicks and cuffs and rushed away. A lucky inspiration came to Froberger. He filled the bellows quickly, ran to the organist’s bench and began to play in a style which was at once recognized by a court lady who had formerly been in Vienna. He was speedily sent for, told his strange story, played before the King and his court, was received with great favor and richly rewarded. After a while he took his departure for Vienna, but his long absence had given offence and this had been aggravated by some slanders so that he was not even admitted to the presence of the Emperor. Mortified and indignant, he sent in his resignation and withdrew to Mayence, where he passed the remainder of his days in opulence, but in ill-humor with himself and with all the world.

These names bring us to the period of Sebastian Bach, and with him to the climax of polyphonic composition for .the harpsichord. But the seeds of the free lyric, monophonic style had long been sown, and, as we have seen, sprung up into luxuriant growth in the next generation.

Even during Sebastian Bach’s lifetime, signs of the approaching change were not wanting. Johann Kuhnau (1667-1722), Bach’s immediate predecessor in the Cantorship of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, did much toward laying the foundations on which Emanuel Bach built. He wrote sonatas in from three to eight movements, and strove toward a lyric style and in the direction of freeing the harpsichord from the shackles of counterpoint.