Johann Jakob Froberger

19 May 1616
7 May 1667
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Johann Jakob Froberger (baptized 19 May 1616 – 7 May 1667) was a German Baroque composer, keyboard virtuoso, and organist. He was among the most famous composers of the era and influenced practically every major composer in Europe by developing the genre of keyboard suite and contributing greatly to the exchange of musical traditions through his many travels. He is also remembered for his highly idiomatic and personal descriptive harpsichord pieces, which are among the earliest known examples of program music.

Only two of Froberger’s many compositions were published during his lifetime,but his music was very widely spread in manuscript copies and he was one of the very few 17th-century composers who were never entirely forgotten. His works were studied in the 18th century (although perhaps not very extensively), and certainly not without influence on the emerging Classical style by Handel, Bach and, extraordinarily, even Mozart and Beethoven.

Johann Jakob Froberger was baptized on 19 May 1616 in Stuttgart. The exact date of his birth is unknown. His family came from Halle, where his grandfather Simon lived and his father Basilius (1575–1637) was born. In 1599 Basilius moved to Stuttgart and became a tenor in the Württemberg court chapel. At some point before 1605 he married Anna Schmid (1577–1637), who came from a Schwabian family living in Stuttgart. By the time Johann Jakob was born, his father’s career was already flourishing, and in 1621 Basilius became court Kapellmeister. Of his eleven children with Anna, four became musicians (Johann Jakob, Johann Christoph, Johann Georg and Isaac; all but Johann Jakob served at the Württemberg court in Stuttgart), and so it is likely that Johann Jakob received his first music lessons from his father.

Although the Thirty Years’ War which started in 1618 undoubtedly made life in Stuttgart somewhat more difficult, the city’s musical life was rich and varied, influenced by musicians from all over Europe, so already at the very beginning of his life Froberger must have been exposed to a wide variety of musical traditions. Little is known about his actual education, though. His teachers possibly included Johann Ulrich Steigleder, and he might have met Samuel Scheidt during the latter’s visit to Stuttgart in 1627; it is possible that Froberger sang in the court chapel, but there is no direct evidence to that; and court archives indicate that one of the English lutenists employed by the court, Andrew Borell, taught lute to one of Basilius Froberger’s sons in 1621–22– it is not known whether this son was Johann Jakob, but if so, it would explain his later interest in French lute music.

Basilius Froberger’s music library probably also helped in Johann Jakob’s education. It contained more than a hundred volumes of music, including works by Josquin des Prez,Samuel Scheidt and Michael Praetorius, as well as pieces by the lesser known Johann Staden, founder of the Nuremberg school, and Giovanni Valentini, the then-famous Viennese Kapellmeister who later taught Johann Kaspar Kerll.

The Hofkapelle Stuttgart was disbanded in 1634 in the wake of the Protestants’ defeat in the Battle of Nördlingen. In Grundlage einer Ehrenpforte (1740) Mattheson writes that a certain Swedish ambassador was so impressed with Froberger’s musical skills that he took the 18-year-old musician to Vienna and presumably recommended him to the imperial court. This seems unlikely, however, because at the time Sweden was allied with Lutheran Württemberg against the imperial forces; so exactly why Froberger left for Vienna at around 1634 and how he managed to find employment as a singer in the imperial chapel, remains a mystery.

In 1637 Basilius Froberger, his wife and one his daughters died of plague. Johann Jakob and his brother Isaac sold their father’s music library to the Württemberg court (this is how the contents of Basilius’ library became known – through the court archives); the same year Johann Jakob became court organist in Vienna, assisting Wolfgang Ebner. In June he was granted a leave and a stipend to go to Rome to study under Frescobaldi. Froberger spent the next three years in Italy and, like many other musicians who went to study there, apparently converted to Catholicism. He returned to Vienna in 1641 and served as organist and chamber musician until the fall of 1645, when he took a second trip to Italy. It was previously thought that Froberger went to study under Giacomo Carissimi, but recent research shows that he most probably studied with Athanasius Kircher in Rome.If so, Froberger’s intention must have been acquiring mastery of vocal composition of the prima pratica (Frescobaldi, who taught him instrumental writing, died in 1643). Sometime during 1648–49 Froberger might have met Johann Kaspar Kerll, and possibly taught him.

In 1649 Froberger travelled back to Austria. On his way back he stopped in Florence and Mantua to show the arca musurgica, a powerful compositional device Kircher taught him, to some of the Italian princes. In September he arrived in Vienna and demonstrated the arca musurgica to the Emperor, an avid amateur musician; he also presented him with Libro Secondo, a collection of his own compositions (the Libro Primo is now lost). Also in September, Froberger played before William Swann, an English diplomat.Through Swann he got to know Constantijn Huygens, who became Froberger’s lifelong friend and introduced the composer to works by contemporary French masters – Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, Denis Gaultier and Ennemond Gaultier.

Following the Empress Maria Leopoldine’s death in August the court’s musical activities were suspended. Froberger left the city and travelled widely for the next four years, likely entrusted by the Emperor with some extra-musical duties in the fields of diplomacy and possibly espionage (as for example John Dowland and Peter Paul Rubens were doing during their travels). Not much is known about these voyages. Dresden was probably one of the very first cities Froberger visited: he played before the electoral court of John George I and presented the Elector with a collection of his works. He also met Matthias Weckmann while in Dresden, and this encounter turned to another lifelong friendship; the two continued to exchange letters and Froberger even sent some of his music to Weckmann to illustrate his style. According to a pupil, after Dresden Froberger visited Cologne, Düsseldorf, Zeeland, Brabant and Antwerp; we also know that he also visited Brussels at least two times (in 1650 and 1652), London (after a disastrous voyage during which Froberger got robbed, an event he described musically in Plainte faite à Londres pour passer la mélancholie) and, most importantly, Paris (at least once, in 1652).

In Paris Froberger most probably became acquainted with many major French composers of the era, including Chambonnières, Louis Couperin, Denis Gaultier and possibly François Dufault. The latter two were famous lutenists writing in the characteristic French idiom of style brisé, which influenced Froberger’s later harpsichord suites. In turn, Louis Couperin was profoundly influenced by Froberger’s style; one of his unmeasured preludes even bears the subtitle “à l’imitation de Mr. Froberger”. In November 1652 Froberger witnessed the death of the famed lutenist Blancrocher (who was his friend and reportedly died in his arms). Although Blancrocher himself was not an important composer, his death left a mark on the history of music, as Couperin, Gaultier, Dufaut and Froberger all wrote tombeaux lamenting the event.

In 1653 Froberger passed through Heidelberg, Nuremberg and Regensburg before returning to Vienna in April. He remained with the Viennese court during the next four years, producing at least one more collection of music, the Libro Quarto of 1656 (Libro Terzo is now lost). Froberger was apparently deeply saddened by Emperor Ferdinand III’s death on 2 April 1657 and wrote a lamentation dedicated to the memory of the Emperor . His relationship with Ferdinand’s successor, Leopold I, was strained for a number of political reasons (numerous forces were opposed to Leopold’s election, and among them were the Jesuit order and Johann Philipp von Schönborn, Elector-Archbishop of Mainz; Froberger’s mentor and friend Kircher was an important figure in the former, and Froberger had strong ties with the court of the latter. Froberger did, however, dedicate a new volume of his works to Leopold), and on June 30, 1657 Froberger received his last salary as a member of the imperial chapel.

Little is known about Froberger’s last 10 years. Most of the information comes from the letter exchange between Constantijn Huygens and the dowager Duchess of Montbéliard, Sybilla (1620–1707). Since the death of her husband Léopold-Frédéric of Württemberg-Montbéliard in 1662 the Duchess lived in Héricourt (near Montbéliard, then territory of the house of Württemberg; now département Doubs), and Froberger became her music teacher at around the same time (this indicates that Froberger must have maintained a link with the ducal family of Württemberg since his Stuttgart years). He lived in Château d’Héricourt, the dower house of Duchess Sibylla. The Huygens-Sybilla letters indicate that in 1665 Froberger travelled to Mainz, where he performed at the court of the Elector-Archbishop of Mainz and met Huygens in person for the first time; and at a certain point in 1666 the composer had plans to return to the imperial court in Vienna. As far as is known, though, he never did, and lived in Héricourt until his death on 6 or 7 May 1667. Froberger apparently knew that he was going to die soon, as he made all necessary preparations a day before he died.

Froberger is usually credited as the creator of the Baroque suite. While this may be misleading, French composers of the time did group dance pieces by tonality above all, and while other composers such as Kindermann did try to invent some kind of organisation, their dances did not attain as high a degree of artistic merit as seen in Froberger’s suites. The typical Froberger suite established allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue as the obligatory parts of a suite. However, there is some controversy surrounding the placement of the gigue. In Froberger’s earliest authenticated autograph, Libro Secondo, five out of six suites are in three movements, without the gigue. A single suite, no. 2, has a gigue added as a 4th movement (and a later copy adds gigues to suites nos. 3 and 5). The suites of Libro Quarto all have gigues as the 2nd movement. The order that became the standard after Froberger’s death, with the gigue being the last movement, first appeared in a 1690s print of Froberger’s works by the Amsterdam publisher Mortier.

All Froberger’s dances are composed of two repeated sections, but they are very rarely in the standard 8+8 bars scheme. When symmetrical structure is employed, it may be 7+7 bars or 11+11 bars; more frequently one of the sections is longer or shorter than the other (more often the second is shorter than the first). This irregularity may be employed by Froberger in any dance, whereas in Chambonnières, who used similarly irregular patterns, the sarabande is always composed in the 8+16 fashion. Froberger’s keyboard adaptation of the French lute style brisé almost invariably shows itself in most pieces written during and after his Paris visit.

Froberger’s allemandes abandon the original dance’s rhythmic scheme almost completely, abounding in short gestures, figures, ornaments and runs typical of style brisé. Like Chambonnières, Froberger avoids emphasizing internal cadences, or indeed anything that would hint at any sort of regularity;unlike him, Froberger tends to use faster sixteenth-note figurations and melodies. Most of the courantes are in 6/4 time with occasional hemiolas and the eighth-note motion typical of the courante. Some of the others, however, are in 3/2 time, twice slower and moving in quarter notes. Still others are in 3/4 time and closely resemble the Italian corrente of the time. The sarabandes are mostly in 3/2 time and employ a 1+1/2 rhythm pattern, rather than the standard sarabande rhythm with the accent on the second beat. The gigues are almost invariably fugal, either in compound (6/8) or triple (3/4) meter; different sections may use different motifs, and occasionally the first section’s subject is inverted for another section. Bizarrely, a few gigues use dotted rhythms in 4/4 time, and a couple feature exquisite rhapsodic 4/4 endings.

Some of the works feature written indications such as “f” and “piano” (to notate an echo effect), “doucement” (“gently”) an “avec discrétion” (expressive rubato). In some of the sources such markings are particularly abundant, and the newly (2004) discovered Berlin Sing-Akademie SA 4450 manuscript adds similar indications to free sections in organ toccatas. Some suites feature doubles; in a few, the courante is a derivative of the allemande (although this is rare; more often Froberger unites the two dances by giving them somewhat similar beginnings, but keeps the rest of the material different). Suite no. 6 from Libro Secondo is actually a set of variations subtitled Auff der Mayerin, and one of the more popular Froberger works, although it is clearly an early work and not comparable to the late suites either in technique or in expression.

Apart from the suites, Froberger also wrote titled, descriptive pieces for the harpsichord (some of the suites incorporate such works as their first movement). He was one of the earliest composers to produce such programmatic pieces. Nearly all of them are very personal; the style resembles Froberger’s allemandes in its irregularity and style brisé features. Such pieces include the following (in alphabetical order)

The rest of Froberger’s keyboard works may be performed on any keyboard instrument, including the organ. The toccatas are the only ones to employ free writing to some degree; the majority are strictly polyphonic. In terms of organisation, Froberger’s toccatas are reminiscent of those by Michelangelo Rossi, also a student of Frescobaldi; instead of being composed of numerous brief parts, they feature a few tightly woven sections, alternating between strict polyphony and free, improvisational passages. They are usually of moderate length and the harmonic content is not dissimilar to Frescobaldi’s, although Froberger’s harmony favors softer, more pleasing turns (not without some notable exceptions, particularly in the two Da sonarsi alla Levatione works), and his toccatas are always more focused on the original tonality, unlike those by either Frescobaldi or Rossi. The fugal sections are present in most toccatas and are quasi-imitative and are not as strict as later 17th century fugues; when a toccata features several fugal inserts, a single motif may be used for all of them, varied rhythmically.

Whereas in Frescobaldi’s oeuvre the fantasia and the ricercare are markedly different genres (the fantasia being a relatively simple contrapuntal composition that expands, as it progresses, into a flurry of intense, rhythmically complex counterpoint; the ricercare being essentially a very strict contrapuntal piece with easily audible lines and somewhat archaic in terms of structure), Froberger’s are practically similar. A typical Froberger ricercare or fantasia uses a single subject (with different rhythmic variations for different sections) throughout the whole piece, and the counterpoint adheres almost flawlessly to the 16th century prima pratica. Any of the standard contrapuntal devices may be used; the main subject is sometimes paired with another theme for a section or two, and there is usually a marked contrast between sections and much variety inside a single piece.

Froberger’s canzonas and capriccios are similarly conservative in terms of technique, and they too are essentially the same even though Frescobaldi distinguished between the genres. Froberger follows Frescobaldi’s example in constructing these pieces as variation sets in several sections (usually three in canzonas and any number – as many as six – in capriccios). The subjects are always faster, much more lively that those of ricercares and fantasias. A characteristic feature is the economy of themes: the episodes, which are somewhat rare, are almost invariably based on the material from the subject, somewhat like those in JS Bach’s work some 60–70 years later. The counterpoint and harmony are very similar to the ricercares and fantasias; however, occasionally scale degrees other than 1 and 5 are used.

The only surviving non-keyboard works by Froberger are two motets, Alleluia! Absorpta es mors and Apparuerunt apostolis. They are found in the so-called Düben collection, compiled by Gustaf Düben, a famous Swedish collector and composer. The manuscript is kept in the Uppsala University library. These motets are quite similar in style: both are scored for a three-voice (STB) choir, two violins and organ (which is given a single melodic line, not polyphony, as was common in Italian motets of the time), and cast in the early 17th century Venetian stile concertante, in marked contrast with Froberger’s preference for older techniques in his polyphonic keyboard works. Another connection to contemporary practice is that the small ensemble is almost identical to one used by Heinrich Schütz in the second volume of Symphoniae sacrae published in 1647.

Although only two of Froberger’s works were published during his lifetime, his music was widely spread in Europe in hand-written copies, and he was one of the most famous composers of the era (interestingly, although he studied in Italy and obviously had friends and former mentors there, no Italian sources of his music were found). Because of his travels and his ability to absorb various national styles and incorporate them into his music, Froberger, along with other cosmopolitan composers such as Johann Kaspar Kerll and Georg Muffat, contributed greatly to the exchange of musical traditions in Europe. Finally, he was among the first major keyboard composers in history and the first to focus equally on both harpsichord/clavichord and organ.

Froberger’s compositions were known to and studied by, among many others, Johann Pachelbel, Dieterich Buxtehude, Georg Muffat and his son Gottlieb Muffat, Johann Caspar Kerll, Matthias Weckmann, Louis Couperin, Johann Kirnberger, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Georg Böhm, George Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach. Furthermore, copies in Mozart’s hand of the Hexachord Fantasia survive, and even Beethoven knew Froberger’s work through Albrechtsberger’s teachings. The profound influence on Louis Couperin made Froberger partially responsible for the change Couperin brought into the French organ tradition (as well as for the development of the unmeasured prelude, which Couperin cultivated).

Although the polyphonic pieces were highly esteemed in the 17th and 18th centuries, today Froberger is chiefly remembered for his contribution to the development of the keyboard suite. Indeed, he established the form almost single-handedly and, through innovative and imaginative treatment of standard dance forms of the time, paved the way for Johann Sebastian Bach’s elaborate contributions to the genre (not to mention almost every major composer in Europe, since the vast majority composed suites and were influenced by the “French style” exemplified by Froberger)

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