Johann Jacob Froberger was born in Stuttgart in 1616; his earliest training probably came from this father Basilius, who was Kapellmeister in the Duke’s chapel at Württemberg. He seems to have moved to Vienna in about 1634, and was an organist in the imperial chapel in 1637, travelling to Rome  in later that year to study with Frescobaldi and again in 1645 to study with the theorist Athanasius Kircher. In 1649 Froberger travelled further afield, on a three-year tour taking in Dresden, Brussels, Cologne, Flanders, Paris, London and elsewhere – references to these places occur in archival documents, correspondence and in pieces Froberger composed en route, such as the the Tombeau de M. Blancrocher of 1652. His final years were spent at the Château d’Héricourt, the home of Duchess Sibylla. Although little of his music was published in his lifetime, printed collections were later issued (see Sources below) and his stylistic synthesis of national keyboard styles proved influential on composers from Louis Couperin to J.S. Bach.

It is evident from Froberger’s studies with Frescobaldi and Kircher that he wished to become a fully-finshed contrapuntist, and the large number of canzonas, capriccios, fantasias and ricercares he left (many written in open score) shows the value he placed on formal polyphonic genres. The three Vienna autographs, for example, contain twelve toccatas, twelve ricercares, twelve capriccios, six fantasias and six canzonas. To modern players, not brought up to appreciate the skill displayed in such archaic and closely-wrought writing, however, the suites have always had more appeal. With their pictorial and narrative elements, rhythmic nuances and melodic charm, these have been the primary upholder of his reputation since the late seventeenth century. Interestingly, his suites were ordered Allemande – Gigue – Courante – Sarabande, and his composer friend Weckmann recorded this as specific his intention; later editors have usually placed the Gigue last, to accord with eighteenth-century taste. The 29 suites are a fine compendium of styles, with both French and Italian courantes, gigues notated in duple- and triple-time, expressive allemandes and solidly chordal sarabandes.

Biographical elements are found in the Blancrocher tombeau (the deceased fell donwstairs, prompting a number of musical laments from fellow-lutenists), the Lamentation on the death of Ferdinand IV, the Plainte faite à Londres pour passer la melancholie and the Allemande, faite en passant le Rhin dans une barque en grand péril. One senses that it is the bad things in life, rather than the good ones, that drew from Froberger his finest music – perhaps this is the ‘romantic’ sensibility commentators have noted!

Froberger, like Bach, may have intended to compile an unpublished ‘complete works’, as is suggested by the calligraphic copies of at least six manuscripts of structured genres; three of these now survive in Vienna, the autograph Libro secondo di toccate, fantasie, canzone, allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue et altre partite dated 1649, the Libro quarto di toccate, ricercari, capricci, allemande, gigue, courante, sarabande of 1656; and the Libro di capricci e ricercate of c1658. The first and third volumes in the sequence are lost. The most-recently discovered manuscript was sold at Sotheby’s only two years ago (see Clavichord International xi/I (May 2007), p.1) – it includes 35 keyboard pieces, none of which is known to exist in autograph anywhere else; 18 of these are completely new.

Froberger’s posthumous reputation was kept alive by several major publications from the end of the century: the Diverse … curiose partite (Mainz 1693); a continuation collection three years later entitled Divese curiose e rare partite musicali; and a Dutch publication of 10 suittes de clavessin (Amsterdam c.1697). Although the composer is generally thought to have written only keyboard music (at least, that is the repertoire which has survived), there are also two motets for three voices, two violins and continuo in the Uppsala collection.

© 2008 Francis Knights



A longer version of this article appeared in Clavichord International, xii/2 (November 2008), pp.67-69