Froberger: A Celebration
Benjamin Narvey, Adrian Lenthall, Tom Foster
British Clavichord Society
Art Workers Guild, London WC1. 19 November 2016
Composers with an eye for future recognition should ideally aim to die around the age of either 25 or 75, thereby gaining an anniversary every 25 years or so. Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-67) died aged 51, which means that he has anniversaries this year and next year, but not again for another 49 years. Hopefully the burst of interest in these two years will carry his name forward, as he is an often overlooked composer. But he was an enormous influence on keyboard composers from the 17th to early 19th century, not least for spreading the Italian style of his teacher Frescobaldi around Europe, and assimilating various European musical styles into his own compositions, notably from France.
Although only two of his works were published in his lifetime, Froberger’s compositions were widely circulated in manuscript copies. They were known to have been studied by the likes of Pachelbel, Buxtehude, Muffat, Kerll, Weckmann, Louis Couperin, Kirnberger, Böhm, Handel, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. For performers, he is known equally to organists, harpsichordists, clavichordists and lutenists, and these four instruments were the focus of the Froberger Celebration hosted by the British Clavichord Society (BCS). It is to the BCS’s credit that they included other instruments as well as the clavichord, a reminder that musicians of the time very rarely concentrated on only one keyboard instrument – and that the clavichord was the principal practice instrument for organists.
The detailed programme booklet opened with an essay by Garry Broughton, chair of the BCS, focussing on the stories of the individuals behind three of the character pieces that we were to hear during the day, all three linked to Froberger’s time in Paris between 1650-53 and again in 1660. It ended with a rather nice description of Froberger’s music, noting that it “doesn’t shout, preach or show off, it isn’t grandly theatrical or esoterically learned; instead it establishes an intimate conversation with the player or listener which draws you into the discourse”. Each of the three recitalists added their own notes to the booklet, and also introduced the pieces.
Benjamin Narvey, lute
The first of the ‘intimate conversations’ came from Benjamin Narvey, playing a 12-course so called ‘French’ lute (although it was just as common in England), in music by Gautier, Mouton, Gallot, de Visée, and Weiss, the latter the only German composer. Narvey used Weiss to explore links between the French and German school of lute playing. The pivot between the two styles came with Gallot’s L’Amant Malheureux which segued into Weiss’s Allemande en double du meme. We were also introduced to underlying melancholy of many of Froberger’s pieces, and to the style of Tombeau writing, so popular at the time, starting with Visée’s Tombeau du Vieux Gallot, which followed, and was based on, Gallot’s own Les Pleurs de Psyché. The only direct link of the programme with Froberger was Gautier’s Le Tombeau de Blanrocher, the first of three such pieces we heard during the afternoon, the others being by Froberger and Louis Couperin.
Adrian Lenthall, clavichords
The only clavichord recital of the day came with Adrian Lenthall’s demonstration of the breadth of Froberger’s compositions. He played two clavichords, both of a style familiar to Froberger, starting with one built by Richard Taylor in 2014 (pictured) after an anonymous c1620 triple-fretted instrument now in Edinburgh. On this compact instrument we heard the free, almost improvisatory, Frescobaldi-influenced Toccata style, one of Froberger’s early Partitas (a genre he is usually credited as having founded), and two examples of his contrapuntal pieces, a Canzona and a Capriccio – the latter (FbWV 508) built on a descending chromatic theme. This section concluded with the Affligée et Tombeau sur la mort de Monsieur Blanrocher.
The larger of the two clavichords was made by Peter Bavington in 2011 and is based on a drawing given in the 1637 treatise Harmonie Universelle by the polymath Marin Mersenne (pictured). Louis Couperin was one of the French composers influenced by Froberger. His unmeasured Prélude was an example of the Frescobaldi toccata style that Froberger introduced to France. It was followed by Couperin’s Tombeau de Mr. de Blancrocher. Returning to Froberger, we then heard two other examples of his contrapuntal writing, a Ricercar in the form of a double fugue, and his large-scale Fantasia: Sopra.UT.RE.MI.FA.SOL.LA before concluding with another Partita.
Tom Foster, chamber organ and harpsichord
The final recital was given by Tom Foster, switching back and forth between a 4-stop German-style chamber organ (by Neil Richerby, Peter Rose, and Andrew Wooderson) and a 1999 harpsichord by Andrew Wooderson after Ruckers. The three groups of pieces contrasted Froberger’s contrapuntal works with three Partitas, all including character pieces, including Froberger’s own Memento Mori, the Meditation faite sur ma mort future. The opening Toccata (FbWV 102) demonstrated the fully developed toccata form, with free fantasia sections contrasted with fugal passages, a structure that Buxtehude and his North German contemporaries adopted, and which influenced the young Bach. Although this wasn’t mentioned during the afternoon, Froberger also influenced English composers such as John Blow, who made his own version of this, and other Froberger pieces, adding his own distinctively English ornaments.
The Ricercar (FbWV 412) was almost certainly written for harpsichord, the extreme key of F# minor requiring a retuning of the B flats to A#. This would not have been easily possible on an organ of any size, so playing it on the organ seemed rather perverse. The long-held final chord demonstrated just how horrible rogue chords can sound when notes outside those available on meantone temperament are included. My only other quibble is that I think Froberger would probably have adopted the Italian style of his teacher in playing a Canzona (FbWV 301) at 4′, rather than 8′ pitch.
This was an impressive afternoon, not least because it again demonstrated the willingness of the British Clavichord Society to expand their specified instrumental focus. And the Art Workers Guild is a delightful venue for such an event. More information about the BCS, including membership and future events, can be found here .