Johannes Jacob Froberger (1616-1667) : 6 Partite for Solo Cello - CD booklet notes


The practice of transcription holds a prominent place in the baroque era, not only responding to a pragmatic interest that finds solved the problem of of coming up with new musical ideas from scratch. Adapting and elaborating a musical idea to the possibilities and idiom of the new instrumental means poses an interesting task to the arranger, who must pick the essence of its content and transform it, making the new transcribed work autonomous in its own right. For example, J.S. Bach reinvents the Prelude of the Third Partita into the amazing Ouverture of Cantata BWV29, that featuring concertato organ, trumpets, strings and continuo results satisfactorily autonomous from the violin version with which shares its musical content.


In the spirit of the age, and at the light of the composing tradition for a solo bowed instrument, my transcriptions are destined to a five-string cello, a typology that must have been very popular until the end of the 18th century. This instrument is the bass member of the “viole da braccio” family, that in this instance is played vertically, and it benefits from the tradition of composing for solo violin. But even more than being influenced by this, the style of composing for solo cello is deeply affected by the rich tradition of composing for the lute and the viola da gamba. These organologically distinct families of instruments have their own bass members, that share with the five- string cello the low-octave extension. Double stops and chords play nicely and easily on the violin, especially by virtue of its thin treble range, whereas on bass instruments it is more effective a style of horizontal polyphony. Horizontal polyphony may be described as the musical counterpart of the painting technique of “trompe l’œil”, by which the eye is deceived to see three dimensions on a two-dimension surface.


The renowned cosmopolitan composer Froberger remains an inspirational figure both for his contemporaries and for future generations, as in composing his Partite he is instrumental in the development of the Suite as a genre. In these Partite, his style rarely takes overtly the shape of counterpoint, but rather follows closely the “stil brisé” of baroque lutenists and the extension of a baroque lute. Froberger visits Paris, he is friend with Huygens, comes into contact with the great masters of the lute Denis and Ennemond Gaultier Le Vieux, Blancrocher, and with the violist-lutenist Nicolas Hotman. All the musical “entourage” of the court of Versailles affects deeply Froberger, who newly elaborates these influences into his own personal idioms. His Partite, rich of broken lines, are well suited to be adapted to an instrument such as the five-string cello. If this is more limited, compared to the harpsichord – with respect to the possible number of notes playable simultaneously - it certainly offers interesting opportunities in terms of articulation of sound, dynamics and resonance.


Allemandes, Gigues, Courantes and Sarabandes flowing one after the other constitute what Kircher defines as “stylus choraichus”, overtly based on the step units of French dance. The hierarchy of the beats within phrases is unequivocal. Thesis and arsis - strong and weak accents -alternate, infusing living energy into the typical steps of dance in a circular and harmonious natural flow. This flow pulsates regularly, the very idea of a regular “tactus” so much held in estimation by the masters of Renaissance, becomes here a structural element. Speaking-music is the prominent feature of the Allemandes, where their content is inspired to the rethorical figures of speeches, these ones not necessarily always declamed aloud. The character of each dance becomes a diversifying building element as these Partite are often cyclical in including monothematic ideas.


In these transcriptions, my objective consists of imitating the “stil brisé” of lutenists that had also been successfully employed by violists, such as Alfonso Ferrabosco, Maugars e N. Hotman, who used to play both the viol and the lute. In this style of playing, broken fragments of lines imply their complete parts and create the illusion that polyphony is at work, whereas the instrument playing is only one, albeit this becomes independent in presenting both a melodic line and a fundamental bass. I have also chosen to use different tunings, in common with the contemporary practice of the Baroque . Widely documented in the contemporary sources of the lute, “viole da braccio” and viols, this practice explores into the possibility of widening the sound-palette of each instrument, searching for an ideal sonority suited to each work. As a typical example, Biber experiments in his Mystery and Rosary Sonatas different tuning on a violin, imitating the lyra-viol, with her numerous possibilities of tuning. Thus in these Partite I have used four different tunings: one in C G d a d’, another in C G d g c’, another one in E G d a e’, and one in Eb Bb f c’, with the fifth string tuned to AAb. Special effects of resonating overtones, chords and multiple stops that would be otherwise impossible to obtain, become possible almost by magic, thanks to the adoption of the new tunings.


The principle of resonance, fundamental to the musical aesthetic of the Baroque, had been inherited from the Renaissance, together with its poetical and philosophical implications. The contemporary techniques of instrument-making tend all towards satisfying this essential and vital principle. Lutes are set up with double strings, the courses, viols are built as lyra-viols with symphathetic strings, the “da braccio” family flourishes into the viole d’amore. Even in the Classical period, instruments such as the baryton, much favoured by the Prince Esterhazy and enriched by the compositions by F.J. Haydn, still reflect the contemporary musical taste and the importance given to this fundamental principle.


My cello is stringed in gut, as gut strings facilitate a clear sound-attack and provide opportunities in choosing amid the consonant syllabs of articulation. The colour-palette offers wide choices and facilitates pursuing the different parts in perspective at play. The dynamic range is wider compared to what it can be obtained with strings made of other materials. The bow that I use is of a convex shape, with a fixed-frog, following the common usage of the 17th and 18th centuries.


The baroque cello deserves some more attention : which kind of instrument is it really? Recent musicological research shows us that this instrument exists in a variety of formats, from the small enough to be played on your arm, to the large “church bass”, also known as “basse de violon” in France and tuned to Bb in the orchestra of Lully, or even in Eb as a “basse de Lorraine”. In addition to this variety of formats, the number of strings, by no means restricted to the four of the classic type, includes the typologies with five and six strings. These are cited by the authoritative sources by Matheson, Walther and Brossard, finding their counterpart in iconographic evidence.


There seems to be unanimous agreement within the contemporary iconography in representing players who hold the bow with the under-hand grip. This evidence fully concords with the famous and well-known account by Charles Burney, who in his chronicles tells us of a meeting with Vandini, the cellist who used to play with Tartini. The former still performed with the under-hand bow grip toward the end of the 18th century. Not only is this grip functional to the natural alternation of the push and pull bow strokes that breathe life into the musical phrase, but also facilitate the changing of string. Conversely to modern practice, changing string is sought after, as it enhances the resonance of the instrument.


Worth of note is the fact that many cellos were fretted, just as viols and lutes. Drawings by Stradivari have come down to us that shows his calculations to fit frets on a neck, before this was modified, alas common destiny of so many baroque instruments. A fret, by no means limited to being a visual aid for fingers to find their place on the strings, is essentially a sound-mechanism to imitate the resonance of the open string as much as possible.


Although the evolutionary path showed by the French school at the end of the 18th century will lead to the standardised format of a cello with four strings, with a fretless neck and played with a bow-grip held in the same manner as on the violin, I have let the idea of a sound that is characteristic of the Baroque guide me. It is exactly in this idea of sound that the Suite lives its Golden Age.


Oreste De Tommaso


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