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To mark this four-hundredth year since the birth of one of European music’s most inscrutable masters, I offer this portrait of the great keyboardist and composer Johann Jakob Froberger.
No music was cloaked more darkly in the allure of travel than that of the great 17th-century keyboardist Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667).
Commemorating encounters, incidents, and personages from across Europe, Froberger’s oeuvre acquired its lasting aura not only through its unmistakable approach to harmony and gesture, but because the genius of the Froberger style was augmented by the legends of an extraordinary life chronicled, if episodically, in his suites, as well as in the contrapuntal genres of the Fantasia, Capriccio, and Ricercar inspired by his Italian sojourns. Froberger’s student, Balthasar Erben described Froberger as “well-traveled,” a characterization that might strike even the jaded tourists of our own time as an understatement: Froberger’s path took him to the great European capitals for study, competition, command performances at Imperial diets, perhaps even diplomatic intrigues. The impressive circuit of cities which included Rome, Paris, Vienna, Dresden, London, Brussels, and Utrecht, can now be extended to Madrid. According to a presentation manuscript from Froberger’s own hand auctioned years ago at Sotheby’s, and which fetched upwards of half-a-million-dollars, the hitherto unknown Meditation on the future death of his patroness Duchess Sibylle of Württemberg-Montbéliard was composed in Spain towards the end of Froberger’s life. The dedicatee would outlive the composer. Froberger’s journeys brought him into contact with many celebrated musical figures of the age, not to mention polymaths of European standing, Constantijn Huygens and Mersin Mersenne. Froberger was heard by Governor and the Spanish Netherlands, numerous Italian and south German Princes, conclaves the English King, three Holy Roman Emperors, and a Saxon Elector. Great historical moments—from the election and death to emperors to the movements of Cardinal Mazarin in and out of Paris—provide the lofty canvasses on which his musical essays are rendered in the personal, idiosyncratic style of an inveterate traveler of restless imagination. Froberger’s peregrinations were woven into his music, not only through the use of autobiographical annotations and subtitles, but in the details and shape of Froberger’s inimitable style. That style spoke of travel because it spoke of Froberger.
The most elaborate of Froberger’s annotations are found in a manuscript looted by the Red Army in 1945; this volume was rediscovered along with much precious material from the Bach family and other composers in 1999 in Kiev, and has since been returned to the State Library in Berlin. Its travels apparently over, at least for the time being, the manuscript bears an official Russian stamp, which, like marks in passport or stickers on steamer trunk, commemorates its half-century sojourn in an Ukrainian basement, likely the eastern-most port of call for Froberger’s music. Leafing through these musical travel papers we encounter the geographical landmarks of the continent: the Rhine River, the Alps, the English Channel; the capital cities, London and Paris and Vienna, seat of the Imperial Court. The manuscript is available—for about $130—in an elegant facsimile with accompanying modern transcription provided by the editor Peter Wollny.
Among the misadventures chronicled by Froberger’s music and prose is his crossing of the English Channel. After the traveler has already been robbed on the road from Paris to Calais, Froberger’s ship is raided . Utterly bereft, Froberger turns up in London “full of sorrow in thrown-together seaman’s clothing.” He finds work pumping the bellows for the court organist, but, distracted and forlorn, raises them too high and is promptly beaten by the organist. This drubbing prompts Froberger to compose the Plaincte fait à Londres pour passer la Melancolie (Plaint composed on London to relieve melancholy).
Like all inveterate travelers Froberger must rely on his skills for improvisation; he survives by thinking on their feet. During a break in the music making, with the wind quickly leaving the organ’s bellows, the now-or-never moment is upon the beleaguered traveler, who, one must infer, has been lurking somewhere in the banqueting hall even after being abused by the organist: a later account reports that Froberger “grabbed a dissonant chord and then resolved it to pleasing concord.” The extraordinary flourish is immediately recognized by a foreign lady, who had studied with him on the continent. The unlikely coincidence casts the story as myth. The king is informed of the presence of the great Froberger, and a harpsichord is produced for his immediate apotheosis. The traveling virtuoso duly astonishes the royal gathering. The turn-around from beggar to honored foreign virtuoso occurs abruptly and completely. In the mythology of Froberger’s travels musical genius is his defining attribute; like the prince in rags, his true character cannot be obscured by his clothes. Musical travel here is about searching out a place and condition where something as personal as the London Plainte can be composed: this Allemande, like so many others by Froberger, is a road piece.
Most remarkable, not only because of its length but because of its detail, is the literary text for the Allemande of a Suite in E Minor. Twenty-six actions are fitted into a mere fifteen measures of music; these happenings are marked by numbers placed above each system and then described in detail in the annotation below.
The Allemande presents perhaps the most lopsided proportion of words to notes of any such descriptive attempt: a little music could mean a lot to Froberger. The text describes an incident, which took place during journey along the central artery of European travel, the Rhine River. The Rhine was as crucial juncture in any traveler’s lifetime, as the English Channel and the Alps, both of which were similarly inspired, or perhaps provoked, Froberger’s musical imagination: “Count von Thurn wishing to travel on the Rhine, from Cologne to Mainz, along with several other gentlemen, among whom were his major domo Monsieur Mitternacht, two Mssrs. von Ahlfeldt, Monsieur Bodeckh, and Froberger, this little company made merry at St. Goar, to such an extent, that it lasted until the around three o’clock toward daybreak on Midsummer Eve, the 24th of June; but when they returned to the ship, completely worn out, at five o’clock, each sought out a place, where he wished to sleep. Monsieur Mitternacht, being last, had to take a spot in the skiff, the ship being already fairly full. Lest his dagger disturb his sleep, he sought to hand it to the crewman, who was unable, however, to reach it from the big ship; whereupon Monsieur Mitternacht, although holding fast with one hand to the big ship, which was constantly moving about, leaned too far over the skiff, and, owing to the weight of his body, fell unexpectedly into the water. Not only did this occasion great confusion aboard the ship, so that the one ran this way, the other that, creating a commotion hither and thither on board, but Monsieur Ahlfedlt the Elder was the first, followed by Monsieur Bodeckh, and Monsieur Ahlfeldt the Younger does not hesitate either. Now Count von Thurn, not wishing to be last, runs about on the ship in great fury, and leaps down into the skiff to rescue himself. The crewmen arrive to reach him with the little skiff, but to no avail, so that Monsieur Mitternacht begins to groan. Froberger too awakens at last, and perceiving that there is no one lying beside him, concludes nothing less, than that the ship is about to be wrecked. As there is nobody to help him, he resolves, upon hearing the cries and howls of the others, to drown slowly and with good grace, and begins to commend his spirit to God, that He might be merciful. Meanwhile the crewman (No. 10) tries to prove his mettle, by pulling [Monsieur Mitternacht] out with the long pole, on which is fashioned a hook; but in vain, merely succeeding in tearing his modish French coat. Monsieur Mitternacht now begins to swim, but with such difficult, that he lands in a pretty pass, and is forced by exhaustion (No. 13) to rest a little, as well as he might. Believing himself to be out of harm’s way, he lands (no. 14) in the whirlpool and begins to thrash his feet. Escaping the whirlpool with great effort, and forcing himself upward, he is again spotted by the crewman, who diligently returns with the long pole to rescue him, but gives him such a vicious blow across the shoulder with the same, that it was heartrending to behold. In great pain, [Monsieur Mitternacht] is forced to cry out in a loud voice, yet most lamentably ò Dio, ò Dio mio, and resolves forthwith to swim through the Rhine. But so swift is the current, that he is drawn under, making him fairly lose heart, and he commends his soul to the Lord. As the current draws him deeper and deeper into the depths, he heaves a few more sighs to God, that He might rescue him’ which sighs, finally the Lord graciously deigns to hear, so that, contrary to all hopes, he is reached by the crewman, who was on the skiff, and is thus heaved into the skiff, his life rescued, one might say, as booty.” Each misstep in this classic near-debacle of the 17th-century traveler is accounted for in the music. The scene is set at the dangerous rapids of St. Goar on Midsummer night, a time of revelry, only augmented by the traditions of drink associated with the town. All visitors to St. Goar put their head through brass ring set into the masonry of the river’s embankment, then were asked if they wanted to be baptized with water or wine. Those who opted for wine, had to treat their traveling partners to a round of drinks; those who chose water were immediately doused with a bucket pulled from the Rhine.
The dangers of the Rhine at St. Goar were stressed in many a travel book, such as the portentous allusion of the Allemande’s subtitle to “great peril,” yet this piece is not a thriller. Rather Froberger steps back from the events described and presents them as a cautionary tale. The furious early morning struggle against the Rhine at Midsummer is retold, or reconsidered, in a twilight of brooding contemplation. Pained disquiet not only alternates with poised reflection, but the two are folded into one another, as if the one is not possible without the other.
The turn towards death in the literary text of the “Allemande made in traveling the Rhine” shadows nearly all of the opening movements of Froberger’s suites in the Kiev manuscript, from the melancholic London Plainte to the manuscript’s other Meditations and Laments. The Lament on “that which is taken from me” (Lamentation sur ce que j’ay esté vole) was composed after Froberger ensnared in the Fronde conflict, a grim coda to the Thirty Years’ War in France and along its borders. As he makes his way from Brussels to Leuven, the roaming Froberger is whipped by soldiers and his passport stolen; this elicits from him yet another of his plaints, composed far from home and in low spirits. The Lamentation does not refer to stolen possessions but to the degradation of the spirit,; it is not simply the physical abuse that causes Froberger’s despondence, but the enduring humiliation. The performance direction describes the piece as an attempt to use art to overcome brutality: “To be played freely, and better than the soldiers treated me.”
So many brushes with death must have encouraged Froberger’s obsessive reflections on mortality. There is a large body of thought that interprets the incessant need to travel as driven by a fear of death. Thus the Meditation on my future death (Meditation faite sur ma mort future) was composed in Paris, far from home. In the manuscript Froberger noted the very date and place of composition: the traveler commits these thoughts to paper on May Day, reflecting on his death when Paris was celebrating the return of life with spring. Mortality is a constant presence for the traveler; death lurks everywhere and is faced resolutely by our musical narrator and travel guide, Froberger, on the Rhine and in his rooms in distant Paris.
And how do we explain another traveler’s devastating question—the one the composer adds after Memento Mori Froberger at the bottom of the page? It is as if distance from the certainty of home demands this confrontation, one that is joined, if not resolved, through musical reverie. Yet the music offers no cure, and only a modicum of solace. How can music be more than ephemeral and meaningless, given, the impermanence of the medium and the fleetingness of life on earth? And how can the malleable and willful sensibilities of the narrator be trusted, not least by himself? The question mark projects a fundamental sense of doubt. The postscript also reminds us that oblivion is the silence after the music. Life is a journey, through the musical imagination and over the European landscape, and stillness marks its end. Memento mori: the traveler’s own music confronts him at the end station of the earthly itinerary.
But Froberger’s fame and music did outlive him, in spite of his own efforts to restrict the posthumous circulation of his manuscripts. The Froberger style was a mode of thinking about music that echoed through Bach’s own suites and his own imagined travels across Europe. An invitation to flee local circumstance, Froberger’s music fed both the musical and geographical imagination of his followers. His meditations on travel and existence are delivered in the intimate terms of personal revelation, like a diary written in the familiar, if haunting, rhetoric of a noble character, recognizable in style but no less mysterious, even baffling for its uncanny familiarity. The great traveler’s voice spoke to Bach and echoes into our own time and place, telling us that his musical journeys are still underway.