Froberger’s Musical Therapy


The season’s forced joyfulness pushes many towards melancholy.  All those carols and crooners, the triumphant blasts of angelic trumpets from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Handel’s Messiah, the smarmy yuletide tenor cajoling himself into song as chestnuts roast on the open fire at his backside: the immediate result of all this musical merriment can as easily by depression as elation.

No musician spoke more eloquently from the darkness while the rest of the world celebrated in the light than Johann Jakob Froberger. The festive choruses of the many often sent him into the shadows for a deep and unforgiving examination of life and death and of himself: what he heard in this self-examination produced some of the most distinctively personal, unsettlingly beautiful, and hauntingly ambiguous music of his or any other age.

Froberger was born in 1616 and died in 1667 just days shy of his fifty-first birthday. His half-century lifespan makes for feast or famine when it comes to commemorative centenaries, their fractions and multiples.  Last year marked the four-hundredth anniversary since Froberger’s birth in Stuttgart two years before the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, the apocalyptic European conflict that raged across Germany, and that would decimate his family and shape the timing and direction of his many travels. I recorded last year’s Froberger milestone in this space with reflections on his peripatetic ways and the music inspired by them. Before 2017—the 350th since his death—runs its course and we have to wait another forty-nine years until the next Froberger year rolls around, I offer this coda to his profound and lasting achievements.

No musical traveler of the seventeenth-century was more far-ranging than Froberger. He left his native Stuttgart as a teenager to further his studies—and to escape the hardships the war had inflicted on his native city—for the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, Vienna. By the age of twenty he had converted to Catholicism in order to take a up a post there as an imperial organist; he would hold posts in the Habsburg family musical establishment over next quarter century even while travelling—often as a musical diplomat—far from Vienna.

Froberger stayed in Rome for four years in the first half of the 1640s studying with the famed organist at St. Peter’s, Girolamo Frescobaldi, who helped his pupil cut and polish the Italianate facets of his cosmopolitan musical persona—impetuous toccatas and flamboyant and erudite contrapuntal genres such as the canzona and ricercar. Later sojourns in Paris and friendships with the likes of Louis Couperin helped Froberger hone the French-inflected style through which he voiced his brooding keyboard soliloquys.

With the end of the Thirty Years’ War, Froberger undertook a long journey beginning in the winter of 1649 across central and Western Europe: to the Saxon capital of Dresden, and on to Brussels, Paris and London. Beset by pirates on the Channel crossing, he arrived bereft on the island, at least according to musical legend. Retailed in the first biographical dictionary of musicians published in Germany a century later, the anecdote finds the penniless musician at a royal banquet pumping the bellows for the organ that provides the entertainment. The tattered foreigner gets beaten for doing a rotten job.  Later, when the English organist takes a break from the keyboard, Froberger runs to the instrument and uses what wind remains in the bellows to grab a dissonant chord and resolve it. These snatched sonorities are enough for an aristocratic “lady” to recognize the playing as Froberger’s. His identity revealed, the mysterious stranger becomes the party’s main musical attraction. Later, we are told, Froberger composes a mournful reflection (he calls it a Plainte) on his hellish English excursion. Like so much of Froberger’s work it echoes across the century: for those grieving Brexit, this piece is your balm.

A later journey down the Rhine in the 1650s took Froberger once more to the Low Countries, again in a diplomatic retinue. As always there were misadventures—this time nearly fatal plunge in the great river’s rapids—and autobiographical reflections on them, picturesque and poignant.

A manuscript that turned up a dozen years ago and was then auctioned at Sotheby’s for half-a-million dollars shows that Froberger’s travels even extended to the Iberian peninsula.

The keyboard rumination in the form—at least nominally—of the stately German dance, the Allemande, served as Froberger’s diary, his on-the-road therapy.  Rather than venting on TripAdvisor, like the masses of today, he turned not to his computer keyboard for solace, but to his harpsichord, searching out harmonies that halt and question, as if worried that bandits lurk behind the next bend in the musical road. Quixotic melodic gestures plead, defy, and relent. Self-doubting repetitions and dissonances only reluctantly resolve, as if uncertain what the next destination may be, or, even more fundamentally, why he is in this place at all and why he has to leave it.

It is perhaps that paradoxically desire to be on the road and to be at a home that led Froberger to brood when abroad, most famously in “Meditation on my future death” (Meditation faite sur ma mort future), composed in Paris and dated May 1st , 1660.  While the rest of the city threw itself into Spring’s pagan rites, the traveler was in his apartment rooms meditating at the harpsichord on the end of his life.

Death came six years later and in his homeland—though not in its capital, Stuttgart, still recovering from three decades of war. Instead, Froberger took up residence two hundred miles to the southwest in the rural castle of Héricourt, seat of the minor line whose relatives ruled Stuttgart and the Duchy of Württemberg, as part of the household of its of dowager Countess Sibylla, a great admirer and collector of Froberger’s.

As befits his piety, Froberger died at a vespers service in the castle chapel in Sibylla’s presence on the evening of May 16th, 1667. He was gaze not in Lutheran Héricourt but in a Catholic church in a nearby town, his gaze directed at the crucifix and his “not inelegant” monument was paid for by Sibylla. Froberger never married or had children, was survived by his music, even if notation, however precise, could not convey the nuances and eccentricities of his unparalleled mode performance. The great Dutch poet Constanijn Hugyens, who met Froberger only once but corresponded with him for many years, lauded the “merits of his extraordinary mind, and his wondrous art, in which respect there was hardly his like in the world.”

For any keyboardist who has sat down to play Froberger’s music it is the uncanny nearness of his musical voice, even three-and-a-half centuries since its silencing, that so astonishes and captivates. At its most compelling, it is voice of doubt and honesty, and startling modernity for its mapping of personal inquiry onto the musical staff. 150 years before Beethoven, Froberger made his music about himself, and, like Beethoven, used it as a way to reflect on experience, if not triumph over it.

This attitude comes into oddest relief Froberger’s Lamentation resulting from another of his mishaps, this time while traveling in the Spanish Netherlands, between the cities of Brussels and Leuven. According to the autobiographical note attached to one of the surviving copies preserved in Vienna, soldiers from Lorraine engaged in the ongoing French Civil War known as the Fronde—a sort extra innings to the Thirty Years’ War, but not fought on German soil—robbed, beat and whipped Froberger even after seeing his Imperial passport. The score informs us that, “He composed this in order to comfort his humiliated spirit.”

The title inscribed in the manuscript makes an inscrutable gesture towards the connection between life and art, Froberger telling us that the piece is “to be played with discretion and better than the soldiers treated me.” On the face of it the comment is a nonsense:  any performance, however dismal, would presumably be preferable to being lashed and pummeled by mercenaries. But in their grammatical slippage, the words can also be read as a kind of elevating of the spirit, a refusal to descend to force: music betters the soul, it combats violence and melancholy. It encourages tears and dries them, too. The Lamentation is not a surrender but a form of recovery, a way of buttressing the self even while probing its weakness.  Self-pity becomes a form of affirmation.

As in the London bellow-pumping anecdote, the piece begins with a dissonance: a three-note chord spread out over a long bass note that is itself re-struck in the course of the serpentine resolution above. From the start the rhythmic pace is uneven, faltering. Along pieces poised and erratic itinerary, Froberger peers into distant, sorrowful tonalities, as when the fleeting idyll of A-Flat Major shimmers against the background of the somber G Minor that is the lament’s home key.  There are cautious asides and chromatic recriminations, stumbling runs and reiterations, despairing leaps that spawn hesitation suggesting confusion rather than solace.  In the end the closure of the final cadence seems to promise peace of mind, but these affirmations are themselves melodically and rhythmically fractured, the composer’s recourse to thirty-second note and sixty-fourth notes (and rests) an attempt not only to capture the unpredictably of his volatile, improvisatory approach, but also to suggest that there the long journey through labyrinth of grief is far from over. In a way far less obvious than the soul-baring singer-songwriters of today, Froberger appears so modern because he uses his music as form of therapy. With it he overcame pirates and soldiers, loneliness and life, and speaks to us still from the shadows.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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