Movement: Nigra sum [3'40]
The word ‘toccata’ evokes a vivid image of rapid fingerwork in scales and arpeggios, but seventeenth-century toccatas combined technical virtuosity with daring improvisatory effects in a form characterized by contrasts and extremes of all kinds. The toccata owed its origins to musicians such as Luduvico, an early sixteenth-century Spanish harpist, whose improvising style (as imitated in a fantasia for vihuela by Mudarra) shows several features that were to become typical of toccata-writing: a slow introduction, contrast between chordal and linear passages, and daring harmonic clashes.
These falsas, as Mudarra calls them, were evidently a particular feature of Luduvico’s harp-playing, whereas rhythmic, rather than harmonic freedom is the improvisatory element in Luis de Milán’s vihuela fantasias. He instructs the player to perform the chordal consonancias slowly, to maximize the contrast with the following bar of scale-like redobles, played fast. In dance music, where the identity of a piece lies in a fixed harmonic and rhythmic pattern, it was customary to improvise melodic variations.
More information on the relationship between written and improvised music can be gleaned from a tutor for viola da gamba written by Diego Ortiz. His three recipes for improvisation—free invention (fantasia), variations over a ground bass (canto llano or tenor) and improvised divisions (diferencias) on a madrigal—link improvisation with abstract music, dance music and vocal music respectively. The melodic elements of my first, free improvisation are modelled on romance settings (such as the Moor’s lament for the fall of Granada from Milán’s El Maestro); the rhythmic patterning over a descending bass on a similar passage in the Luduvico fantasia. This four-note theme gained worldwide currency in the seventeenth century under the name passacaglia: it also forms the basis for Spanish improvising styles to the present day.
It is quite possible that the chromatic harp reached Italy from Spain by way of Naples, which was under Spanish rule. Certainly, by the end of the century, harp-playing was flourishing there, and a recognizable Neapolitan school of harp composers had emerged, headed by Giovanni de Macque. Macque, who was born in Valenciennes but lived most of his life in Italy, combined the rich colours and vibrant contrasts of southern Italy with the formal organization typical of the Franco–Flemish school. He had considerable influence on composers such as Trabaci and Mayone (who both wrote for the harp) and on the young Luigi Rossi. These pieces come from a manuscript in Rossi’s hand, dedicated to Macque as his former teacher and including compositions by Trabaci, Gesualdo, Rinaldo dall’Arpa and many other leading Neapolitan figures of the time.
The title ‘stravaganze’ gives a clue to the Neapolitan ideal of a toccata: the extravagance of bizarre and colourful devices employed in violent contrast for dramatic effect. Macque employs the typical toccata form, with a slow introduction in expressive harmonies preceding the brilliant scales, arpeggios and glissandi of the central section. The opening downward arpeggio in the trumpet toccata (a device also heard in Mudarra’s fantasia) was copied by Trabaci in his Toccata Prima (written for the harp) and echoed by Monteverdi in the ritornello for arpa doppia in L’Orfeo. Such arpeggios became a cliché of the style, not only for the harp, but for keyboard and lute toccatas as well.
During the seventeenth century, Rome took the place of Naples as the most important centre of harp-playing. This was a golden age for the instrument, and large chromatic harps such as the richly decorated triple harp belonging to the Barbarini family were to be heard in operas and oratorios as well as in chamber music. Two Roman musicians were recognized as pre-eminent: the harpist Orazio Michi dell’ Arpa and the keyboard player Girolamo Frescobaldi. Frescobaldi’s published compositions have ensured his enduring fame, but his colleague Michi is today almost unknown. From the age of nineteen he was employed at a princely salary by the Cardinal Montalto, and chroniclers describe him as the finest harpist of the age, but all that survives of his music is a collection of songs from which these pieces are taken. They offer tantalizing glimpses of a fascinating musical personality, as well as a cogent reminder of the arbitrary nature of historical fame.
The writing of a toccata represents a composer’s struggle with the inadequacies of musical notation. More than any other musical genre, a free fantasia exists only in the moment of performance, and much of the finest music is forever lost to us. Harp virtuosi such as Luduvico and Michi did not preserve their improvised toccatas in printed form, and even where the bare notes have survived, they are only a transcription of free invention into fixed notation—or, to look at it another way, a framework to be completed by the performer.
Milán and Macque added verbal instructions to their musical scores, asking for certain kinds of rhythmic variation beyond standard notation, and Mudarra warned that performers might find it hard to understand his fantasia and its falsas. In his toccatas, Frescobaldi created for instrumental music a language and vocabulary far beyond mere novelty effects, allowing him to create and confound expectations in dramatic twists and turns as complex as the plot of a Baroque opera. Not surprisingly, his theoretical writings are crucial to an understanding of toccata style, and his advice on rubato echoes Caccini’s calls for sprezzatura—a refined negligence of rhythm—in vocal music. Indeed, Frescobaldi specifically links the toccata with ‘modern madrigals’—that is, madrigals in the expressive style of the seconda prattica, where (in Monteverdi’s words) the music moves to the tempo of the emotions.
Seventeenth-century monodists sought to match the contrasting emotions of affective texts with appropriately expressive music, accompanying their recitation on the chitarrone, harp or keyboard—the very instruments for which toccatas were written. Toccata style and the improvisatory techniques of continuo-playing are very closely linked, most of all in the dependence on emotional and dramatic mood changes for structure, to the extent that a recitative song such as ‘Nigra sum’ could well be considered a texted toccata:
I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem. Therefore the King delighted in me and brought me into his chamber and said: Rise up, my love, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; and the time of the singing birds is come.
Andrew Lawrence-King © 1992