Flowers in the Temple: George Herbert and Girolamo Frescobaldi

(A Eucharist with Music and Word, 30 August 2015)

George Herbert (1593 – 1633):  Poems and hymns from The Temple (publ. 1633)

Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583 – 1643):  Organ music from Fiori Musicali (publ. 1635)

IT is certain that Herbert and Frescobaldi never met, despite being contemporaries, and I wonder what would have happened if they had. I imagine they would have found ways to speak to each other:  Herbert, at one time the Public Orator at Cambridge, had a masterful command of Latin – although of Frescobaldi (‘a giant among organists’) it was said that ‘all his knowledge is at the ends of his fingertips’, and that he did not even know the meanings of certain of the Latin words he had to set to music.  Yet presumably Herbert knew Italian, at least from reading the verse of Petrarch (and if so he might have frowned at the organist’s spelling, idiosyncratic even by the standards of the time);  while Frescobaldi, from his early years in Ferrara to his maturity as organist of St Peter’s in Rome, moved in illustrious and cosmopolitan circles, and spent time beyond the Alps.  By later standards they would have shared a great many religious and cultural assumptions in common (each’s creative work was stimulated in part by daily contact with the life of prayer, as we hear today):  but, to them, their differences here might well have been more apparent.  If the wide emotional range of Frescobaldi’s music, even that for the church, owes something to the spirit of the counter-reformation (as well as to the singing of madrigals), Herbert’s sweetness and measured ardour have in them much of the emerging temper of Anglicanism.  Both were ‘clever’ artists:  Herbert belonging to a generation of poets, steeped in the Elizabethans’ love of conceits, which was later to be affectionately derided as ‘metaphysical’, Frescobaldi always eager to impress the cognoscenti with ingenious counterpoint and bold invention.  (Listen to the single long top note, improbably held throughout the second Kyrie played today, and to the striking shifts and transformations of the Toccata Cromaticha, and finally to the way Frescobaldi plays with the simple, secular melody announced at the start of the Girolmeta capriccio, endlessly consistent, endlessly new.)

Perhaps Herbert the devoted parish priest of Bemerton, near Salisbury, known for his kindness and his love of this work despite the disappointment of earlier ‘Court hopes’, would have been able to take a humane interest in this impulsive, partly-tamed genius of the keyboard; and as someone whose own art could fully encompass the tension between a sense of personal unworthiness and a deep trust in the atoning love of God (his poems were, he said, ‘a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul’), he might even have felt a certain kinship with such a man of rather obvious contradictions.  Herbert the exquisite craftsman of words (and an accomplished lutenist and musical amateur), would have admired, I am quite sure, Frescobaldi’s sheer skill, although I am less confident that the Italian, famed throughout the known world in his own lifetime, would have had the patience or perspicacity to reciprocate.  Herbert’s own renown as a great English poet chiefly came with the publication of The Temple, shortly after his death, and has continued with few vicissitudes ever since.  Frescobaldi’s published works, and especially his Fiori Musicali, his ‘Musical Flowers’, continued to be held up as models until the time of J.S. Bach, a century later, but then, in contrast with Herbert’s, languished, and have only in the last hundred years or so been recognised again as the work of one of the finest and most pervasively influential composers for organ and keyboard of the entire seventeenth century.

We are fortunate that through their work – Herbert’s with its still-life range of imagery, its very homeliness springing into sudden soaring conclusions, Frescobaldi’s liturgical solemnity blossoming now into strange concords of otherness, now into sophisticated merriment – both of these men still have the power to draw us closer to God.

Adrian Lenthall