Froberger: Why Disturb the Tombeau?


Adrian Lenthall

This article first appeared in The British Clavichord Society Newsletter No. 64, February 2016, pp. 3 – 7.

So here’s another ‘big anniversary’: but what’s the big deal with Froberger?  Yes, there are the famous Laments and the Tombeau de M. Blancrocher, but on the page surely most of his music divides into those pieces which give an impression of dryness and, on the other hand, the movements that look like minefields of performance-practice booby-traps?  Well, yes again;  and in a sense this anxiety in itself bears historical authenticity, since early as November 1667, just a few months after Froberger’s death, his friend and patroness Duchess Sibylla quoted him as often having told her that his pieces ‘should not be allowed to become common property’, for fear that in the hands of musicians ‘not knowing how to deal with them, they [would be] merely spoilt’.1 Perhaps, then, we should all, professional or amateur, wisely leave well alone.

One very good reason for paying attention to Froberger is that he stands as one of western music’s developmental crossroads: he evolved a synthesis of a range of styles and genres of widespread origin (perhaps more so than is directly apparent), while his travels ensured that his own influence spread widely too, to be inherited by later musicians with little else in common.  He was the son of a musical family with an extensive library of printed music by Germans, Italians and Englishmen;  he may have met Scheidt, who bore the Netherlandish influence of Sweelinck.  His studies as a young man with the Roman Frescobaldi enabled him to absorb the achievement of this first great baroque keyboard composer, itself a synthesis of various strands, including generations of Venetian and mainland Italian organists.  Other German-speakers had travelled south too, such as Hassler and Schütz;  but they came too soon to take on the monodic vocal manner of the seconda prattica, the idiom Frescobaldi was getting at when he wrote that his toccatas should sound like ‘modern madrigals which… are rendered easier to sing, thanks to the variations of the time’.2 By the time he arrived in France in his early thirties, Froberger was already a sufficiently major figure to draw around himself pupils as well as friends, but he was surely too curious and too clever to escape taking home souvenirs of his encounter with the ways of the hugely prestigious French court and its associated élite:  we can think of him polishing his accent and refining his bon goût, and we can also hear the refined French monody of the contemporary air de cour taking its place alongside the moody new Italian vocal manner (especially in those movements which Froberger asks to be played ‘avec discrétion’).

Of Froberger’s well-known younger contemporaries, it’s probable that Louis Couperin, Kerll and Poglietti were pupils, and he certainly influenced his friend Weckmann. His music continued to be disseminated after his death, in both manuscript and print.  As far afield as London (which Froberger had visited in the early 1650s), for instance, and as late as 1700, the famous Dr Blow copied thirteen pieces (or sections of pieces) by Froberger into a manuscript anthology, adding the graces that belong to the sound-world of the English Restoration.3 Froberger’s syncretising ways were to be taken up again as something of a required achievement by several giants of the later baroque:  François Couperin, Telemann, J.S. Bach.  Froberger’s surviving output may be trammelled in its restriction (two motets aside) to music for organ and keyboard – and this does colour its reception in our own time;  but his footprint covers leagues.

So then, assuming we’re not content to leave Froberger mutely enshrined, how do we go about actually listening and playing with sympathetic understanding? I’d want to encourage you, first, not to be put off into deferring a direct, personal acquaintance with the music;  and second, to consider an approach which gives the ear at least equal place with the intellect.  Perhaps the most musicianly way to get inside Froberger’s music, then, is simply this:  to take the plunge and immerse yourself.  Even if you just want to listen, appreciating and comparing performances, it’s still a good idea to have a look at the score.  Fortunately, if you have access to broadband, you are a few clicks away from much of Froberger’s music in is first urtext edition, by Guido Adler (which Thurston Dart used in his landmark recording), and in facsimiles of the most important source manuscripts:  more than enough to be getting on with.4

Listen too to other seventeenth-century music, remembering the richness of the influences bearing on and emanating from Froberger.5 This was a period when, very broadly, the violin and its ensembles had not yet found the ascendancy that they were to reach by the end of the century, in the period of Corelli and his contemporaries.  Instead, the dominant forms in terms of novelty and prestige were largely opera, madrigal and song, all involving in their highest forms subtle improvised ornamentation arising from the possibilities of the voice (and strongly influenced by its respective languages).  Listen if you possibly can to madrigals by Caccini and airs de cour and other music by Michel Lambert, Charpentier and their contemporaries.  Keyboard music, especially preludes, toccatas and dance movements, was also influenced by the popularity of the lute;  here you might focus on French composers such as Ennemond Gaultier, Denis Gaultier and Charles Mouton.  And of course the organ and its traditions lie behind much in Froberger’s fantasias, ricercars, canzonas and capriccios.  Exploration here could well begin with Frescobaldi.

The most famous of Froberger’s pieces do actually make good starting points in this listening project: the Lamentations, the Plainte, the Tombeau, and the other programmatic movements, and also some of the toccatas.  Listen across all these genres for links between the various sound-worlds:  notice mood and atmosphere, as well as rhythmic patterns and melodic and ornamental turns of phrase.

If you’re taking Froberger to the clavichord yourself, this is still very much an exercise in listening – and exploring.6 Don’t be impatient, or dismissive of yourself;  you can learn much from the unanticipated result, if you’re really paying attention.  See what happens if you imagine the sounds you make at the clavichord in terms of other relevant instruments or voices or styles.  What happens, for instance, if you pretend you’re playing this passage on the lute, or that one on the organ?  Is there a madrigale or an air de cour trying to be heard?  (It goes without saying that this needs to happen in parallel with your ongoing close attention to the actual sounds that you and your clavichord are producing.)  There is, after all, definite historical support for such acts of aural re-imagination:  contemporary transcriptions across instrumental repertoires do survive;  and we know from Louis Couperin’s prelude ‘à l’imitation de Mr. Froberger’ that we can legitimately imagine a Froberger Toccata in terms of a prélude non-mesuré and vice-versa, and so pick up idioms and turns of phrase as they affect a sense of gesture, rhythmic movement, pacing, arpeggiation and so on.

For players, the first Partita might be one place to start. (Adler called these Suites;  this one is the first piece in his Volume II.)  Which instrument might you imagine in the Allemand?  What would it be like to sing?  (And in which language?)  If this were a dialogue (sung or played), where might each contribution begin and end?  What’s response, continuation, digression, elaboration?    Are there any places which seem to ask for ornamentation of the kind you may have heard sensitive singers or players introduce in music of the period?  (Allow yourself to feel the need for an ornament, and then consider how to meet it, rather than putting one in just because you think you should.)  In the Courante, what tempo best serves (for instance) to make sense of the repeated quaver Cs in bar 3?  (Possibly not one you’d initially assume a Courante might need.)  The Sarabande contains even more repeated notes in the upper melody;  where are they going?  How do they interact with the metre and its patterns of stronger and weaker beats?  Remember that in a formal baroque dance a dancer or a small number of dancers traverses physical space in a measured way, infused with gesture and saturated with social meaning, and with emotion in careful counterpoise with control.  In what ways do Froberger’s dances traverse musical space?  Where are the movements outwards, where the returns?  (Don’t overlook the repeats…)  How, particularly in the Sarabande, do the changes of key affect the sense of motion through space?

Above all, remember that people not wholly unlike you were moved, as well as impressed and fascinated, by the music you have in front of you; try gradually to discover the language and the gestures of the music, and (if you’re playing) experiment to find ways to maximise its affective plumb.  Use your own gut as the depth-meter, not forgetting that the alimentary canal opens with the organs of taste and that, aesthetically, less is often more.  And allow all this to take time.  We learn in between times of conscious application as well as during them, and it is often in returning to a movement or passage that the light comes on.  There’s a movement between discipline and serendipity which has its own rhythm, not to be tampered with at will, and its tempo usually is not quick – for music’s most compelling sources are its hidden ones.


1      Letter of 2 November 1667 to Constantijn Huygens (father of the celebrated scientist), translated in Froberger: New Edition of the Complete Works, Vol. III p. LIX, ed. S. Rampe (Kassel:  Bärenreiter, 2002).

2      From the Preface to the first volume of Frescobaldi’s Toccatas, 2nd edition (1616);  Arnold Dolmetsch’s translation (The Interpretation of the Music of the XVII & XVIII Centuries, London:  Novello and OPU, 1915, p. 5).

3     Modern edition by Thurston Dart and Davitt Moroney in John Blow’s Anthology (London:  Stainer and Bell, 1978).

4  Note that Adler called the Partitas ‘Suites’.  His edition is also reprinted by Dover.  For the more recent editions see:  Francis Knights’s Repertoire Guide in Clavichord International Vol. 12 No. 2;  John Collins’s detailed overview on;  and David Schulenberg, ‘Recent Editions of Froberger and Other Seventeenth-Century Composers’, Journal of Seventeenth Century Music, Vol. 13, no. 1, available online at  Perhaps the least helpful thing about Adler’s three volumes is the way they suppress the grouping of the pieces in the main sources (the manuscripts of 1649, 1656 and c. 1658), but this can be reconstructed using John Collins’s overview.  Adler also modernises the barring.

5      For quick and free online access (with occasional adverts) to selected commercially available recordings, it can be worth signing up for offers many performances of varying standards.

6      Howard Schott, ‘Froberger and the Clavichord’, De Clavicordio III (Magnano:  Musica Antica a Magnano, 1998), argues that the clavichord is an excellent medium for all of Froberger’s keyboard music, except the two elevation toccatas (FbWV 105 and 106).