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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 2 Fat Times and Lean
Richard Taruskin
The Toccata

ex. 2-2 Girolamo Frescobaldi, Cento partite sopra passacagli, conclusion

The earliest recorded use of the word “toccata” in a musical source occurs in a lute collection of 1536, where it refers to the kind of brief improvisatory prelude formerly called preambulum or ricercar or even tastar de corde (“checking to see if the strings are in tune”). The new term was evidently coined to substitute for “ricercar” when the latter term had become firmly associated with “strict” imitative compositions in motet style. Over the next hundred years the term saw a variety of uses; we have already seen it applied by Monteverdi to the curtain-raising flourish before his Orfeo, a kind of theatrical preambulum. Later on, pieces called “toccata” achieved greater dimensions and independent status, but they always remained “free” and open in form, deriving their continuity from discontinuity, to put it paradoxically. That is, they relied on contrast—in texture, meter, tempo, tonality—between short striking sections, rather than the continuous development of motives, to sustain interest. “Striking” meant virtuosic as well; toccatas, like the preluding improvisations of old, were often festive display pieces that turned the very act of playing (or “touching”—toccare—the keys) into a form of theater.

Frescobaldi inherited the toccata from Claudio Merulo (1533–1604), whose two books of toccatas, published in Rome shortly before Frescobaldi took up his duties at St. Peter’s, had established what would become the genre’s basic modus operandi as an alternation of “free” chordal and “strict” imitative sections. With his horror of regularity, Frescobaldi turned Merulo’s placid interchanges into another sort of “mixed bag,” in this case a dazzling bag of tricks. In the very lengthy and detailed preface to his first book of toccatas, the epochal Primo libro d’intavolatura (“First book of intabulations,” 1615), reprinted in every subsequent book, Frescobaldi explicitly gave the performer the last say as to the form his toccatas took, just as he himself must have done when performing them. “In the toccatas,” he wrote, “I have taken care not only that they be abundantly provided with different passages and affections but also that each one of the said passages can be played separately; the performer is thus under no obligation to finish them all but can end wherever he thinks best.”7

The ToccataThe Toccata

ex. 2-3 Girolamo Frescobaldi, Toccata IX (Toccata nona), mm. 11–22

This option would seem to apply particularly to the famous Toccata nona or ninth toccata from Frescobaldi’s second book (1637), which set a new and widely emulated standard for fireworks (Ex. 2-3). It begins with a bit of cursory lip service to imitation between the hands, but motivic consistency is not maintained past the second bar; and although the piece ends where it began, in F, the tonal vagaries along the way are seemingly as wayward as possible. It is that sense of wandering through a harmonic labyrinth, as well as the mounting rhythmic figuration and the frequent superimposition of conflicting divisions of the beat (“threes against twos”), that must have prompted the curious note of mingled self-congratulation and lampoonery that Frescobaldi appends in conclusion: Non senza fatiga si giunge al fine (“You won’t make it to the end without tiring”). The many apparent changes of time signature along the way are really proportion signs: , for example, literally means 12 sixteenth notes in the time of eight, later cancelled by its seemingly inscrutable reciprocal, . It is the sort of thing indicated in more modern notation by the use of triplet signs and the like (Ex. 2-3).

The Toccata

ex. 2-4 Michelangelo Rossi, Toccata VII (Toccata settima), mm. 9–16

In the hands of Frescobaldi’s pupils like Michelangelo Rossi (1602–56), the toccata could become truly bizarre, seemingly in the spirit of the late polyphonic madrigal. In Rossi’s Toccata settima, the seventh toccata in his first libro d’intavolatura (published in Rome without a date, most likely around 1640) the weird harmonic successions of Carlo Gesualdo’s madrigals or the monodies of Sigismondo d’India are elevated to the level of broad sectional contrasts (Ex. 2-4). Music like this is clearly contrived to knock listeners for a loop, the way an outlandish twist of plot might do the spectators in a drama.

In Frescobaldi, stupefying chromatic effects are most often found in a special subgenre called toccate di durezze e ligature (“toccatas with dissonances and suspensions”) that inhabits a very different expressive world from the histrionic self-assertion of the showpiece toccatas. Such pieces are found among the other toccatas in Frescobaldi’s libri d’intavolatura (and they are found in the work of some earlier organists as well), but they may be seen in their natural habitat, so to speak, in his largest collection, Fiori musicali (“Musical flowers,” 1635), which contains music designed for specific liturgical use, arranged in three “organ Masses.”

This wonderfully suggestive volume enables us to imagine the way in which organists, still for the most part working ex tempore, actually accompanied the church service in the years following the Counter Reformation. Each Frescobaldi organ Mass begins with a short flourish of a toccata (Toccata avanti la Messa) that functions as an intonazione, a fancy way to give the choir its pitch. The next (and longest) section is a complete and very old-fashioned cantus firmus setting of the Kyrie, the organist’s equivalent of the choir’s stile antico. Ex. 2-5 shows the beginning of the Kyrie setting from the second organ Mass in Fiori musicali, the Messa della Madonna (“Mass of the Virgin Mary”), based on the Gregorian Kyrie IX (“Cum jubilo”).

The Toccata

ex. 2-5 Girolamo Frescobaldi, Messa della Madonna (in Fiori musicali), opening section of Kyrie, mm. 13–23

Then follow a lively Canzon dopo la Pistola, a “canzona [for playing] after the Epistle [and before the Gospel],” to preface or stand in for the Gradual; a strictly imitative Recercar dopo il Credo, a “ricercar [for playing] after the Credo,” to introduce the Offertory and accompany the collection (sometimes itself preceded by a short toccata, giving the effect of what was later known as a prelude and fugue); and to conclude, a Canzone post il Comune, a “canzona [for playing] after [the singing of] the communion [chant],” also sometimes introduced by a little toccata, to accompany the distribution of the wine and wafer. The canzona, a name descending from the French chanson (song), denoted a catchy, lightweight piece in many sections.

The toccata di durezze e ligature, sometimes called the toccata chromatica, is played per le levatione, “for the Elevation,” the moment when the priest performs the transubstantiating miracle that turns the wine and wafer into the blood and body of Christ, as his ordination empowers him to do. It is the most mysterious moment of the Mass, a moment of sublime contemplation, and it is that mood of self-abasement before a truth that passes human understanding that the elevation toccata, in its unearthly harmony, is designed to capture, or induce.

The Elevation toccata from Frescobaldi’s Messa della Domenica, the Mass for Sundays throughout the year, is both his most chromatic composition and the one most poignantly riddled with suspensions. Its obsessive contemplation of an “irrational” idea, in which an apparent leading tone turns tail and descends dissonantly through semitones (an effect later classified by German theorists, among other “unnatural progressions,” as the passus duriusculus, “the hard way down”), makes the toccata an epitome of the Counter Reformation ideal, long since associated with St. Theresa, that envisaged “religious experience” as deeply felt emotion on the very threshold of pain.


(7) Quoted in Bianconi, Music in the Seventeenth Century, p. 95.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02002.xml