VC: The Toccata

Variations on popular songs, standard airs, and dance tunes exemplify a style in which the improvisatory impulse though present was held under very strict control. Examples of much freer improvisatory gestures are the toccata, prelude, ricercare, fantasia, and intonazione. These arose from a musician's need to test the tuning of his instrument, fix the tonality for a vocal performance, warm up his technique, set the stage briefly for some other music to come, or occasionally fill an interlude between songs and dances. That these types were originally linked by a common function is witnessed by a certain interchangeability of terms during the sixteenth century.

Although the etymology of some of the names is uncertain, they seem to contain vestiges of the early history of the music they describe. Toccata suggests a touching of the fingerboard of a lute or similar instrument, though toccare was also used for plucking with the fingers and for striking the keys of a keyboard manual. The verb ricercare was used to signify a searching out of strings to pluck. Tiento, the Spanish name for such a piece as the ricercare, means literally trial. Another term sometimes found for introductory sallies is tastar de corde, which even more clearly than toccata refers to the stopping of strings on the tasto or fingerboard. Prelude, praeludium, and preambel obviously refer to preliminary music.

Fantasia is a free exercise of the musical fancy in an improvisation. An intonazione is literally an intonation--a giving of the pitch by the organ rather than by a cantor or precentor. The earliest examples of all of these genres, as might be expected from music so described, are virtually brief frozen improvisations, Perhaps the most important fact that unites them is that they are almost always independent of the vocal or dance music that follows, though there are notable exceptions.

Despite this original community of method and function, a number of these musical types became quite clearly differentiated by the beginning of the seventeenth century. The ricercare and fantasia on the one hand, the toccata on the other serve to illustrate this cleavage through evolution.

The ricercare

The earliest ricercari were published between 1507 and 1509 by the Venetian pioneer in music printing, Ottaviano Petrucci (1466-1539). They were by the lutenists Francesco Spinaccino, Joan Ambrosio Dalza, and Franciscus Bossinensis (i.e., of Bosnia). Although they consist mainly of running passages mixed with strummed chords, in the examples of Spinaccino and Bossinensis there is already seen an attempt to achieve a polyphonic effect through alternation of low and high register.

>By 1523 Marc'Antonio Cavazzoni transferred the lute ricercare to the keyboard. The exchange of the material between high and low becomes an alternation of right and left hand, a device that lends structure to an otherwise free design of chords and runs and permits a certain development of motives. With the Musica novaof 1540, containing twenty ricercari by, among others, Giulio Segni, Adrian Willaert, Girolamo Parabosco, and Marc'Antonio's son Girolamo Cavazzoni, the ricercare invades yet another medium -that of the ensemble of instruments, such as viols.

In a few of the ricercari by the organists of the Cathedral of St. Mark's in Venice, Jacques Buus, Andrea Gabrieli, and Claudio Merulo, all of the material can be related to the subject first presented in the opening "point" of imitation. This also occurs in some Spanish fantasie. Eventually this becomes the standard procedure.

The fantasia

The term fantasia, applied frequently after 1540 to lute pieces that are indistinguishable from ricercari, is rarely applied to organ music before the end of the sixteenth century. Keyboard pieces so named tend to be monothematic like the ricercari but often vary the subject itself progressively from one section to the next rather than adding new countersubjects. In the seventeenth century the keyboard fantasia more than the ricercare exploits learned contrapuntal devices and standard "school" subjects such as the hexachord ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la. Revealing of the nature of the fantasia is the fact that applicants for organ positions at St. Mark's in Venice were expected to improvise one on a given theme.

The fantasies and fancies written in England during the seventeenth century, whether for keyboard or the consort of viols, constitute a branch of the same tree that yielded the continental fantasia. Stemming directly from the mid-sixteenth-century Italian ricercare, the English form was almost untouched by later continental developments. Throughout the seventeenth century it preserved the polythematic, multisectional character of the early ricercare and motet. With the latter it shares the homophonic sections, often dance-like and in triple meter, that tend more and more to invade the imitative counterpoint. The mood of the century is felt, however, in the viol fantasies of John Cooper (Coperario), William Lawes, Matthew Locke (1632/3-1677), John Jenkins, and their contemporaries--not so much in their form as in their chromaticism, bold modulations, and soloistic and idiomatic lines.

The toccata

Of the types originating in the prelude-function, the one whose development is most antithetical to the ricercare and fantasia is the toccata. Although some historians would trace its origin to the earliest prelude-forms, the first dated composition designated a toccata (actually there spelled tochata) occurs in a collection of lute music issued by Castiglione in Milan in 1536.

Eventually keyboard composers made the toccata their own. Three organists of St. Mark's basilica in Venice led this development: Annibale Padovano, who was second organist until 1564; Andrea Gabrieli, who succeeded him, and Claudio Merulo, who took over the first organ the same year. The characteristic idiom of the toccata consists of scale-type passages, turns, trills, and short figures; these pass from hand to hand, while the hand not busy with them has sustained chords that often trace a descending or ascending diatonic line in the key of the piece. The narrow range of chord changes and the limited sphere of modulation also betray a preoccupation with establishing the central tone or mode. This manner of writing the toccata shares with the intonazione, which, how ever, tends to be shorter and more primitive in its chord progressions. Both Padovano and Merulo, and sometimes Andrea Gabrieli too, broke up the rapid finger work with quieter sections using short subjects in a three- or four-voice, freely imitative texture. These moments of concentrated energy usually explode into renewed paroxysms of digital fury. Usually there is one central imitative section, but often there are two or more. These sections have been compared to the ricercare, but they are far less strict in maintaining a given number of parts; the themes lack length and distinction, and are usually not sounded in an exposed single voice.

This alternation of sections remained the favored procedure for the toccata throughout the baroque period, with some exceptions. If despite this method Frescobaldi's numerous and stirring toccatas suffer little slackening of momentum, it is partly because the figurative and imitative methods tends to interpenetrate. Sweelinck is much truer to Merulo's form, but his figures are notably more varied and striking, possibly reflecting the influence of the English virginal school.

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