Froberger and the Keyboard Suite

Regardless whether he created the genre, Froberger is indisputably the earliest master of the keyboard suite. Some thirty from his hand have come down to us. The six recorded by Kenneth Gilbert for Archiv are found in the autograph volume presented to Ferdinand III in 1656. Each contains the typical four movements of the baroque keyboard suite, but in the unusual order which Froberger came to prefer after 1649, with the Gigue as the second rather than fourth movement. As with his earlier datable suites in the 1649 autograph, these 1656 dance sequences bear a close stylistic resemblance to similar pieces written by French lutenists of the mid-17th century, which circulated widely throughout Europe.

The opening Allemandes, which in a sense also serve as preludes, are clearly written in a style luthé, characterized by widely-spaced arpeggiated chords and ingenious little touches of quasi-counterpoint. There is no trace of the even flowing sixteenth notes associated with this dance in the Bach and Handel period. The opening movement of the final suite in the 1656 set is another Froberger elegy, this one for the elder son of Ferdinand III who died in 1654. (The title is explained by the custom of referring to the heir-presumptive to the imperial throne as the "King of the Romans".)

The gigues in the six suites also employ the French lutenists' favoured rhythmic patterns which prefer the more individualized, jerky dotted rhythms to the sequences of even triplets associated with the familiar Italian variety of jig. (The peculiar custom of often notating these gigues in duple metre and thus concealing the intended triple or compound time, was long a puzzlement to performers who could make little sense and certainly nothing like a jig out of the literal notation.)

The graceful courantes are similarly cast in the Gallic mould. These are gliding rather than running dances, like the Italian variety of corrente. Froberger makes subtle rhythmic play with the ambiguity of the metre, which alternates between units of thrice two beats and twice three beats, respectively. The concluding sarabandes are dignified, highly stylized dances, that bring the suites to a dignified close. Restoring the original order of the movements profoundly alters the effect on the listener of the suite as a whole.

The uniquely personal element in Froberger's suites, the intimacy and intensity of expression, set him apart from the great mass of his contemporaries and followers, with the notable exception of his friend -and admirer, Louis Couperin. The suites, as well as the composer's much esteemed polyphonic compositions, were circulated widely in manuscript, and were so highly esteemed that three decades after his death, two editions of ten suites (including two of the 1656 set) appeared simultaneously in Amsterdam. (It was these very publications which printed the suites in the conventional order, with the gigue last, that misled later editors and performers into ignoring Froberger's express preference.) In an age almost exclusively taken up with the music of its own time, these posthumous printings were an extraordinary tribute.

Howard Schott

Johann Jacob Froberger  |  A Partial Johann Jacob Froberger Discography