Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger (ca.1575-1628) came from a long line of musicians. His talented, Italian-born father, Alfonso Ferrabosco, had a meteoric career in Elizabethan England, where he gave a new zest to apathetic English society by importing musical techniques from Italy. The first major hurdle that confronted his son, the young Ferrabosco, who was a composer, violist, lutenist and singer, was being held up for comparison with his illustrious father.
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Alfonso Ferrabosco II (v.1575-1628)
I – Five-Part Dances : Dovehouse Pavan – Almaine
Direcció: Jordi Savall
“I am not made of much speach” was Alfonso Ferrabosco’s own gauntlet, tossed in the world’s face, when introducing his music in print. That hauteur mixed with reserve (“Value me as you will” in almost as many words), suggesting that one’s reputation is a trifle for others to debate, makes an unusual mixture. Posterity is naturally taken unawares. But English musical manuscripts bear witness to his status as the court composer in his time, by listing him casually just as Alfonso or AF. Then there are contemporary opinions to quote which, in words almost as terse as his own, pay him enormous respect. The playwright Ben Jonson, his collaborator in court masques, called him “a Man, planted by himselfe, & mastring all the spirits of Musique”. Jonson was a careful word-smith, sparing with his praise; he wrote not one but two separate laudatory poems for Ferrabosco’s published collections. But it is a shame that no portrait of him is known to exist, in this era when musicians were increasingly wearing a public face as virtuosi performer-composers; also, that there is the usual scarcity of biographical material. It takes imagination to picture him. Perhaps he should have the carefully dishevelled locks of the creative artist; just the way in which genius is given its full measure in the engravings of a comparably creative talent, Frescobaldi, that open his published works. The song-writer and poet Thomas Campion came the nearest to a pen-sketch of Ferrabosco, calling him “Old Alfonso’s Image living” – but that, however affectionately meant, is a twisted compliment in the long term, since no man can relish being matched against the icon of a famous father. And so his music, under-rated for so long since his own century, must speak for him, in its own language. The best of it has a monumental sculptural quality, and that can be daunting: it is hard to “walk around”. In fact in the fragments of a life that are visible, his deprived upbringing and the acclaim that followed, do somewhat explain the heroism as well as the reserve in this output.
As for the life: his father Alfonso Senior had passed through Elizabethan England like a meteor, vivid, with a glittering wake. His importance was less in his own talent, and more in the tonic he gave to a sluggish, insular society. Even the great William Byrd grasped at the novel techniques that he imported from the warm south. Alfonso left as he had come – abruptly, twice over, even. The second time, his parting gift was mayhem: not only a gentleman’s servant stabbed to death, but his fulsome promises to return all broken. He negotiated service with the Duke of Savoy, and made his peace with the Inquisition for his heretical foreign marriage. Queen Elizabeth was not amused. His discarded children became virtual hostages, fostered out to a court musical family. Whether his English son had ever seen much of him is unknown, but the younger Alfonso did inherit an ambivalent legacy: a family reputation for “deepe skill”. That became a compulsion to wrestle with the musical shadow. He had to invent himself as his own father-figure, solve his own riddle of the sphinx, and did so through an unremitting novelty that marks him out as a very unusual brand of composer. His father’s reputation cannot have helped here. Although some attempt was made to provide for the evident skills of this young man in the royal music from 1592, he had to petition for attention after seven years or so, claiming that he had been “kept hidd from her majesty’s knowledge, by some whome I could never learne to knowe”. It was anyway a gloomy time as the queen retreated into herself and conspirators gathered, angling for the throne. Still, Alfonso’s prayer was answered somehow; he was accepted into regular playing for the court, and his future began to look brighter. It must though have been that near-decade of isolation that shaped his unique blend of talents.
It is hard to appreciate now how original was almost everything touched by Alfonso Junior. He inaugurated a true English baroque. He was probably the first to write vocal monodies; not only to English texts for court entertainments, but to Italian as well, for cognoscenti of the latest mode, the pastorals of Battista Guarini. His published songs were the first to bring poetry by Ben Jonson and John Donne to print. He was long remembered as the originator of the English “lyra viol”. André Maugars, who noted that Ferrabosco Senior had brought a style of chordal playing, based on the lyra bastarda, to England, commented on his son, “grand Farabosco”, compared to players in Rome, “je n’en ay oüy aucun qui fust à comparer à Farabosco d’Angleterre”. But his chief legacy to us is in fantasias for viols. Ferrabosco transformed most types of chamber music, an area in which England had been a backwater almost untouched by continental genres. True, some Elizabethan writers had tried their hand at fantasias, but apart from having limited part-ranges to make them suitable for transferring across media, “per ogni sorti di strumenti”, they were only poor cousins to the ingenious Venetian ricercar with its pervasive counterpoint. Something, incidentally, of the sonorities, and limitations, of this preceding music can be heard in a fantasia attributed to Alfonso Junior probably by mistake: no.24, which occurs only in one late copy. If not a stray motet, it could have wandered in from his father’s œuvre (or, just as likely, from a court composer in the older generation like John Bull, and his similar sombre miniatures, only halfway emerged from motets). Ferrabosco increased part-range, but more importantly hammered out a new linear style which combined sinuous ricercar themes with the rhythms and verve of the canzona. His unending experimentation also ran to subtle modulations, though in maintaining the imitative style he could not abandon modality completely. Just as importantly, this was player’s music to its core, idiomatic for the hand. Contrapuntal tricks are only a part of this battery of effects, since he was selective in the devices he employed: augmentation at cadence-points and climaxes, certainly, but not the inversion and retrograde themes that are far less audible. This level of novelty kept his four-part output the most popular, most copied, for a generation after his death, even though late-comers infused his style with the melodramatic Italianate chromaticism that he avoided. It was a formula that stayed the course right up to Henry Purcell in 1680; one of the few other writers whose four-part series can be termed without exaggeration a complete “Art of Fantasy”. But Ferrabosco was the pioneer, setting the boundaries of decorum. After him there was nothing popular about themes or treatment, since the new baroque also set up new barriers between genres. The origin of his style overall, with its constant interweaving of motifs, is most definitely in the lyra viol. That goes for the magnificent five-part pavans too. They flow in an exalted vein liberated from strict dance-form; sometimes their counterpoint is almost completely dissolved into motif, as in the Dovehouse Pavan (one of the nick-names affectionately bestowed by seventeenth-century amateurs, rather as later acquired by Haydn quartets). At other times he enjoyed setting constraints for himself with ostinato or motto themes, rather like Frescobaldi’s obblighi. For the Pavan On Four Notes Ben Jonson wrote a devotional verse, Hear me, O God – responding, maybe instinctively, to its themes and mood of aspiration.
Music of this order needs its soil; and the early Stuart kings provided just that sophisticated court culture, amongst listeners as well as players, for a time. James himself was reputed to be something of a Philistine, but his wife Queen Anne of Denmark took to her adopted country with abandon, after the dourer pastimes in her husband’s Scottish kingdom, and commanded many masquings. Their expenditure on entertainment was huge. More vitally, Ferrabosco’s expertise placed him as an ideal instructor to their elder son Henry, Prince of Wales, whose war-like young court within a court sprang up even before he became crown prince in 1610. Here was a new centre of intellectual life and a zest for experiment, which must have encouraged Ferrabosco. But all was cut short when Henry’s unexpected death forced his courtiers into retirement. James had come to fear his son’s militancy as a threat, not just to his own crown, but to his ambitions to be seen on the European stage as an elder statesman. His own motto was “Beati pacifici”, blesed are the peacemakers, though beneath that the Spanish ambassador Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, later Count Gondomar, saw only the king’s own morbid fear of bodily harm, and the realism of a small power forced to play off its opponents. For Alfonso the result of palace revolutions was the sort often visited on the small man: probably a sudden eclipse, and naturally a fairly final end to collaborations with Jonson and Inigo Jones (the versatile designer, architect and follower of Palladio who became the arbiter of elegance at court). If there was personal decline, we cannot chart it directly from the music, since nothing in manuscript is dated; but Alfonso was surely used to high living, and without extra commissions even his multiple court posts seem not to have kept him from feeling the pinch. Certainly by his fifties he was restless and ill at ease, if we can take totally seriously a remarkable affidavit that reassigned his debts, and mentions his plans to leave England for good. But for where?. – the family home in Bologna? A last appointment may have eased his final year; a rare post as the official court composer. It had eluded him in the past, when it was snatched by the more fashionable but superficial John Coprario (an inglese italianato, in fact, apparently born under the name Cooper).
It may never be clear where in this career to place Alfonso’s six-part fantasias. Some of them have the stamp of early work, perhaps as he was working out a style in the 1590s, under the influence of the wind-players who had brought him up, and formed a substantial part of the court ensemble. They had a distinct repertoire to hand of large-scale music for formal occasions – great banquets, or processionals. Alfonso’s novelty was to transform that casual repertoire by his all-encompassing fantasia manner, with such aplomb that it stimulated a whole school of followers after him. In it he created another speciality, an indigenous development, since even canzone by the Gabrielis do not partake of his degree of organisation and high seriousness. Alfonso’s pieces were once more the most often copied of the period. What is more, he also seems to have been the chief reviver of the In Nomine: a special English musical form unknown to the continent, that had begun obscurely around the time of the Reformation and preserved in contrapuntal settings one unvaried plainsong from the English Sarum rite for Easter, Gloria tibi, Trinitas. No foreigner ever tried his hand at it, apart, that is, from Alfonso’s father, in perhaps his most abiding legacy to his guest country. With his usual flair for seeing possibilities he created a lighter type of scoring in a group of three settings, which quickly inspired William Byrd and others to follow suit. Interest had waned by the 1590s, and so it was probably Alfonso the son’s personal interest that led to a revival. Again, there is a constant motivic play on snatches of ideas strung together, sometimes quoting his father with a new dash and swagger. The In Nomine lived on as a result, its sacred origins only dimly if at all remembered, again right up to the time of Purcell. So did Ferrabosco’s reputation, even when most of the music was consigned to library shelves. Anthony Wood, the Oxford antiquarian, knew of it only in that way; but he did record, about fifty years after Ferrabosco’s death, that he was “The most famous man in all ye world for fantazies of 5. or 6. parts”. Of course, his influence was incalculably greater even than that; but it is no bad reputation to leave behind one; and Alfonso’s image is perhaps still to be glimpsed, after all.