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Claudio MERULO (1533-1604)
Toccate, Ricercari, Canzoni d'intavolatura d'organo
Fabio Bonizzoni (harpsichord, organ)
rec. 1997, Church of Maria minor, Utrecht, Netherlands; Chiesa della Madonna, Campagna, Italy
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with pdf booklet from Outhere
ARCANA A904 [69:15]

Sometimes the world is robbed of a great artist due to his own stupidity. Jean-Baptiste Lully died from gangrene, which was the effect of his having struck his foot with his conducting staff. The German-born French composer Johann Schobert caused his own death by eating poisonous mushrooms. Something like that happened to Claudio Merulo. In the latter stage of his life, he got increasingly involved in alchemy, and - according to an Italian author ten years after his death - "he might still be alive, having killed himself with that alchemical powder he called vital substance (...)".

Merulo died at the respectable age of 71, after a career which brought him the admiration of his peers and a considerable wealth. He was born in Correggio and it is assumed he got his main training as a musician in Venice from Adrian Willaert or Gioseffo Zarlino. In 1556 he was appointed organist at the cathedral in Brescia, and in 1557 he replaced Girolamo Parabosco at the San Marco basilica in Venice. For the next 27 years he played a key role in Venetian musical life, both as organist and as composer of music in all genres. He was a much sought-after composer of music for private and official celebrations. He was also active in the field of music publishing and the construction and development of musical instruments. He had a wide circle of pupils from Italy and abroad. His teaching was described by his pupil Girolamo Diruta in his book Il transilvano of 1593, one of the most important publications of the time. In 1584 he moved to Parma, where he acted as musician at the court of the Farneses, and also in Parma Cathedral. In 1591 he was appointed organist at the Madonna della Steccata, which position he held until his death. In Parma he lived as a wealthy man, and when he died he was honoured with many tributes, in which he was called the greatest keyboard player of his time.

Merulo's oeuvre comprises a large amount of vocal music, both sacred and secular, but that part of his output is hardly known. Today, as in his own time, he is first and foremost known for his keyboard music. The present disc, a reissue of a recording first released in 1997, includes a cross-section of that part of his output, in which the three main genres are represented: the toccata, the ricercare and the canzona. What connects them is their virtuosity; Merulo's compositions undoubtedly attest to his own skills as a keyboard player. He played a key role in the development of the toccata, which consists of several contrasting sections: some are rhapsodic, giving some idea of Merulo's improvisational capabilities, and include many brilliant runs and are full of written-out ornaments, whereas others are imitative, and bear witness to Merulo's command of counterpoint. The toccatas included in the programme show great variety in content.

The canzona was a popular form at the time, not only in keyboard music, but also in music for instrumental ensemble. As its name suggests, its origin is in vocal music. The first canzonas were transcriptions of chansons. With time, canzonas developed into original pieces which have no connection with particular vocal models, but stylistically they still bear the traces of vocal music. Merulo is considered the most prolific composer of canzonas, which are in every respect as brilliant and technically demanding as the toccatas. It seems that at least some of them were originally scored for an ensemble of various instruments and later adapted for keyboard.

Whereas the genres of the toccata and the canzona can be clearly defined, that is much harder in the case of the ricercare. John Caldwell, in his article in New Grove, states that "[few] early authors attempted a comprehensive definition of the ricercare". It has been described as a kind of prelude, whereas some see a connection to the fugue. Merulo published four books with ricercares, but three of them are ricercari da cantare for four voices. Only one book, published in 1567, includes ricercares for organ. In this genre, Merulo also explored new ground: all his ricercares are based on more than one subject, unlike, for instance, those of his contemporary Andrea Gabrieli.

The disc ends with a rather curious piece: a cycle of three dances of an apparently descriptive character. It opens with a battaglia, a popular genre in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first instrumental piece of this kind was Francesco da Milano's lute transcription of Clément Janequin's famous chanson La guerre. The saltarello is a rhythmic variant of the pavana, and the last section of this piece is inspired by the ostinato episode from Janequin's chanson.

In his notes to the interpretation, Fabio Bonizzoni points out that the scores of the toccatas include very detailed indications regarding the interpretation. This was possible thanks to the most advanced printing method at the time: engraving on copper plates. These indications reflect the wishes of Merulo to exactly lay down his intentions. Bonizzoni states: "Merulo thus obliges the performer to juggle the restrictions imposed by the precision of the musical writing with his fame as an improviser which would make one think more of his fundamentally free and inventive interpretations." He emphasizes that these indications should not withhold the interpreter from taking some liberties. "[If] one considers these particular notations not as fussy, definitive writing but rather as the written translation of something which escapes traditional notation, then the performer attains an absolutely fascinating range of possibilities which enables him to recreate the mood of improvisation which presided over the birth of these works." It is exactly the improvisatory features of these works which come off perfectly under the hands of Bonizzoni. It results in a fascinating musical discourse, which not only sheds light on Merulo's art, but also gives a good impression of the state of keyboard music in Italy in the late 16th century.

Bonizzoni plays two very fine instruments. The organ was originally built in 1519, and has been slightly adapted later, but fortunately was not modernized during the 19th century. In its present state, the organ is not fundamentally different from its original conception. It turns out to be the ideal instrument for Merulo's keyboard works. The time the harpsichord was built is not exactly known, but it is typical of the instruments constructed in Venice in the late 16th/early 17th century, and has two registers, one 8' and one 4'. The pitch is a=415 Hz, the tuning 1/4 comma meantone.

This recording may be more than twenty years old, but it has lost nothing of its importance and musical value.

Johan van Veen

[Toccate d'intavolatura d'organo, Libro secondo, 1604]
Toccata V settimo tuono [04:53]
Toccata IX nono tuono [05:55]
Toccata VII ottavo tuono [06:18]
Toccata IV duodecimo detto VI tuono [05:07]
Toccata II undecimo detto quinto tuono [06:03]
Toccata I undecicmo detto quinto tuono [04:34]
[Libro secondo di canzoni d'intavolatura d'organo a quattro voci fatte alla francese, 1606]
La Pazza [02:13]
La Ironica [02:23]
La Jolette [03:45]
[Toccate d'intavolatura d'organo, Libro primo, 1598]
Toccata II primo tuono [07:28]
Toccata IX quarto tuono [05:18]
[Ricercari d'intavolatura d'organo, Libro primo, 1567]
Ricercare duodecimo tuono [05:;11]
[Canzoni d'intavolatura d'organo a quattro voci fatte alla francese, Libro primo, 1592]
La Cortese [03:00]
La Zambeccara [03:23]
[Manoscritto di Castell'Arquato]
Pavana de la bataglia - Il saltarello de la bataglia - La tedeschina [02:18]
harpsichord; organ

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