Early Italian Clavier Composers

The history of pianoforte composition and playing really begins with that of the preceding keyed instruments with strings, to all of which the convenient name of “Claviers” will be given. As these early instruments were at first merely substitutes for the organ, which in turn was used simply to reduplicate voice parts, the music first played on them was in no wise different from the vocal and organ music of the day. When, moreover, music written for the organ had some features distinct from purely vocal music, it was frequently inscribed to be played on the organ or clavier, without discrimination.

Influence of the Renaissance.—As most of the patterns of musical form have proceeded from Italy, so it was there, in Venice, that instrumental music seems to have emerged from its union with vocal music, and to have assumed the elements of a style of its own. This was directly the result of the general awakening of thought after the Dark Ages, known as the Renaissance, which, leading to independent investigation in the domains of science and art, brought in the one unheard-of inventions and the discovery of new worlds, and in the other a freedom of treatment fitted to express the new ideas surging throughout the civilized world. Thus, in the first part of the 16th century, while Raphael and Michael Angelo were voicing these thoughts in their immortal creations, in Venice, a school of musicians was turning its attention toward instrumental music, and striving to produce in music a richness of color, just as the great Venetian painters, like Titian and Giorgione, were producing similar effects upon canvas. Teachers and students were congregating there, enthusiastic over the new ideas in music ; and the focal point of all this activity was the Church of St. Mark’s, whose magnificent double organ furnished an incentive to genius.

The First Sonata.—Among these musicians were a number of apostles of the Netherlands school, of whom Adrian Willaert (1480-1562) was especially honored and beloved. He and his successors, as organists at St. Mark’s, wrote compositions for organ or clavier, which they taught to young ladies- in the convents. Such compositions were made the more possible by the fact that into the old Church Modes, formed by using only the tones represented by the white keys of our piano, “chromatic” or colored tones came to be inserted ; so that, in the course of the 16th century, the modern scales, with their characteristic keynotes, or tonalities, came to -vie with the old modes, and ultimately nearly to displace them, thus giving a chance for a variety and grouping of harmonies necessary in the elaboration of instrumental music. The name Sonata, or “sound” piece, was at first given indiscriminately to such instrumental works, in distinction from the Cantata, or vocal work.

Willaert and His Pupils.—Willaert was especially successful as a teacher, and thus left a number of accomplished pupils to carry on his labors. Of these, Girolamo Parabosco (1593-1609) was noted for his free fantasias, and his improvisations of sonatas on the harpsichord ; while Claudio Merulo of Correggio (1533-1604) wrote a number of toccatas, in which the old church chorale style was relieved by contrasting passages consisting of brilliant runs. The Toccata, or touch piece, had, as its characteristics, such quick running passages, probably first suggested by the light tone and action of the Clavier. While these runs had at first very little relevancy to one another, they were much de-lighted in by these early pioneers, who sported with them as a child plays with a new toy.

The Gabrieli’s.—Two other organists of St. Mark’s, Andreas Gabrieli (1510-1586), and his nephew and pupil, Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1613), added to the resources of instrumental music. The first of these, a pupil of Willaert, himself became a famous teacher; and both contributed many canzone and sonatas to organ and clavier literature. In all these the subjects were distinct, and, in the canzone especially, the many quick passages and changing rhythms were used in a manner that contributed to unity.

The Harpsichord in Opera.—A new factor now appeared in Florence, destined greatly to further the cause of clavier music : namely, the Opera. Taking the position of the conductor’s instrument, the harpsichord became the most useful member of the orchestra, and was employed constantly to fill in vague harmonies, and to strike chords as a support to the musical declamation of the singers. Such chords were not generally written out, but were suggested by their bass note, over which figures were written to show their positions. To this shorthand system the name of Thorough-bass was given. In this way the value of chord combinations came to be recognized, and the relationships of such chords studied entirely apart from the voice writing; so the idea of a single melody, supported by occasional chords, was transplanted from the Opera, and the modern harmonic style of music came into being.

Dance Tunes.—But, in this new style, the old basis for Unity in the composition, furnished by the imitation of one part by another, had to be abandoned, since only one melodic part existed at a time; hence a new basis had to be found in the manner in which harmonies succeeded each other. In determining such chord relationships, composers were obliged to look elsewhere than to the old Church music; and so turned their attention to the forms of Dance Tunes which had already been in use for a long time among the people in their Folk-songs, and in the performances of the wandering minstrels. Most of these dance tunes were formed in a very simple two-part design of harmony, consisting in a transition from the initial key to a contrasting key, for the first part, and a return from the contrasting key to the first key, in the second part.

Origin of the Suite.—A book of such dances, based, how-ever, on the clumsy church modes, was published in 1551. Later, however, such dances came to be written in the new harmonic style ; and by putting together a set of dances all in the same key but differing in rhythm and mode of expression, a larger form of composition was devised, combining Variety with Unity. To this form the name of Suite was given.

Frescobaldi.—Another element tending to give Unity to the composition was developed when composers learned to work out a single subject, or melodic phrase representing a definite musical idea, by introducing it a number of times in the course of the composition, sometimes with slight variation, but always recognizable and used in such a way as to bind the various parts the more closely together by their similarity of conception. Several organists at Rome wrote music which possessed such unity of idea. One of these was Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1644), a man who was a close student of the best Italian music of his time, and who had, moreover, been brought into contact with Netherlands ideas through travel in Belgium. On his first appearance as organist of St. Peter’s in Rome, in 1615, so great fame had preceded him that over 30,000 people are said to have attended the performance. His skill on the clavier was no less than that on the organ ; and for both of these instruments he wrote Ricercari, Canzone and Capricci. which showed considerable unity of subject, together with fluency in the treatment of chromatic progressions, and a wealth of invention, which displayed itself in novel themes and unusual harmonies ; his compositions are well worth study.

Pasquini.—In the second half of the 17th century, Bernardo Pasquini (1637-1710), a pupil of the opera composer Cesti, carried on the work at Rome. In his toccati he shows great freedom in departing from the strict vocal style, and his clavier works have features, like the sustained trill, which distinguish them decidedly from organ works.

Method of Playing the Clavier.—The method of playing the clavier used by these old masters was peculiar. In a work on the subject published by Di Ruta, about the year 1600, the rules given include holding the fingers out flat on the keys, and scarcely using the thumb at all, allowing it to hang below the level of the keyboard. The scales were played each with two fingers, according to fixed rules ; so that smoothness combined with rapidity seems to have been made impossible.

The Sonata and Overture.—Starting with the harmonic form of the old dance tunes, composers now began to elaborate this to a form capable of expressing more serious ideas, by giving more definiteness to the musical subject treated, and by introducing material derived from the old vocal forms. Corelli, the violinist (1653-1713), and the violinists, of his school, restricted the name Sonata to combinations of such movements, in distinction from the lighter forms of the Suite ; and the celebrated opera composer, Alessandro Scarlatti (1659-1725), applied similar methods to the composition of his operatic overtures, writing them in three parts : first, a moderately fast movement, which was followed by a slow movement, the whole closing with a movement in quick tempo.

Domenico Scarlatti.—Clavier music lagged somewhat be-hind violin music, owing to the greater perfection of the violin as an instrument, and also to the popularity of the lute, which was much affected in fashionable circles. Finally, however, a man appeared who possessed the genius to develop the peculiar resources of the harpsichord to a remarkable extent. This was Domenico Scarlatti, the son and pupil of Alessandro Scarlatti. The latter was him-self a skilful clavier player and composer; but his son attained a proficiency so far eclipsing that of any of his predecessors as to place him entirely without the pale of comparison with any of them. Domenico Scarlatti, who was born at Naples in 1683, two years before Handel and Bach, first attracted attention when about twenty-one years old, as an opera composer; but achieved his greatest successes as a virtuoso on the harpsichord, winning a world-wide reputation for his wonderful playing, which was a revelation of what could be done with this hitherto undeveloped instrument. In one of Handel’s Italian journeys a contest of skill was instituted between these two musical giants ; and the result was a drawn battle so far as the harpsichord was concerned, although Handel triumphed at the organ. Scarlatti traveled about somewhat, spending most of his later life in the position of court music master at Madrid. He finally returned to his birthplace, where he died in 1757.

Scarlatti’s Use of Form.—In the matter of form, Scarlatti developed still further the work of his predecessors, applying to the harpsichord the principles asserted by Corelli and his school. His Sonatas were written in one movement only, and have very definite subjects, which are carried out along recognized lines. His Capriccii—short pieces written in a rhythmic and delicately staccato style—are some of his best works, and undoubtedly paved the way for the Scherzi, written by Beethoven and Mendelssohn. His compositions are short, but concise and definite.

Scarlatti’s Style of Playing.—But his chief addition to musical material lies in the new style of playing which he invented. Novel effects, like crossing the hands, long leaps, broken chords in contrary motion, rapidly repeated notes, and runs in thirds and sixths—effects which were in many cases far ahead of his time, since they were not used by succeeding composers until a much later period—were employed by him with the utmost fluency, so that he has been aptly called the father of modern pianoforte technic.

Durante.—The Neapolitan school boasted several other worthy clavier composers, who contributed in various ways to the composition of the Sonata. One of these was Francesco Durante (1684-1755), who wrote sonatas in two movements of different character but in the same key. The first, called a Studio, was written as a free fugue with running passages ; the second, or Divertimento, was more animated and less scholastic. Domenico Alberti (1707-1740) composed sonatas similar in general form, but of less artistic worth, consisting as they did simply of a single-voiced melody, supported by an harmonic accompaniment having no independence of style. Much of this was in the form of broken chords, a mannerism which was afterwards used to excess, and became dubbed the “Alberti bass.” This accompaniment form doubtless suited the clavichord and harpsichord, but is not so well adapted to the more sonorous modern piano. It is still used by composers for very simple accompaniments.

Pier Domenico Paradies (1710-1792) deserves special mention as the writer of elegant and well-balanced clavier music. He first won success as a composer of operas, which were given in Italy, and afterwards in London, where he finally settled as clavier teacher. His sonatas have two movements, like Durante’s, and contain brilliant allegros, besides attractive melodies. His two-part rapid contrapuntal work is excellent, both for musical merit and for technical study.

Summary.—We have seen, then, that in the 16th century, in Italy, instrumental music began to break from its union with vocal music; that the Opera brought the harpsichord especially into notice in the 17th century, on account of its availability for accompaniments, and that finally, in the 18th century, the Neapolitan composers developed for it a style which took advantage of its peculiar resources, and applied them to the enrichment of the harmonic forms which were coming into vogue.


Weitzmann.—History of Pianoforte Playing.

Naumann.—History of Music, Vol. I.

J. S. Shedlock.—The Pianoforte Sonata.

Henderson.—How Music Developed.

Henderson.—Preludes and Studies.

Weitzmann’s History, pages 291-313.

Rimbault, “The Pianoforte,” pages 257, 306, 310.

Litolff edition, No. 397, second volume of “Music by Old Masters.”

Augener edition, No. 8298, Old Italian Compositions.

The Breitkopf Edition, Nos. III, 112, 411, have reference to music for the clavier, written during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Biblioteca d’Oro, Ricordi, contains examples of the compositions of the leading composers of the 17th to 19th centuries.