Vincenzo Galilei's 'Fronimo'

Whenever we nowadays hear the surname Galilei it tends to invoke the image of Galileio, the Great mathematician and astronomer, who played out that fundamental role in that which is today conventionally defined as the "scientific revolution of the XVIth century". Only those informed in musical history and other adepts in the theory of music know that Galileo’s father, Vincenzo Galilei, was the author of various musical treatises that were to gain him a certain reputation in Italy towards the end of the sixteenth century. Fewer still actually know his musical output, devoted as it was almost to accompany him throughout his lifetime.

Notwithstanding his noble Florentine origins, Vincenzo Galilei was born in about 1530 in Santa Maria a Monte, a tiny town within reach of Pisa. His family had been obliged to leave Florence due to financial problems, and he himself was a complain throughout his life of economic difficulties maintaining his immediate family. Under such conditions, one may understand why the lute was to fulfill such an important role for Vincenzo since it was to be his principal means of support through income derived from the lessons that he gave until the end of his life, and it was not merely an activity of diversion.

We know little of Galilei’s youth: we do know that subsequently he was to benefit from the generosity of the Florentine patron “from his early years”, Count Giovanni Bardi. It was undoubtedly the latter who was to have encouraged Galilei to take lessons in musical theory from the greatest specialist of the time, the future chapel master of Saint Mark’s in Venice, Gioseffo Zarlino. This contact with this great teacher was decisive in Vincenzo’s subsequent career, since, alongside his musical output (which totaled two books of madrigals, a book of music for lute and a book of contrapunti in two voices, and not including the various manuscripts) he was to dedicate a great part of his energy towards the drawing up of various treatises on musical theory, certain amongst which were to take a clear stance against the position taken by Zarlino himself.

Amongst all the theoretical works left by Galilei, Fronimo is probably that which best demonstrates his abilities. Written in the period in which he was living in Pisa, his home since 562, the treatise was published in 1568 in Venice with a dedication to Prince William, the son of the Duke of Bavaria, Fronimo, as its title would suggest, “in which be contained the true, and necessary rules for the intabulation of the Music for the Lute” is of interest for various reasons. Firstly for its discursive structure of a dialogue between teacher (Fronimo) and his pupil (Eumatio) it gives a convincing view of the actual lessons that Galilei was imparting in that period, and allows us an insight into his teaching method; secondly it acquaints us with the principal concerns of the instrumentalists of the XVIth century, and hence with their repertoire; finally his treatise is of value in that it has no peer within Italy, nor indeed within Europe: in the same period, only the French lutenist Adrian le Roy was to publish a work, albeit one less detailed, that was comparable with Fronimo.

The principle of Fronimo is simple: to furnish the lutenist with a method for the arrangement of vocal works for his own instrument. In this respect, a comparison between the treatises of Le Roy and Galilei brings immediately to the fore the qualities that made this Italian lutenist particularly outstanding. As compared with his French counterpart, he asked his reader to remain as faithful as possible to the original model, and to modify neither the polyphonic structure (even were the piece to be of four or more voices), nor its melodic character. Whereas for the great majority of lutenists of Galilei’s time the art of setting vocal music to tablature amounted to the addition of numerous ornamental figures and at the same time simplifying the primary polyphonic structure where convenient. Vincenzo Galilei himself was to exhort his pupil to rather greater rigor. The second part of his treatise also contains an important anthology of Italian madrigals in from four to six voices, selected in order to serve as examples for the novice lutenist. The madrigals are from the most famous of the time, a few of which were published little before 1568 (Tanto co’ lieti suoni by Claudio Merulo), others being rather older, such as the madrigal in six voices by Verdelot, or the one by Domenico Ferrabosco.

If as we may hear from these examples, Galilei, does not totally transform the original vocal work within his tablature transcription, he does on the other hand allow himself to compose instrumental pieces that were greatly inspired by several of the madrigalists that were to appear in his treatise. This is the case with the Fantasia sopra Anchor che col partire, constructed from the similarly named madrigal published in 1547 by Cipriano de Rore. This work, one of the longest and most ambitious instrumental pieces by Galilei, shows how he was able to develop a complex composition using a simple arrangement as his point of departure.

The success that was to greet Fronimo amongst Italian lutenists must have been significant, since Galilei was to reprint his treatise sixteen years later, in 1584. In this period he had already left Pisa in favour of Florence in order to be within reach of his principal patron, Giovanni Bardi. It was in the entourage of the latter that the lutenist was to take part in the renowned «camerata» at the behest of the Count, this being an informal academy that aimed at the better understanding of the musical praxis of Greek antiquity, with the intention of being able to apply certain of its principles to «modern» music. Such researches resulted in the publication in 1581 of his most famous work, il Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna (Dialogue of ancient and of modern music), and whose content is somewhat remote from the practice of lute-playing. Nevertheless, this instrument cannot have been complete absent from his thoughts in this period, since the second draft, Galilei having profited from the opportunity of making extensive changes to the contents of the treatise. Whereas the general principles, as described above, had not changed from 1568, the repertoire itself has been almost entirely renewed, and entire chapters have been added, such as the one which explains to the reader how modality functions. Each of the twelve modes (defined as «tuoni» or tones) is illustrated with two brief ricercari, small inventions which, apart from having a pedagogic function, may also have an introductory role in preparing the listener for the mode used in the following piece.

During the same year that the second edition of Fronimo was published, Galilei brought to conclusion the manuscript for a book of lute music that was never in fact to see publication, and which he decided to call Libro d’intavolatura di liuto. Exclusively dedicated to instrumental dances, this substantial volume is divided into several sections, which gather the dances together by type, or by cycle.

Finally, the remaining pieces, that stand out due to their titles which are tinted with a suggestion of Greek antiquity, are part of the third section of Galilei’s collection of dances. This contains fifty or so short galliards each bearing the name of a female character or personage (in this case honour is paid mainly to the muses, though the pastoral world and mythology are also referred to), one manner by which Galilei might have evidenced the extent to which the ancient culture might have influenced his own musical creativity.

Philippe Canguilhem



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