May 19, 2019


Acoustics in the Age of Frescobaldi and Fantini

May 19, 2019


Acoustics in the Age of Frescobaldi and Fantini

The 1702 Filippo Testa organ at Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, Italy.

The 1702 Filippo Testa organ at Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, Italy.

The trumpeting community owes Girolamo Frescobaldi a debt of gratitude. As one of the highest paid musicians in Italy during the early seventeenth century, Frescobaldi’s prowess as keyboardist and composer led to many close associations with rulers at the upper echelons of both the ecclesiastic and secular worlds, leaving a trail of anecdotes and documents that paints a clearer picture of the performing conditions surrounding early secular music for trumpet and organ. There are far too many details to cover in one short article, but my hopes are to illuminate a process that, for me, led to a clearer understanding of how this music might have sounded at initial performances, especially from an acoustical perspective, and how that might give performers — trumpeters and organists alike — a starting place in their own journey toward performing similar music in the twenty-first century.

I spent a brief seven days in Rome at the Vatican Library (BAV) in the Spring of 2013 as part of a larger study attempting to piece together a narrative that defined Girolamo Fantini’s presence in Rome, c. 1634. Fantini is one of the very first recognizable public figures in the trumpet history canon. His importance comes from his treatise Modo per imparare a suonare di Tromba (Florence, 1638) , one of the first substantive writings on trumpet performance; additionally, he was listed in the first public record of a trumpeter performing in a soloistic role with pipe organ as accompaniment. This is particularly relevant, as Girolamo Frescobaldi was the organist on that concert. We know the personnel and, to a lesser extent, the location of this fabled performance via a letter sent from Pierre Michon Bourdelot to Marin Mersenne — a letter that would be cited in Mersenne’s 1636 treatise Harmonie Universelle. The details surrounding this concert provide insights regarding performances in the homes of wealthy patrons and, by extension, chamber music for trumpet and organ. It was through the search for more details that led to the idea that the venue and its acoustics play a prominent role in performance practice of this music.

Frescobaldi and Fantini left a few clues as to how one might approach their works, although those details are still hotly contested. Instead of concentrating on those, I decided to investigate tangible details: how the physical aspects of the spaces and organology might have affected performance practice. When a particular repertoire is placed within a specific acoustic, and performed with instruments that have a clearly defined specification (i.e. the early seventeenth century natural trumpet and organ, specifically in Rome), performance decisions might need to be adjusted from what has become dogmatic in the twenty-first century. Organists are very attuned to the fact that the space is, in effect, part of their instrument. I’ve always enjoyed hearing phrases during my sporadic organ study such as “Let the room clear”, and “in this acoustic the musical ideas are blurred at that tempo.” Trumpeters are not generally taught the importance of acoustics. Most of us simply enjoy playing in a resonant space both for the sonic and “playing comfort” benefits. I would eventually find that, as a trumpeter, acoustic can have a drastic impact on the playability of Fantini’s music. It was through Frescobaldi that the details would come to light.

How does one attempt to recreate playing conditions from centuries ago as a means to inform modern performance? Should it even be attempted? Given enough evidence, it is possible to develop a constellation of data that can serve as a guide. I was first interested in determining the location of the original Frescobaldi/Fantini performance. Second, I attempted to determine a reasonably close estimation of the instruments used in the performance. Third, upon solidifying the original performance location(s), I attempted to visit the spaces and, with the help of modern technology, take acoustical impulse response recordings of the rooms. Later I would derive reverb presets from these recordings that could be used to recreate the ambiance of the room, essentially creating an “acoustic archive” of the space(s). Finally, a recording of representative compositions could then be made of a trumpet and/or trumpet and organ duo in either 1) an acoustically dead room or 2) a recording would be made in close proximity to the trumpet or trumpet/organ duo in a normal space with an eye towards applying a reverb preset to the recording to approximate the performance conditions of the room where the original concert took place.

The original account of the Fantini/Frescobaldi performance, via letter from Bourdelot to Mersenne, was most likely sent in the second half of the year 1634. Igino Conforzi notes in his research on Fantini that “In fact, in a letter of September 6 of that year, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (Aix en-Provence) writes to Bourdelot in Rome that the above-cited work [Harmonie Universelle] of Mersenne was just beginning to be printed in Paris.” An earlier letter between them on June 12, 1634 shows that Bourdelot was still in Paris; Bourdelot surely arrived in Rome sometime between those dates. By extension, the concert surely commenced after June 12. This means that the concert probably took place between July and September, slightly later if Bourdelot’s account was a late addition to Mersenne’s publication.

Another difficult question is determining the exact location. Bourdelot’s letter to Mersenne notes that the concert took place at “Borghese’s organ”. Most research assume this to be a pipe organ in Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s possession, but it was not noted whether it was in a church or in a residence. Borghese was a very influential patron of the arts in the first third of the seventeenth century and had connection with organ music both inside and outside the church. However, a detail that is repeatedly overlooked is that he died in October, 1633. This obviously means that his life did not intersect with the 1634 date of the Fantini/Frescobaldi concert. There is an outside chance that his nephew Pier Maria Borghese could have been the organizer, though Pier Maria was assigned to take over San Crisogono and was not seemingly active in Rome. There is also no evidence that Pier Marie was involved in the arts at all. Instead, I believe Bourdelot’s letter uses the term “at Borghese’s organ” to note that the concert utilized one of organs located at the late Borghese’s residences because Frescobaldi was actually in the service of the Barberini family, not the Borghese. Pope Urban VIII Barberini was responsible for bringing Frescobaldi to Rome, and made sure he was one of the highest paid musicians in Italy. Most importantly, the Barberini family also hosted “Academies” throughout Rome that rotated through the houses of local nobility. These Academies seem to have been social gatherings in support of live performances. Other evidence points to the fact that the Frescobaldi/Fantini performance might have been a Barberini Academy performance that took place at Cardinal Borghese’s home after his death, as the home was still in use by the family.

Where is this house? How might one characterize its acoustics? What was the organ like? Some of these questions are still under scrutiny. Regarding the house: Scipione Borghese owned two grand homes in Rome at the time of his death. Villa Borghese, now a museum and historical site, is still mostly unchanged and open to the public. His other residence, Palazzo Torlonia, lies just outside the plaza in front of St. Peters. Owned now by the Torlonia family, it is mostly inaccessible to the public. I was able to gain access to Villa Borghese for an afternoon of acoustic research. After repeated attempts to contact the Torlonia family (including actress Brooke Shields, who married into the family), I was unable to gain entrance.

Geert van der Heide’s reconstruction of an Italian natural trumpet by Lissandro (1589), alongside original.

From an organological standpoint, Fantini’s instrument would have been a natural trumpet. Whether it was built by an Italian or by one of the great makers in Nuremberg is uncertain, requisitions lead me to believe it was a typically twice-folded form. From a construction viewpoint, Geert van der Heide recently created a reconstruction of a 1589 trumpet by Lissandro Milanese from Genoa (the original trumpet was found at the bottom of the sea on a shipwreck near Texel, Holland). It has the familiar twice-folded form associated with natural trumpets of the baroque era. Being substantially earlier, though, the bell profile has a much gentler flare. A few mouthpieces were also found. From this and the many German trumpets still extant, we can begin to see how similarly-constructed natural trumpets were across Europe for several centuries. These details lead me to believe Fantini played a fairly typical trumpet for the time.

Geert van der Heide’s reconstruction of an Italian natural trumpet by Lissandro (1589), alongside original.

The c. 1580 anonymous organo di legno at the Silberne Kapelle in Innsbruck, Austria, one of the only surviving original instruments of its kind, which may have been the type of organ Frescobaldi played with Fantini.

The sheer consistency in specification of pipe organs in seventeenth century Italy also leads me to believe that we can make reasonable assumptions about the type of organ on which Frescobaldi played. Whether it was a somewhat larger residential instrument or a small positive organ, we can safely assume it would be designed around the idea of the Italian ripieno. The ripieno was based upon mildly-voiced principal stops, generally with low cut-ups, often starting at 8’ pitch and continuing through 4’, 2’, 1 1/3’, 1’, 2/3’, and higher according to the size of the instrument. Larger instruments might include flute ranks at 4’ and 2 2/3’, and sometimes an off-pitch reed or flute to act as a celeste stop (these are very general guidelines, as permutations and alterations can certainly be found). It is also possible that the organ used was an “Organo di Legno”, (an organ of wood) which is generally a small organ based on the ripieno principle, but with pipework constructed of wood. Given the already gentle nature of Italian pipework scaling, voicing, and low wind pressure, the organo di legno took gentleness a step further, and its portability and tonal sweetness was probably why it found favor in smaller spaces. Pertaining to Cardinal Borghese, there is evidence from Papal records of a delivery of a “small wooden organ” to his home “ Borgo” (now Palazzo Torlonia) in 1612. Again, I have yet to gain access to Palazzo Torlonia, but my research has shown no evidence that this small wooden organ still exists. But given all these factors, I do still believe one can get a general sonic picture of Borghese’s pipe organ by visiting one of many extant seventeenth-century organs in and around Rome. The consistency of specification and sonic intention has left a wealth of examples.

The c. 1580 anonymous organo di legno at the Silberne Kapelle in Innsbruck, Austria, one of the only surviving original instruments of its kind, which may have been the type of organ Frescobaldi played with Fantini.

While Palazzo Torlonia was off limits to me, my afternoon at Villa Borghese was a sonic revelation. The thick solid masonry walls clad in stucco and frescos, tile floors, high ceilings, and a lack of absorbent surfaces made for a warm and reverberant acoustic with reverb times in excess of five seconds. While the specific acoustic would surely be somewhat different at a social function, given the addition of people and tapestries, the fact that the character of the room allowed for a warm bloom of sound turned out to have real ramifications for my performance studies. A comprehensive review of available photographs, and architectural drawings of Palazzo Torlonia from the seventeenth century lead me to believe it would have possessed similar acoustic properties (although this will need to be verified in person at a later time). Armed with a powered studio monitor on a stand (powered by lithium battery packs), dry 100Hz- 20kHz sine sweeps were played from varying locations in rooms of three representative sizes (see floor plan). These dry sweeps were captured by a spaced pair of omnidirectional mics at ear height/width. I chose typical locations where the organ might have stood in the varying rooms and had the loudspeaker play the sweeps from those locations while capturing the results from various “audience” perspectives. The sweeps were captured in stereo to a high-resolution Tascam digital recorder. Monitors, microphones, and studio monitors (loudspeakers) were chosen to have the lowest self-noise and flattest frequency response in my budget. Portability was also important seeing that I was a team of one traveling internationally with the gear.

Upon returning to Louisiana, I created reverb presets from my studies with computers. The results of applying the acoustic of Villa Borghese to “dry” recordings of repertoire by Fantini was a revelation. The most prominent Italian seventeenth-century music involving trumpets is ensemble music composed of 6 distinct parts, with the lowest of the parts essentially playing very long, sustained notes in the lowest registers of the trumpet. In a modern setting, these low notes are very difficult to sustain, and performance of them leads to a “gasping” affect. However, played in Villa Borghese (virtually or physically in the space), the long, warm reverberation becomes the vehicle for sustain. Members of the ensemble can play with consistently short note values, while the performance remains sustained (yet more articulate!). The following example is a “gasping” (but spirited!) rendition of the Toccata from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo on vented baroque trumpets in a modern recital hall with no acoustic modification. You can hear, especially in the lower voices, that there is a struggle to sustain the lower voices consistently:

The next three musical examples all have my Villa Borghese convolution reverb preset applied. During brief moments in each of the recordings, you’ll hear the reverb preset drop out to hear how the work is being performed “dry”. First, here is a performance of an excerpt from Fantini’s Sonata Imperiale on modern B-flat trumpets at A=440Hz, with all note lengths played as notated at a decidedly slower tempo, with the Villa Borghese reverb added digitally:

Fantini: Sonata Imperiale, modern trumpets, full note values, performed by Shelby Lewis, et al.

This next example is performed with vented baroque trumpets at A=415hz. It is also performed at a faster tempo, but still with full note lengths:

Fantini: Sonata Imperiale, vented baroque trumpets, full note values, performed by Shelby Lewis, et al.

The final example is performed on truly non-vented natural trumpets that are similar to the reconstruction spoken about earlier in this article... namely, they are unvented and the bell flare is gentler (non-exponential) type typical of seventeenth-century trumpet and unlike later trumpets utilized by the likes of Bach, Handel, and Purcell.

Fantini: Sonata Imperiale, non-vented natural trumpets, shortened note values, performed by Shelby Lewis, et al.

All notes are played rather short and yet there is still a sense that they are being sustained. The blurred character of the earlier examples, especially in the lower parts, is also greatly reduced. Most importantly, the lowest parts are actually playable. No longer is it necessary for the lower trumpets to fall into the “play, quick breath, play, quick breath, etc.” pattern for the entire work. By extension, I believe that organ performance practice from this time could also potentially benefit from simply dealing with some of the issues helpful to trumpeters. For example, could the acoustic be utilized to “sustain” certain notes in order to simplify fingerings in some passages? Of course, Villa Borghese is only one venue. Applying my specific findings to every modern performance would be fool-hardy at best. Yet by simply trying to establish a location and then looking earnestly into the non-musical and physical space characteristics surrounding an important historical event (the Fantini/Frescobaldi concert in 1634), I have been able to devise a way to perform generally problematic music for trumpet ensemble in a manner that is musically satisfying and physically far more comfortable. I believe this process to be worthwhile.

Given that my conclusions are so heavily weighted towards my trumpet-centric research, one might forget how Frescobaldi played a part in this research. In my view, very little of this research would have been possible without the addition of Frescobaldi’s genius to the process. His importance in the Roman musical world, circa 1634, meant that his name showed up often in Barberini pay records as well as in written accounts of concerts. These events offered a timeline of events that could be compared and contrasted with a much more sparse timeline for Fantini. Beyond these things, his compositional output and performance prowess meant that an account of his one performance with Girolamo Fantini was deemed important enough to make it into Mersenne’s Harmonie Universelle. Moving forward in my research regarding early performing conditions and performance practice, you can be assured that I will be tapping into the long and important history surrounding the pipe organ and its associated performers and composers. The centuries-long relationship between the trumpet and pipe organ offers us trumpeters many potentially undiscovered riches to add to our history.


Selected Bibliography

Audsley, George Ashdown. The Art of Organ-building: A Comprehensive Historical, Theoretical, and Practical Treatise on the Tonal Appointment and Mechanical Construction of Concert-room, Church, and Chamber Organs 1. New York: Dover Publications, 1965.

Baines, Anthony. "Natural Trumpet." In Brass Instruments: Their History and Development. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2012.

Baines, Anthony. "The Evolution of Trumpet Music up to Fantini." Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 101, no. 1 (1974): 1–9.

Barclay, R. L. The Art of the Trumpet-maker: The Materials, Tools, and Techniques of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries in Nuremberg. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Barclay, Robert. "Reconstruction of a Natural Trumpet by Sterner of Nürnberg." The Galpin Society Journal 42 (1989): 98–104. 1989.

Baron, John H. "Chamber Music Before Corelli." In Intimate Music: A History of the Idea of Chamber Music 24. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1998.

Byrne, Maurice. "William Bull, John Stevenson and the Harris Family." The Galpin Society Journal 45 (1992): 67–77.

Conforzi, Igino. "Girolamo Fantini, "Monarch of the Trumpet": Recent Additions to His Biography." Historic Brass Society Journal 5 (1993): 159–173.

Downey, P. "On Sounding the Trumpet and Beating the Drum in Seventeenth-Century England." Early Music 24, no. 2 (1996): 263–277.

Downey, P. "A Baroque Trumpet Manuscript: Antonio Carlini Ed., Il Libro Del Trombetta: Trento, Sec. XVII." Early Music 30, no. 4 (2002): 628–630.

Downey, Peter. "A Renaissance Correspondence concerning Trumpet Music." Early Music 9, no. 3 (1981): 328.

Downey, Peter. "Fantini and Mersenne: Some Additions to Recent Controversies." Historic Brass Society Journal 6 (1994): 355–362.

Heide, Geert Jan Van Der. "The Reconstruction of a Sixteenth-Century Italian Trumpet." Historic Brass Society Journal 9 (1996): 42–52.

Heide, Geert Jan Van De. "Brass Instrument Metal Working Techniques: The Bronze Age to the Industrial Revolution." Historic Brass Society Journal 3, no. 1 (1991): 122–150.

Klaus, Sabine Katharina, and Mark Olencki. Trumpets and Other High Brass: A History Inspired by the Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Collection. Vol. 1: Instruments of the Single Harmonic Series. Vermillion, S.D.: National Music Museum, 2012.

Lionnet, Jean, Norma Deane, and John Whenham. "The Borghese Family and Music during the First Half of the Seventeenth Century." Music and Letters 74, no. 4 (1993): 519–529.

Madeuf, J.-F. "The Revival of the Natural Trumpet in the Baroque Repertory: Utopian or Not?" Early Music 38, no. 2 (2010): 203–204.

"Making Impulse Responses from Real Acoustic Environments for Music Production." Accessed March 26, 2014.

Mendel, Arthur. "Pitch in Western Music since 1500. A Re-Examination." Acta Musicologica 50 (1978): 1–93.

Mersenne, Marin. Harmonicorum Libri [12] in Quibus Agitur De Sonorum Natura, Causis Et Effectibus: De Consonantiis Dissonantiis ... Compositione, Orbisque Totius Harmonicis Instrumentis. 1635.

Mersenne, Marin, and Roger E. Chapman. Harmonie Universelle: The Books on Instruments. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1957.

"Natural Trumpet. Nominal Pitch: E-flat." Musical Instruments Museums Edinburgh.

Rowe, Colin, and Leon George Satkowski. Italian Architecture of the Sixteenth Century. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.

Saunders, Steven. "The Hapsburg Court of Ferdinand II and the "Messa, Magnificat et Iubilate Deo a Sette Chori Concertati con le Trombe" (1621) of Giovanni Valentini." Journal of the American Musicological Society 44, no. 3 (1991): 359–403.

Silbiger, Alexander. "Predecessors, Contemporaries, and Followers." In Frescobaldi Studies 94. Durham: Duke University Press, 1987.

Smithers, Don L. The Music and History of the Baroque Trumpet before 1721. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1973.


A native Tennessean, Shelby Lewis now finds his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he pursues a career on modern and historic trumpets. Along with national and international engagements in early music, Shelby continues to follow his passions for design, woodworking, and photography alongside his career as a trumpeter while also performing/teaching actively “on the bayou” (in Baton Rouge and New Orleans) as a classical, jazz, and commercial trumpeter. Holding a master’s degree in architecture, he’s at the front end of a long-term study of historic performing conditions for trumpet and pipe organ that aims to fully utilize his musical and architectural training. His latest personal project involves creating reproductions of trumpet mutes from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.