Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger
b Venice c 1580- d Rome 1651
The Libro primo dīintavolatura di lauto (Rome 1611) is the only lutebook that has
survived by the enigmatic "noble German" Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, but it contains perhaps
the most passionate, expressive and strikingly original music in the history of the Italian
lute tradition. A virtuoso on the lute and the theorbo, "Il Tedesco della Tiorba", as Kapsberger
was known to his contemporaries, was one of the most successful composers of his day, a profilic
composer of lute and theorbo music, and between 1604 and 1640 he stood very much in the
of Roman music. Keenly aware of the changing styles of his time and the intricate patronage
strategies upon which his career depended, Kapsberger composed in practically every genre
of music - sacred and secular, vocal and instrumental - that was in vogue during the early
Until about 1619, Kapsberger achieved his fame mainly by his
skill as a brilliant performer and innovative composer of lute and theorbo music. From the
1620s, however, he became equally recognized as a composer for the voice, publishing books
of madrigali, villanelle, arie, and mottetti passeggiatte,
Masses, settings of papal poetry, ceremonial music, a Christmas cantata, and several operas,
in addition to books in ensemble instrumental music.
Seventeenth century inventories
of Kapsbergerīs works list many more tantalizing items that no longer survive: additional
prints for lute (1619) and theorbo (1616, 1626), five manuscript volumes of lute and theorbo
music that were "awaiting publication", music for chitarra spizzicata , "diverse operas
", vocal arie, instrumental sinfonie, and even a treatise Il Kapsberger della musica
A composer of impressive versatility, Kapsberger is at his most creative in his music for
lute and theorbo. The lute toccatas in particular require the player to reach high emotional
and technical level, while at the same time allow for an interpretive flexibility which, in
keeping with the general æsthetic of early Baroque performance practice, indulges the lutenistīs
individuality, invention, and spontaneity.
We know almost nothing of Kapsbergerīs life prior to the appearance in Venice of his Libro
primo dīintavolatura di chitarrone in 1604, a landmark publication that contained the
first music ever published for solo theorbo. Riding on the wings of this success and armed
with a reputation as a virtuoso, Kapsberger moved to Rome sometime after 1605, where his ability
and status as a nobile Alemano gained him entry into the circles of powerful families
such as the Aldobrandini and the Bentivoglio, as well as the fashionable and erudite Roman
academies. One of these was the Accademia degli Umoristi, which forms the backdrop for the
works in the Libro primo.
In a revealing dedication to the book, dated 24 of
June 1611, academy member Filippo Nicolini states that he has "collected these works with
great care [as a nobleman, Kapsberger did not arrange for the publication of his works himself,
but had others to do it for him]....for I am asked every day by various friends to see that
in our Academy they are better known."
Whereas Italian printed lute books of the sixteenth
century were designed to appeal to a wide commercial and largely amateur market, Kapsbergerīs
lute and theorbo publications circulated in the more restricted and private milieu of the
poets, artists and scientists who were at the cutting edge of invention in early
Rome. As Nicolini continues in his preface, he is grateful "to have among us the close
of these works which are composed not for everyone, but only for our Academy......
It was at these academies, at which courtiers were first exposed during this period to the
extravagant poetry of Giambattista Marino, the intensity of Caravaggioīs chiaroscuro,
and Galileoīs telescopic observations of the moon, that Kapsbergerīs Libro primo was
probably heard for the first time.
In 1622, Kapsberger wrote his Apotheosis...., a Jesuit opera commissioned by the Collegio
Romano to celebrate the canonizations of Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier. The work was
easily the most elaborate musical production in Rome prior to the "official" beginning of
Roman opera a decade later. The Apotheosis also marks the period of Kapsbergerīs
relationship with the papal circle. This bond was strengthened with the publication of his
Poematia et Carmina (Rome 1624), a setting in unbroken recitative style of Latin poems
written by Maffeo Barberini, the newly elected Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644). The Poematia
was clearly strategic in Kapsbergerīs successful climb up the patronage ladder, and in 1624
he was officially appointed to the papal court, where he became one of the most highly paid
musicians in Rome.
During Urbanīs twenty-one year pontificate the erudite and cultured pope, along with his two
nephews Francesco (who was Kapsbergerīs immediate patron) and Antonio Barberini, embarked
on a comprehensive, self-aggrandizing, and lavishly expensive program of artistic patronage
to which the essence of the Baroque style in Rome is largely indebted.
In addition to the Barberiniīs patronage of artists and sculptors such as Bernini, Borromini,
and Pietro da Cortona, both Francesco and Antonio maintained their own musical households.
Kapsbergerīs colleagues included Girolamo Frescobaldi, Luigi Rossi, Domenicho Mazzochi, Stefano
Landi, the theorist Doni, and dozens of other instrumentalist and singers. Kapsberger continued
to write lute, theorbo and secular vocal works during his years under the Barberini, but the
bulk of his published output after 1624 shows a tendency towards sacred themes, occasional
music, and opera. Many of these works enjoyed the particular favour of Pope Urban. In 1626
Doni wrote to Mersenne that Kapsberger "often had the honor of having his pieces sung in the
chamber of His Holiness", and in 1627 one of his Masses was sung in the Sistine Chapel at
While critics heaped praise on Kapsberger for his musical innovation
and technique, contemporary descriptions of his personality are much less flattering. He
was most often accused of a shameless flaunting of his nobility. One account from the Bentivoglio
archive dating to 1610 describes how after he had finished performing, Kapsberger refused
to eat dinner afterwards with the guests and went home "with a swollen head", since he had
received many compliments but had not been seated at a table with other noblemen
and academicians. Bouchard wrote to Mersenne in 1634 that he had approached Kapsberger about
wishing to purchase the (now lost) Libro secondo dīintavolatura di lauto "in which
he shows how to make diminutions, but he was asking 12 gold crowns for this book and it seemed
to that he did not want give it to me".
In the same year the composer Stefano Landi
mentioned that while Kapsberger was an excellent player, he was not very dependable or
punctual in compositions; and the famous theorist Giovanni Battista Doni, for reasons that
are still unclear, turned from being Kapsbergerīs advocate to his adversary, and launched
ruthless attacks against him in print.
The death of Urban VIII, in 1644, marked the end to one of the most spectacular periods of
artistic production and patronage in Western history. Kapsberger remined a salaried member
of Francescoīs household until the cardinals themselves were forced to flee to Paris in 1645-46
to escape the investigation by Urbanīs thrifty successor Pope Innocent X of the enormous
debts left by the Barberini.
Other than a few payment records, we know nothing of Kapsberger
from 1640, the year of his last publications, until his death notice of 1651, after which
his music was buried for almost three centuries.
Composed during a period of stylistic instability
and experimentation, Kapsbergerīs music was victim to the rapid changes in taste and the
of musical forms that occurred after 1650, not to mention the steady decline of the lute
and the theorbo in Italy. Thus, the resurrection of Kapsbergerīs music that has taken place
over the past decade is long overdue, for it is a vital part of the magnificence, the startling
contrasts, and the revolutions in the arts and sciences that characterized the age of Roman