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Composer Biography: Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543-1588)
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
Although much of his life was spent as an ordinary court musician, Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder had moments of notoriety that quietly upset the proverbial British teakettle. He came from a family of musicians and fathered another great family of musicians, and saw the Vatican from the choir loft, France from the home of the Duke of Savoy, and England from Queen Elizabeth I’s court. He also hung out with England’s most famous musicians, including William Byrd, Thomas Morley, and John Dowland.Ferrabosco was born in Bologna, the son of Domenico Ferabosco (note spelling difference). Domenico (1513-1574) may be the same person who was dismissed from being maestro of the Papal choir at St. Petronio for being married and who later became maestro at a Roman church. That older Ferabosco published a volume of madrigals in 1542 and contributed others to anthologies. HIs song Io mi son giovinetta was especially popular and Giovanni Pieluigi da Palestrina (c1525-1594), probably the most famous musician and composer of the era, based a Mass on it. Other composers in the family include two children of a cousin of Domenico’s, Constantino (fl c1550-1600) who worked in Nuremburg and published a book of canzonettas, and Matthia (1550-1616) who was Kapellameiser in Graz and composed canzonettas and villanellas. Alfonso spent part of his early life in Rome with his notorious father, surrounded by music and musicians. As a young adult, he also spent some time in Lorraine (France) as a court musician for Charles of Guise (1524-1574). Alfonso went to England for the first time in 1562, probably with his uncle, and found employment in Elizabeth I’s court. There he stayed for the next 16 years. He made frequent trips to Italy, but neither the pope nor the Inquisition approved of his time in England, which was actively at war with Roman Catholic countries. While in England, Alfonso lost his Italian inheritance, and later, when he’d returned to Italy, was charged with crimes in England (in absentia), including robbing and killing another foreigner. He returned to clear his name successfully, but left England in 1578 and never returned. While in England, Alfonso had a family. There’s no record of marriage, so it’s possible that his children were illegitimate. One of these kids, also called Alfonso the Younger, was born in 1578 and lived in England until his death in 1628. He was a lutenist, viol player, and singer, and was employed at court from 1592. He (the Younger) became teacher to Henry and Prince Charles (later Charles I), and was granted a pension and annuity by James I in 1605. Under Charles I, Alfonso the Younger also became Composer of Music to the King. From 1605 until 1611, he worked on the music for seven masques, along with playwright Ben Jonson (c1572-1637) and architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652). Some of Alfonso the Younger’s works were published in a book of Ayres (1609) along with more conventional lute songs. His vocal music was similar to his father’s music in both somberness and style. His fantasias and In Nomines are outstanding among his instrumental music, which also includes dances for viols and pieces for lute. Alfonso the Younger had three sons who were also musicians, another Alfonso (c1610-1660), a viol and wind player who took over his father’s appointments; Henry (c1615-1658), a singer, wind player, and composer, who was a musician until 1645 and then went off on a military expedition to Jamaica, where he was killed in 1658; and John (1626-1682), who was an organist and composer at Ely Cathedral from 1662 and whose works include several services, anthems, and harpsichord dances. At any rate, after founding a dynasty, Alfonso the Elder left for Rome in 1580. Elizabeth I tried to get him to come back to England. Some sources suggest that he was a spy for Elizabeth, and she was so anxious for his return because she needed his information (after all, she had William Byrd and Thomas Tallisto write music for her). There isn’t much more than circumstantial evidence of this, though, and he refused to return to England. Alfonso the Elder wrote “madrigalian” motets and simple Latin hymn settings in a style similar to those of William Byrd. This was a style that had appeared in England in the 1580s when the English mania for all things Italian reached its height. [Examples of this mania can also be found in the poetry of Edmund Spenser (c1552-1599) and Philip Sidney (1554-1586).]Manuscript collections had reached England from Italy earlier with Alfonso the Elder in 1562, but it took a while for tastes to turn to the new style. And although he’s only given tiny little biographies in the music history texts, his music was anthologized by British, Italians, and Frenchmen. Not many can say that. And madrigals soon became the most prevalent type of composition in England, quite possibly because of his ubiquity.Alfonso the Elder’s style was more conservative than famed Italian madrigalists Luca Marenzio (c1553-1599) or Luzzasco Luzzaschi (c1545-1607), but it suited the English tastes. Most of his madrigals were for five or six voices, were light in style, and they ignored the Italian musical developments, such as chromaticism and word painting. They were described by Thomas Morley (c1557-1602) as technically skillful when he published several of Ferrabosco’s works in 1598 (10 years after Ferrabosco’s death). Alfonso also wrote sacred music, including motets, lamentations, and several anthems, all a capella (without instrumental accompaniment). He also wrote instrumental music, including fantasias, pavans, galliards, In Nomines, and passamezzos for a variety of instrumental combinations, including lute and viols. While in England, he worked to interest English musicians in Italian music, and although his style was conservative, he is the composer most generously represented in Musica Transalpina, a compilation of Italian madrigals translated into English and collected by Nicolas Yonge and published in 1588 by Michael East (c1580-1648). In total, Ferrabosco wrote more than 60 sacred works, mostly motets and Lamentations for five and six voices. Technically, he was most influenced by Orlando de Lassus (c1532-1594). In turn, he inspired William Byrd (1543-1623) and other English composers. Most of the texts he chose are sad and his melodic lines reflect his preoccupation with plaintive and meditative subjects and emotions. Perhaps he homesick for Italy.His work wasn’t as important as that of other Italian madrigalists, although he influenced them with what he’d learned from the English. It certainly also worked the other way, as he was the only Italian madrigalist in England at the time, and without his efforts, Byrd would have had no teacher in the style. Ferrabosco published two books of five-part secular madrigals in 1587 and wrote 70 more in five or six voices. His style is conservative—he was admired for skill rather than for innovation. Ferrabosco wrote a few chansons, Latin songs, fantasias, and dances for the lute, and some fantasias and In Nomines for viols. (For more about In Nomines, see my blog post on John Taverner.) In the last years of his life, Alfonso was court musician to the Duke of Savoy in Turin. He died in Bologna.
“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.“A Dictionary of Early Music; from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome & Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981. “Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.“The New Grove High Renaissance Masters,” by Gustave Reese, Jeremy Noble, Lewis Lockwood, Jessie Ann Owens, James Haar, Joseph Kerman, Robert Stevenson. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1984.