Giovanni Battista Fontana
Sonate a 1. 2. 3. per violino, o cornetto, fagotto, chitarone, violoncino o simile altro istromento


Precious little is known about the life of Giovanni Battista Fontana. He was probably born in Brescia between 1580 and 1589. His name appears in the dedication of Cesare Gussago’s Sonate a quattro, sei, et otto (Venice 1608), in which he is mentioned as a violinist with ‘as much fame in Venice as Orpheus had in Thebes’. The second sonata in this collection is even entitled La Fontana. In a document of 1627 a Giovanni Battista Fontana is mentioned at the court of Bishop Pietro Valier in Padua. And on October 7, 1630 a Giovanni Battista Fontana is registered as having died from fever in Padua. In the dedication of his own collection, posthumously published, he is described as ‘one of the most singular violin virtuoso of his time […] well known not only in his native city, but also in Venice, Rome, and finally Padua, where, like a dying swan, he displayed more marvellously than ever the sweetness of his music’. Fontana left in his will a manuscript with sonatas to the Chiesa della Gratie in Padua, with the request that it would be published. This was finally done in May 1641, more than ten years after the death of the composer.

Musical landscape

Fontana must have written his sonatas in the first three decades of the 17th century. This was a period of profound change in musical style, with Italy at the forefront of the experiments. In the 16th century the polyphonic, contrapuntal style, also known as prima prattica or ars perfecta, had found its perfection in the music of Palestrina. His compositional style, taken as the prime example of the rules dictated by the Counter Reformation, was to be the study material for professional music students well into the 18th century and beyond. But a new style was emerging at the beginning of the 17th century, the seconda prattica or stile nuovo. The first experiments took place in vocal music and most notably in the opera of the Florentine Camerata. With the sister art poetry as inspiration new aesthetic ideals were formulated that would have a profound effect on music. The rules of counterpoint were loosened to allow for greater freedom in the use of dissonants. The birth of basso continuo made a new harmonic language possible and the invention of recitative created an expressive, emotional and highly improvisational music, the stile rappresentativo. These elements were to become part and parcel of the new baroque style. But this did not happen overnight, partly because a conservative music world resisted such radical changes and partly because the ars perfecta was so much part of the musical training and language. This transitional period, in which old and new style coexisted, but were also mingled in different proportions, lasted the greater part of the 17th century.

The violin started its rise in popularity at the beginning of the 17th century with a simultaneous growth in level of violin building, virtuoso playing and composing for the instrument. The sonata was the chosen form for the development of a new violin idiom. Early composer-performers of the genre were Cima, Marini and Fontana. Sonatas were played in church as part of ceremonies and processions, and had the same function as motets, adding lustre and being substitutions for liturgical items.



The title page of the 1641 edition of Fontana reads Sonate a 1. 2. 3. per violino, o cornetto, fagotto, chitarone, violoncino o simile altro istromento (Sonatas for one, two and three parts, for violin or cornetto, bassoon, chitarrone, violoncino, or other similar instruments). There are four part books, entitled Canto Primo, Canto Secondo, Basso, and Partitura. Here, too, the same choice of instruments is given. From this we can learn that the instrumentation of these sonatas is partly up to the performers. For the melody parts violin or cornetto is given, for the bass part bassoon, chitarrone, violoncino or other similar instruments. The bass part comes in a different part book than the score, suggesting the use of both a melodic and a chordal bass instrument. On this recording we have chosen for a bass lute as melodic bass instrument in the sonatas in three parts (sonatas 14, 15 and 17), and a chitarrone playing mainly bass in the sonatas in two parts (sonatas 7, 8 and 11). Where the chitarrone does play chords, it is to clarify and emphasise the harmonic structure. The solo sonatas are accompanied by organ (sonata 2), harpsichord (sonatas 3, 4 and 6), chitarrone (sonata 5) or bass lute (sonata 1).

Fontana’s sonatas are rooted in the old style; the aesthetics of his music are those of counterpoint and mathematical proportions in form. The early experiments of the stile nuovo are not fully integrated yet; the improvisational character of Caccini’s monody and the liberal use of chromaticism in Gesualdo’s madrigals have left some traces, but the sonatas owe more to the instrumental canzones by Giovanni Gabrieli and his contemporaries. Their contrapuntal approach, contrasting sections and overall structure all come from the 16th century canzone. The pleasure in this music is one of science, music being one of the subjects studied in the quadrivium, as opposed to the ‘lesser’ arts in the trivium. This reasoned approach to music can be found in the mathematical proportions of the meter signs, a relic of the 16th century that is gradually being abandoned in the 17th century. Pure meantone temperament, another example of the science in music, gives expression to the harmonic language and clarifies its structure.

All three types of sonatas, for one, two or three solo instruments, have different structures. In the solo sonatas there is most emphasis on the technical idiom of the violin. They may contain an improvisational part, but this is still within a well-structured form. Sonata 2 is a good example of such an organised structure: two sections in duple meter embrace a middle section in triple meter like the petals of a beautiful flower. The sonatas for two instruments have the added element of competition between the two top parts. So here we find more display of virtuoso skill and imitation. The trio sonatas, finally, are most structured in form. A good example of this is sonata 17. It opens with a beautiful, slow statement in duple meter by the two upper voices, after which the bass is introduced with a display of virtuosity in triple meter. Then follows a section of polyphonic imitation between the three voices in duple meter again. The second canto has a short dialogue with the bass, still in duple meter, which is followed by a short solo for the first canto in triple meter. This introduces a section of polyphonic imitation between all three voices in triple meter. Then it is the turn for the first canto to have its real solo: a folk song-like melody in duple meter again, followed by a jolly dance for all voices in triple meter, after which the sonata closes with the opening statement in duple meter, this time for all voices. The proportions between duple and triple meter, the balance between serious polyphony, lighter folk song and dance-like melodies and the variety in the instrumentation make these sonatas craftily constructed and well proportioned. From the 16th century point of view, the resulting beauty follows naturally out of these facts. For a modern listener all these intellectual layers are merely added to the obvious beauty of these early 17th century Italian masterpieces.

David van Ooijen

The above text is taken from the booklet accompanying the CD by the Icarus Ensemble, recorded for Claves Records from Switserland, with 12 sontatas by Giovanni Battista Fontana.