An Italian in Brussels
The arts in baroque Brussels were highly valued, especially by its governor, Maximilian-Emmanuel. The Governor played the viol, organ and harp and surrounded himself with the best and most fashionable musicians he could find. He was especially enamored by the Italians, bringing several to Brussels in the early 1680's, among them Pietro Torri, Dall’Abaco and Agostino Steffani.
Pietro Antonio Fiocco was another Italian who settled in Brussels. Upon his arrival, Fiocco served as music director in the royal household as well as the maître de musique at the Church of Notre-Dame du Sablon. In 1694, Pietro Antonio Fiocco was put in charge of the Academy of Music at the Grand Theater where he directed Lully’s operas from France—reworking the prologues to praise the opera houses’ patron, Governor Maximilian-Emmanuel, rather than the original dedicatee, Louis the XIV.
By most accounts, Pietro Antonio Fiocco fathered fourteen children. One of them, Joseph Hector—number 8 in the family roster—is the subject of a new recording from the ensemble, Scherzi Musicali.
Born in 1703, Joseph-Hector Fiocco’s first musical post on record is his position as deputy music director at the Chapel Royal in 1729. After two years, Fiocco took a job as choirmaster at the Antwerp Cathedral. The position had opened up after Fiocco’s predecessor, Guillaume de Fesch resigned over the alleged abuse and neglect of his charges. Fiocco, hopefully better suited for the job, stayed for 6 years where, in addition to regular Cathedral duties, he composed masses and motets among other sacred choral music. None of these were ever published, and in fact, the only work that Fiocco ever published was a 1730 collection of harpsichord pieces.
Fiocco moved home in 1737 to fill the position of maître de chapelle at the collegiate church of Saints-Michel-et-Gudule in Brussels. If the terms and conditions of Fiocco’s employee contract are any indication, the job kept him very busy. Besides music for services Fiocco was responsible for the complete musical training of his choir boys in plainsong, counterpoint, composition, and instrumental studies. He was also tasked with the boys’ general health, hygiene and nutrition, and was to oversee their spiritual discipline as well, making sure among other things, that the boys said their prayers at morning and night.
It was a good job for Fiocco. It paid well enough, and came with benefits like an allotment of food, free lodging, and an annual cash stipend for his own two children. Sadly though, Fiocco was only in the position for a few years—he died in 1741 at only 38 years of age.
In the roughly two decades following his death, selections from Fiocco’s motets were performed some 11 times at the famous Concert Spirituel in Paris. A favorite that received repeat performances was Fiocco’s solo soprano motet, Laudate pueri Dominum. Since Fiocco’s motets were never published, the manuscripts held at the Brussels Royal Conservatory are the main sources for his music. But as this particular motet, Laudate Pueri, featured so prominently in Paris concerts, there is also a second copy of it preserved at the French National Library.
Fiocco’s style in these motets is hard to pin down with words. It fuses rococo with music that is still solidly baroque, it dips into counterpoint and right back out again. Some of the recitative is done with an operatic Italian flourish, and other of it flows along lyrically, almost like Rameau. There is a great deal of unison treble playing in the instrumental parts—a style popular in Italy and also reminiscent of Handel’s writing—and other times, the parts intertwine in something that could surely be Pergolesi, and still other tracks are undoubtedly French to their core.
Scherzi Musicali is helping to bring the Fiocco name and his music back to modern ears. A 2017 release is the ensemble’s second disc devoted to Fiocco’s Petite Motets, scored variously for one to four voices, one per part strings and basso continuo, with the occasional doubling of an optional flute or oboe. The Belgian ensemble has been together for about 10 years. Directed by Nicolas Achten, this is Scherzi Musicali’s eighth CD.