Only two of Froberger's many compositions were published during his lifetime, but his music was very widely spread in manuscript copies and he was one of the very few 17th century composers who were never entirely forgotten. His works were studied in the 18th century (although perhaps not very extensively, and certainly without influence on the emerging Classical style) by Handel, Bach and, extraordinarily, even Mozart and Beethoven.
Although the Thirty Years' War which started in 1618 undoubtedly made life in Stuttgart somewhat more difficult, the city's musical life was rich and varied, influenced by musicians from all over Europe, so already at the very beginning of his life Froberger must have been exposed to a wide variety of musical traditions. Little is known about his actual education, though. His teachers possibly included Johann Ulrich Steigleder, and he might have met Samuel Scheidt during the latter's visit to Stuttgart in 1627; it is possible that Froberger sang in the court chapel, but there is no direct evidence to that; and court archives indicate that one of the English lutenists employed by the court, Andrew Borell, taught lute to one of Basilius Froberger's sons in 1621-22 - it is not known whether this son was Johann Jakob, but if so, it would explain his later interest in French lute music.
Basilius Froberger's music library probably also helped in Johann Jakob's education. It contained more than a hundred volumes of music, including works by Josquin des Prez, Samuel Scheidt and Michael Praetorius, as well as pieces by the lesser known Johann Staden, founder of the Nuremberg school, and Giovanni Valentini, the then-famous Viennese Kappelmeister who later taught Johann Caspar Kerll.
In 1637 Basilius Froberger, his wife and one his daughters died of plague. Johann Jakob and his brother Isaac sold their father's music library to the Württemberg court (this is how the contents of Basilius' library became known - through the court archives); the same year Johann Jakob became court organist in Vienna, assisting Wolfgang Ebner. In June he was granted a leave and a stipend to go to Rome to study under Frescobaldi. Froberger spent the next three years in Italy and, like many other musicians who went to study there, apparently converted to Catholicism. He returned to Vienna in 1641 and served as organist and chamber musician until the fall of 1645, when he took a second trip to Italy. It was previously thought that Froberger went to study under Giacomo Carissimi, but recent research shows that he most probably studied with Athanasius Kircher in Rome. If so, Froberger's intention must have been acquiring mastery of vocal composition of the prima pratica (Frescobaldi, who taught him instrumental writing, died in 1643). Sometime during 1648-49 Froberger might have met Johann Kaspar Kerll, and possibly taught him.
In 1649 Froberger travelled back to Austria. On his way back he stopped in Florence and Mantua to show the arca musurgica, a powerful compositional device Kircher taught him, to some of the Italian princes. In September he arrived in Vienna and demonstrated the arca musurgica to the Emperor, an avid amateur musician; he also presented him with Libro Secondo, a collection of his own compositions (the Libro Primo is now lost). Also in September, Froberger played before William Swann, an English diplomat. Through Swann he got to know Constantijn Huygens, who became Froberger's lifelong friend and introduced the composer to works by contemporary French masters - Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, Denis Gaultier and Ennemond Gaultier.
In Paris Froberger most probably got acquainted with many major French composers of the era, including Chambonnières, Louis Couperin, Denis Gaultier and possibly François Dufaut. The latter two were famous lutenists writing in the characteristic French idiom of style brisé, which influenced Froberger's later harpsichord suites. In turn, Louis Couperin was profoundly influenced by Froberger's style; one of his unmeasured preludes even bears the subtitle "à l'imitation de Mr. Froberger". In November 1652 Froberger witnessed the death of the famed lutenist Blancrocher (who was his friend and reportedly died in his arms). Although Blancrocher himself was not an important composer, his death left a mark on the history of music, as Couperin, Gaultier, Dufaut and Froberger all wrote tombeaux lamenting the event.
Little is known about Froberger's last 10 years. Most of the information comes from the letter exchange between Constantijn Huygens and the dowager Duchess of Montbéliard, Sybilla (1620-1707). Since the death of her husband Léopold-Frédéric of Württemberg-Montbéliard in 1662 the Duchess lived in Héricourt (near Montbéliard, then territory of the house of Württemberg; now département Doubs), and Froberger became her music teacher at around the same time (this indicates that Froberger must have maintained a link with the ducal family of Württemberg since his Stuttgart years). He lived in Château d’Héricourt, the dower house of Duchess Sibylla. The Huygens-Sybilla letters indicate that in 1665 Froberger travelled to Mainz, where he performed at the court of Elector-Archbishop of Mainz and met Huygens in person for the first time; and at a certain point in 1666 the composer had plans to return to the imperial court in Vienna. As far as is known, though, he never did, and lived in Héricourt until his death on May 6 or 7, 1667. Froberger apparently knew that he was going to die soon, as he made all necessary preparations a day before he died.
Only two compositions by Froberger were published during his lifetime: the Hexachord Fantasia, published by Kircher in 1650 in Rome, and a piece in François Roberday's Fugues et caprices (1660, Paris). In addition to these, a comparatively large number of works are preserved in authenticated manuscripts. The three principal sources for Froberger's music are the following manuscripts:
Also, in 2006 an autograph manuscript was discovered (and subsequently sold at Sotheby's), reportedly containing 35 pieces of music, 18 of which were previously unknown. The manuscript dates from Froberger's final years and may contain his last compositions. Other than these, numerous manuscripts of various origin contain Froberger's music. These include the well-known Bauyn manuscript, and a very large number of less known sources, some reliable (such as the only unbowdlerized text for Méditation sur ma mort future, presumably in Weckmann's hand, or the Strasbourg manuscript of some couple of dozen of suites, possibly compiled by Michael Bulyowsky) and some not very much so. Problems arise with many of the newly discovered copies: either Froberger was constantly reworking his compositions, or the scribes were not attentive enough, but many works exist in several variants, some even have whole movements changed.
Two standard numbering systems are used to identify Froberger's works. These are:
Froberger is usually credited as the creator of the Baroque suite. While this may be misleading, French composers of the time did group dance pieces by tonality above all, and while other composers such as Kindermann did try to invent some kind of organisation, their dances did not attain as high a degree of artistic merit as seen in Froberger's suites. The typical Froberger suite established allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue as the obligatory parts of a suite. However, there is some controversy surrounding the placement of the gigue. In Froberger's earliest authenticated autograph, Libro Secondo, five out of six suites are in three movements, without the gigue. A single suite, no. 2, has a gigue added as a 4th movement (and a later copy adds gigues to suites nos. 3 and 5). The suites of Libro Quarto all have gigues as the 2nd movement. The order that became the standard after Froberger's death, with the gigue being the last movement, first appeared in a 1690s print of Froberger's works by the Amsterdam publisher Mortier.
All Froberger's dances are composed of two repeated sections, but they are very rarely in the standard 8+8 bars scheme. When symmetrical structure is employed, it may be 7+7 bars or 11+11 bars; more frequently one of the sections is longer or shorter than the other (more often the second is shorter than the first). This irregularity may be employed by Froberger in any dance, whereas in Chambonnières, who used similarly irregular patterns, the sarabande is always composed in the 8+16 fashion. Froberger's keyboard adaptation of the French lute style brisé almost invariably shows itself in most pieces written during and after his Paris visit.
Froberger's allemandes abandon the original dance's rhythmic scheme almost completely, abounding in short gestures, figures, ornaments and runs typical of style brisé. Like Chambonnières, Froberger avoids emphasizing internal cadences, or indeed anything that would hint at any sort of regularity; unlike him, Froberger tends to use faster sixteenth-note figurations and melodies. Most of the courantes are in 6/4 time with occasional hemiolas and the eighth-note motion typical of the courante. Some of the others, however, are in 3/2 time, twice slower and moving in quarter notes. Still others are in 3/4 time and closely resemble the Italian corrente of the time. The sarabandes are mostly in 3/2 time and employ a 1+1/2 rhythm pattern, rather than the standard sarabande rhythm with the accent on the second beat. The gigues are almost invariably fugal, either in compound (6/8) or triple (3/4) meter; different sections may use different motifs, and occasionally the first section's subject is inverted for another section. Bizarrely, a few gigues use dotted rhythms in 4/4 time, and a couple feature exquisite rhapsodic 4/4 endings.
Some of the works feature written indications such as "f" and "piano" (to notate an echo effect), "doucement" ("gently") an "avec discrétion" (expressive rubato). In some of the sources such markings are particularly abundant, and the newly (2004) discovered Berlin Sing-Akademie SA 4450 manusrcipt adds similar indications to free sections in organ toccatas. Some suites feature doubles; in a few, the courante is a deriative of the allemande (although this is rare; more often Froberger unites the two dances by giving them somewhat similar beginnings, but keeps the rest of the material different). Suite no. 6 from Libro Secondo is actually a set of variations subtitled Auff der Mayerin, and one of the more popular Froberger works, although it is clearly an early work and not comparable to the late suites neither in technique nor in expression.
Apart from the suites, Froberger also wrote titled, descriptive pieces for the harpsichord (some of the suites incorporate such works as their first movement). He was one of the earliest composers to produce such programmatic pieces. Nearly all of them are very personal; the style resembles Froberger's allemandes in its irregularity and style brisé features. Such pieces include the following (in alphabetical order):
These works frequently feature musical metaphors: in the lamentations on the deaths of the lutenist Blancrocher and Ferdinand III, Froberger represents Blacrocher's fatal fall down a flight of stairs with a descending scale, and Ferdinand's ascent into heaven with an ascending one; in the Ferdinand III lamentation he ends the piece with a single voice repeating an F three times. Froberger would often supply such works with an explanation, sometimes very detailed (see illustration), of the events that led to composition of the piece. For instance, the Allemande, faite en passat le Rhin contains 26 numbered passages with explanation for each; the Blancrocher tombeau features a written preface in which the circumstances of the lutenist's death are recounted, etc. The structure and style of Froberger's programmatic works, as well as his allemandes, contributed to the development of the unmeasured prelude through the efforts of Louis Couperin.
Whereas in Frescobaldi's oeuvre the fantasia and the ricercare are markedly different genres (the fantasia being a relatively simple contrapuntal composition that expands, as it progresses, into a flurry of intense, rhythmically complex counterpoint; the ricercare being essentially a very strict contrapuntal piece with easily audible lines and somewhat archaic in terms of structure), Froberger's are practically similar. A typical Froberger ricercare or fantasia uses a single subject (with different rhythmic variations for different sections) throughout the whole piece, and the counterpoint adheres almost flawlessly to the 16th century prima pratica. Any of the standard contrapuntal devices may be used; the main subject is sometimes paired with another theme for a section or two, and there is usually a marked contrast between sections and much variety inside a single piece.
Froberger's canzonas and cappriccios are similarly conservative in terms of technique, and they too are essentially the same even though Frescobaldi distinguished between the genres. Froberger follows Frescobaldi's example in constructing these pieces as variation sets in several sections (usually three in canzonas and any number - as many as six - in capriccios). The subjects are always faster, much more lively that those of ricercares and fantasias. A characteristic feature is the economy of themes: the episodes, which are somewhat rare, are almost invariably based on the material from the subject, somewhat like those in JS Bach's work some 60-70 years later. The counterpoint and harmony are very similar to the ricercares and fantasias; however, occasionally scale degrees other than 1 and 5 are used.
Froberger's compositions were known to and studied by, among many others, Johann Pachelbel, Dieterich Buxtehude, Georg Muffat and his son Gottlieb Muffat, Johann Caspar Kerll, Matthias Weckmann, Louis Couperin, Johann Kirnberger, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Georg Böhm, George Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach. Furthermore, copies in Mozart's hand of the Hexachord Fantasia survive, and even Beethoven knew Froberger's work through Albrechtsberger's teachings. The profound influence on Louis Couperin made Froberger partially responsible for the change Couperin brought into the French organ tradition (as well as for the development of the unmeasured prelude, which Couperin cultivated).
Although the polyphonic pieces were highly esteemed in 17th-18th centuries, today Froberger is chiefly remembered for his contribution to the development of the keyboard suite. Indeed, he established the form almost single-handedly and, through innovative and imaginative treatment of standard dance forms of the time, paved way for Johann Sebastian Bach's elaborate contributions to the genre (not to mention almost every major composer in Europe, since the vast majority composed suites and were influenced by the "French style" exemplified by Froberger).