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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

117. Listening Recommendations – Germany in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

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Two months ago I shared my previous listening recommendations, Claudio Monteverdi and His Circle. I had intentionally given that unit a narrow focus—Venice in the 1640s, 1650s, and 1660s. My next unit however has had a wider sweep—Germany across two centuries. It reacts not only to the preceding Italian unit, but also its predecessor, Music of the Renaissance and Reformation. There I had included a two-disc set of Lutheran music, but I had ignored the Catholic music produced contemporaneously by many German composers. When this same Vox Luminis disc propelled me into the Baroque, it also stimulated my interest in the music of Johann Hermann Schein and Samuel Scheidt. This Third Unit of my Fifth Rotation, therefore, addresses these things as it surveys German musicmaking broadly in the two centuries before Johann Sebastian Bach. Through the music of its eight composers, I trace several themes. These include the introduction of Franco-Flemish polyphony to Germany at the outset of the sixteenth century by Heinrich Isaac; then Orlande de Lassus continues its development. Hans Leo Hassler and Schein likewise exemplify the arrival of the Venetian concerted style in Germany in the following century. Paul Hofhaimer and Scheidt are meanwhile my representatives of Germany’s rich organ traditions in these centuries. Finally Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and Dieterich Buxtehude summarize later perspectives through the violin sonatas of the former and the sacred choral music of the latter. Interestingly there is also much geographical territory covered by these composers: with the exception of Isaac and Hofhaimer who were colleagues in Innsbruck and Vienna, most of the others operated in different locales, including Munich, Dresden, Leipzig, Halle, and Lübeck. One note before we begin: throughout my article I use the term “German” to refer generally to the German-speaking lands and their inhabitants as the distinct nation-states of Germany and Austria did not emerge until the nineteenth century; the ideological revolutions and political struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries though would do much to shape these countries’ present-day boundaries.

HEINRICH ISAAC (c.1453-1517), PAUL HOFHAIMER (1459-1537): SACRED MUSIC FOR EMPEROR MAXIMILIAN I. The history of the Holy Roman Empire is a convoluted one. During its several-century existence, it encompassed much of modern Germany and Austria, although it also controlled Spain and the Netherlands for a four-decade stretch in the mid-sixteenth century and Bohemia, Hungary, and other parts of Europe for much longer. Its allegiances were professedly with the Roman Catholic Church, yet the Pope and Emperor would often vie for earthly power and Rome itself would occasionally change hands. The German princes, in throwing their support behind Martin Luther after 1517, made their own bid for power which ultimately resulted in the devastating Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648 in which an estimated eight million people, mostly Germans, died. This is the political backdrop around which my eight composers all worked, although Isaac and Hofhaimer were early enough to precede most of this turmoil. Their patron, Emperor Maximilian I, reigned from 1493 to 1519. Isaac, like his contemporary Josquin des Prez, belonged to the great line of Franco-Flemish composers who hailed from the present-day Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France but then dominated continental musicmaking in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; Lassus also belonged to this lineage. Especially in the sixteenth century, the Franco-Flemish composers sought opportunities abroad, likely enabled to do so by the wide territory under Holy Roman control. While Josquin made his mark in Italy, Isaac made his in Germany, working at the court of Maximilian in Innsbruck and then Vienna. Most of the music on this two-disc set is by Isaac with a few pieces by Hofhaimer and others. My favorite work must be Isaac’s Virgo Prudentissima with its incredible contrasts between soloists and the full ensemble as well as its propulsive energy. Isaac’s two mass settings though were more difficult for me to negotiate than his motets. Hofhaimer is represented by his two surviving liturgical organ works, Recordare and Salve Regina, as well as several improvisations in his style. I find his idiom with its incessant runs less appealing than that of his successors in the seventeenth century however. Overall this is an excellent set which displays well the range of music created at this time and place; and, it includes thorough program notes.

ORLANDE DE LASSUS (c.1532-1594): LAGRIME DI SAN PIETRO, 1595. The Franco-Flemish composer Orlande de Lassus had an incredibly diverse career and wrote in all the genres of his day. He was one of the culminating figures in Catholic polyphony, writing masses and motets in Latin. He also wrote secular music, becoming a major figure in the respective histories of the Italian madrigal, French chanson, and German lied. He lived and traveled throughout Europe and likewise his music was disseminated throughout. Although this did not end his travels, Lassus had by 1556 found lasting employment in Munich at the Bavarian court of Albrecht V and his successor Wilhelm V. Lagrime di San Pietro is the final work and crowning achievement by Lassus. This cycle is dedicated to Pope Clement VIII and consists of twenty-one short pieces for seven voices. Twenty of these are in the hybrid genre of the “spiritual madrigal.” Then the final piece is a motet in Latin which reflects on the sentiments of its predecessors. The spiritual madrigal, a byproduct of the Counter-Reformation, is a work which applies the expressive text setting and melodic emphasis of the standard secular madrigal to a religious text. This text however remains in Italian as spiritual madrigals are not intended for liturgical use within the context of the Catholic Mass. The twenty-one songs are in some sense more or less identical, but rather than being redundant I found their effect cumulative. The wide-open vertical space and tight rhythms are brought-out in this classic recording on Harmonia Mundi. Additionally the music is sung one voice to a part, rather than chorally, which helps with concision; it lends a light airiness at times, but big moments are still full and powerful too.

HANS LEO HASSLER (1564-1612): SACRED AND SECULAR MUSIC. Hassler is a transitional figure as far as the Baroque era is concerned. He was however the first German composer to study in Venice, and he brought their concerted style back with him. His teacher was Andrea Gabrieli (who ironically had been taught by Lassus), and indeed Hassler studied alongside and was friends with his eminent nephew, Giovanni Gabrieli. Hassler then worked throughout Germany, but seems to have settled in Dresden in his last years where his successors were simultaneously Heinrich Schütz and Michael Praetorius. I have struggled with this set by Currende: the recording quality could be better as could the presentation and scholarship. The two discs, one mostly sacred and one mostly secular, throw together pieces from several collections by Hassler, so that while there is broad representation I had to refine the organization myself. For example, selections from Hassler’s 1612 magnum opus, Sacri Concentus, are scattered throughout the two discs: apart they made little effect, but together they make a tremendous impact. This opus, mostly sacred motets in Latin, find Hassler incorporating more striking contrasts than in his earlier sets which I found largely homogenous. Hodie completi sunt dies Pentecostes goes even further by fully-integrating German counterpoint with the Italian concerted idiom while Laudem dicite Deo nostro, another favorite of mine, features the cascading alleluias I particularly associate with Giovanni Gabrieli. The Canzona is delightful in its instrumental exchanges, so characteristic of the era’s antiphonal approach. Of the secular music, the two sets with German titles are far more impressive than the Italian-titled ones. I have particularly enjoyed the pastoral Feinslieb, du hast mich gfangen, joyous Tantzen und springen, and folksy Gagliarde. All of these have a lighter Renaissance feel to them than the often serious character of Baroque instrumental music, but we have of course barely entered the seventeenth century as of Hassler.

JOHANN HERMANN SCHEIN (1586-1630): ISRAELSBRÜNNLEIN, 1623. Those keeping track of dates will notice that only now are we beyond Claudio Monteverdi’s arrival in Venice in 1613. Furthermore, between Hassler and the three masters of the following generation—Schütz, Schein, and Scheidt—only Schütz seems to have had any meaningful interactions with Monteverdi and this only came later in life when he made his second visit to Italy in 1628. At least initially then German concerted music seems to have had more direct ties to the Gabrielis which might help explain its often solemn tone and consistent dignity as opposed to the explosive drama and rebellious genius of Monteverdi. Schein, furthermore, never studied in Italy; his training instead came as a boy soprano at German churches and then, from 1616, he taught the choirboys of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the same church where Bach would find employment a century later. Israelsbrünnlein, alternatively called Fontana d’Israel, is a collection of twenty-six settings of Biblical texts, the majority of which are from the Old Testament. They are best described as spiritual madrigals, like the Lassus cycle, although Schein’s texts are in German. The musical idiom, however, resembles Hassler, if more dissonant in its harmonies and expressive in its text setting—qualities intentionally mimicked on Schein’s part from the late madrigal of the Italians. My favorites in this set are Freue dich des Weibes deiner Jugend and Zion spricht: Der Herr hat mich verlassen. The former has an insistence about it that distinguishes it from many of the other, more delicate settings. The latter comes across as more deliberate in its separation and contrast of the higher and lower voices. Although the instrumental parts are authentic, Schein typically does not give them quite the independence as Schütz, especially in his familiar Symphoniae Sacrae III of 1650 with its extensive brass fanfares and string sinfonias.

SAMUEL SCHEIDT (1587-1654): TABULATURA NOVA II, 1624. With Scheidt I had the option to continue my investigation into sacred choral music or instead explore this composer’s keyboard music. I chose the latter. Scheidt is distinguished by this keyboard music, even though he wrote much choral music, and in his lifetime he was revered as an organist and organ builder. Scheidt studied in Amsterdam with the eminent Dutch organist Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck—an indication that new currents in German music were still coming from the north, not just the Italian south. Outside these studies though, Scheidt’s career revolved around Halle, a central German town not far from either Dresden or Leipzig where his friends and colleagues, Schütz and Schein, were each based. Halle was particularly devastated by the Thirty Years’ War—half its population was killed by the fighting or the ensuing plague which claimed four of Scheidt’s children in a single month. The expansive Tabulatura nova was published in three volumes in 1624, the year before war came to Halle, and it has been called Scheidt’s greatest achievement. I was certainly impressed! The second volume itself is two hours of music, played here on organ and harpsichord in this exceedingly crisp recording by MDG. The full Tabulatura is encyclopedic in its scope and, much like the later collections of Bach, it is at once pedagogical and practical. The Fuga contraria which launches the second volume is totally enrapturing. This might also be the earliest work titled “fugue” in my library; everyone else I have encountered this early still uses the term “ricercar.” The arrangement of the Easter hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden, played on organ, is also remarkable in the way it weaves the familiar tune into a much larger texture without ever fully-obscuring the underlying melody. Its thematic development can even be called “symphonic,” and how often can we use that term before the eighteenth century? Something similar happens in the Allemande on Soll es sein; although I did not know the base tune, it is easy to hear what must be the three syllables of its title tromping through the piece.

JOHANN HEINRICH SCHMELZER (c.1620-1680): SONATAE UNARUM FIDIUM, 1664. With Schmelzer we return to Vienna and the Holy Roman Empire. Schmelzer seems to have joined the imperial chapel around 1635, during the reign of Emperor Ferdinand II, and found particular favor under his successors Ferdinand III and Leopold I who were accomplished musicians themselves. In the 1670s, Leopold would actually ennoble Schmelzer and make him his Kapellmeister. His lasting importance though comes as a result of the Sonatae unarum fidium, the earliest collection of violin music published by a German composer. Schmelzer was a violinist and possibly studied violin with one of the Italians also employed at court—maybe Antonio Bertali. Therefore he is not only the first significant German violinist but also an important link to the instrument’s Italian innovators. There are six sonatas in the 1664 collection which, like the Marini of my previous unit, rely heavily on variation principle and short contrasting sections. The recording by David Irving, appropriately titled “The Emperor’s Fiddler,” uses a very full continuo ensemble consisting of theorbo, triple harp, viola da gamba, lirone, harpsichord, and organ. I find it somewhat distracting though the way that the ensemble constantly shifts between these accompaniment instruments, especially in Sonatas One, Two, and Six. Evidently that choice is historically-informed and an approach for which Schmelzer had advocated, but it seems to take away from the soloist. At this exploratory period early in the history of the violin perhaps the soloist was not the end-all he is today; recall that Mozart’s “violin sonatas” a century later were mostly piano sonatas with violin accompaniment. Sonata Three with its more consistent accompaniment of plucked strings over fixed drone is probably my favorite so far. Sonata Four has a hint of the waltz, but this is long before Vienna became the capital of that popular dance form. Two other composers worth your time from this era of Austrian musicmaking are Johann Jacob Froberger, the preeminent German keyboardist of the mid-seventeenth century, and Heinrich Biber, the radically-innovative violinist-composer whose otherworldly technique ultimately outpaced Schmelzer. I have only ignored them here because I already have several discs of their music in my collection.

DIETERICH BUXTEHUDE (c.1637-1707): MEMBRA JESU NOSTRI, 1680; CANTATAS. The final composer of my unit, Dieterich Buxtehude, brings us to Bach’s very doorstep. There is an old story about how a young Johann Sebastian walked the several hundred miles from central Germany to meet and learn from the aged Buxtehude in the north German municipality of Lübeck. There is some documentation which confirms this expedition, but also in listening to their organ music there is a clear lineage between the two composers. Honestly though I have been struck by just how different Buxtehude’s vocal music, here at my first listening, sounds from that of Bach. The sectional format is familiar, but I hear little of the melismatic runs or thick counterpoint which I had observed in Bach’s B-Minor Mass; Bach’s orchestrations are also much richer. The two-disc set by Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque which I purchased includes Membra Jesu nostri, a cycle of seven cantatas set to a Latin text depicting the crucified body of Christ, as well as five sacred cantatas in German. Some of my favorite moments in the former are in the Third Movement with the choral outburst on Quid sunt plagae istae and toward the end of the Sixth when the treble voices intersect on the word Vulnerasti near this movement’s end. Of the latter, German cantatas I have been most impressed with Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe, BuxWV 39 for solo soprano and the minor-key Nichts soll uns scheiden, BuxWV 77 for soprano, alto, and bass soloists. Herr, wenn ich has the same sensuous expressivity of Bach’s Weichet nur, BWV 202, another cantata for solo soprano, although Buxtehude’s text is sacred and Bach’s is secular. Meanwhile Nichts soll uns scheiden constructs a vital contrast between the tightly-punctuated calls of the opening and more florid solo singing; it compares favorably with Schütz’s familiar Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich of Symphoniae Sacrae III.

FURTHER LISTENING. In addition to the CDs I specifically purchased for this unit, I have also recently listened to a few other discs from this era for the first time. Schütz is clearly someone of great importance whom my purchases ignored. On my drive to Montréal, I listened to a disc containing his Magnificat, SWV 468 and Die sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz; since returning to Louisiana, I have also listened to his Matthäus-Passion in a recording by Martin Flämig and the Dresdner Kreuzchor. These are all late works by him, written in the 1650s and 1660s. Strikingly the Matthäus-Passion is without instruments as Dresden forbade the use of instruments during church services in Lent. The Matthäus-Passion, however, maintains the drama of his concerted works; it simply confines this drama to the voices where there is still plenty of opportunity for contrast. Notwithstanding much of the music is syllabic so as to emphasize the text, giving it nearly the sound of Gregorian chant although the harmonies are different. In the end it is one of those works which defies broad generalizations about style—who would have expected a cappella music from Schütz? I will revisit the Italian Baroque in my next unit; then after that I address Bach and his contemporaries as a continuation of this unit.

JSH 20.05.29

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a freelance concert annotator based in Louisville, KY. He serves as Director of Scholarship to the Sugarmill Music Festival held each May in Alexandria, LA. A project he is developing for the 2020 festival, “A Scholarly Presentation in Lecture and Music: Solomon Northup in the Central Louisiana Sugarhouse,” has been awarded a prestigious Rebirth Grant by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Jackson earned an M.M. in Music History and Literature from the University of Louisville with a thesis entitled, “Liminal Aesthetics: Perspectives on Harmony and Timbre in the Music of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho.” There he was the recipient of the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship and was employed at the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library where he did archival work for the unique Grawemeyer Collection which houses scores, recordings, and documentation for over five thousand entries by the world’s leading contemporary composers. He has shared his research at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Asheville, NC and Sewanee, TN; the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN; the Music by Women Festival in Columbus, MS; and the University of Louisiana System Academic Summit in Thibodeaux, LA. Aside from his studies, Jackson is a composer, choral singer, music blogger, avid reader, and award-winning nature photographer. Learn more at


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