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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 2 Fat Times and Lean
Richard Taruskin

Surely the most spectacular workout ever given the passus duriusculus was in a Fantasia chromatica by the Dutch organist Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562–1621), Frescobaldi’s older contemporary, who succeeded his father as chief organist at Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk (Old Church) while still in his teens, and held it until his death. Unlike Frescobaldi, Sweelinck was not a church organist in the full sense of the word. The Dutch Reformed Church, Calvinist in outlook, forbade the use of “figural” (polyphonic or instrumental) music during services. Rather, Sweelinck was employed to perform what amounted to daily organ recitals—an hour of uninterrupted music making—to follow the morning and evening services. Like Frescobaldi, and like every other keyboard virtuoso of the day, Sweelinck was best known for his improvisations, and the works he noted down and allowed to circulate (in manuscript only) represented the skimmed cream of this daily exercise.

For publication Sweelinck composed a great deal of vocal music, most of it secular and none of it meant for actual service use. It was intended for the international music trade and was therefore composed to texts in international languages: French (chansons and metrical psalms), Latin (motets), and Italian (madrigals). Although some of his publications were equipped with organ accompaniments to make them commercially viable, none of Sweelinck’s music is actually “concerted.” His vocal music is all fully polyphonic in the sixteenth-century style; never does the instrumental bass play an independent role, nor did Sweelinck publish so much as a single solo song or monody. That makes him the youngest continental composer never to write in the concerted or monodic styles of vocal music, and he therefore looms in retrospect as the last of the legendary “Netherlanders” of the polyphonic Golden Age.

But his dual preoccupation with old-fashioned vocal music and extremely up-to-date keyboard compositions puts Sweelinck in a position comparable to no other Netherlander, but rather like that of William Byrd, his older English contemporary. The similarity was not fortuitous. While he never met Byrd, Sweelinck was well acquainted with several other English composers who had settled in the southerly (Catholic) part of the Netherlands that is now Belgium. Peter Philips (1560–1628) came to Brussels in 1589 in the entourage of a recusant nobleman, Lord Thomas Paget, who had fled England to avoid religious persecution. After Paget’s death the next year, Philips relocated in Antwerp. He was joined in 1612 by John Bull (1562–1628), who also claimed to be a religious refugee but is now thought to have been evading some sort of “morals” charge (possibly adultery or pederasty). Philips and Bull were the conduits through which the very advanced art of the Elizabethan keyboard composers established, through Sweelinck, a continental base. Sweelinck composed variations on a pavan (a slow keyboard dance) by Philips, and after his death Bull based a fantasia on a theme by Sweelinck.

Once he had absorbed the English styles and genres, moreover, Sweelinck’s work began circulating in England along with native wares. A fantasia by Sweelinck is found in the so-called Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a mammoth collection of English keyboard music and the chief source for much of Philips and Bull. Its present name comes from its present location, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, but it may actually have been assembled at the Fleet Prison in London, where its compiler, Francis Tregian, was confined for recusancy from 1614 until his death three years later. “Virginal” was the name of the English version of the harpsichord: a small box, often in the shape of a pentagon, that contained only a single set of strings. Several virginals of various sizes were often piled atop one another to gain a fuller range of pitch and color. The origin of the name is obscure, but it was popularly associated with the girls who were most often taught to play it as a social grace, and it became the inevitable pretext for a lot of coarse punning.

Sweelinck—His Patrimony And His Progeny

fig. 2-3 Pentagonal virginal (Italian, 1585) at the Russell Collection, University of Edinburgh.

The Sweelinck fantasia—one of many, especially by English composers, that used the solmization hexachord (ut–re–mi–fa–sol–la) as cantus firmus—was entered in the Fitzwilliam manuscript in 1612. Equally a tour de force of keyboard virtuosity and of counterpoint, it contains twenty officially numbered statements of the familiar scale segment, both ascending and descending, in various transpositions, diminutions, and syncopated forms, and against many countersubjects and accompaniment figures. And it harbors many hidden variations as well, including strettos. More organ-specific yet are Sweelinck’s four fantasias “op de manier van een echo” (in the manner of an echo), or echo-fantasias, in which the middle section of the piece consists of little phrases marked forte and repeated piano, calling the multiple keyboards or manuals of the organ into play. The effect is transferable to a multiple-manual harpsichord as well, and Sweelinck’s fantasias are often played on that instrument. But on the organ, with its spatially separated ranks of pipes, such passages come out as literally antiphonal, reflecting the old Venetian polychoral style.

The Chromatic Fantasia (Ex. 2-6), on the passus duriusculus tetrachord, pitches the titular chromatic descent on D, A, and E, so that all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are eventually employed in stages over the course of the composition. The piece is thus a magnificent reconciliation of the venerable academic counterpoint of the sixteenth century with the burgeoning affective or pathetic style of the seventeenth. It is also a summit of virtuosity, displaying the cantus firmus at four rhythmic levels (from whole notes to eighth notes in the transcription) and reaching a peak of rhythmic excitement with sextolets (sixteenth notes grouped in sixes like double-time triplets) and thirty-second notes, very much in the style of English keyboard figuration.

Sweelinck—His Patrimony And His Progeny

ex. 2-6 Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Fantasia chromatica, mm. 1–16

English sextolets can be seen in their natural habitat in Giles Farnaby’s Daphne, from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (Ex. 2-7). This is a set of variations (or divisions, to use the contemporary word) on a bawdy popular song that retold the myth, popularized by Ovid, of Apollo’s (or Phoebus’s) lascivious pursuit of the nymph Daphne and her rescue by the earth-goddess Gaea, who transformed her into a laurel tree. These variation sets were the virginalist composer’s most characteristic genre. Their nearest precedent were sets of diferencias—Spanish for divisions—on popular songs that were published by Iberian lutenists and organists beginning with Luis de Narváez in 1538; the most famous such set is the one by the blind organist Juan de Cabezón on the folk tune Guárdame las vacas—“Watch over my cattle”—printed in 1578, twelve years after his death. Farnaby (1563–1640), a “joiner” or carpenter by trade, was eventually a builder of virginals as well as a performer on them and composer for them. His extant work is preserved almost complete in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and is hardly found elsewhere.

Sweelinck—His Patrimony And His Progeny

ex. 2-7 Giles Farnaby, Daphne, mm. 1–13

Whether through Farnaby’s work or Byrd’s, or through personal contact with Philips and Bull, this type of variation writing passed to Sweelinck, who wrote the best-known examples of it, of which some are still played by organ recitalists today. The set on the French love song “Est-ce Mars?” uses a tune known far and wide in many guises. (Farnaby wrote a version under the silly name “The New Sa-Hoo”—i.e., “Say Who?”) The words as Sweelinck knew them mean, “Could this be Mars, the great battle-god, whom I espy? To judge by his arms alone, so I’d think. But at the same time it’s clear from his glances that it’s more likely Cupid here, not Mars.” Sweelinck is just as droll and whimsical as Farnaby and reaches the obligatory rhythmic peak with sextolets; but unlike his English counterpart he is concerned to show off his contrapuntal technique as well as his eccentric fancies, with a suggestion of stretto as early as the second variation and a brief canon in the last. Oddly enough, and with only a couple of exceptions, the only sacred melodies to which Sweelinck devoted variation sets were Lutheran chorales. This unexpected preoccupation on the part of a non-German, non-Lutheran organist seems to have come about as a by-product of Sweelinck’s extensive teaching activity. He was much sought after by pupils, to whom he devoted a great deal of time, and his best ones were German. For a time the three principal organ posts in Hamburg, the largest North German city, were all held by former pupils of “Master Jan Pieterszoon of Amsterdam,” which led Johann Mattheson, an eighteenth-century composer and music historian, to dub Sweelinck the “hamburgischen Organistenmacher” (the Hamburg-organist-maker).8

Sweelinck—His Patrimony And His Progeny

fig. 2-4 Samuel Scheidt, woodcut from Tabulatura nova (Hamburg: Michael Hering, 1624), the earliest German keyboard publication (its title notwithstanding) printed in open mensural score rather than actual organ tablature. The sheet of music contains a four-part canon in contrary motion on the final words of the Te Deum prayer: In te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in aeternim (“In thee, O Lord, have I trusted; let me not ever be confounded”).

With his prize pupil, Samuel Scheidt (1587–1654), who came from the Saxon town of Halle in eastern Germany and apprenticed himself to Sweelinck in Amsterdam around 1608 or 1609, Sweelinck engaged in some friendly rivalry, recalling the emulation-games of the early Netherlanders. Scheidt’s monumental organ collection Tabulatura nova, issued in three volumes in 1624, contains examples of every genre that Sweelinck had practiced, including those, like the echo-fantasia, that Sweelinck had pioneered. The first volume even has a set of variations on a “cantio gallica” (French song) that turns out to be Est-ce Mars?. It was no doubt a tribute or a memorial to Sweelinck, but the pupil’s set is twice as long and twice as elaborate as the teacher’s. Also unlike Sweelinck’s, Scheidt’s set begins with a bald statement of the “theme” before proceeding to the ten variationes (singular variatio), a term that in fact first appears in print (with its modern meaning, anyway) in the Tabulatura nova.

Yet since Scheidt worked for the Lutheran church, which unlike the Calvinist or “Reformed” church integrated organ-playing into its actual liturgy, the Tabulatura Nova contains many works in genres that Sweelinck did not compose in, and that Scheidt presumably picked up from the work of German predecessors, particularly those from the Catholic southern regions of Germany, like Hans Leo Hassler (1564–1612), who came from Nuremberg and studied with Andrea Gabrieli in Venice, or Christian Erbach (1568–1635), the Augsburg cathedral organist. The most important of these liturgical genres were the chant-based “versets,” or organ settings of alternate lines of text in Kyries, Glorias, hymns, and Magnificats. These were interpolated—alternatim-fashion, as it was called—into choral or congregational performances. It was yet another instance of an “oral,” extemporized genre (one that in Germany went back at least as far as the fifteenth century) that had only lately begun the process of transformation—or ossification—into a literate one. A great many of these snippets, organized into “organ Masses” and “organ Vespers,” can be found in Book III of Tabulatura nova. As the largest collection of German liturgical organ music of the seventeenth century, Scheidt’s volumes could be thought of as the Protestant counterpart to Frescobaldi’s Fiori musicali, which came out about a decade later.


(8) Johann Mattheson, Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte (Hamburg, 1740), quoted in R. Tollefsen and P. Dirksen, “Sweelinck,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XXIV (2nd ed., New York: Grove, 2000), p. 771.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02003.xml