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ClassicsOnline Home » SWEELINCK: Organ Works
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562 - 1621)
Toccata in C
Ballo del granduca
Mein junges Leben hat ein End'
Echo Fantasia in A Minor
Onder een linde groen
Toccata in A Minor
Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck spent the greater part of his life and his entire professional career in Amsterdam, a city that had grown in wealth and importance during the later sixteenth century. As an appendage of Burgundy the town had enjoyed a degree of independence, leading, in the later sixteenth century, to a relative lack of political interest in the struggles against Spain. In 1578, however, Amsterdam rejected its Catholic magistracy in favour of the reformed religion and Prince William of Orange, soon to form part of the Dutch Republic of the United Provinces. In spite of the official change of religion, an alteration that might well have affected musical life for the worse, a surprising degree of religious tolerance was preserved. Amsterdam continued with a large Catholic minority, and larger group, to which Sweelinck may himself have belonged, of citizens who kept their old loyalty to Catholicism, while fulfilling whatever duties might fall to them under the new Calvinist régime.
Sweelinck was born in the Hanseatic town of Deventer in 1562, the son of a professional musician who, in the early 1560s, moved to Amsterdam as organist of the Oude Kerk, a position he held, its relatively meagre emoluments perhaps supplemented by other employment, until his death in 1573. It must be supposed that his son had his early musical training from his father and certainly his general education under the guidance of the Catholic Jacob Buyck, priest of the Oude Kerk until the changes of 1578. Later musical study is thought to have been as a pupil of Jan Willemszoon, later surnamed Lossy, in Haarlem. It seems probable that Sweelinck succeeded to his father's position as organist of the Oude Kerk in 1577, since an obituary tribute credits him with 44 years in a position that he certainly held until his death in 1621.
At the Oude Kerk Sweelinck established himself as a musician of growing international importance, attracting pupils from the Netherlands and from North Germany, and the attention of English composers and performers, including Peter Philips and John Bull. As an organist his playing won admiration and it may be supposed that his duties, under the new Protestant civic administration, would have involved daily performances, which seem to have become something of a tourist attraction. While in earlier years, after the death of his father, there were obvious financial difficulties, alleviated by help from well placed friends of the family, later years brought substantial rewards from the authorities and from pupils. Through the latter he exercised a strong influence over music in North Germany and Scandinavia, not least through musicians such as Samuel Scheidt and his younger brother Gottfried. Like Johann Sebastian Bach in a later generation, he was an acknowledged expert on the construction of the organ and was called upon for his advice by a number of Dutch cities. The larger of the two organs at his disposal in the Oude Kerk, an instrument that was well known as one of the best of its time, had three manuals and a pedal-board, with 25 speaking stops, a Rückpositiv of ten stops, a Hauptwerk of four, an Oberwerk of nine and pedal of two. The smaller two-manual choir instrument in the church had a Hauptwerk of nine stops, a Brustwerk of three and an eight-foot pedal trumpet.
Much of Sweelinck's vocal music has been preserved, published in his lifetime and including a notable and widely known polyphonic setting of the Genevan Psalter, Latin motets and secular chansons and madrigals. Of his instrumental music some seventy keyboard pieces survive from various sources. These include sets of variations on secular and sacred songs, fantasias and toccatas, generally employing the contrapuntal techniques to be found in his vocal works, with the additional element of characteristic keyboard figuration. This second element is apparent in the Toccatas, works apparently pedagogical in intention, as the Sweelinck scholar Frits Noske has pointed out. Two examples of such compositions, of which some twelve are extant, are included, contrapuntal in technique and calling for some degree of keyboard virtuosity. The Ricercar, its title an alternative to that of Fantasia, is a more completely contrapuntal work, in a form from which the later fugue developed. Four Echo Fantasias survive, among Sweelinck's compositions for the keyboard. Like the Fantasias and the Ricercar, these fall into three sections, here with a contrapuntal exposition, a middle section making use of an echo of contrasted timbre and a final toccata-like section.
Of the settings of secular melodies, the Ballo del granduca, the authenticity of which is now questioned by Noske, opens with the expected statement of the original theme, familiarity with which might be generally assumed from a contemporary audience, in chordal style, followed by four further variations, the first in notes of greater rapidity in the right hand, the moving part then transferred to the lower register for the following variation. The fourth version of the material gives the right hand still more activity, followed by a final variation with thirds and sixths in the right hand.
Mein junges Leben hat ein End' (My young life has an end) is a German song, the first line of which is fitted to the descending notes of the minor mode:
Mein junges Leben hat ein End',
mein Frewd' und auch mein Leyd:
Mein arme Seele sol behend
scheiden von meinem Leib:
Mein Leben kan nicht lenger steh'n,
's ist schwach, führwahr es musz vergehn,
es fehrt dahin mein Leyd.
(My young life has an end, my joy and also my sorrow: my poor soul must be parted from my body: my life can no longer last, it is weak and must pass, hence my sorrow).
There are six variations in this, the best known of Sweelinck's keyboard compositions. The simple theme is first accompanied contrapuntally. The second variation introduces greater complexity, while the third adds counterpoint of greater rapidity, with some changes of rhythm. There is further ingenious variation in the fourth version of the material, which goes into triplets before a fifth with running thirds and sixths. There follows a final variation making use of imitative counterpoint.
Onder een linde groen, a Dutch song derived from the English ballad All in a Garden Green, again presents the melody in relatively simple form, each section followed by its own variation. The second version opens with imitative entries. The running notes of the third variation lead to a fourth and final variation that finds room, after an opening in solid chords, for figuration typical of the keyboard.
Other use of secular material is found in the relatively simple treatment of Malle Sijmen (Mall Sims), Silly Simon, an English dance-tune popular in Holland, and in the much more elaborate and extended Poolsche Dans (Polish Dance). The latter starts with the tune itself, with accompanying counterpoint. The second variation adds a counterpoint derived from the tune in diminution, four times as fast as the melody above. The dotted rhythms and syncopations of the third variation lead to the rapid figuration of the contrapuntal accompaniment of the fourth. In the fifth variation the melody is heard first in the tenor and then in the bass register, while the sixth changes the rhythm of the original, now heard from a running part in 6/4 metre. The excited syncopation of the seventh version of the material is followed by a final variation with the theme in the tenor.
It seems that thirteen authentic sets of variations by Sweelinck on sacred melodies survive. Of these Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (Have mercy on me, O Lord God) is based on a familiar melody used for Psalm 51. The cantus firmus appears first in the lower part, imitated at the octave by the upper part, and accompanied by a more rapid counterpoint in repetition, to be continued in the upper part. The second variation introduces the cantus firmus first in the tenor, imitated a fourth lower by the bass, where it is continued with accompanying counterpoint of increasing elaboration. A third variation starts with an inversion of the cantus firmus, followed by the entry of the psalm tune above, the inversion imitated in the bass, and the cantus in the tenor. A fourth variation presents the cantus firmus in the lower part, later to overlap with the tenor part in a continuing four-voice texture. Tenor is followed by a bass entry at the fifth in the fifth variation, which continues in three-voice counterpoint of varied rhythm and complexity, carried on in a sixth and final variation that at first offers the melody in an altered triplet rhythm, going on to provide a conclusion of some brilliance.
James David Christie
James David Christie holds the distinction of being the first American to win first prize at the Bruges International Organ Competition in 1979, and was at the same time the first competitor to win both first prize and audience prize. He has served on juries in international competitions in the United States, Canada and France and has performed throughout the world at major festivals. A specialist in early music, he is the founder and director of Ensemble Abendmusik, a period instrument orchestra and chorus devoted to music of the seventeenth century. He is the organist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA. Regular concert appearances include recent performances in Leipzig, Boston, New York, London, Baltimore, Tokyo and Paris and his recordings include collaboration with Seiji Ozawa, Christopher Hogwood, Robert Craft and Andrew Parrott. He has recently started work on a recording of the complete works of Dietrich Buxtehude.
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SWEELINCK: Organ Works