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Music from the Time of Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531)

Tilman Riemenschneider was born about the year 1460 and grew up in a Germany that still belonged to the Middle Ages. The latest artistic currents flowed from Flanders and Northern France, in particular from the rich Burgundian possessions of Antwerp and Bruges. In Italy a new world was dawning, but none of this was yet familiar to Würzburg, a town then of six or seven thousand inhabitants, on the river Main, midway between Frankfurt and Nuremberg. It was there that Tilman Riemenschneider settled in 1483, became a master sculptor and set up his own workshop.

Unlike Dürer or Holbein, both of whom were celebrities in their own time, Riemenschneider, now generally regarded as one of the leading German sculptors of the Late Gothic, was soon forgotten, with interest only reviving in the nineteenth century, by which time almost all his work had been destroyed, altered or at any rate removed from its original location. Almost everything we know about his life, therefore, comes from public records, municipal accounts, business contracts and details of payments. These provide evidence of a successful master of his craft who rose to a position of high esteem in the community. He served not only on the lower council of the city of Würzburg, but also four times on the much more powerful upper council, where seven citizens (one of them from the ranks of the craftsmen and artisans) balanced the seven clergy chosen from the cathedral chapter. Resentment smouldered constantly towards the church and its clergy, owing to their special privileges and exemption from the normal taxes. During the Peasants’ War, Riemenschneider joined with other members of the city council in refusing to allow their city to be used as a military base against the peasants, but the local prince-bishop had his revenge. In 1525 Riemenschneider was subjected to prolonged questioning and torture, after which part of his estates were seized.

During the first half of the fifteenth century the finest breeding-ground for musical ideas was Flanders, part of the northern possessions of the duchy of Burgundy. Germany was relatively slow to embrace the latest developments, and it was a blind organist from Nuremberg, Conrad Paumann, who had an important place, from 1450 onwards, in transmitting Franco- Flemish polyphony and its repertories to German audiences. A copy of his Fundamentum organisandi was bound together with a manuscript now called the Lochamer Liederbuch (c.1452–60), which shows the earliest signs of the assimilation of the more subtle northern polyphony into the German secular tradition. Two other manuscripts of the period, the Schedel Liederbuch (1460–67) and the Glogauer Liederbuch (c.1480), contain rather more substantial collections of secular songs and sacred works.

Songs have always been passed from one musician to another, and often the recipient likes to adapt or invent according to preference. The songs of this period can be found spread over a wide area, presented in a variety of forms. Es solt ein man kein mole farn, for example, is found in the Glogauer Liederbuch as a three-part piece, author unknown. On this CD it is played on instruments only (track 19), but the original text contains the words rumpel an der Türe nicht. As a result the same song sometimes went under the name Rompeltier, and a four-part version by Obrecht with this title (track 28) was included in one of the earliest of all printed collections, produced by the Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci in 1502.

There is a positively international flavour to these Petrucci collections, as recognised composers took popular melodies and incorporated them into a more refined contrapuntal texture. In this way a robust tavern song such as Zenner, greiner (track 6) could find itself mixing in much more elevated company after transformation by two of the foremost German composers of the day, Heinrich Finck (track 7) and Paul Hofhaimer (track 8). Similarly, by the time such songs as Wir zogen in das feld (track 18), Alle furf (track 26) and Canto dei lanzi allegri (track 27) had found their way into printed collections, now in contrapuntal dress, they had come a long way from the camps of the mercenary soldiers who, perhaps many decades earlier, had been the first to sing them.

Popular music in its original guise never needed to be committed to paper; everything could be learned and transmitted by ear. The nature of these written arrangements was rather different. They were designed for a more educated audience, and would most often have been heard played by the town musicians, or Stadtpfeiferei, the ‘waits’, a term which recalled their original function as watchmen posted on the city towers, whose duty it was to signal fire within the walls or danger without. In the course of time it became their main duty to provide music for the community: in Basel, a shawm-player’s oath from about 1500 states that the town musicians will play ‘every Sunday after the sermon from the Richt Hall and after the evening meal from the Rhine Bridge, and at ceremonies in the Herrenstuben before and after the banquets’.

For such purposes it was essential to use the louder type of instruments, designed to be heard out of doors and over the noise of diners, and so for the towns that could afford them a wind band of five players, three shawms and two trombones, became the standard; a smaller town would have to make do with only three. It was assumed, however, that players would be versatile enough to be competent on several instruments, often of quite different kinds. Contemporary representations, without exception, show them performing without music, but since their repertoire was contrapuntal we may assume that the parts were memorised from a written score, with the customary embellishments improvised while performing.

Of the composers included by name in the present programme Jean Mouton (c.1457–1522) was born in northern France, where he worked for some 25 years before becoming attached to the French court. He accompanied François I to meetings with Pope Leo X in Bologna (1515) and probably to that with Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520); on both occasions the chapel choirs of both rulers played an important part in the elaborate ceremonies.

The German composer Heinrich Finck (1444/5- –1527), probably born in Bamberg, was intermittently in the service of three Kings of Poland, finally, in 1510, securing a position as Kapellmeister to Duke Ulrich of Stuttgart. There followed a period at the court of the Emperor Maximilian I. In 1520 he was appointed composer to the Salzburg Cathedral chapter, and finally he made his home in Vienna, organizing a choral establishment at the Schottenkloster. In 1527 he became, for a short time, Court Kapellmeister to Ferdinand I. In the course of a long and varied life Finck wrote a great deal of music, of which four Mass settings, motets, hymns, and secular songs survive. In these last, in the form of tenor songs, he shows his preference for folk-song texts.

An organist and composer Paul Hofhaimer (1459–1537) served at the court of Duke Sigmund of Tyrol in Innsbruck, later combining this position with that of organist at the court of Maximilian I, who ennobled him in 1515. After Maximilian’s death in 1519 Hofhaimer served as organist at Salzburg Cathedral, holding that position until his death in 1537. He enjoyed an unrivalled reputation as an organist, famous, in particular, for his improvisation, and exercised considerable influence as a teacher. His surviving compositions include keyboard intabulations, two liturgical organ compositions and a number of songs, a form for which he was also much praised by contemporaries.

A composer and poet, Johann Walter (1496–1570) was a member of the Hofkapelle of the Elector of Saxony. After the Elector’s death in 1525 he settled in Torgau as choirmaster, encouraged by the support of Martin Luther, before assuming, in 1548, the position of Kapellmeister of the Dresden Hofkapelle, a position he held until 1554. He played an important part in the organization of Lutheran church music in Saxony, notably through his hymn-book, the Geystliches gesangk Buchleyn of 1524, to which Luther contributed a preface, and which was revised and enlarged in later editions. Walter also provided polyphonic repertoire, including Magnificat settings and motets.

Among the most important German composers of his time, Thomas Stoltzer (c.1480-85–1526)was born in the Silesian city of Schweidnitz and was probably a pupil of Heinrich Finck. He served as a priest in Breslau and in 1522 became magister capellae to the Hungarian court at Ofen, but seems to have had some sympathy with the changes initiated by Martin Luther. Although he set some Lutheran German texts, including a group of four Psalms, the greater part of his work was for the traditional Latin Catholic liturgy, with a number of Latin hymns, 39 of which were included in Rhau’s Lutheran Sacrorum hymnorum liber primus of 1542.

Born in Flanders, Heinrich Isaac (c.1450–1517) was particularly active in Italy and the German Empire. After serving as a singer in Florence cathedral during the rule of Lorenzo de’ Medici, in 1497 he went to work at the court of Maximilian I in Vienna, employment that involved travel with the Hofkapelle and that allowed a continued if intermittent connection with Florence, where he died in 1517. His work provides a link between the Netherlands, Italy and Germany.

The German composer Erasmus Lapicida (?1440-45 –1547), a priest, served from 1510 to about 1521 as a singer in the Court Kapelle in Heidelberg of the Elector Ludwig V. He was then granted a benefice by Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in the Schottenkloster in Vienna, where he was, for a short time, a colleague of Heinrich Finck. Lapicida lived an exceptionally long life, its length reflecting the changing patterns of composition. His surviving works include liturgical settings and German secular songs, polyphonic treatments of folksongs, suggesting the influence of the Italian frottola.

A leading Netherlands composer, Jacob Obrecht (c.1450–1505) was the son of a trumpeter in the city of Ghent. His earlier employment was not entirely satisfactory, and he was dismissed from his position as singing-master at Cambrai, where some problems also emerged over his accounts. As a composer, however, he was greatly admired, placed by Tinctoris, even as a young man, in the same class as Dufay and Ockeghem. Most of his working life was spent in the Netherlands, but he was invited to the court of Ferrara during 1487-8 and went back there as maestro di cappella in 1504, only to die of the plague the following year.

Hugh Griffith

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