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8.570335 - AMMERBACH: Harpsichord Works from the Tabulaturbuch (1571)

Elias Nikolaus Ammerbach (1530–1597)
Harpsichord Works from the Tabulaturbuch (1571)


Elias Nicolaus Ammerbach (ca.1530-1597) studied briefly at Leipzig University before giving in, as he tells us in a preface, to "a remarkable lust and love, appetite and inclination" for music, embarking on a period of study with "eminent masters in foreign lands" – unfortunately not specified, but probably including Venice - where he "suffered and endured much" in pursuit of his art. His efforts were eventually crowned with the post of organist at St Thomas Church from 1561 almost until his death. He published three books of keyboard music, selections from which are recorded here in large part for the first time.

Ammerbach is usually referred to as a "colourist". This unflattering epithet refers to a considerable group of sixteenth and early seventeenth century German composers who put together large collections consisting mainly of keyboard transcriptions of vocal polyphony. The pieces were often ornamented – coloriert – with running passagework. In the hands of some of these men, the ornamentation can become rather relentlessly monotonous. This, and the accusation of being merely arrangers, has cast a pall over their reputation. Ammerbach does get some credit for having found a place in the library of Johann Sebastian Bach, who conducted as Kantor in the same choir loft where Ammerbach had presided at the organ the better part of two centuries previously. A copy of his 1571 print was passed on by Bach's son C. Ph. Emmanuel to Charles Burney, the eminent English historian of music, during a visit to Hamburg in 1772.

From what little we know of him, Ammerbach seems to have been an easy-going sort of fellow. This quality extended to the proofreading, or more precisely, the lack thereof, of his publications. Some pieces are riddled with mistakes, apparently stemming from every stage of the enterprise: transcription from partbooks to score, ornamentation, intabulation into the new keyboard notation (letters only), and the printer's typesetting. Even the oft-repeated claim that Ammerbach's was the first printed German keyboard music ignores Schlick's epochal contribution more than a half-century earlier.

So why bother with Ammerbach? Because, when one has finally established a usable text – whether through comparison with the originals, application of musical law, or sheer guesswork – his prints turn out to be one of the greatest repositories of the music of the sixteenth century. The brief era of peace in Germany between the Wars of Religion and the horrors of the Thirty Years War saw one of the great blossomings of her culture. The firmly-established Reformation brought forth music of piercing beauty, and the secular songs of the time alternate between jollity and Arcadian bliss. Some beautiful examples are preserved, their texts lost, only in Ammerbach's compilations. All in all, there is a clarity and simplicity about Ammerbach's music which many modern listeners will find more sympathetic than the effulgences of the next century.

As to complaints about his 'colourations' – his often exquisitely-ornamented versions of famous chansons, madrigals, Lieder and motets, domestic and foreign – if they regard the fact of ornamentation itself, one must then reject Mozart's variations and Art Tatum as well. And to complain about the closeness of the ornamentation to the model, its lack of originality, is to misunderstand the colourists' position in the history of the development of an idiomatic form of writing for instruments. It grew out of just this type of added passagework, which was universal in the sixteenth century both for singers and instrumentalists. Most musical treatises from the period deal at length with the subject. Actual composition concentrated on the artifices of vocal counterpoint, and the keyboardist's art was mainly improvisational. Ammerbach's prints aim not only to provide access to ensemble music for the lonely soloist at home, but also to teach this essential skill. Original German compositions for keyboard up to this point were mostly preludes. Ammerbach has one magnificent written-out example of how the organist silenced the Leipzig congregation at the beginning of the week's high point: the Sunday morning service at St Thomas.

There may be more original compositions too, besides the 'arrangements' which are so unjustly disparaged: no concordances can be found for some of the dances, so it seems reasonable to assume some of them are from Ammerbach's pen, the most likely being the Passamezzo d'Itali, which is a keyboardist's elaboration of a standard bass-line. These pieces (which the preface says "young folks prefer over motets") stand near the beginning of a German tradition that reaches its apogee in Bach's Partitas. (Dances with French titles in parentheses were arranged from publications for ensemble or plucked instruments.)

Ammerbach's first publication (1571) was clearly pedagogical in intent. The Orgel oder Instrument Tabulatur is arranged in order of ascending difficulty, and contains an important preface on performance. (Instrument here means domestic stringed keyboard - the harpsichord family and the clavichord - a usage Praetorius complains about; but we still find Jane Austen referring to her fortepiano as "the instrument".) In 1575 Ammerbach published another collection of intabulations of vocal music (Ein neu künstlich Tabulaturbuch), which contains perhaps the two most remarkable pieces included in this recording: his only prelude, and a rare example of a fantasia super, an existing vocal work, in this case the most famous chanson of the sixteenth century, Orlando di Lasso's 'Susanne un jour d'amour'. Ammerbach takes the five-voice chanson as a point of departure for an orgy of six-part counterpoint, using the Latin version 'Susanna se videns rapi', which it circulated in non-francophone circles – particularly among students, who would have appreciated the lascivious text.

Finally, in 1583, Ammerbach completely reworked and greatly expanded the Tabulaturbuch. He took the remarkable decision to remove much of the Colorierung of the earlier print, possibly in response to complaints about its difficulty (or the many mistakes). In this recording I sometimes move back and forth between these two versions of a piece, for the sake of variety. It must be admitted that he does occasionally succumb to the above-mentioned monotony, rattling on in endless semiquavers, while many sources of the time urge restraint. For that reason I have kept my own ornamentation of repeats to a minimum.

I have selected works from all the categories represented in Ammerbach's prints:

German chorales and sacred songs, including works by the Italian Antonio Scandello who was Kapellmeister at Dresden, and the Flemings Ivo de Vento, a Munich organist, and Jacob Clement, known in jest as "Clemens non Papa", whose psalm-setting 'God is myn licht myn salicheyt' here gets a German title.

German secular songs, both folk-song arrangements and composed part-songs. (Ammerbach persists in calling all these Tenores, after the old style of composition, even when the melody has migrated to the descant.) Pride of place goes to the Swiss composer Ludwig Senfl, two generations older than the arranger but the most important German Lied composer on the cusp of the Reformation. An even older master, Heinrich Isaac, is present with one of two versions of his famous Innsbrucklied, and the greatest of all Renaissance composers, Orlande de Lassus of Bergen (now Mons in Belgium), who for many years was Kapellmeister in Munich, appears with a barnyard scene in the German section. A Villanella by Tiberio Fabrianese on another poultry-related theme seems to have been known to Ammerbach in a version in his native tongue.

French chansons and Italian madrigals, including, besides the aforementioned Fantasia, an ornamented version of de Lassus' Susanne, and the Netherlander Cipriano de Rore's almost equally famous madrigal of parting 'Ancor che col partire'. In a typically lively chanson by Thomas Crecquillon, Alice's toothache is replaced, after the intervention of a friend, by the pain of love.

Dances. Ammerbach has the first German examples for keyboard of the main Renaissance dances: the Passamezzo followed by its triple-time Saltarello ; the Galliard ; and the German variant of the Basse-danse, which eventually became known as the Allemande, but at this point is simply called Dantz. It, too, is followed by a lively Nachtanz or Hupfauf.

Glen Wilson


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