About this Recording
8.570894 - SWEELINCK, J.P.: Harpsichord Works - Fantasia chromatica / Echo fantasia / Toccata / Variations (Wilson)

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562–1621)
Music for Harpsichord


Here is a Vermeer interior we can briefly walk into, a single personal vignette surviving the near-oblivion that has overtaken Sweelinck’s life-story after four centuries of turmoil in Europe. A friend tells of the difficulty of getting away from the composer’s home in the Koestraat after a convivial evening, as the master begs him to listen to just one more variation, “now this way, now that”. It must be feared that much of his keyboard music, too, has been lost forever, though what remains places him at the pinnacle, alongside Byrd, Frescobaldi, Froberger and Bach.

Jan Pieterszoon was born in 1562 in the Hanseatic city of Deventer, on the Ijssel river in the centre of what is now The Netherlands. At the time it was part of the empire of the Spanish Hapsburgs—but not for much longer. His grandfather, Swibbert van Keyzersweerd, had come to Deventer early in the sixteenth century from the still Dutch-speaking Lower Rhineland, took holy orders, and became organist of the cathedral. He also took a mistress and produced several children by her, one of whom, Pieter Swibberts, succeeded him at the main organ of what was then the second largest city in the northern Netherlands. He married remarkably well for a person of his dubious parentage—Elsken Sweling, daughter of the city surgeon. (Taking a matronym, as Jan later did, was not unusual at the time, especially when the mother’s family was the more prominent.) At some point in the 1560s Pieter became organist of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, with about 30,000 residents already the first city of the North, but still a village compared to what it would soon become.

Pieter died when Jan was eleven, and there is a report that Jan took over his job at the age of fifteen, one year before Amsterdam, after long hesitation, chose the side of Calvinism and rebellion against Spain. His mother died eight years later, leaving Jan with the care of his younger siblings. Sweelinck’s brother Gerrit painted a splendid portrait of the “Orpheus of Amsterdam”. Both of his powerful hands are shown; one, with two fingers extended in a symbol that means “listen to me”, reaches out beyond the painted oval frame, in a typical piece of early baroque illusionism. The combination of the stern figure and this startling gesture is a metaphor for the music, and for the man: tension between Renaissance forms and incipient baroque dynamism in the one, and between two opposing ways of life and thought in the other. Evidence points to Sweelinck’s having privately remained at least sympathetic to Roman Catholicism in relatively tolerant Protestant Amsterdam. This puts him in the company of the great English masters Byrd, Bull and Philips, though without the crisis of conscience entailed by participating in Protestant services, for when worship began in Amsterdam, the organ’s doors were closed. Sweelinck was an employee of the city; he played public organ concerts for citizens strolling in the Oude Kerk, and presided at the harpsichord at civic functions. The lid of the instrument he bought at Ruckers’ in Antwerp for the city’s use, identifiable by the painting on it, was recently rediscovered.

The source of Sweelinck’s formidable mastery of composition—apart from native genius—is a mystery. He certainly would have studied with his father, and he is known to have worked with a Haarlem town-musician. But his incredible outpouring of vocal masterpieces, including a complete polyphonic Psalter, and the astoundingly cosmopolitan quality and historical significance of his greatest keyboard works leave one begging for some explanation besides self-study of publications and manuscripts circulating in Holland. Mattheson’s story about studies in Venice is now generally discredited; but he lived in Hamburg a mere half-century after Sweelinck’s many students working there had died. Sweelinck’s surviving “Rules for Composition” are based on the writings of the Venetian Zarlino. I cannot help wondering if he spent a couple of teenage Wanderjahre there, without leaving the trail of documentary evidence musicologists now require. After all, we know little enough about the rest of his life, or that of most of his contemporaries. Journeys like that of the Leipzig organist Ammerbach to Venice, or of John Bull to Spain, were more common than we tend to think—but nothing is definitely known of his ever having left the Low Countries. His toccatas and and fantasias seem to me even more rooted in the style of Andrea Gabrieli, the greatest of Venetian composers before Monteverdi, than those of his exact contemporary, Hans Leo Hassler of Nuremberg, who is known to have studied with Gabrieli. Perhaps it was not wise to advertise Italian training in newly-Calvinist Amsterdam, and anyway, on the whole Sweelinck’s style remains unmistakably his own, somehow quintessentially Dutch in its clarity, reserve and wit.

In spite of strenuous efforts to divide Sweelinck’s keyboard music into a corpus for organ and another for harpsichord, there is no clear idiomatic distinction between the two; he comes at the end of the early period where keyboard music was written to be studied and performed on whatever instrument was handy. There are no pedal parts, but the organ is at an advantage when canti fermi in long notes or augmented themes come into play, and some echo fantasias require two manuals; the only double-manual harpsichords Sweelinck would have known were transposing, with keyboards a fifth apart. Since he died only about twenty years before the type of double I use was invented, I hope I may be pardoned by purists.

[1] We open this recording with a piece called Fantasia in two sources, Praeludium in a third. The latter seems to me the better fit—the work bears no resemblance to Sweelinck’s other fantasias but is quite close in character to preludes by his students. Fantasia mit Bindungen (Fantasia with ties) is the full designation in one case; this puts the piece in proximity to Italian pieces called durezze e ligature.

[2] The Sweelinck pieces most often played on the harpsichord are his variations on secular melodies—although it is precisely these that Sweelinck was required (if his contract resembled those usual at the time) to play once or twice a day on the organ of the Oude Kerk. The text of the popular French tune Est-ce Mars asks whether the armed personage who has just appeared is Mars, the god of war. No—it is the even more formidable Cupid. In Sweelinck’s secular variations the melody usually stays in the upper voice, where it is supported by a polyphonic web of imitations and canons of the greatest subtlety. As the work continues, the tendency is toward increasingly brilliant passage-work in the English style. His exemplars are in this are William Byrd and John Bull (who lived in Antwerp from 1613); he surpasses them both by making every gesture structurally meaningful.

[3] The Fantasia Cromatica is Sweelinck’s most famous work—probably because of the spectacular nature of the theme (a chromatic descending fourth) and the extreme turbulence at the end when the theme appears double-diminished. Others of his fantasias show an even surer, more inventive and subtler hand. In these massive, tripartite pieces (theme in normal note values, augmented, and diminished) Sweelinck forges the two major keyboard genres of his time into an improbable unity: the monothematic ricercar invented by Andrea Gabrieli, and the wide-ranging, virtuoso “fancies” of the English virginalists. He plays off his theme against a succession of countersubjects and passage-work of increasing velocity. Because the exact chronology of Sweelinck’s and his contemporaries’ keyboard works is indeterminate, it is very difficult to say exactly what rôle he played in developing this form; but that he raised it to its greatest and remarkably short-lived heights is beyond dispute. An interesting aspect of the piece is the appearance of five D sharps (and only one E flat at a very dissonant moment)—a majority of the nine appearances of this unusual note in all of Sweelinck’s keyboard music. At the time, these were not the same key, as on a piano, but two mutually exclusive pitches. Keyboards with split sharps to accommodate the difference were unknown in Holland, but common in Italy. It has been argued that this shows the work to have been intended for harpsichord, which can be retuned at will – but it seems to burst the bounds of the tiny instruments Sweelinck knew.

[4] Pavana Philippi is named after the English composer Peter Philips, who, after he arrived in the Catholic southern Spanish Netherlands as a religious refugee, visited Sweelinck in Amsterdam. The original pavane was Philips’s first (as a note in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book informs us), and was very well-received around Europe. Sweelinck here subjects it to a rigorous revision—with what effect on their friendship one can only wonder—but then rewards the younger man with a Variatio of such flattering radiance that any hard feelings must simply have melted. The whole is a marvel of sustained, Renaissance grace.

[5] Mein junges Leben hat ein End is persistently classed as a “secular” variation cycle, even though the melody was published anonymously in Magdeburg as one of Vier schöne geistliche Lieder. It is indeed a “beautiful spiritual song”, the farewell of a dying man who commends his wife and small child to God’s care, but its intensely first-person voice would have disqualified it for use as a chorale. It is heard to this day, however, at German funerals for young people. A few decades after its publication, Magdeburg itself suffered the most brutal massacre of a civilian population in the history of European warfare to that date, at the hands of the Catholic army in the Thirty Years War. The repeat in the second half of the last variation is left unchanged—a unicum for Sweelinck, and a powerful metaphor for the unfinished work of a life cut off too soon.

[6] It is in his toccatas that Sweelinck most clearly shows the influence of Venice and Andrea Gabrieli. The larger ones have a brief slow introduction followed by “toccata”-like passagework passing back and forth between the hands, then a fugal middle section of archaic grandeur, and a final, brilliant closing section.

[7] The variations on Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (“To God Alone Be the Glory on High”, Luther’s chorale-substitute for the Latin Gloria) is followed in its source by variations by a number of his students, like a class picture. Sweelinck’s are the most like harpsichord music of any of his sacred variation-cycles—modest, intimate, restrained, full of inner joy.

[8] The grandest of Sweelinck’s “echo fantasias” is far more than the usual game of acoustic illusions (inspired by memories of polychoral canzonas heard at San Marco?). The opening section is a cleverly veiled fantasia on a tetrachord—a scale section of a fourth, which he teasingly extends to a fifth and a sixth. At the 2/3 point in the piece (the ratio of the interval of a fifth) he clearly reveals the full hexachord-scale of the period which was often used as a theme. At the end of the piece, in a coda-twist of Beethovenian cunning, Sweelinck reintroduces the tetrachord in eighth-notes (quavers) over what seems like a final dominant in the bass—which then itself turns into a grand final statement, cantus-firmus style, of the descending tetrachord. Around these sections of contrapuntal mastery, he builds the echo-frolic and a brilliant toccata. Fortunately for players with only one keyboard at their disposal, this piece does not require two manuals for the echos, but rather exploits the quieter sound of a response an octave lower.

[9] “Fortune my foe”, which the Dutch called Engelsche Fortuyn, was one of the most popular English ballad tunes, to which many texts were set. These tend to the genre of gallows speeches by famous criminals, but also include the story on which Shakespeare based Titus Andronicus. Sweelinck’s variations are followed in the source by three from the pen of his student Samuel Scheidt. Their abrupt changes of mood seem to illustrate the caprices of Fortuna and her wheel.

[10] These passamezzo variations (on the bass variant called “moderno”) are not considered by most authorities to be by Sweelinck—even though their source pedigree is identical to that of our previous piece. They are certainly unlike anything else in the canon, but then, they are the only dance variations of this type to have come down to us under his name. I think too restrictive a standard has been applied; this could be an early work, under direct influence of Andrea Gabrieli (who composed a set on the “antico” bass), or simply Sweelinck at his most carefree, improvisatory and Italianate. Perhaps we see him here as a suonatore di balli, as a contemporary Italian organ treatise contemptuously refers to “dance players” on the harpsichord. If they are not by him, they come from his circle, and are certainly delightful in their own right.

[11] John Dowland’s famous Pavana Lachrimae in Sweelinck’s delicately elaborated version for keyboard is one of the most exquisite settings of a “standard” in the history of music.

[12]–[13] Our closing piece is not by Sweelinck, but is closely associated with him. This anonymous fantasia is preserved in a German manuscript revolving around Sweelinck and his circle; certain rhythmical fingerprints point to the distinguished Melchior Schildt of Hanover, who studied in Amsterdam 1609–12. It is clearly a student’s homage to the master, and even attempts to surpass him. It is laid out as Sweelinck’s great fantasias are, and its careful division into proportional sections is especially striking. The reader will have to take my word for it that the contrapuntal density of this work, based on the first line of the choral Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland and a countersubject, is unprecedented for northern Europe, for he will be able to hear a mere shadow of all that is here (near the end there are twenty bars where all four voices repeatedly sound only the theme in a massive stretto). The closest parallel is to be found in the fantasias of Frescobaldi, who, interestingly enough, was in Brussels (200 kilometres from Amsterdam) in 1607–8, and showed them, he tells us, to the most prominent musicians of the city. If Sweelinck ever saw them, he would have shaken his head at such tightly crammed contrapuntal virtuosity, so unidiomatically packaged for the keyboard—qualities our fantasia certainly exhibits. Only the student who has dissected such a precocious, flawed masterpiece down to the last note can really know what the composer has accomplished—and forgive him for trying, with the élan of youth, to go a little too far. Whoever wrote it erected a private monument to the glory of God, free from all outward display and fully comprehensible only to the seeker after true musical knowledge. Yet even the most casual listener will take away a sensation of coherence, majesty, and economy of materials. The complete chorale here precedes the fantasia in a version from the earliest German hymnal recognisable as such to modern ears, harmonized by Lucas Osiander (1586). An adaptation of an ancient Ambrosian hymn, it cries out for the Saviour of the heathen to finally come again, and its insistence reaches an almost unbearable pitch at the end. The last two entrances in the bass are altered (using an arcane technique called inganno) to a descending line, symbolic of the two comings of the Messiah.

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,
der Jungfrauen Kind erkannt,
Daß sich wunder alle Welt,
Gott solch Geburt ihm bestellt.

(Heathens’ Saviour come again,
Virgin’s Child without all sin.
’Twas the wonder of this Earth
that God gave him such a birth.)

Glen Wilson
Gratefully dedicated to my teacher Gustav Leonhardt and his wife Marie on the occasion of their 80th birthdays.

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