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Hyperion Records

CDA67421/2 - Sweelinck: Keyboard Music
CDA67421/2

Recording details: August 2002
Norrfjärden Kyrka, Piteå, Sweden
Produced by Paul Spicer
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: August 2003
DISCID: D711910D A4120B0C
Total duration: 150 minutes 34 seconds

THE BEST OF 2004 (Goldberg Early Music Magazine)

'…this is really inspiring playing with some compelling insights into the structure of Sweelinck's often monumental pieces.' (Early Music Review)

'This set is obviously the outcome of a thorough, deeply pondered approach. It more then renders justice to Sweelinck's music by bringing out its variety, inventiveness and fanciful exuberance. Strongly recommended.' (Fanfare, USA)

'Herrick, who is up to all the technical demands made by the music, aptly uses early keyboard fingering, while his carefully chosen registrations … are a real treat for the ear' (Goldberg)

Keyboard Music
CD1
More palatino  [3'52]
Malle Sijmen  [1'26]
Poolsche dans  [8'08]
CD2
Pavana hispanica  [2'30]

Let us not be too pious!—even in the presence of music so full of religious reference—the notes for the present issue refer to the composer, born near Amsterdam and later known as the ‘Orpheus of Amsterdam’, as a "clubbable man" and make the observation that organ recitals were used to keep people out of inns and taverns! They could have worse consequences: the English composer Peter Philips came to hear Sweelinck play and, as a Catholic, found himself under arrest. Such is the background of this varied and somewhat neglected music. It ranges from large-scale fantasies to small dance forms, often with a sense of verve in the composer's inventiveness of harmonies and form. His legendary ability to fashion variations by improvising at the keyboard are evident in the examples here, based both on secular and sacred melodies—even on plainchant—which are as full of life and character as the Dutch street-scene paintings of the period.

An important set of discs full of surprises and delights, all, as ever, expertly played by Christopher Herrick.


Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the ‘Orpheus of Amsterdam’, was clearly a very clubbable man – his wide circle of friends included poets, scholars and businessmen, as well as other distinguished musicians. When he died several newspapers, which generally only concerned themselves with commercial matters, carried tributes to him. At a time when Amsterdam was rapidly becoming the major European hub of world trade and a jumping off ground for explorers and colonisers, he rarely left its environs, but was instead the magnet that drew others into his circle.

He was born around May 1562 in Deventer, to the east of Amsterdam; his musician father, Pieter Swybertszoon, had married Elsken Jansdochter Sweling, daughter of the town surgeon, in 1558. When Jan was only a year or two old they moved to Amsterdam which at that time was no more than a modest fishing village. Pieter Swybertszoon was appointed organist of the Church of St Nicholas, the Oude Kerk, in 1566, or possibly earlier, and laid the foundation for an organist dynasty which, through his son and grandson, would last virtually unbroken for nearly a hundred years. The family’s financial circumstances were hardly flourishing and could have had a detrimental effect on their son’s development as one of the greatest musicians of his age, but he had the good fortune to attract the attention of the parish priest at the Oude Kerk, Jacob Buyck, who undertook the boy’s education himself. It is more than likely that this was paid for by the city fathers, through the offices of his Alderman brother, Joost. Buyck was a learned man and a staunch Catholic who, just before the Alteration or conversion to Calvinism in 1578, left Amsterdam, unable to accept the new religion. Although Sweelinck was pragmatic enough to adopt the new faith in order to obtain employment, he may not have entirely repudiated the tenets of the faith which Buyck had inculcated in him. His Cantiones Sacrae of 1619 are based on plainchant and his son Dirck, during his tenure of the post of organist at the Oude Kerk, was censured for trying to introduce certain ‘popish’ elements into the worship. Although those connected to the Inquisition were chased out of town, the monasteries and convents were left untouched, and there was a much greater sense of religious tolerance than elsewhere. Religious and political life were not riven with the machinations and intrigue that beset England, for instance, during this period.

Of his musical education, which undoubtedly began under his father, little is known. It is possible he studied with Jan Willemszoon Lossy, a town musician (but not an organist) in Haarlem. Haarlem is about 15 miles from Amsterdam and it would not have been out of the question for the boy to make the journey on a regular basis. Here he might also have come under the influence of Floris van Aldrichen, a noted player at the Baavokerk, and Claas Albrechtszoon van Wieringen. Documentary evidence confirms Sweelinck as organist at the Oude Kerk from 1581, but it is possible he was performing this role as early as 1577. His father had died in 1573 and his immediate successor lasted only a matter of months. In November 1577 another organist was buried in the church and maybe the city fathers, who had taken an active interest in the education of the boy, felt that the 15 year old was ready to step into his father’s shoes. Calvinism saw no place for the organ in worship, and new churches often had no provision for an instrument. However the many fine existing organs, such as the two instruments by Henrik Niehoff in the Oude Kerk, were the property and responsibility of the town authorities, and a source of considerable pride. Sweelinck’s appointment was, therefore, a civic rather than an ecclesiastical one and, by the standards of his day, his duties were relatively light. He was expected to play for one hour, twice a day, for the edification of visitors to the church. (At Leiden, organ recitals were encouraged before and after services to keep people out of the inns and taverns.) He was also responsible for the state of the organs but not for their tuning. Unlike many of his colleagues he did not have to play the carillon – described by Charles Burney, the musical chronicler of his age, as ‘the jingling of bells and ducats’ – nor did he have to play the harpsichord for official functions. His annual salary was 100 gilders, but when his mother died in 1585 this was doubled, as he now had responsibility for his whole family. When, in 1590, he married Claesgen Dircxdochter Puyner from Medemblik it was increased again to 300 gilders and he was also provided with free accommodation. His fame as a player began to spread and visitors to Amsterdam came to the Oude Kerk especially to hear him; he became something of a tourist attraction. The English composer Peter Philips, who was to become a life-long friend, came in 1593 to ‘see and hear an excellent man of his faculties.’ (The hapless Philips, a Catholic, was promptly arrested and imprisoned in the Hague.)

As his reputation as a performer spread he began to attract pupils from all over the continent who helped spread his name throughout Germany, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Undoubtedly the most important were Samuel Scheidt and Heinrich Scheidemann who laid the foundations for the North German School, which ultimately spawned Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Sebastian Bach. At one point his pupils Ulrich Cernitz, Jacob Praetorius II and Heinrich Scheidemann held the three principal organist posts in Hamburg, leading Handel’s friend, the composer and writer Johann Mattheson, to dub him ‘Der Hamburgische Organistenmacher’. He was well paid for his services as a teacher, the fees usually being met by the Town Council of the pupil concerned, and he died a relatively wealthy man.

As well as being an excellent player, Sweelinck also had a good knowledge of organ building (like J S Bach) and was often asked to give his opinion on new instruments or restorations. He made visits for this purpose to Haarlem, Deventer, Middleburg, Nijmegen, Harderwijk, Rotterdam, Dordrecht and Rhenen – all in the Republic of the Seven United Provinces, from which the Spanish had been driven in 1588. His only trip outside was to Antwerp in 1604, to buy a harpsichord from the firm of Ruckers for the town authorities.

His earliest published works were three volumes of Chansons, which appeared between 1592 and 1594. Beginning in 1604 and ending in the year of his death in 1621 he published his settings of the entire Genevan Psalter. (One set was in use in Switzerland, translated into a local dialect, until 1840.) In all, he published over 200 vocal works, mostly destined for domestic music making, an important part of Dutch life as depicted in paintings of the period. But this repertoire has, until recently, been largely unknown, with the exception of the ever popular Hodie Christus natus est. Instead his fame has rested almost entirely on his keyboard music, none of which was published in his lifetime and of which no autograph copy survives. The works have been transmitted to us through manuscript collections compiled mostly in England (including the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book) and Germany. According to the latest work of the Dutch scholar Pieter Dirkson all but four of the works recorded here can be confidently attributed to Sweelinck. The exceptions are More palatino and Malle Sijmen, where the attribution is less certain, and Ballo del granduca and Onse Vader in hemelrijck, where stylistic considerations suggest that they are more likely to be by his pupils or others within his circle.

The Free-Form Works
With the Fantasia Chromatica we are immediately plunged into the tangy world of mean-tone temperament. It is not possible to summarise such a complex subject in a few sentences, but because of the distinction between diatonic and chromatic semitones – e.g. the diatonic semitone D-E flat is smaller than the chromatic D-D sharp – certain notes which in modern equal temperament share the same key on the keyboard, cannot sound equally well in both flat and sharp keys. So, whereas on a modern keyboard they are the same note, in mean-tone temperament D sharp is higher than E flat. (Other enharmonic convergences do not matter because the notes D flat, G flat, A flat and A sharp were hardly, if ever, used.) Sweelinck’s Chromatic Fantasia – based on a theme typical of all such works, filling the space between a perfect fourth, here moving down from D to A – is one of the first works to use both D sharp and E flat in the same piece; only William Byrd had done so before. The device of using a split key in order to provide both notes, as on the organ which Christopher Herrick plays, is known to have existed in certain organs of Sweelinck’s time. As with the other longer imitative pieces on these discs the composer displays both enormous command of contrapuntal technique and a sure grasp of large-scale form. Sweelinck’s biographer, Frits Noske, has identified a tri-partite structure to these works although, as he says, this is more evident to the eye than the ear. The first section takes up roughly the first half, in which the theme is combined first with one counter-subject and then its inversion. Brief periods when the main subject is absent give the ear respite from the chromaticism. In the second section the theme is presented in augmentation or double length notes, and then in the final part in diminution, speeded up first to twice its original pace and finally to four times. Brilliant toccata-like flourishes bring the work to a dazzling conclusion.

The other large-scale Fantasia (a-Phrygian) on an even more impressive scale than the Fantasia Chromatica, uses a pre-existing theme from a lute fantasia by one Gregorius Huwet, which had appeared in Antwerp towards the end of the 16th century. Although this theme contains the notes B flat, A, C and B natural, which in German notation spell Bach’s name, this can be nothing but a coincidence, and once the piece is underway it cannot be heard as a motif of significance. The three sections are more easily distinguished here because the points where the theme is presented first in augmentation and then diminution are marked by a reduction to a two-part texture. The theme is treated here as a cantus firmus, in the manner of variation technique. The contrapuntal working is, if anything, even richer, with a greater abundance of counter-subjects.

If Sweelinck did not actually invent the Echo Fantasia (Ionian), then he made it very much his own. Its construction is much less strict than the big fantasias, placing greater emphasis on the moment rather than the overall design, and feeling more improvisatory. The opening section is again contrapuntal but the part writing is more relaxed, the imitation looser and more vocal in quality. In some of these pieces the echoes appear at the same pitch, contrasting dynamic marks indicating changes of manual, marking these out specifically as organ works. However, the present work is one of those where the echoes are generally at the octave below, thus making the piece playable also on the harpsichord. One cannot but marvel at the sheer inventiveness of Sweelinck’s development of such a simple idea. The echo ideas include horn calls, repeated notes and all sorts of passagework, and the piece is rounded off with another virtuosic ending.

The Ricercar (Aeolian) is built on a similarly grand scale to the two Fantasias in this collection. Although there is still one main theme, whose return in augmentation and then diminution marks the large-scale structure, it also generates several subsidiary ones. The richness of part-writing is maintained for a much greater proportion of the piece, with only a brief spell of two-part writing. We can also see cross-fertilisation with other forms, particularly the echo fantasia and an even greater variety of accompanimental figuration, including lively dotted and triplet rhythms.

Sweelinck clearly knew and took his inspiration from a wide variety of music, especially the keyboard traditions of England and Italy. While contrapuntal compositions such as the fantasia and ricercar are found in his English sources, the toccata is a specifically southern type, his particular models being Claudio Merulo and Andrea Gabrieli. Built on a less extensive scale than the other free-form works the Toccata (Ionian) opens with the same head-motif as the Echo Fantasia, although counterpoint is almost completely absent. While there is bravura passagework, the form is not yet the vehicle for out and out virtuosic display that it was to become and chordal passages and sequences abound.

Variations on Sacred Melodies
Sweelinck wrote variations on three different categories of sacred melody. They are plainsong melodies, tunes from the Lutheran chorales and Geneva Psalter. Some writers have attempted to codify the differences between the variations on sacred and secular melodies, but similar techniques occur in both groups of works. The notes of the melody are presented as a cantus firmus, usually in the top part, although it can migrate to any other part of the texture – this aspect is perhaps found more in the sacred works. The cantus can be plain or with varying degrees of decoration. Accompanimental material may be derived from the melody and used imitatively or be merely decorative. In plainsong based works, such as Christe qui lux est et dies the cantus is generally in long notes of equal length, all rhythmic interest being in the accompaniment. Here a three part texture is maintained thoughout the three verses, with the melody moving from the top, to the middle, and then back again, this time twice as fast. More often the cantus will follow the rhythm of the original melody, as in Ons is gheboren een kindekijn (Puer nobis nascitur). Although it had its origins in a plainsong melody, somewhere along the way it became a Dutch folk-song, hence its jaunty dance-like character. Only in the last of its four verses does the melody move to the middle part, with energetic cross-rhythms against the flow of the tune. In many sets of variations the number of parts increases with each movement, although in this case the second verse is in two parts while the others are in three.

Onse Vader in hemelrijck has just two verses, although there is an incomplete third verse that has been omitted in this recording. Both verses are in four parts throughout and, in the second verse, the tune is transposed down a fourth and appears in the alto part. Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr and Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gemein all follow the pattern of accumulating voices: in the four verses of Ich ruf zu dir the number of parts is 2, 3, 3, 4. The other two have 2, 3 and 4 parts successively although Allein Gott begins with a simple four part harmonisation of the tune, a characteristic more of the secular variations than the sacred. Erbarme dich mein, o Herre Gott is the most extended of all the sets, having six sections which fall into three pairs. In each of the first four verses the tune appears alternately in the soprano and the bass. The accompanying voices are derived from the tune and treated imitatively. The melody returns to the top part for variations 5 and 6, the latter being an extravagantly decorated version.

The tunes from the Geneva Psalter were the only music permitted to be sung during the Calvinist service, albeit unaccompanied. The organist was expected to improvise on these melodies before the service in order to familiarise the congregation with them. In the first two verses of Psalm 116 – Ik heb den Heer lief the tune is heard clearly in the upper part, against a rich profusion of accompanimental figuration. In the third verse, when the tune is more highly decorated, the accompaniment is kept deliberately simple to aid comprehension.

Variations on Secular Melodies
It is in the secular variations that we glimpse most clearly the Sweelinck who could sit down at the harpsichord until past midnight, dazzling his friends with his ability to vary a popular tune in a seemingly inexhaustible variety of ways. The fecundity of invention is staggering, particularly in the two most celebrated sets, those on Est-ce Mars? and Mein junges Leben hat ein End’, where the range of expressive and dramatic gestures reaches its apogee. The melody is almost invariably in the top part, and nearly always decorated. New figurations are constantly being introduced, even within variations, for the later Baroque principle of a single affect in each movement holds no sway here. Mein junges Leben hat ein End’ is rightly regarded as his masterpiece – it was the first of his works to be published, in 1894. The sense of reprise brought about by the return to the mood of the opening in the final variation, even though the harmony and part-writing are quite different, is surely a masterstroke.

Many of these melodies started life as dance tunes, such as the Ballo del granduca, from Italy, Ich voer al over Rhijn, a version of the well-known tune Spagnolette and the Poolsche dans, from Poland.

At least three of the tunes used here are English in origin: Onder een linde groen, the simple but touching Malle Sijmen and Engelsche Fortuyn which, as Fortune my Foe, Farewell Delight, was set by William Byrd. More palatino or Allemande Gratie is based on a German student song and was also used by, amongst others, John Bull, Girolamo Frescobaldi and Dietrich Buxtehude.

The three examples of the stately duple-time dance, the pavane, are arrangements of other composers’ works. The Pavana hispanica is based on a piece by the Spaniard Antonio de Cabazon. In Pavana Philippi Sweelinck takes a pavane that Peter Philips wrote while incarcerated in prison in the Hague, and transmutes its characteristic keyboard figuration into something more vocal in style. At the end he appends a variation of his own, reverting to a more overtly keyboard manner. Pavana Lacrimae is a version of John Dowland’s exquisitely doleful Flow my Teares. There are three sections each of which is repeated, with embellishments and subtle variations in the harmony to heighten the expressive effect.

Stephen Westrop © 2003

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