Aspects of chamber music from the Netherlands (v.2)
The Netherlands Chamber Choir
1-5 Papendrecht, Bethlehem Church, 18-19 March 1988 (conductor: Jan Boeke)
6-11 Amsterdam, Walloon Church. 11-12 February 1988 (conductor: Philippe Herreweghe)
12-15 Haarlem, Mennonite Church, 27-28 October 1988 (conductor: Peter Phillips)
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Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
At the time of his death on the 16th of October 1621, the fifty-nine-year-old Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck was reknowned throughout Europe. Although he had achieved celebrity status, Sweelinck never travelled abroad and left his Amsterdam home only on rare occasions. For forty four years Sweelinck held one position -that of organist at the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. The course of Sweelinck's life is undramatic, almost uneffected by external events; changes as defined in material or artistic terms took place gradually. How is it possible that the greatest Dutch composer of all times, the only composer to exert a substantial influence on the history of Western music lived such a provincial life? The answer to this question is linked closely with the economic development of Sweelinck's home base, Amsterdam. As Amsterdam grew in importance, Sweelinck grew as well. During Sweelinck's childhood, Amsterdam was a trade hub dwarfed in importance by the more powerful centers, Leiden, Haarlem and Dordrecht. Toward the end of Sweelinck's life. Amsterdam had overshot other Dutch cities and earned a position among leading European metropoli.
The growth of the city is mirrored in the lives of Its burghers. Sweelinck's increased success is no exception to this observation. In 1587
his name appeared on a list of debtors: he was unable to pay taxes. Thirty years later, Sweelinck was a wealthy man. Similar changes are evident in terms of enhanced social position. Originally from a humble middle-class milieu, Sweelinck attracted the attention and friendship of various Amsterdam notables and was treated as their equal. Sweelinck's musical development is more difficult to follow. His teachers were not particularly prominent musicians, leading to the conclusion that Sweelinck was, for the most part, self-taught. None of his early works have survived; the largest body of Sweelinck's works available to us, stems from the last twenty years of his life. Historians make a separation between Sweelinck's vocal and instrumental music. Such a separation is understandable taking into consideration the fact that the vocal works mark an end of a period in stylistic terms and the instrumental music marks the beginning of a new period in music history. In other words, it is often postulated that Sweelinck wrote his vocal music in the style of late Renaissance and his instrumental music in the early Baroque style. More attention has been paid to his compositions for organ and harpsichord than to those written for vocal ensembles.
Of course, there are differences between Sweelinck's vocal and instrumental compositions. Figurative, idiomatic writing is rarely found in the vocal works and text interpretation plays no part in the compositions for organ and harpsichord. In their totality, however, Sweelinck's works are unified. The essential value in Sweelinck's music lies in its organic construction: all elements are subordinate to a strong, controlled overall structure. With this sense of structure, Sweelinck led not only his contemporaries, but provided an example for later generations, although they used other compositional devises.
Central to Sweelinck's vocal music is his setting of the Geneva psaltry for 2 to 8 voices. This body of compositions appeared in 4 great volumes between 1604 and 1621. The works were written for a number of Amsterdam's burghers who must have been superb amateur musicians, taking into consideration the vocal technique necessary to execute Sweelinck's score. Sweelinck's works were well-known abroad. Among the polyphonic psalters which appeared since the middle of the 16th century, including those of Goudimel and Lejeune, Sweelinck's oeuvre was unquestionably among the greatest. All of the compositional techniques which had been developed during the Renaissance were masterfully adapted and integrated in structural terms.
Aside from the aforementioned achievements, Sweelinck's vocal work exhibits other aspects worthy of our attention. His chansons and madrigals along with the 2- and 3-part Rimes are rare jewels in vocal chamber music literature. They show us how cultivated Sweelinck was. The setting of Petrarch's Chi vuol veder is a model for musical text interpretation and symbolism. Furthermore, in the collection of Latin motets, Cantiones sacrae dated 1619, Sweelinck returns to his favorite 5 voice texture. In these works, subtle musical symbolism emphasizes the text. Strange as it may sound, historians are not sure of Sweelinck's professed religion. Until 1578, the year of the Amsterdam Alteration, Sweelinck was unquestionably a member of the Catholic church. Afterwards, it can be postulated that his position as church organist led to membership in the Dutch Reformed Church. His music along with his choice of friends includes the three major streams of Calvinists, Lutherans and Roman Catholics. It is interesting to note that none of his friends belonged to the radical 'shark' movement of those religiously turbulent times, whereas most of his friends were 'doves'. This leads to the hypothesis that Sweelinck was a follower of 'pax ecclesias-tica', a movement which strove for peaceful coexistence between the warring church parties. In this light, we can see Sweelinck's works as a resounding musical momento in support of Christian cooperation. To conclude, it is of paramount importance to emphasize that Sweelinck was Dutch par excellence. His works replace spectacular dramatic effects and monumental forms with a love for detail, picturesque expression and balance -characteristics found also in Dutch painting and poetry. As melodious as his compositions sound, their beauty lies far from the surface and unfolds only through deeper understanding.