Early Dutch Masters

Echo Fantasia – Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621)

Variations on “Est-ce Mars?” – Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck

Psalm 6 – Anthoni van Noordt (c.1619-1675)

Variations on “Mein junges Leben hat ein End” – Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck

Holland has some of the most beautiful and highly developed organs of the Baroque era. One would therefore expect that brilliant composers of organ music would abound. Strangely, this is not really the case. Sweelinck is virtually the only star to shine in the firmament of late Renaissance and early Baroque Dutch organ music.

He was born in Deventer, a city in east-central Holland. His father, Pieter Swybbertszoon was an organist, and his mother, Elske Sweeling, the daughter of a surgeon. Interestingly, Sweelinck took his mother’s name. Soon after his birth the family moved to Amsterdam where the father became organist of the Oude Kerk. The father died in 1573, cutting short his son’s musical education. Jan Pieterszoon’s general education continued under the aegis of the Catholic Pastor of the Oude Kerk but this in turn was curtailed by the Reformation of Amsterdam in 1578 which led to the introduction of Calvinism. The Catholic Pastor fled the city. It is said that Sweelinck began his own long career at the Oude Kerk in 1577. He spent most of his life in Amsterdam, his visits to other cities being mainly as a consultant with regard to the building of new organs.

Sweelinck’s keyboard music builds on the style of the English virginalists and, indeed, some of his compositions are found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book which is predominantly devoted to English music. His influence then migrated in such a manner as to establish the North German School of organ composition which reached its zenith in the work of Buxtehude. Curiously, Sweelinck’s influence also migrated back to England in the work of Peter Philips and John Bull.

Sweelinck’s duties at the Oude Kerk were very different from those of men like Bach or Buxtehude in Lutheran Germany. Calvinist services tended not to include organ music although the organists were expected to perform variations on Psalm tunes before and after services in order to help the people to learn the tunes. One of the consequences of the Reformation in Holland was that churches became municipally owned. Thus, the organs were also the property of the cities, and the organists employed by the cities. One of their chief duties was to play recitals during the week for the benefit of people going to and fro on business matters – much like modern lunchtime concerts in a downtown church!

The Echo Fantasia being played today is one of a number of such pieces which contain imitative writing typical of 16th century polyphony but with the added feature of phrases which are “echoed” from one manual to another, exploiting the ability of the organ to employ contrasting sounds. On a really large organ there would not only be the contrast of tone colour but also considerable spatial separation of the sounds coming from different sections of the instrument.

Keyboard variation form was a particularly English phenomenon. In its simplest form it consists of “doubles” whereby successive variations decorate the melody by halving the note values which results in progressively faster passagework calling for increased technical facility as the piece goes on. However, Sweelinck is more inventive and also employs imitative techniques including canon. His treatment of cadences is also of interest. He does not always bring a phrase to a full close in all voices. Rather, as a cadence is approached one of the (usually) lower voices introduces a point of imitation based on the phrase which is to follow. This is taken up by each voice in turn until the voice to which the task of presenting the cantus firmus (the melody on which the variations are based) enters with the tune. Sometimes the imitation is inverted which means that the scrap of melody is literally turned upside down. This cadential procedure came to full flower in later German chorale preludes where each phrase is anticipated by an imitative, almost fugal, introduction.

The tune “Est-ce Mars?” first appeared in a ballet performed at the court of Louis XIII in 1613, and became popular in northern Europe. While ballet of this kind was the forerunner of classical ballet it was very different from what we would see today. Themes from mythology abounded, and it was de rigeur for the monarch and his consort to take part.

Is it Mars, the great god who calls men to arms, whom I see?

If one were to judge by his weapons, I would believe it!

All at once I see into his eyes and realise that he is more likely to be Love than Mars!

The equally popular song “Mein junges Leben hat ein End” treats of what the Anglican Prayer Book calls “the shortness and uncertainty of human life”.

My young life has an end, My joy and also my sorrow.

My poor soul quickly leaves my body. My life can not long endure,

It must pass away. Its final journey is my grief.

Anthoni van Noordt lived all his life in Amsterdam. His known compositions are all for the organ, and it may well be that both the Psalm setting by him which is being played today, as well as the two sets of variations by Sweelinck, are typical of the kind of music which may have been improvised at public recitals. The score of the Psalm setting contains a French version of the first verse of Psalm 6 by Clément Marot (1496-1539), a French poet of renown whose translation of the Psalms became popular in post-Reformation Europe.