Drei schöne Ding sind – Music for the 500th Anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses

Sunday, February 5, 2017 4:00 p.m.
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Music of Heinrich Isaac (1450-1514), Josquin des Prez (1455-1521) and Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630)

In the center of the new musical movement which accompanied the Reformation stands the great figure of Martin Luther. He does not occupy this position because of his generalship of Protestant movement, and nothing is more unjust that to consider him a sort of enthusiastic and good-natured dilettante.

The ultimate fate of German protestant music depended on this man who, as a student in Eisenach singing all sorts of merry student songs, and as a celebrant priest familiar with the gradual and the polyphonic settings of Masses and motets, lived with music all his life.

The places Luther frequented such as Wittenburg, Erfurt, Torgau and Leipzig, all had respectable musical institutions, and his trip to Rome in 1511 introduced him to the music of Josquin and other Franco-Flemish composers. Luther’s writing disclose a love of music and a remarkable understanding of its nature. For Luther, music is a living art, the art of the present.

Luther’s favorite composer in fact was Josquin Desprez about whom little is known. While the archival data concerning his biography fix the day and year of his death (August 27, 1521), recent research has shown that the generally accepted time of his birth, ca. 1440, can no longer be considered secure. It even seems plausible now that ‘Des Prez’ was a nickname, his family name being ‘Lebloitte.’ His whereabouts are documented for a few periods of his life only.

The aspect of Josquin’s art that fostered such a furor among his contemporaries was its remarkable expressivity: to a far greater extent than anyone before him Josquin attempted to convey the meanings of the words he set. For this reason his most powerful and audacious music is not to be found in his twenty-odd Masses, in which the text remains fixed, but rather in his 100 or so motets, whose texts he could select himself. It was undoubtedly brilliant strokes of this sort that moved Martin Luther to exclaim of Josquin: “He is the master of the notes. They must do as he wills; as for the other composers, they have to do as the notes will.”

When the Duke Hercules d’Este I of Ferrara sought a composer for his court, his secretary recommended Heinrich Isaac over Josquin, because Isaac is able to get on better with his colleagues and composes new pieces quicker.

It is true, Josquin composes better, but he does it only when it suits him and not when it is requested. More than this, Josquin asks 200 ducats while Isaac is pleased with 120.”

The Duke rejected this advice and hired Josquin, who emerges as the Beethoven of his time, a man who knew his own worth and wrote what and for whom he pleased. The age of the individual was at hand.

Isaac’s reputation is second only to that of Josquin, a modern ranking seemingly confirmed by the dissemination of his works in surviving manuscript copies. His astonishing productivity and creative flexibility have already been mentioned; he is consistently documented in the role of a ‘composer’ and must have projected himself as such, showing the opinion that all musicians of his time were essentially performers to be exaggerated.

Isaac is the earliest composer by whom we have ascertained musical autographs. Isaac is unique in that he influenced not only the Franco-Flemish and Italian musical traditions, but also the Central European one (thus anticipating Lassus). As if in gratitude, German-speaking musicians of several centuries (particularly the 19th) have cherished him as the composer of Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen (which, contrafacted as O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, had been naturalized as a Lutheran chorale and set by J.S. Bach); at the same time, they searched feverishly for the presumed German folksong behind the famous setting.

A few Latin-texted works, and the name rather than the music of the Choralis Constantinus, have been the only other tokens of the composer’s almost mythical image among Germans. The historical foundation for this reception was the 16th-century acceptance of the Catholic polyphonic repertories that Isaac dominated in his lifetime by the German-speaking courts (Catholic and Protestant) and by the churches and schools of the Lutheran Reformation, a process in which Isaac’s followers (such as Ludwig Senfl) and admirers (such as Henrich Glarean) were instrumental.

German composer and poet, Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630) was an important predecessor of Bach, both as Leipzig Thomaskantor and as a gifted composer. He was one of the first composers to beautifully graft the style of the Italian madrigal, monody and concerto on to the traditional elements of Lutheran church music. As late as 1691, W.C. Printz still identified Schütz, Schein and Scheidt as the leading German composers of their time. They were all born between 1585 and 1587 and worked in close geographical proximity and knew one another. The closest friendship was between Schein and Schütz; they both began as choirboys with a talent that attracted the attention of a nobleman who supported their education, both studied law and, as composers, both distinguished themselves through the expressive setting of Luther’s biblical language for a few voices with instrumental accompaniment.

Schein was first and foremost a composer for the voice, and he was equally devoted to sacred and secular music. In the foreword to the Banchetto musicale (1617) he announced his intention to publish music for worship and for social gatherings in regular alternation, and he maintained this practice throughout the productive years that followed. The stylistic categories of his music cut across the boundary between sacred and secular. Schein’s set of Old Testament vignettes, Israelis Brünnlein (“The Fountains of Israel”), comprises 26 sacred madrigals in five and six parts with a basso seguente (a pragmatic continuo rather than a ‘governor’ in the proceedings) in the most contemporary early baroque idiom.

In 1623 that meant an unashamed recognition of Italian modernism and a fearless mission to represent textual imagery in the most descriptive, acute and detailed fashion. Schein’s close colleague Heinrich Schutz is widely accredited with, almost single-handedly, infusing seconda prattica principles into the veins of the German Protestant aesthetic; this no doubt stems from a highly publicized visit Schutz made to Italy but also because his work spans the generations that lead directly to Bach. In many respects, Schein has an equal claim to the remarkable quality and success of the German early baroque, though he died in 1630, 42 years before Schutz. As far as Bach is concerned, Schein was one of his most distinguished predecessors at St Thomas’s Leipzig.
~ Garrick Comeaux, Artistic Director

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