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This Reformation Anniversary concert program opens our 11th Season and it is a reprisal of a concert given last February. at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. Cantor David Cherwien and Arthur Halbadier kindly asked us to bring a program to their Music Series that would underscore the great music tradition that began with Martin Luther. It was a pleasure to respond to their invitation with music that I so rarely have the opportunity to program and perform and appropriate to continue the Anniversary Celebration into Season IX
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 archival text often referred to as the first document to trace him as a singer in the Cathedral of Milan in 1459, concerns possibly another musician with the same first name.
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.” Josquin’s fame was overshadowed by Palestrina and his school until the twentieth century, but his reputation has grown steadily for the last hundred years, and Josquin’s music is often sung and recorded today.
Henrich Isaac was a prominent member of a group of Franco-Flemish musicians, including Josquin des Prez, Jacob Obrecht, Pierre de La Rue, Alexander Agricola and others, who achieved international fame in the decades around 1500, influencing the Italian and European Renaissance. His musical output is particularly large and varied. Through his notable link with the Habsburg dynasty he left his mark on German musical traditions, although he also lived and worked for a considerable time in Florence. Isaac’s precise birthplace is unknown. He might have come from the border area between the counties of Flanders (containing Ghent, Bruges and Ypres) and Brabant (with Brussels and Antwerp); but ‘Brabant’ or ‘Flanders’ often simply refer to the Flemish-speaking part of the southern Netherlands. In Italy persons from that region were often called ‘Tedesco’ or ‘de Alemania’ (both meaning ‘German’), as Isaac was as well. His date of birth is usually estimated as about 1450 or a little later; a document of 1514 refers to him as ‘old’.
Isaac was in Florence in August 1502 and some weeks later at the Este court of Ferrara, where he hoped to be employed. Josquin des Prez was chosen instead, although the court agent Gian d’Artiganova reported (2 September 1502) favorably about Isaac who ‘would compose whenever asked’ and not as he pleased like Josquin. By December 1516 Isaac had become ill and made his third will; he died in Florence on 26 March 1517. 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. 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).
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, worked in close geographical proximity and knew one another.
The closest friendship was between Schein and Schütz; Schütz visited Schein on his deathbed and at his request composed a motet on the text Das ist je gewisslich wahr (published separately (swv277) in 1631 and revised (swv388) in Schütz’s Geistliche Chor-Music, 1648). There are many parallels in the early careers of these two composers, born within four months and 80 km of each other. 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. Several obvious differences help to account for the greater importance that history has accorded Schütz: extensive international travel, including his periods of study in Italy; more prestigious appointments; better health and much longer life.
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.
~ Garrick Comeaux