At its most powerful and influential, the Dutch mercantile empire in the Orient and in the New World centered on the city of Amsterdam, home of the Dutch East India and Dutch West India Companies, and nexus for the transportation of goods of every description in and out of Europe. The Protestant Reformation of the city took place in 1578, when it adopted Calvinism in response to the hard–line policies of its Spanish overlord, the Catholic Phillip II. As Venice–centered Mediterranean trade waned, Amsterdam–centered Atlantic and Pacific trade waxed.
Its oldest church and one of the most imposing buildings of the time was the Oude Kerk (“Old
Church”), originally Catholic, but Calvinist after 1578 and ever since, and home of one of the most famous
Oude Kerk, Amsterdam
(Wikimedia Commons) keyboard composers and players ever: Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. He held the post of organist at the Oude Kerk for most of his life — some claim from the time he was fifteen years old. It is certain that he was officially on the roll from 1580 until his death in 1621, succeeding his organist father, and continuing a well–known dynasty of keyboard musicians that included his grandfather and uncle. Jan would have an inestimable
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
(Wikimedia Commons) impact on organ music, directly or indirectly training dozens of organists, especially German organists, and standing as progenitor of the so–called north German school of organists.
Sweelinck’s early musical training was naturally with his father; it continued with a Catholic pastor after his father’s death in 1573 until the city’s reformation. Concrete information on his training as a composer is sparse. There is speculation that he may have travelled to and perhaps studied in Venice, but there is no direct evidence for this, despite the fact that he makes extensive use of keyboard idioms such as those developed by Andrea Gabrieli.
Protestant reform centered in large part around disagreements relating to the administration of salvation. Calvinism rejected the idea that it was extended through the apparatus of the church via indulgences, penance and absolution, and then went further, dismissing the pomp and ceremony of the Roman church and the special status of any single individual such as the pope. Architecture, sculpture, images, music and ritual were distractions from an intimate, direct relationship with God, the only route to salvation.
In the Oude Kerk, consequently, the organ was silent during worship services. Instead, Sweelinck played before and after the service, improvising on simple tunes from the Genevan Psalter and elsewhere with which parishioners were expected to become familiar. In some cases, as with the variations on Mein junges Leben hat ein End (“My youth hath an end”), he wrote them down for later publication or distribution to others. Like similar works in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, it comprised a series of variations of the tune with adornments, scale runs, figures and ornaments. Indeed, some of Sweelinck’s own works appear in the Fitzwilliam, along with those of the exiled Catholic Peter Philips, whom he is rumoured to have met in 1593.
Visitors to the Oude Kerk would have heard other works such as toccatas, showy pieces designed to show off the capabilites of the instrument and, more especially, the extraordinary skill of the player. Sweelinck was employed by the city itself, and his employers were of course more than willing to project a cosmopolitan sensibility about the city through the talent it supported, Calvinism notwithstanding. Toccatas such as the one in C with its brilliant passages would have suited perfectly.
Paradoxically, although Sweelinck used many of the same stylistic features as Andrea Gabrieli in his keyboard works, he was — still is — much known for his contrapuntal keyboard mastery, the weaving of melodic strands in contradistinction to the homophonic, chord–supported vocal music of Italian monody or the Protestant chorale. One of his most famous works is the Fantasia Cromatica for keyboard, in which he treats the theme to many of the devices of polyphonic imitation: augmentation, diminution, stretto.
The structure of the fantasia unfolds in a way similar to many other such works by Sweelinck, based on a theme that encompasses a descending chromatic tetrachord over sustained half notes. The same voice continues with a ‘countersubject’ while a second one ‘answers’ with the theme five notes higher. As a third voice enters with the theme, the second continues with the first countersubject while the first voice proceeds with a second countersubject.
The theme is examined from different angles, turned over and considered in each voice as it trades place with variations of the countersubjects, mostly in the original key with answer a fifth higher, but venturing briefly to the dominant with answer a fifth away on e. However there is an immediate return to the original d where Sweelinck demonstrates the technique called stretto (“squeezed” or “pushed up tightly against”). Each instance of the theme has, up to this point, begun only after the previous one has finished, but now it appears before its predecessor has finished.
The section continues with fragments of the countersubjects, until it gives way to treatment of new material. There are several statements of the original theme, but it becomes absent as another countersubject is introduced and considered, then another, the rhythmic motion increasing with shorter and shorter notes, and the atmosphere changing somewhat with brief ventures into the major mode. Even the countersubjects themselves receive some stretto treatment.cadence, following which the theme returns in augmentation, with its note values doubled.
Contrasting with the broad notes of this new version of the theme is a brilliant, florid accompaniment. As the tension increases, the theme appears successively in diminution with its note values halved, then in stretto and diminution combined, and ultimately double diminution as the the values are halved again
before coming to rest on the final, tonic chord.
The structure of the Fantasia Cromatica may not be particularly radical for Sweelinck, but the character of the work certainly is. This is due only in part to the distinctive chromatic theme, which imparts an inevitable movement forward with its descending motion. A rudimentary inspection shows that each of the countersubjects is constructed in a similar manner, with overall movement downward.