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Great Artist, Great Teacher:
Annette Richards plays music by Sweelinck and his students, including Schildt, Scheidemann, and Bruhns

Heinrich Scheidemann (c. 1595-1663): Toccata in G

Melchior Schildt (c. 1592-1667): “Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn” (5 verses)

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621): Ricercar       

To play a large 17th-century northern European organ is to be absorbed into the light, smell, touch, and sound of another world. At these sounding musical monuments, the player is enclosed within the instrument as if in a time machine—the instrument, and the church it resounds in, visibly marked (for better or worse) by the many generations of organists who have been there before. Yet the musical experience, while steeped in the past, is always a confrontation with the present, from the novelty (and challenge) of a disconcertingly different key width or pedal layout, to the challenging delights of improvising new music that is part of the art of getting to know an organ (to say nothing of playing services), to the interference of anxieties over a recent Zoom meeting with the sublime rhetoric of the Sweelinck Ricercar.

The organ is an ancient instrument, and such experiences and demands are not unique to the organists of the 21st century: northern Europe in the early 17th century had plenty of instruments dating back to the late 15th century which would have offered similar challenges and inspiring, if daunting, excitement. To be an organist was to inherit a legacy. The art of the organist was a craft learned and passed down within families. Sweelinck was the organist at the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, as his father had been before him, and his son would be after him—between them they were in charge of the organ there for nearly 100 years; Sweelinck’s uncle and grandfather were also organists. In Hanover, Melchior Schildt took over from his father in 1629 as organist at the Marktkirche, continuing a family tradition that stretched back at least to his grandfather and included his brother, such that the Schildt family controlled organ culture in that city for over 125 unbroken years. When Scheidemann, also in 1629, took over the position of organist at the Katharinenkirche in Hamburg, he succeeded his recently deceased father; after his death from the plague in 1663 the position went to his assistant J. A. Reincken, who in 1665 would marry Scheidemann’s daughter Dorothea and keep the business in the family. Yet craft did not preclude art, and being rooted in the past was the necessary foundation for a music of the future.

Both Schildt and Scheidemann began their musical studies with their fathers and were then sent, like so many of the most talented young German organists of their generation, to complete their studies in Amsterdam with northern Europe’s most famous teacher, Sweelinck. Costs for their studies, which included instruction as well as accommodation in Sweelinck’s house, were paid by their respective city councils. Organ study with Sweelinck was an investment in any self-respecting German city’s musical vibrancy—and future. Melchior Schildt came to Amsterdam from Hanover in December 1609 (he would have been 16 or 17 years old) and stayed until around the end of 1612; the 16-year-old Heinrich Scheidemann arrived in November of 1611 and remained until November 1614. From Sweelinck they learned not only mastery of their instrument, but also an art of composing for the keyboard that combined the virtuoso style of the English virginalists (conceived for the keyboard) with the polyphony of Italian and Spanish vocal and instrumental music. Returning home, they put what they had learned from Sweelinck to work on the huge organs with multiple manuals and large pedal departments that were characteristic of the northern-German organ art. Thus Sweelinck’s rigorously constructed, technically demanding, ingenious, and imaginative music found an afterlife that stretched through northern Germany across the 17th century and eventually, via the greatest European organ city of Hamburg (whose churches were dominated by his students) and Scheidemann’s son-in-law Reincken, to J. S. Bach, whose playing on the Katharinenkirche organ in 1720 prompted the aged Reincken to rise on wobbly legs and offer his famous benediction: “I thought this art was dead but I see that it lives on in you.”

The relatively scant surviving works of Sweelinck, Schildt, and Scheidemann offer only an echo of the rich culture of this Golden Age. None of the keyboard music of any of the three was published before the 20th century. While Sweelinck saw all his 240 vocal works into print during his lifetime, the 70 or so keyboard works that come down to us (there are surely many more that have been lost) were transmitted only in manuscript copies, mostly by his students. Far fewer works survive from Scheidemann, most of them found in two important manuscript collections that include a complete cycle of multi-verse settings of the Magnificat, one in each of the 8 tones, discovered in the German city of Clausthal-Zellerfeld in the mid 20th century. From Schildt’s pen even less survives, though among that which does remain is his towering Magnificat setting (also found in the Clausthal-Zellerfeld source and likely originally one of a set of 8, like Scheidemann’s) and what must count as the best of all treatments of John Dowland’s renaissance hit, the Pavana Lachrymæ, a piece also set by Sweelinck.

The influence of “The German Organist-Maker” as Sweelinck was known, echoes through Schildt’s Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn, a work replete with contrapuntal techniques taught by the master of Amsterdam. Schildt’s ingenious, precise dialogues between two frequently canonic voices must be made to work harmonically with the clarion notes of a hymn from the first years of the Reformation. Perhaps the meticulous erudition pays homage to the venerable Lutheran melody or to the composer’s equally venerable Dutch teacher—or to both. But Schildt also learned the art of virtuosic passagework from Sweelinck, and at well-chosen moments the music breaks free from counterpoint into colorful skeins of idiosyncratic figuration.

Framing this sometimes sober, sometimes sumptuous liturgical setting are two unsurpassed and irreplaceable masterpieces of the Renaissance: Scheidemann’s Toccata in G and Sweelinck’s Ricercar.

There is nothing austere about Scheidemann’s Toccata. Its composer was loved for his wit and good humor: no hint of angst or envy darken this lively, lengthy self-portrait with its graceful repartee between the hands, sometimes divided between separate keyboards, sometimes jointly jumping back and forth between them. Marked manualiter (for manual keyboards alone and therefore free of the gravitational force of the longest, deepest pipes of the huge organ Scheidemann played), the piece’s deceptive simplicity and sincere optimism are as fine and fresh today as they were 400 years ago.

Sweelinck’s Ricercar, by contrast, begins with an austerity as stark as the white-washed walls of the vast Oudekerk in Amsterdam on whose organs he held forth. The six-note minor theme begins with interlocking pairs of falling fourths and rising thirds, then closes with a minor sixth yearning upwards, followed by a sighing semitone back to the opening pitch—the highest E on the keyboards of the time. Across its nearly quarter-of-an hour duration the Ricercar goes on to explore the full potential of this carefully-devised theme, Sweelinck proudly demonstrating his encyclopedic knowledge of contrapuntal invention and combination. The catalog of techniques is relentlessly virtuosic in its demands on the intellect and on manual dexterity. Pushing through a sprawling succession of kaleidoscopic variations, the piece builds in intensity towards its summation, as the fourths-and-thirds whir across the keyboard. Finally, Sweelinck waves off the frenzy and returns his theme to its original magisterial bearing, now in full-textured might, before again dissolving this reclaimed poise in a thrilling coda. Below the long-held E that began the piece, the theme vanishes in echoing music that sounds like the pealing of bells. In this apparent, and seemingly paradoxical, renunciation of the Ricercar theme itself, I hear a brilliant yet grateful acknowledgement of the undepletable richness of music: not everything can be researched (that word, a cognate for Ricercar), discovered, fabricated, perfected and presented on this earth: Sweelinck looks toward eternity, as learning and virtuosity ascend in rapture.

—Annette Richards