Friday, February 20, 2015

Mr. Sweelinck and I

For Ash Wednesday this year I played an organ piece by Jan Sweelinck. Intrinsic to this particular service each year is the reminder of our own mortality, so I chose a set of variations on "My young life has an end" as the prelude, which, if Mr. Sweelinck himself ever played the piece at his church, is probably when his congregants would have heard it too.

Whenever I think of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, I think of the survival of the church musician. Organists are never the ones in charge, and they know that their own philosophies and desires regarding the music of the church are always subject to review and censure from the ones who are in charge. I have been enjoying quite a bit of freedom to chose, and creatively execute, the music of the service, and so has our choir director. This summer, though, we will be getting a new pastor, and one never knows what will be permissible with a new boss.

Sweelinck's case was fairly extreme. He grew up in 16th century Amsterdam, a city many of us now associate with freedom of thought to the nth degree. In his day, Amsterdam was a Catholic City. Under the guidance of a Catholic priest, young Jan learned the organ, and by the age of 15 was the organist at his home church (I have him beat by a year if you include a four week stint as a substitute; more on that this fall). But a year later, he suffered a change of boss.

I say suffered because it was more than a small change. The entire city was taken over by Protestants. And in this age, they didn't merely set up across the street and compete with the Catholics, they were the ones in charge and dedicated themselves to wiping out every vestige of that "incorrect" religion they were determined to replace.

One thing they didn't do was smash the organ. The city fathers had just paid a lot of money for a new instrument and apparently prevailed upon the Protestants not to "protest" quite so cruelly as they often did when they "reformed" a city. (Believing the organ to be a Catholic thing, they were determined not to allow it as part of their own rite.) Adding to their moderation Sweelinck was even permitted to play the organ. Just not during church anymore.

Strict Calvinists did, and often still do, adhere to the "Regulative Principle" of worship, which basically says that if you can't specifically find it in the New Testament, or make a very close argument from scripture, you can't have it in worship. Since the letters of Paul don't specifically mention organ playing during worship, organ playing has to go.

There was a bit of a snag, which was that the Protestants brought with them an entirely new set of hymns which the congregation didn't know. So Sweelinck was allowed to improvise variations on these new hymns before the service began. Once the service started, however, he was not allowed to play the organ.

There is a tiny bit of me that is jealous of Sweelinck on this score. On the one hand, this must have represented a difficult censure of his person and his faith, and disallowed him from what must have felt his duty to God and his people; on the other, it relieved him of a lot of responsibility and basically gave him a lot of free time.

Sweelinck was apparently kept on as Municipal Organist, allowed to play concerts, and given what appears to have been a good salary, and without having to perform as many functions. This evidently gave him lots of time to compose. In that respect, it reminds me of Bach at his first church in Arnstadt, when he only had to serve about 6 hours a week and had the rest of the time to practice and write music. For a growing genius that was an incredible blessing. Sweelinck was also a growing genius, and needed time to develop and grow, whether the fruits of his labor would be permitted to resound in God's temple or no.

But he doesn't seem to have taken these developments lying down; not musically, anyway. Among his organ compositions, most of which were probably written down as he got older (being an inveterate improviser he didn't write anything down at first) are some pieces based on Catholic hymns (surprise!). That is also true of many of his vocal compositions. Peter Dirksen and Harold Vogel, in their edition of Sweelinck's works (2004) suggest that his publication in 1619 in the "Catholic city of Antwerp" (people sometimes chose places of publication that might be friendlier to their contents) might be "Sweelinck's answer to the Synod of Dordrecht" which basically re-affirmed Calvinism in the face of opposing doctrines (and political suspicion). It is an interesting premise; I have no idea what Sweelinck actually felt about all of these developments and have not uncovered any materials that would tell (do they exist?) But he seems to have gotten along pretty well for himself in the situation in which he was cast; he was even able to charge pretty high prices for lessons and seems to have been well respected by his city. But I can't imagine he was entirely happy with the people who had basically chased his priest and mentor from the city and were hostile to the faith of his formative years. That seems apparent from his output, which is mixed.

I've noticed that phenomenon in the catalogs of a few organists of the time; the tendency to write some pieces based on Lutheran chorales, and others on Latin Hymns. It is curious, and makes me consult the map of Europe during the Reformation and the composer's biographies for answers. I am more curious than many musicians who seem content to play the music without asking why. But whenever a composer whose town (and therefore himself; for geography was religion and personal choice was not a safe option) is of one faith (today we call them denominations) writes pieces of another, one well might wonder why, mightn't one? If you were me, that is.

I suppose I'll just have to keep digging.

p.s. My cat doesn't seem to like Sweelinck's music. He jumped off my lap as I began to play some.

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