Friday, March 1, 2019

Here's a Guy who gave them tunes they could sing

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck ought to be the patron saint of musicians trying to survive as musicians. It's true, he arrived a little early to understand the precarious life of modern arts organization, of radio pledge drives or symphonic marketing, and his circumstances--that of a gifted musician trying to make a living in a situation where the jobs were not plentiful and the road was not easy--was not unique, even for the 18th century.

I mean, if we want to pursue a really hard luck case we could vote for Bach's student Johann Ludwig Krebs, who couldn't get a position as organist for a while and then was literally (and I employ the term in its intended meaning rather than as a mere flavor particle)--literally working for food. And only that. That was all he got paid, in an era where getting paid in food was not entirely unusual (part of Bach's salary was in wood and beer).

But Sweelinck did not have an easy road either, and I happen to be playing a piece of his this weekend for a church prelude so why not talk about him? He is regarded as the founder of the North German organ school so he is a very important fellow for organists, and while he started off being mentored by a friendly priest, said priest was forcibly removed a year into Sweelinck's job when the Protestants took over the town.

It could have been worse. In an effort to distinguish themselves from all things Catholic, Protestants would often destroy the church organ (too ostentatious: God likes all things plain, they thought), often with axes. Here, the town council spared the instrument.

They even engaged Sweelinck to play it. It was determined that the new hymns which were to be sung during the services were unknown to the congregation and someone would therefore need to teach them. Sweelinck thus wrote a number of pieces in which the new hymns were the subject of variations. He played them as preludes before the service.

During the service the congregation were on their own. Apparently the Protestant God couldn't handle the complexity of an instrument filling in harmony with the people's singing. So they sang unaccompanied.

But Sweelinck had a way to live, and to share his music. And he was performing a vital function for the common people, one important solution that is generally noted when objections to the existence of snobby and culturally useless art are thrown around, as Ms. Gerston noted via Monday's blog. He may have been asking them to listen, but that was so that they could sing, later. It wasn't meant to leave them behind, but to invite them to be a part of the music.

Maybe the townsfolk merely put up with the variations for the sake of the unadorned tune. In the case of this week's selection, though, it seems to me fairly obvious in all four of the sections how the tune goes. It's sort of a shame we won't be singing it during the service, but I don't pick the hymns. This is one of the rare weeks we are singing tunes with which most folks will be familiar, anyhow.

Here is a bit of Sweelinck, adorning a hymn that translates to "To God in the Highest Alone Be Glory." I've used an older type of tuning (In case you found a bit of it odd) and it is tuned nearly a half step higher than modern ears are used to, as was the case with North German organs of that era.


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