400 Years Since Sweelinck

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One of Europe’s most celebrated musicians, known in his time as the Orpheus of Amsterdam, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s life and work coincided with the first Age of Dutch Exploration: north into the Arctic Circle to sight for the first time Spitzbergen and other islands while in search of a direct route to Asia; round the Capes of Good Hope and Horn to either end of Australia and across the Indian Ocean to Java; and to the Americas—Manhattan, Long Island Sound, the Hudson Valley.

Born in 1562, Sweelinck died 400 years ago tomorrow. By the time the far-flung Dutch “discoveries” were underway in the 1590s Sweelinck had been organist at Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk (Old Church) on the edge of the red-light district for nearly two decades. Sailors returning to home port after years at sea rushed to the quarter’s brothels in the shadow of the Old Church’s elegantly wrought copper spire with its green patina. The narrow alleys resounded with cries of ecstasy and hummed with tales of New Worlds. On one side of the ledger was tallied the import in spices and precious metals; on the other, the export of sexually transmitted diseases.

This global “trade”—a euphemism for theft and devastation—gave birth to its own midwife: capitalism. Born businessmen, the Dutch invented the speculative instruments that still dominate global financial markets: stock futures and options, selling short, debt-equity swaps and any number of other games of chance.

While the deckhands from these ships—christened with names like Eendracht (Concord) and Tyger—satisfied their desires beyond the brick walls of the church, merchants would come inside the church to seal their deals to the soundtrack of music produced by their most valuable musical commodity: Sweelinck at the organ.

The Amsterdam Stock Exchange, the world’s first, was inaugurated in 1611. After closing their contracts, these important men in broad black hats, fine lace collars and ruffs—sometimes accompanied by their wives, children, and dogs—strolled the flagstones beneath soaring lead-glass windows, chatting and listening as Sweelinck piloted one of the church’s two organs on his own far-flung sonic adventures. The skill of this navigator was legendary, the delight he disbursed enormous. These musical color machines—along with clocks, the most technologically advanced machines of the pre-industrial age—were themselves symbols of Dutch wealth in capital, innovation, and expertise. That Sweelinck could operate the intricately engineered, visually and aurally impressive crafts under his command with such unerring assurance most also have bolstered the speculators below, helping to convince investors both local and foreign that their course to earthly riches and heavenly bliss were sure things.

Among Sweelinck’s public offerings were his ingenious, virtuosic variations on popular tunes, some of them with bawdy lyrics, unheard because there was no singer, but known nonetheless to the listeners. When not letting titillating breezes of such songs fill his sails Sweelinck also improvised free toccatas that drew on seafaring Venetian models. These were unfettered by fixed melodies or chordal schemes, allowing the Orpheus of Amsterdam to chart his musical course with intuition aided by know-how. Sacred tunes too could provide coordinates by which God could bless the business of the Dutch Republic.

That the church was, according to Protestant doctrine, sanctified only when the Word was present allowed for the apparent paradox that music both devout and debauched could be heard within the acoustic space of the Oude Kerk. Sweelinck had taken up his post there in 1577 at the age of fifteen, but the next year Calvinism swept into the city. The ornate organ with its carvings and glittering, tooled pipes was held by the new theocratic regime to be a relic of papal excess. The rich interplay of organ music with the Roman liturgy was silenced, the organist’s role in the service reduced to prelude and postlude and eventually forbidden altogether. But the city, not the church, owned the organs and paid the organist, and thus Sweelinck’s status as civic asset and tourist attraction only grew in subsequent decades—along with his already sizeable salary.

The relatively accommodating approach of the Calvinist Reformation in Amsterdam over its first quarter century meant that Sweelinck could remain Catholic and musically high-minded even as he gave the merchant classes what they wanted. In response to the dismantling of religious music, he published four magisterial volumes of settings of the Geneva Psalter, as well as Latin motets and chansons in French and Italian.

Even though he did not print his keyboard music, his reputation as an organist spread across Europe. Students flocked to learn under him. Even the greatest German organists of the day sent their sons to Amsterdam. Thanks to these admiring pupils, Sweelinck’s keyboard works survive in manuscripts spread from Italy to England, Brussels to Krakow and St. Petersburg. Some sixty pieces of watertight craftsmanship and exemplary artistic conviction have come down to organists of the present.

While Sweelinck’s music and reputation traversed Europe he did not leave home, journeying from Amsterdam only to test the many new organs that literally reflected the burgeoning wealth of the other cities of the Dutch Republic. Yet the search for riches across the seas was paralleled by Sweelinck’s own excavations of the musical raw materials of Europe.

Among those sixty-some works, Sweelinck left one Ricercar—as the title proclaims, an exercise in research, discovery. Among the many genres of keyboard music that Sweelinck taught his pupils, none was more erudite. The piece begins with an austerity as stark as the white-washed walls of the vast Oude Kerk. The six-note theme begins with contrapuntally rich pairs of falling fourths and rising thirds, then strives upwards through a minor sixth before a sighing semitone returns to the opening pitch—the highest E on the keyboards of Sweelinck’s organs. 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 polyphonic combination. The catalog of techniques is relentlessly virtuosic in its demands on the intellect and on dexterity—mens et manus. Pushing through an epic succession of kaleidoscopic variations, the piece builds in intensity towards summation, as the fourths-and-thirds whir across the keyboard. Finally, Sweelinck reefs his sails and returns his theme to its original magisterial bearing, before again dissolving this reclaimed poise in the thrilling gusts of a coda. Below the long-held E that began the piece, the theme vanishes in echoing music that sounds like the crying of the wind.

Before the adoption of the Euro currency in 2002, Sweelinck’s proud image confronted buyers and sellers on the Dutch twenty-five guilder bill—a fitting marriage of art and commerce. There is now a robust trade in these obsolete but collectible notes on eBay, mint-quality exemplars going for as much as $1,500. Although the Sweelinck Conservatory was rebranded the Amsterdam Conservatory in 1994, this Orpheus’s share price still rides high. A sumptuous new edition of his keyboard works was issued in 2004 and a new biography by leading Sweelinck scholar Pieter Dirksen appeared this year with an English translation expected in 2022.

Little more than a month after Sweelinck died in Amsterdam in 1621 the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth. These non-conforming Calvinists had spent years in The Netherlands too, before departing for America. They sang austere psalms puritanified of the ornament and artistry that Sweelinck dedicated his life to. Four hundred years since Sweelinck, Musk and Bezos, lofted to heights of wealth unimaginable even to their speculating Dutch predecessors, point the way to new New Worlds.

Sweelinck’s renunciation of the theme at the end of his Ricercar can be heard as a grateful acknowledgement of the undepleteable wealth of music: not everything can be researched, discovered, fabricated, perfected, exploited and presented on this earth or any other. Yet rapture attends the pursuit of impossible perfection.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com