Sunday, 1 July 2012

Saying 'Hallo' to Mr. Sweelinck

After mentioning him quite a few times in passing it's time for that influential Dutchman Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) to get a post of his own. I want to introduce him with one of his most far-reaching works - a work that took a late-Renaissance idea and sent it spinning across a century towards Bach: the Fantasia Chromatica.

The piece may have an improvisatory feel but is constructed along strongly contrapuntal lines.

It's a sign of the changing times, when Europe was crossing from the late Renaissance into the early Baroque, that Sweelinck's piece may be seen as being in the outgoing Dorian mode or in the incoming D minor. The chromatic nature of the piece comes from its pervasive theme, the essence of which is a fragment of a chromatic scale which falls through all the notes contained within the interval of a perfect fourth (falling from D to A) - D, C#, C, B, Bb & A. The theme's peculiar character can be heard as soon the piece begins and it is heard in all four voices. As a result of all these colourful notes meeting and greeting each other the piece contains a large number of pleasurable harmonic progressions. What stops the piece from becoming oppressive is the introduction of short non-chromatic passages (where the theme is briefly absent) and the sheer variety of Sweelinck's contrapuntal treatment of the theme, with the processes of augmentation (where the theme is presented in longer note-values than were previously used) and diminution (where the theme is presented in shorter note-values than were previously used) coming into play in the later stages of the Fantasia, culminating in a tumultuous passage of double-diminution. You will also feel the theme inverted (i.e. turned upside down).

The Fantasia Chromatica is Sweelinck's most famous piece. Maybe even Bach knew it.

Just a few other pieces to further whet your appetite for Sweelinck:

The contrapuntal richness of the Fantasia Chromatica is as nothing compared with the Ricercar in Aeolian mode which not only engages in augmentation and diminution but also has twelve subjects. The first subject, however, acts as a unifying feature of this long work, being woven into the texture (in various shapes and forms) throughout.

The other side of Sweelinck's keyboard style, however, can be heard in his delightful Echo Fantasy in A minor. Here the counterpoint, though hardly absent (as you can hear from the very start of the piece), takes more of a back sit and the improvisatory air feels even freer. The echo effects are charming but not blatantly achieved.

Another form the Dutchman excelled in was variations. One of his best-known sets is the masterly Mein junges Leben hat ein End'. The tune (a secular melody) sings out at the top of the texture, sometimes decorated, sometimes not, while fresh accompanying figuration pours in throughout the course of the six variations.

Subsequent posts will flesh out the achievement of Sweelinck in greater detail and introduce you to his vocal works, which are - I promise you! - just as splendid.

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