Dutch and Italian music in the 17th century
The years around 1600 were not the most tranquil in the history of music. Countless comments were made by contemporary composers and others who noticed that change was afoot, who hoped (or feared) that music was taking new directions. The title that Giulio Caccini gave to a collection of sophisticated vocal compositions in 1602 was, with good reason, Le nuove musiche (‘new music’).
Indeed, there was plenty of experimentation going on, especially in Italy. In 1628, Heinrich Schütz wrote that composers there were trying out all kinds of things, in order ‘to tickle today’s ears with new inventions”. Schütz was in a position to know because, from 1609 to 1613, he had studied in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli. This put him in the forefront of a long line of Northern European composers who went to Italy to become acquainted with new composition techniques. That marked a significant change in trends. Many Northerners had preceded Schütz in the Renaissance, but their aim had been to teach composition to the Italians, not to learn it from them.
The move south had been heralded in the 14th century by Johannes Ciconia, a singer and composer from Liège. Later Guillaume Dufay, Josquin Desprez and Heinrich Isaac were among those to follow in his footsteps. To the ostentatious Italian principalities, they exported the secret of polyphony, the art of counterpoint in which three, four or more voices sounded together in ingenious and harmonious combinations.
The Flemish composers Cipriano (Cypriaan) de Rore and Giaches (Jacques) de Wert were among the last to realize their musical talents in Italy. In the second half of the 16th century, Italian composers took over control. They started to have their doubts: northern harmony was all very beautiful and malleable, but how could six voices be the most individual expression of the most individual emotion? Because that is what the Italians were looking for: music that was closer to the emotions than the opulent polyphony that largely evoked associations with heavenly choirs of angels.
The emancipation of instrumental music
Italians considered that human beings were the heart of the matter, with their motives and feelings. So it is no surprise that they focused on the madrigal, which was in fact a grand finger exercise for the development of opera. As soon as the writings of poets like Tasso and Guarini evoked a tear or nagged with remorse, Italian composers quickly set them to music. At the same time, people looked for ways to catch ‘natural’ speech in notes. One of the ‘new inventions’ of which Heinrich Schütz had spoken in 1628, was monody: one voice with a fairly elementary instrumental accompaniment, the basso continuo, provided by instruments such as harpsichord, organ, lute, viola da gamba and dulcian. It soon became apparent that monody did not just pave the way for the recitatives and arias with which opera was to triumph, it also encouraged the development of instrumental music.
Purely instrumental music had existed for a long time, but it was largely borrowed from vocal compositions. It is significant that 16th century manuals for how to play instruments like the recorder and gamba largely focused on skilful embellishment of vocal music. Monody however provided instrumental music with a way to tear itself free of the vocal embrace and continue under its own steam. At first it was a little insecure and sometimes instrumental music had to lean on the reliable support of the vocal style, but in the course of the 17th century, instrumental music managed to stand on its own two feet.
Old and new
In the first decades of the 17th century, a variety of old and new instrumental forms existed side by side. One form with a respectable past was the canzona. This was originally an instrumental arrangement of a chanson, but by 1600 canzoni were also composed in the new fashion, in other words for solo instrument with the accompaniment of a basso continuo. The opening remained characteristic: one long and two short notes, as can be heard in canzoni by Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) and Giovanni Battista Riccio (early 17th century).
Ancor che co’l partire by Giovanni Battista Spadi (early 17th century) still has a vocal background. Spadi was one of the very many composers to write adaptations of the popular madrigal by Cipriano de Rore. He did so in a rather ‘dated’ way, namely using diminutions, opulent embellishments that weave their way around the melody lines of the madrigal.
The Capriccio sopra la Bassa Fiammenga by Girolamo Frescobaldi is an example of the confusing number of instrumental forms that Italian composers used in the first half of the 17th century. It is a passacaglia, a composition in which we hear ingenious variations on a repeated bass motif. Frescobaldi based his capriccio on a motif that was known as ‘bassa fiammenga’, in other words, Flemish bass. That motif is also the foundation for the anonymous Allemande Bruyns Medelyn from the 16th-century manuscript by Susanne van Soldt, even more evidence of the traffic between Northern and Southern Europe.
The diversity in names for new instrumental solo music is apparent in the works of Giovanni Martino Cesare (ca.1590-1667), an Italian who was to make a career for himself in Munich. The works he published in 1621, he simply called Musicali Melodie. They could just as easily have been called canzoni, fantasie or sonate, because in those early years of instrumental music a uniform denomination did not yet exist. Additions, such as ‘La Foccarina’ and ‘La Giorgina’ referred to people to whom he dedicated the pieces.
One of the most important instrumental forms that could develop in the Baroque, was the sonata. The term is derived from the comment da sonar (‘to sound’), but was often included in the title of an instrumental collection to make clear that the music was not intended to sing (da cantar). Those familiar with the high Baroque or classical sonata may experience the early Baroque predecessor as a curious patchwork quilt: it comprises only one part, that is divided into several segments that can differ from each other in character.
However, new as the sonata was, the past continued to play a role at first. The echo of 16th-century diminution art continued to reverberate in the extended decorative figures on occasions, while on others the new tangled affetti were dominant or the music skipped along in the light-footed dance rhythms. It was only in the second half of the 17th century, that the sonata crystallized into the form we best know: three or four independent parts, follow each other in varying themes, tempo, measure and affect. After listening to the sonatas by Dario Castello (early 17th century) and Giovanni Battista Fontana (?-1630), it is obvious that the new freedom was sometimes celebrated exuberantly.
The Dutch connection
With the development of opera and self-sufficient instrumental music, Italy had established its hegemony for the coming 150 years. The influence of nuove musiche was even noticeable in the largely sober and calvinist Holland, as is apparent from the works of composers such as Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) and Jacob van Eyck (ca. 1589-1657).
Van Eyck, the blind carillonist and recorder player from Utrecht, provided variations on many melodies that were well-known at the time in his Der Fluyten Lust-hof (1649). They included psalms, songs such as Doen Daphne d’over schoone Maeght, but also the new music of Giulio Caccini (one of the most beautiful adaptations was of Caccini’s Amarilli mia bella). With the publication of Der Fluyten Lust-hof , Van Eyck had so much success that his stipend from the Janskerk was raised, on condition that he would regularly entertain people strolling in Janskerkhof in the evening ‘met het geluijt van sijn fluijtien’ (‘with the sound of his flutes’).
The greatest Dutch composer in the 17th century, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, obviously looked to Italy as well as to Germany, France and England. For his imposting cycle of variations Balleth del granduca, he chose the Ballo del Gran Duca by Emilio de’ Cavalieri as starting point (the same piece was also known in Italy as Aria di Fiorenza). Although Sweelinck never studied in Italy, he composed the Balleth del granduca in the Venetian keyboard style.
Cornelis Thymanszoon Padbrué (ca. 1592-1670) from Haarlem also regularly looked abroad. In his Pavana e Gaillarde, he refers to the music of Peter Philips, an English composer who was then living in exile in Brussels. Padbrué composed the piece in 1641 on the occasion of the wedding of Joannes Everswyn and Lucia Buys.
Guido van Oorschot
Translation: Martin Cleaver