Dutch Composers and Their Contributions to the Sacred Music of the Renaissance
Modern day Holland, or more properly, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, is a mix of old and new, foreign and domestic. It is a place of brotherhood and unity, where the population strives as one to continually reclaim itself from the ever encroaching sea. However, this was not always the case, as the Netherlands has only
recently come to resemble the form in which the world sees her today. The story of Dutch sacred music is very similar to that of the area’s political history, one in which strife and struggles have forced the population to reinvent itself countless times, simply to keep the same economic condition which their ancestors had many years before. These struggles have played an extremely important role in the developments of all the arts in the area which is now separated into the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. The political and religious issues of the period can be seen in the development of sacred music across the years, showing both foreign influences on the church music of the Netherlands, and Low Country influence into the sacred music of foreign lands, especially the liturgical music of the Roman Catholic Church.
Before the fifteenth century the state of Dutch music is not generally known, but after the year 1400, composers who considered themselves Netherlanders began to distinguish themselves from the prevailing French musicians which had come into the country under the rule of the Burgundians dukes. Indeed, The Encyclopedia of the Renaissance tells how the author of the oldest known musical dictionary, the Flemish author Tinctoris, stated in 1477 that music written more than forty years previously was not worth hearing, indicating that a new age of music had begun. This is not to say that the composers cultivated an “indigenous” style, as artists of this time period usually required a patron to provide them with sufficient living expenses to practice their craft, and the limited number of nobility in the Netherlands meant that musicians often had to travel a great distance and relocate several times in their lifetimes. This requirement of patronage limited the amount of change that artists could effect in these early years of Dutch composition. French state officials, who at this time were the most regular form of aristocrat in this part of Western Europe, and thus the most readily available patrons, generally brought their own musicians and artists from their home courts in Burgundy when they traveled northward to administer their appointed districts (Elders, 3). This required Dutch composers to attain an extraordinary level of skill to attain enough status to obtain a patron’s attention. However, the Dutch who had not yet been patronized by foreign dignitaries found themselves in a unique situation due to geographical considerations. They had to fulfill the requirements of their prospective patrons to obtain an income, while at the same time, they were too far removed from the rest of European society to be able to copy the popular styles from the rest of the continent. The great skill required to pick up foreign music from the traveling merchants and the adeptness the Netherlanders showed in composition meant that, by the year 1500, Dutch musicians were in almost all of the royal courts of Europe (Netherlands: Facts and Figures, 353).
During this period, (1400 to about 1550), when French influence in Dutch music reached a pinnacle, the primary form of musical composition by Dutch composers was a French liturgical form called the motet. This is a form of polyphonic worship music derived from Biblical text and contemporary prayer books (Elders, 23). Upper voices of Latin polyphony, sung by the choir, were derived from existing sources, such as psalms or traditional liturgical sources, to satisfy the clergy and the traditions of the Church. The lower voices, which were usually sung by the lead soloist, (the cantor), are where the majority of creative composition can be found. These were in colloquial French, German, or Frisian, using figures of speech to either substitute for the Latin chant for the layperson or to paraphrase the meaning of the chant, thus allowing the common churchgoer to participate in a more meaningful way (Grove Dictionary, Definition: Trope, 780). This was often due to theological or political changes, where the Church or aristocratic hierarchy felt that their vassals should be empowered or disenfranchised, and thus instructed their composers to add or delete sections of the liturgical standards as necessary (Elders, 22). This interpretive technique became popular enough to endanger the sanctity of the liturgy itself, which was the impetus behind Pius V’s prohibition of tropes from the missal at the Council of Trent in 1563 (Webster’s, Definition: Trope, 2721). In spite of this ruling, however, the motet was still an important compositional technique in the Netherlands as late as the 1670’s, with the publication of ten concertante motets by Carel Haquart of Amsterdam in 1674 (Klis 147).
While these compositional techniques were not extensively developed or used by composers residing inside the boundaries of the modern day Netherlands, many highly regarded musical societies across Europe had a considerable percentage of members hailing from the Low Countries. One such example is the Guild of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium, which was part of the Burgundian Low countries at that time. This fraternity included such distinguished composers as Jacob Obrecht and Noel Bauldeweyn (Elders 23). It should be pointed out that Obrecht had the distinction of being an instructor to Erasmus, the famous writer and Christian humanist, when Obrecht was zangmeester (song master) in Utrecht. Also, Orlando di Lasso, whom some regard as the greatest composer who lived during the second half of the sixteenth century, was born in Mons before being employed in many positions throughout Sicily and Italy. He finally became Kapellmeister (Chapel master) of the Bavarian court in Munich, Germany until his death in 1594 (Elders 160). These and other composers’ biographies, show that while the Dutch landscape produced a prolific number of great musicians and composers, the political landscape was not structured in a manner which would normally allow them to stay in their home districts.
In the Netherlands, the last three-fourths of the sixteenth century was consumed by the all-pervading influence of the Protestant Reformation, which did not leave any European country (Baroness 97). More than before, Dutch musicians fled the country to find work in more stable countries not at war for their very lives, for on top of the war with Spain, it had become quite dangerous to be publicly Catholic. The Calvinists and Lutherans had taken over the seven Northern provinces, and they believed strongly enough in their new faith to proclaim independence from the Holy Roman Empire. Due to the strong prejudice against Protestants in most of the rest of Europe, many composers had relatives in the clergy, like Josquin Des Près’ brother Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, or made certain that their work could not be interpreted in any way other than strictly Catholic (Bergin 128). Others went to Italy, the seat of the Catholic Church, to escape the effects of the wars and the Inquisition. Most Netherlander composers in this period were not “Dutch” per se in the form we know today, but came from the area known as the “Spanish Netherlands,” which is modern day Belgium. Many composers, such as George La Hèle, began at the Church of Our Lady and moved on to the courts of Spanish officials in Madrid and other politically important cities in Spain (Elders 157).
During the period of the Eighty Year War, and even more so during the Thirty Years’ War, composers concentrated on improving the Mass, as a sort of defense against the Calvinist theological attacks from the Northern Europeans. La Hèle composed at least eight Masses, which were printed in 1578 in Antwerp. These compositions were possibly partially copied from, and certainly profoundly influenced by, earlier works of Josquin, who perfected techniques like ostinato and was the first known composer to use cavato (Elders 37, 157). These techniques can be described as using a short piece of melody and re-using it frequently in the composition without being monotonous. This method can be extremely difficult, and shows the level of skill attained by these talented musicians.
Possibly due to the documented mastery of such difficult techniques in the fifteenth century, imitation seems to have been the preferred compositional form in the sixteenth century (Elders 44-8). Johannes Froschius even suggests in his 1535 treatise “Rerum musicarium opusculum” that musical authors should transcribe the best passages of others’ work to incorporate into one’s own work later. Two main techniques were called “through-imitation” and “parody” (Elders 44/46). Many times, as in most examples of through-imitation, the purpose of the imitation was to take a piece which had attained a firm subconscious meaning in the layman’s mind, and use it in a semi-repetitious form in such a way that “nothing could be added or taken away without destroying the harmony of the whole” (Wittkower 7). In many ways, the musical examples of this method display remarkable similarity to the modern day concept of the “round.” Parody, far from being an amusing farce, was when a composer decided that clothing an existing text in entirely new music was unnecessary, as such using a model, broken up into sections, with interpolations of various lengths to break up the monotony and suggest to the layman that he may not know this piece after all (Elders 46-8). This form had an extended period of popularity, becoming widely used about 1530, waning only near the beginning of the seventeenth century. However, even when the great composers of the Netherlands felt that previous composers had perfected techniques which they could only copy, they went further to put their great intellects to work at musical symbolism as well. As Elders notes, many composers used gematric symbolism, wherein the addition of the numbers (representing the letters) in an individual’s name determines the number of notes in a composition (76-86). This technique, especially when combined with the previous forms, stands as a grand testament to the ability of these extremely talented artists.
Even though the seventeenth century religious conflicts greatly limited innovation by composers from the Germanic countries, the eighteenth century saw Dutch musical culture become well-known and widely respected throughout Europe. Andrew Becket of England noted that the organ in Haarlem, which was built by Christian Mullar, was able to reproduce a wide variety of sounds, including violins, kettle drums, bird song, and even the human voice (139). He declared that it was played with “exquisite truth and delicacy,” and a “divine, enchanting harmony,” but that the twenty or thirty Dutchmen in the church were completely unmoved by the performance (140). Furthermore, John Mackey postponed a trip to Ireland in the early 1700’s when he was given the chance to tour the Netherlands, proclaiming that it was the densest collection of great cities and culture in the world, even greater than Renaissance Italy (1). Obviously, even if the casual observer may not be aware of the history of sacred music in Europe, the Dutch were remembered well into the eighteenth century, and still have a reputation for a high appreciation of the arts. Currently, the government allocates more than 1% of the Netherlands GDP toward supporting Dutch music, which certainly follows in the grand tradition of this creative population.
Naturally, a grand tradition of music so close by was certain to influence others as well. There are many examples of traditions from sacred music which show up in secular compositions by more well known composers such as Bach and Beethoven. In a long period of intellectual darkness, nobles searched far and wide for promising individuals to promote their causes and entertain their households. In the Netherlands, they found composers whose ability greatly surpassed anything they were able to find in their own countries. This allowed Dutch composers to flourish across Europe and also gave them much needed exposure to alternate forms of music to incorporate into their compositions, which they did on a grand scale, influencing many composers and listeners for hundreds of years afterward.
Baroness Suzette Van Zuylen Van Nyevelt. Court Life in the Dutch Republic 1638-1689. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1906.
Becket, Andrew. A Trip to Holland. London: T. Becket, Pall-Mall, 1786.
Elders, Willem. Composers of the Low Countries. Translated By Graham Dixon. Oxford, England: Clarendon, 1991.
Bergin, Thomas G. The Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1987.
Government Printing Office. The Kingdom of the Netherlands: Facts and Figures. The Hague, Nederland: Government Printing Office, 1971.
Grove Concise Dictionary of Music, The. Edited By Stanley Sadie, Asst. by Alison Latham. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1988.
Klis, Jolande van der. The Essential Guide to Dutch Music:100 Composers and Their Work. Amsterdam, Nederland: Muziekgroep, Amsterdam University Press, 2000.
Macky, John. A Journey through the Austrian Netherlands. London: J. Pemberton, 1725.
Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language. Second Edition. 1946.
Wittkower, R. Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. Fourth Edition London, 1974.