Early Music – The Key Composers, part II

John Dowland (1563-1626)
English composer best known for his lute songs. Inspired by some of the new music from Italy and French court airs, he turned these to particular effect in his settings of his own words. His music is marked by a highly charged expressive sorrow, hence the jibe ‘semper Dowland, semper dolens’ (always Dowland, always miserable). His most famous song was his Lachrymae (Flow my tears) which spread over Europe as a pop song might do today.

John Bull (c. 1562-1628) and Jan Sweelinck (1562-1621)
Both best known for keyboard music, and Sweelinck much influenced by Bull (‘the best finger of the age’). Bull’s dazzling and imaginative keyboard variations and other pieces (such as The King’s Hunt) demonstrate his virtuosity and imaginative invention of new keyboard patterns. Sweelinck’s variations and monumental contrapuntal works laid the foundations of the North European organ school.

Andrea Gabrieli (c, 1510-1586) and Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612)
Uncle and nephew, the Gabrielis worked in Venice. Giovanni in particular moved from polyphony to exploit a massive, chordal style of ensembles of instruments and voices singing in response to each other from different locations in St Mark’s, Venice. This polychoral style affected nearly all Europena composers, including Monteverdi and Praetorius, and anticipated later developments like the concerto.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
A seminal composer, whose works transformed contemporary music. His desire to express words more vividly led to his rule-breaking ‘second practice’ demonstrated magnificently in the madrigal Hor che’l ciel (Book 8). His church music also showed his innovations. The Vespers (1610) mix old and new, but his Selva Morale e Spirituali show his modern mastery in such brilliant works as the extended ground bass Laetatus sum.

Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)
Italian composer who was organist of St Peter’s, Rome. His earliest works resemble the keyboard music of Giovanni Gabrieli, but later in his career he tried to incorporate the harmonic expressiveness of madrigals and solo songs into his wordless music. This set a much-imitated precedent in instrumental music. Especially famous was his collection of organ masses, entitled Fiori Musicali.

Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672)
German composer who worked most of his life in Dresden, but studied in Italy with Giovanni Gabrieli and met Monteverdi. His early style shows close familiarity with Italian models; later on he made a self-conscious effort to re-mould Italianisms in a German way. A central work is the Musickalishes Exequien (German Requiem) which exploits echoing choirs in Gabrieli’s style. The massive three-choir motet Saul, was verfolgst du mich graphically depicts the conversion of St Paul.

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)
Originally from Florence, Lully arrived in France just as Louis XIV was rising to power, and his career advanced quickly. He wrote comédie-ballets with Molière (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme) and church music such as the celebrated ‘grand motet’ Miserere which owed much to his study of Carissimi. He is most famous for having founded French opera, or ‘tragédie-lyrique’, apparently modelling his recitative on the declamation of Racine’s mistress.

Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)
Born near Milan, Corelli spent most of his life in the service of the rich Roman patron Cardinal Ottoboni. He was a violin virtuoso, and, though not a prolific composer, was the founder of a new, vigorous, instrumentally-based style. In particular, his formally expanded Trio Sonatas spread in print in the 1670s, and his revolutionary Concerti Grossi Op. 6 circulated in manuscript till their publication in 1714. Handel and the English were particular admirers of Corelli.

Louis Couperin (c. 1626-1661) and François Couperin (1668-1733)
Uncle and nephew. Both composers are most famous for their instrumental music, especially for keyboard. Louis, amongst the first to adapt lute technique for the harpsichord, adopted the suite and exploited the bar-less suite, which allowed the performer to improvise on a given series of harmonies. François wrote 27 ‘ordres’ for harpsichord which are collections of illustrative short pieces with great sensitivity in phrasing and ornamentation.

Classic CD magazine, 1994


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