Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) was a Dutch composer, organist, and teacher. His vocal works are in the outgoing late Renaissance tradition; his keyboard works synthesize various traditions into the first great formulation of the baroque keyboard style.

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck was born in Deventer. He received some musical training from his father, Pieter Swybertszoon (Sweelinck adopted his mother's surname), who was the organist of the Oude Kerk (Old Church) in Amsterdam. Sweelinck's brilliance as a performer is attested by the likely possibility that he followed his father in the position at the age of 15. He is definitely known to have been employed at the church by 1580, and he remained in the post for the rest of his life.

Sweelinck played twice daily for the burghers, who were connoisseurs of organ performance. He probably did not leave Amsterdam for more than a few days at a time. His knowledge of the theory of music must have been derived from reading the works of Gioseffo Zarlino, the important Italian theorist, for Sweelinck's own Rules for Composition are based on Zarlino's principles.

In 1590 Sweelinck married Claesgen Puyner. They had six children; the eldest son, Dirck, succeeded his father as organist at the Oude Kerk. Sweelinck died in Amsterdam on Oct. 16, 1621.

Only a portion of Sweelinck's music was published during his lifetime. The Chansons a 5 (1594) stand very much within the tradition of the late-16th-century chanson in their emphasis on counterpoint and frequent madrigalisms. The Rimes françaises et italiennes (1619) are for a reduced number of parts. Highly vocal, they emphasize canonic techniques. Five of the 15 Italian pieces in the collection were based on pieces in four to six parts by Italian composers. The Cantiones sacrae (1619) are motets with Latin texts, fairly traditional in their somewhat northern counterpoint, with less emphasis on linear beauty than the work of the Roman school of the late 16th century. Sweelinck's feeling for major-minor tonality was quite modern, as was his use of basso continuo.

Sweelinck's organ music established a new style, and, because of his eminence as a teacher, it spread throughout northern Germany. None of his organ works were published during his lifetime; most exist only in copies, and there are, therefore, problems of correct attribution. Undoubtedly many works have been lost.

In his keyboard music Sweelinck turned from the melodic ornamentation that dominated the current Germanic style. He fused the contrapuntal facility of Netherlandish vocal writing, the formal clarity of Italian organ music, and the idiomatic patterned figuration of English keyboard composers of the Jacobean period, some of whom he knew personally because they were religious exiles in northern Europe.

Sweelinck's most significant advances probably were in the variation form. The techniques he used in variations on sacred melodies were different from the ones he employed on secular melodies, probably reflecting his growing feeling for idiomatic distinction between the organ and the harpsichord. In his secular variations Sweelinck tended to use the patterned figures of the English virginalists, although his individual movements are tighter formally than the English compositions. In his variations on Lutheran chorale melodies Sweelinck employed a more contrapuntal style, often retaining the chorale melody intact, in longer note values, in one part. His pupils, especially Samuel Scheidt, preserved this manner and transmitted it to Germany, where its influence lasted until the time of Johann Sebastian Bach.


Further Reading on Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck

Sweelinck is studied as a composer for the organ in Robert L. Tusler, The Organ Music of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1958). His vocal music is discussed in Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959). For his keyboard music and its significance see Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach (1947).