Ludwig Senfl

Ludwig Senfl (ca. 1486-1543) was a German composer of Swiss birth. His Masses, motets, and vernacular lieder mark the adoption by 16th-century German masters of Franco-Flemish imitative polyphony emanating from the Low Countries.

Ludwig Senfl was born in Basel. As a young boy, he sang first at Augsburg and later at Vienna in the imperial choir of Maximilian I of Austria. During this period he studied with Heinrich Isaac, official court composer of the Hapsburgs, and subsequently succeeded to the same post. In later years Senfl offered homage to Isaac by completing the older master's unfinished cycle of Mass Propers, printed in 1550 as the Choralis Constantinus, and by apotheosizing him in an original poem set to music.

After the death of Emperor Maximilian in 1519 and the dissolution of the imperial chapel choir the following year, Senfl traveled to Augsburg to supervise the publication of a motet collection, Liber selectarum cantionum, as a memorial to the late monarch. By 1523 he found a new position with William IV of Bavaria, at whose court in Munich he remained for the rest of his life.

Like many artists and musicians of the time, Senfl was drawn into the vortex of religious strife attending the Reformation. Although he served only Catholic rulers and never formally abandoned the older faith, he corresponded with and occasionally sent compositions to Martin Luther, with whom he seems to have been on friendly terms. For the most part, however, Senfl's service music was composed for Catholic worship. A self-effacing, lovable, and versatile composer, he was widely respected by his contemporaries and honored by his employer.

Senfl's extant works number 7 Masses, 240 motets, 262 lieder, and a few pieces for instruments. His beautifully chiseled imitative polyphony discloses the unmistakable influence of his two great predecessors, Josquin des Prez and Isaac. Two of the Masses are "parodies," or reworkings, of earlier polyphonic pieces. This new technique stamps him as the first German master to abandon the older cantus firmus Mass. Among the motets are many Mass Propers composed for divine services at the Bavarian court. Although Senfl generally wrote for four voice parts, some ceremonial pieces were for as many as eight. Throughout his works is a profound understanding of both the declamation and meaning of the text.

In Senfl's lifetime more of his lieder were published than either the Masses or motets. Like earlier masters, he set the old "court" tunes in polyphonic garb, but he devoted far more attention to arranging "folk" and "popular" songs. His melodic inventiveness, smooth linear writing, and polished counterpoint made them universal favorites.


Further Reading on Ludwig Senfl

Some of Senfl's works are analyzed in Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1959). For background on the music of the period see Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization (1941).