Not content with a career as a bass soloist (in music extending from 1300 to the present day) or as a teacher (he holds a professorship in early music in Bremen), Harry van der Kamp has for over two decades been directing the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, an ensemble whose repertoire encompasses the entire madrigal repertoire of the 16th and 17th centuries. Precious recording activities of the group have extended to music by Emilio de’Cavalieri, Scipione Lacorcia as well as by Carlo Gesualdo himself. Yet van der Kamp has been stirred by the fact that no fitting tribute – no monumental representation wrought in stone or metal – exists to commemorate the composer who he regards as “the greatest that we ever have had in Holland”: Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck.
And so van der Kamp devised a project to set down on record all of Sweelinck’s copious vocal output, both secular and sacred, untroubled by the fact that today for many the reputation of the Deventer-born composer is formed by his keyboard works for organ and harpsichord. With typical Dutch irony van der Kamp himself delights in the fact that 360 years on from the end of The Revolt of the Netherlands – an uprising which lasted for eight decades – it is the Spanish label Glossa which is developing and issuing this Sweelinck Monument, thereby conferring a great honour on the “rebellious” Dutchman.
You describe the project as “The Sweelinck Monument”. What previous efforts have been made to commemorate the composer and with what level of success?
Several efforts were made to erect a statue in Sweelinck’s honour but all of them were frustrated either by insufficient interest and (a consequent) lack of money or by reasons which relate to the Second World War. It was only Sweelinck’s head which made it on to the front of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and in the 1930s a bronze plaque bearing his name was installed in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, a small bronze-type sculpture being added to it being added to it only a few years ago. The real big monument – such as the larger than life-sized classical statues put up for other, minor Dutch composers – has never been accorded Sweelinck, in my opinion, the greatest composer that we ever had in Holland. This is why I call this project a monument made of his own material, his own music. This has never been carried out before.
Has Sweelinck’s reputation as a composer of keyboard music overshadowed that of his vocal music?
Sweelinck must have been an astonishing organist. Although his organ and harpsichord works were never printed during his lifetime his fame has spread throughout the greater part of Northern Europe. This situation has barely changed up to our days because whilst the concert-going public generally knows about his organ and harpsichord music it remains totally unaware of the output of his vocal works. Even experts and critics, I have noticed, have never seen the secular works. Indeed, Sweelinck’s reputation as a composer of splendid organ works seems to have caused a sort of blindness for his vocal works. How this could have happened may be easily explained. To perform the keyboard works you only need the one musician, while for the vocal works at least two and at the most eight solo singers are required, and solo singers who are able to succeed as an ensemble, both in terms of intonation and doing it in a musical manner. A choir might also sing this music but I do not feel that a choir is really the appropriate vehicle precisely because this music is slightly too complicated and it calls for a high level of precision in intonation. Those are reasons, I think, why his complete works have never been performed as a group. There have been concerts with the Psalms, but these only represent something in the order of 30% of what Sweelinck composed.
What explains Sweelinck’s choice of styles – and languages – for his vocal music?
Sweelinck’s musical languages included Latin (the language with which he grew up as a Catholic – and he used that only in his old – fashioned church music, such as the Cantiones Sacrae) and then French and Italian. Funnily enough he never used Dutch. The cause of this could be linked to the activities of the publisher Phalèse in Antwerp, which was publishing a broad range of French and Italian repertoire at the time (quite a lot of repertoire that otherwise would never have appeared in Northern Europe). French was also a very popular language in Holland during Sweelinck’s lifetime because of the religious wars in France with many Huguenots fleeing into Holland and coming to live in many of its cities, amongst them Amsterdam and Haarlem. So, the circle that Sweelinck was living in was probably for a greater part French-speaking. If stylistically he opted for the obvious choices for the time – chansons and madrigals – he also developed a special genre embracing them both in the Rimes françoises and Rimes italiennes. Having selected one name for the two genres he said that these Rimes could be French or they could be madrigals. Perhaps this “solution” reflected his nature – we are still uncertain as to whether Sweelinck was a Catholic or a Protestant. Sweelinck’s Psalms did not represent the old-fashioned religious music appropriate to the four-part homophonic works such as by Claude Goudimel. Rather they are written like spiritual madrigals and they were all based on existing melodies from the Geneva Psalter which Sweelinck shaped into whatever he wanted them to be.
In the process of making the recordings, how did your opinion of Sweelinck’s vocal music develop? How do you feel such music compares with leading composers from the same time?
I have been familiar with the greater part of Sweelinck’s vocal music for some decades, but in studying and singing the complete works I was still greatly surprised by some of the works that I had never known before. On occasion, the members of the ensemble were even moved to tears by the emotional spirit that came to us while discovering or revealing his music. That doesn’t happen too often! In my opinion Sweelinck’s vocal works can easily stand up against works by, for example, Marenzio or even Lassus, Nanino and many composers of the time and I think that even Monteverdi would have not been able to make a better job of Sweelinck’s Psalms – which I think can be seen as his self-portrait. Some parts of the Psalms really are modern, accepting the fact that Sweelinck followed the old rules of the prima prattica. He did not go along with the new practice of the continuo – I think that he was too much of an old polyphonic master in this respect. He wanted to be precise and exact – this is borne out in his Psalms – and not leave things open.
In the secular works what decisions led you to make use of instruments and what do they add to the musical experience?
Sweelinck tells us both in his foreword to and on the title page of his Chansons published in 1594 that the option to perform these works with voices and instruments in a delicate mixture can be left open. For that reason, for a number of the chansons and Rimes, I used the option of incorporating instruments just in order to give a few examples of how this approach might sound. Since there are a few rarely-ever played lute works and I had added them to this recording, I used the instrument lute for a couple of chansons as a continuo instrument because it adds to their slightly-folky, spontaneous and even slightly-improvised atmosphere.
How representative of Sweelinck as a composer is his collection of all 150 Psalms which you have been recording for future instalments in The Sweelinck Monument?
I think that Sweelinck’s Psalms can be seen as his self-portrait. This so-called “opus magnum” embodies his complete creative power and, I would dare to say, even more so than his organ works. Sweelinck spent a great deal of his life in composing the Psalms, to the exclusion of other forms.
by Mark Wiggins © 2009 Glossa Music / MusiContact